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Women mountaineers say sexual harassment runs deep

June 5, 2024

The mountaineering scene has been stunned by serious allegations against Nirmal Purja, one of the sport's biggest stars. But those in the know say the problem extends far beyond just one individual.

Nirmal Purja in Kathmandu, Nepal
Accusations against top mountaineer Nirmal Purja, which he denies, have prompted further allegations about women feeling unsafe in the wider sceneImage: Subash Shrestha/Pacific Press/IMAGO

The fall-out from Nepalese mountaineering star Nirmal Purja being accused of sexual harassment and assault has seen brands and tour companies distance themselves from the 40-year-old.

But members of the scene say it is not just isolated incidents. They believe the whole culture of mountaineering needs to change to make women feel safer.

The storm blew up on May 31 when Lotta Hintsa, a mountaineer and model from Finland, accused Purja of serious offences in a hotel room in Kathmandu last year. He began undressing her against her will and then pleasured himself in her presence, Hintsa told the New York Times.

US doctor April Leonardo told the newspaper that she had also been a victim of Purja. During a 2022 expedition to K2, the second-highest mountain in the world in Pakistan, she said he came into her tent, kissed her against her will.

Leonardo was a client of Purja's company Elite Exped, which offers guided climbs on the world's highest mountains. Purja denied the allegations "unequivocally" via an Instagram story. "These allegations are defamatory and false," he said.

More than two million Instagram followers

Purja made headlines around the world in 2019 when he climbed all 14 "eight-thousander" mountains — the biggest in the world over 8,000 meters — in just six months.  He used bottled oxygen, a strong Sherpa team and 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 climb all the eight-thousanders. He did so in small teams and without a breathing mask.

The Netflix documentary "14 Peaks — Nothing is Impossible," which was released in 2021, made Purja even more popular. He now has more than two million followers on Instagram.

Purja is greeted by fans at Kathmandu Airport
Purja was feted in Nepal in 2021 after the first winter ascent of K2Image: Niranjan Shrestha/AP Photo/picture alliance

The Nepalese mountaineer is a former elite soldier of the British Gurkha Regiment. Nepalese soldiers have been earning their living for Britain for over 200 years. Purja lives with his wife and daughter in the county of Hampshire in the south of England.

In 2018, Queen Elizabeth II honored him for his services to high-altitude mountaineering.

Expedition organizers shun Purja

Several Western commercial expedition operators now want nothing to do with Purja.

"We are shocked and deeply saddened," announced Austrian company Furtenbach Adventures on Instagram. "One of the most important role models in this community is credibly accused of sexual assault by several women. We unequivocally condemn such behavior and affirm that it has no place in our community."

Sexual offenses are "a danger that we cannot only mitigate," wrote Adrian Ballinger, head of the US tour operator Alpenglow Expeditions. 

"We can join together to ensure that we have zero tolerance."

The New York Times article shows that "this is not the first or only recent example of behavior like this in the climbing community. We must do better," he wrote.

AWExpeditions, a US firm specializing in mountaineering tours for women, echoed the sentiment.

"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," the company said.

'Played my part'

US mountaineer Melissa Arnot said sexual harassment was rife in mountaineering.

"Flirt back or be excluded. Go along with it and don't cause problems," said 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 has climbed Mount Everest six times, once without bottled oxygen.

The scandal surrounding star mountaineer Purja has also reached the country of his birth, Nepal.

Rajendra Bajgain, a member of the opposition Congress Party, called in parliament for Purja to be denied entry to the country in future. The politician said that Purja had defamed Nepal by sexually harassing female climbers.

Meanwhile, the British rucksack manufacturer Osprey said Purja was no longer a brand ambassador.

As the backlash continues, mountaineers wonder if scandals involving other climbers will soon come to light. 

This article was originally published in German.