Serious allegations against Nepal’s star Nirmal Purja spark #MeToo debate in mountaineering

Nirmal Purja (in 2019)
Nirmal Purja

Is Nirmal Purja going from national hero to unwanted person in Nepal? Rajendra Bajgain, a member of the opposition Congress Party, called in parliament in Kathmandu for Purja to be denied entry in future. The mountaineer, who lives in England, defames Nepal by sexually harassing female climbers, said Bajgain. The politician was referring to an article in the New York Times last week. In it, two female climbers make serious accusations against Purja.

Lotta Hintsa, a mountaineer and model from Finland, accused the Nepalese mountaineering star of sexually harassing her in a hotel room in Kathmandu last year. He began undressing her against her will and then masturbated in her presence, Hintsa said. The US physician April Leonardo stated that she had also been sexually harassed by Purja. During a 2022 expedition to K2, the second highest mountain on earth in Pakistan, he came into her tent, kissed her against her will and sexually harassed her, Leonardo said. She was a client of Purja’s company Elite Exped.

Purja denied the allegations “unequivocally” via an Instagram story: “These allegations are defamatory and false.” Backpack manufacturer Osprey was the first of Purja’s sponsors to draw conclusions from the affair. The mountaineer is no longer a brand ambassador, the US company announced in an Instagram comment.

Over two million Instagram followers, British knighthood

Purja made headlines around the world in 2019 when he climbed the 14 eight-thousanders in just six months – with bottled oxygen, a strong Sherpa team at his side, on the normal routes and by using helicopters to get from one mountain to the next as quickly as possible. By comparison, it took Reinhold Messner 16 years. In 1986, the South Tyrolean was the first person to scale all eight-thousanders. He climbed the world’s highest mountains in small teams, without breathing mask and mostly on new routes.

Netflix advertisement for 14 peaks
Netflix documentary increased Nims’ popularity

In 2021, Nims was also involved in the first winter ascent of K2, according to his own account he did without bottled oxygen. The Netflix documentary “14 Peaks – Nothing is Impossible”, which was released in the same year, had given Purja additional popularity. The 40-year-old has more than two million followers on Instagram.

The Nepalese mountaineer is a former elite soldier of the traditional British Gurkha Regiment. Nepalese soldiers have been earning their living in this brigade for over 200 years. Purja lives with his wife and daughter in the county of Hampshire in the south-east of England. In 2018, Queen Elizabeth II honored him with a British knighthood for his services to high-altitude mountaineering.

Other expedition operators distance themselves from Purja

Several Western commercial expedition operators distanced themselves from Purja. “We are shocked and deeply saddened,” announced Austrian operator Furtenbach Adventures on Instagram. “One of the most important role models in this community is credibly accused of sexual assault by several woman. We unequivocally condemn such behavior and affirm that it has no place in our community.”

Sexual predation is “a danger we can not only mitigate,” wrote Adrian Ballinger, head of the US operator Alpenglow Expeditions. “We can join together to ensure we have zero tolerance for in our community.” Adrian added that the New York Times article showed that “this is not the first or only recent example of behavior like this is the climbing community. We must do better.”

The New Zealand expedition operator Adventure Consultants expressed similar sentiments on Instagram, writing that they support those who have now told their stories “with vulnerability and incredible braveness” and also those who have similar stories to tell: “Let’s come together as an industry to raise accountability and make the mountains a place of equality and inclusivity for all.”

Just the tip of the iceberg?

Apparently, a #MeToo debate in mountain sports is overdue. This is suggested by the Instagram post from AW Expeditions, a US operator of women for women: “Unfortunately we can state with confidence, based on many informal conversations, that this high-profile case is but the tip of the iceberg of a systemic issue in mountaineering.”

Renowned US mountaineer Melissa Arnot also draws attention to this. “Flirt back or be excluded. Go along with it and don’t cause problems,” says the 40-year-old, describing her first experiences as a young mountain guide. “I was called the ‘total package’ by a supervisor as he explained to clients why it was ok to rope up with a young, small girl. And I smiled and played my part.” Arnot summited Mount Everest six times, once without bottled oxygen.

Update 5 June: Meanwhile, a court in Sacramento, California, sentenced 40-year-old US professional rock climber Charles Barrett to life imprisonment for multiple sexual assaults on women in Yosemite National Park. “He used his status as a prominent climber to assault women in the rock-climbing community, and when his victims began to tell, Barrett responded by lashing out publicly with threats and intimidation,” said U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert. “This case is a testament to the courage of the victims who reported these crimes. The U.S. Attorney’s Office will continue to investigate and prosecute violent crimes in National Parks like Yosemite.”

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