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MOVIE REVIEW

‘14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible,’ a story of sky-high ambition

The Netflix documentary follows a mountaineer’s unprecedented attempt to climb all of the world’s highest summits in seven months.

From "14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible."
From "14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible."Netflix

The first words heard in “14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible” are “Don’t be afraid to dream big.” They’re spoken by the Nepali mountaineer Nirmal “Nims” Purja. He’s the subject of Torquil Jones’s documentary, which starts streaming on Netflix Nov. 29.

Dreaming big is exactly what Purja is doing. The title refers to the 14 mountains in the world higher than 8,000 meters (26,200 feet). The subtitle refers to Purja’s Project Possible, which is what he named his plan to climb all of them in just seven months. By contrast, the first mountaineer to reach every one of the summits, Reinhold Messner, required 16 years to do it.

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Messner is interviewed in “14 Peaks” and expresses his admiration for Purja and support for the project. Messner allows that “Fear is always in you.” That would seem true for everyone, not just mountaineers. Watching Purja over the course of 100 minutes, you have to wonder if he’s the exception that proves the rule. How did Werner Herzog let him get away?

Purja’s ambitiousness is not limited to climbing. “This is about inspiring the human race,” he says of the project. The obstacles he faces aren’t just the obvious physical and geographic ones. They’re also financial, familial, and diplomatic.

From "14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible."
From "14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible."Courtesy of Netflix/Netflix

A former British Special Forces soldier, Purja has no sponsor and needs to raise funds. He’s reduced to taking out a second mortgage on his house. He’s devoted to his mother, who’s in failing health. What toll will his absence and the dangers it involves take on her? The mountains are located in Nepal, Pakistan, and Tibet. Well into his climbing, China still hasn’t given approval to his attempting one of the Tibetan summits, Shishapangma. “Nothing goes as planned on the mountain,” says his wife, Suchi, “as we should have known by then.” The number of summits reached “by then” is 11.

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In addition to Purja’s wife, we hear from one of his brothers, members of his support team, and fellow climbers. Among them is Jimmy Chin, an executive producer of “14 Peaks.” He directed the Oscar-winning climbing documentary “Free Solo” (2018). We visit Purja’s childhood home, in Kathmandu. There are home movies of his wedding, a segment on his being wounded in 2011 by sniper fire when still in the British army, and footage of him running a workout atop the White Cliffs of Dover.

Purja didn’t start climbing until 2012. “I fell in love with the physical and mental challenge,” he explains. Before Project Possible got started, he’d already summitted Everest twice.

“Challenge” is a euphemism. In mountaineering, let alone mountaineering at this level, “a matter of life and death” ceases to be just a figure of speech. One of the 14 peaks is Annapurna. For every three climbers who make the summit, one dies. “I always say to myself, ‘I’m not going to die today,’” Purja says. “Maybe tomorrow, but I’m not going to die today.”

The chief difficulty is the most basic: breathing. Above 8,000 meters, the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is only a third of that at sea level. That’s why climbers call this elevation the “death zone.” They can carry their own oxygen. But the problem with relying on canisters is twofold: the additional weight and developing an over-reliance on them.

Jones is quite imaginative and largely successful in varying the film. There are some brief animated sequences, as well as vintage footage of long-ago climbs, a segment on Purja training at London’s Altitude Centre, and a glimpse of him departing Heathrow airport as he sets off on Project Possible. The least successful is some trickeration with the visuals so as to mimic the effects of HACE, high altitude cerebral edema, which Purja endures during one of the ascents.

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From "14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible."
From "14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible."Courtesy of Netflix/Netflix

Purja does the third climb, of Kangchenjunga, hungover and in one day. “I don’t want to think of that,” a bemused Chin says. “It’s completely absurd.” Elsewhere, the team helps arrange a rescue by helicopter for another climber. There’s an avalanche. Before ascending K2, the 10th peak, Purja and his Sherpas throw a party at the base camp. These events add to the suspense of the pursuit.

Obviously, Purja’s the hero of “14 Peaks.” He’s not the star, though. That would be the astounding vistas the documentary has to offer. “Look at that view,” a fellow climber says atop Annapurna. Those words apply to the whole film. If God has home movies, a lot of “14 Peaks” must look like outtakes from them. The four members of Purja’s support team did the camerawork. “My hands and fingers are freezing holding this camera,” we hear one of them say. That’s on climb number seven, Nanga Parbat. Viewers should be grateful for their fortitude.

The fourth climb is Everest. What we see is astounding in a very different way. Seeing hundreds of mountaineers — that’s not a typo, hundreds — lined up near the summit may be even more mind-boggling than the sight of Everest itself. Why so many? A narrow weather window compressed the number of possible climbing days.

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At the end of “14 Peaks” Purja declares, “I am the Usain Bolt of 8,000 meters. No one can defeat me.” He then cackles. Notice he says “no one” not “no thing.” Unlike Bolt, Purja’s opponents aren’t flesh and blood, nor do his competitions take place on a level surface.

★★★

14 PEAKS: NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE

Directed by Torquil Jones. Written by Jones and Gabriel Clarke. Streaming on Netflix starting Nov. 29. 100 minutes. PG-13. In English and Nepali, with subtitles


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.