Thursday, June 13, 2024
2024 Season

Sexual harassment runs deep say female mountaineers


The fallout from accusations of sexual harassment and assault against Nepalese mountaineering star Nirmal Purja has led brands and tour companies to distance themselves from the 40-year-old.

But more importantly, members of the mountaineering community assert that these are not isolated incidents and believe the entire culture needs to change to ensure women’s safety.

The controversy erupted on May 31 when Finnish mountaineer and model Lotta Hintsa accused Purja of serious offenses in a Kathmandu hotel room last year. Hintsa told the New York Times that Purja undressed her against her will and pleasured himself in her presence.

US doctor April Leonardo also claimed to be a victim of Purja. During a 2022 expedition to K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, she said he entered her tent and 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, calling them “defamatory and false.”

Purja gained global fame in 2019 when he climbed all 14 “eight-thousander” mountains—those over 8,000 meters—within just six months. Using bottled oxygen, a strong Sherpa team, and helicopters to move quickly between peaks, he completed the feat much faster than the 16 years it took Reinhold Messner, who first climbed all the eight-thousanders without added oxygen in 1986.

The 2021 Netflix documentary “14 Peaks – Nothing is Impossible” further boosted Purja’s popularity, and he now has amassed over two million Instagram followers. A former elite soldier in the British Gurkha Regiment, Purja lives with his wife and daughter in Hampshire, England. In 2018, Queen Elizabeth II honored him for his contributions to high-altitude mountaineering.

In light of the allegations, several Western commercial expedition operators have severed ties with Purja. Austrian company Furtenbach Adventures expressed shock and sadness, condemning the behavior and affirming that it has no place in their community. Adrian Ballinger, head of US tour operator Alpenglow Expeditions, emphasized the need for zero tolerance and systemic change.

US-based AW Expeditions, specializing in mountaineering tours for women, echoed this sentiment, suggesting that Purja’s case is just the tip of the iceberg in a systemic issue within mountaineering. US mountaineer Melissa Arnot noted that sexual harassment is prevalent in the industry, sharing her own experiences of being pressured to conform and not cause problems.

The scandal has also reached Nepal, where Rajendra Bajgain, a member of the opposition Congress Party, called for Purja to be denied entry to the country, accusing him of defaming Nepal by harassing female climbers. Additionally, British rucksack manufacturer Osprey announced that Purja is no longer a brand ambassador.

As the backlash continues, there is speculation that more scandals involving other climbers may soon emerge.