SAILOR’S DREAM

Hari Om (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Dichaon Kalan is a village, located in Najafgarh tehsil of South West Delhi. It is mentioned as among places President Richard Nixon of the US visited during his July 1969 official trip to India.

On Wikipedia, the bulk of the village’s recent history is however composed of notoriety earned between 1992 and 2015 as backdrop for a series of gang wars; that inevitable mix of real estate business, violence and politics. On a gentler note, the online encyclopedia says, the majority of people in Dichaon Kalan are farmers and the village accounts for a giant’s share of the cauliflowers sold in Delhi. “ I am sure you have heard of Najafgarh. Virender Sehwag, the cricketer? – He is from Najafgarh,’’ Hari Om said to help me position Dichaon Kalan on the map. We were at a café close to Regal Cinema in Colaba, Mumbai, incidentally a location involved in the India-visit of another US President, Bill Clinton. In 2000, on the Mumbai leg of his trip, Clinton had spent time at a shop selling antiques and then sat down for a chat with a few of India’s young and elite at a nearby café. Both places were across the street and a few strides away from where we were. Nothing as detailed seemed available of Nixon’s time in Dichaon Kalan. 1969 was long before the Internet.

Hari Om was born March 1984 in Dichaon Kalan. They were four siblings – two brothers; two sisters. Life was tough. Income from farming was meagre. To compound matters, his father had a kidney problem. Hari Om studied on scholarship; he was a good student. Early morning he worked alongside his father in the fields and then left for school. The family worked the fields themselves growing cauliflower and grain. “ Our focus was studies. The goal was to ensure that what happened to the parents didn’t repeat in the lives of the children,’’ Hari Om said. Following school, he spent two years pursuing BSc (Mathematics) at a college in Delhi. Alongside, he kept applying for the entrance test to be a sailor in the Indian Navy or an airman in the Indian Air Force. Two reasons drove this. First, after all that the family had endured, the security of a government job with promise of regular salary, attracted as means to be useful to parents and siblings. Second, Hari Om had a decent track record in the National Cadet Corps (NCC), a military cadet corps open to school and college students. Those completing the course have no liability to join the armed forces but are given preference over normal candidates should they apply. In his final year of graduate studies, Hari Om was admitted into the navy. After six months of basic training in Orissa, he shifted to the gunnery school at Southern Naval Command, Kochi for further training.

Photo: courtesy Hari Om

While he was there, the navy sought volunteers for Basic Mountaineering Course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), Darjeeling. Hari Om volunteered; he completed the course held in March 2004 with an `A’ grade. Later that year, the Indian Navy had a successful expedition to Mount Everest. According to Hari Om, one of the summiteers of that expedition – Surgeon Lt Cdr Viking Bhanu – asked him if he would like to join an expedition to climb a virgin peak of over 6500m in East Karakorum. The expedition was flagged off by Admiral Arun Prakash. The peak was successfully climbed. Hari Om was among those who summited. It was the start of his career in mountaineering.

In 2005, he was chosen for an expedition to Lakshmi (6983m), a peak near Indira Col on the Siachen Glacier. Conditions were quite bad on the mountain. Although they managed to fix rope up to 6650m, deteriorating weather conditions ensured that they wouldn’t be able to set up summit camp. So they decided to climb up to about 6500m and later, do a traverse to Indira Col. However in that climb up to 6500m, at around 6200m, a large slab of snow broke off triggering an avalanche with serious injury to some of the climbers. Helicopters had to be called in to evacuate the injured. That was the end of the expedition. A footnote would however play out ten years later. Soldiers who spend more than 28 days on the Siachen Glacier are eligible for the Siachen Medal. Hari Om estimated that in all, he had spent 45 days on the glacier. His eligibility was considered and the medal, awarded.

Following the Mt Lakshmi expedition, Hari Om went to Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi, to do his Advanced Mountaineering Course. He then volunteered for Indian Navy expeditions to South Pole and North Pole. He wasn’t selected. It was during this time that he commenced running. The idea was to stay fit. Be good to be selected as and when adventure calls. In 2007, he did his first full marathon at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM – now Tata Mumbai Marathon / TMM), covering the 42km-distance in 3:35. Impressed, his commanding officer dispatched him to Manali, to do his course in skiing. In 2007 and 2009, the navy’s expeditions to the Polar Regions occurred. During this phase, mountaineering took a back seat. Hari Om continued to run. He ran the half marathon at the Chennai Marathon. “ What kept me running was the desire to be good enough to climb when the opportunity presents itself,’’ he said. By 2014, Hari Om was posted to Mumbai, having moved through Chennai and Delhi before that. Amid these transfers, he also completed his intermediate course in skiing. A keen swimmer, he also got into open water swimming. He completed the annual sea swimming competition conducted by the navy in Mumbai in 2007, 2015 and 2017.

The Indian Navy’s ultramarathon team, which participated in the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High (Photo: courtesy La Ultra The High)

In January 2015, he participated in that year’s SCMM. Here he met Commander Sunil Handa, a naval officer with passion for running, who in the course of his posting in Mumbai would become one of the city’s best known ultramarathon runners. When Commander Handa sought volunteers for the annual 12 Hour-Ultra in Mumbai, Hari Om stepped forth. That was their first outing together. Following this event, he was cleared to participate in the Khardung La Challenge of September 2015, a 72km-ultramarathon over India’s highest pass with a road through it. There, Hari Om finished tad outside the cut off time. It was his first taste of a real ultramarathon. “ Commander Handa is the person who made me what I am in running,’’ Hari Om said. Thanks to the senior officer Hari Om gained a window to several events in Mumbai ranging from the monthly Bandra-NCPA half marathon organized by Mumbai Road Runners (MRR) to the Vasai Virar Mayor’s Marathon (VVMM). He also repeated his intermediate course in skiing – this time from the training institute in Gulmarg – as he had at that time become a member of the navy’s skiing team for the National Winter Games. In 2015, Hari Om marked his return to mountaineering; he was part of the navy’s expedition to Mt Saife (6161m) in Garhwal. In 2016, he got to know that the navy was planning to attempt Everest again. He started working on his fitness hoping that he would be called. In his mind, Everest (8848m) had always been significant.

In May 2016, the navy had a pre-Everest expedition to Satopanth (7075m). It was a pre-monsoon expedition by the Western Naval Command. Hari On, who was part of it, ferried load up to Camp 1 but came down with what he thought, was a throat infection. It was a diagnosed as potential High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). Sent back to NIM, the closest mountaineering institute in the region, Hari Om was devastated. Given the medical report, he was also not recommended for the navy’s post monsoon expedition (part of pre-Everest climbs) planned to Mukut Parbat (7242m). That was when he decided to join the navy team attempting that year’s La Ultra The High, a punishing ultramarathon in Ladakh. The navy runners were enrolled in the event’s 111km-race category, wherein they would run across Khardung La. This was the first time the navy was formally participating in an ultramarathon, as a team (for more on how this team was formed and how it trained please visit this link:  https://shyamgopan.com/2016/09/16/the-indian-navys-first-ultramarathon-team/ For more on the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High, please visit this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2016/09/16/the-captain-the-teacher-the-warrior-and-the-businessman/ ).

Hari Om at the 2016 edition of La Ultra The High (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

As part of acclimatization for the race, Hari Om climbed Kang Yatse II (6200m). On race day, he finished third in the 111km-category. Encouraged, he sought inclusion in the team heading to Everest. But he wasn’t called up. Hari Om admits to being disappointed by this. Not one to give up easily, he took one month’s leave and went for an expedition on his own. He knew that he required to successfully climb a peak of over 6500m to be considered for the navy team attempting Everest. In September 2016, there was an expedition by army paratroopers heading to Bhagirathi II (6512m). Although belonging to a different branch of the defence forces – the army, they were empathetic to Hari Om’s request and included him in the team. He emerged one of the summiteers. With that, he volunteered for Everest and was called for selection trials scheduled at the Armed Forces Sports Medicine Centre in Pune. Sixty volunteers reported; 30 – Hari Om among them – were short listed for winter training on Siachen Glacier. While this was on, in October, Hari Om participated in a Half Ironman (triathlon) held in Hyderabad. It entailed 1.9km swimming, 90km cycling and a half marathon. It was his first experience of competition cycling and he suffered an accident on the cycling leg. But he completed the Half Ironman successfully.

On Everest (Photo: courtesy Hari Om)

For their winter training, the navy’s Everest team was dispatched to the army’s mountaineering institute at Siachen. Training spanned December 2016 to mid-January 2017. Twenty four of those who attended made it to the final team; of that the climbing component comprised 18 persons, Hari Om was one of them. Further training for the team was scheduled in Delhi. While in the city, Hari Om ran the IDBI Half Marathon of February 2017 completing it in 1:32. On March 31, the navy team left for Kathmandu in Nepal. They reached Everest Base Camp on April 20 having done a long walk-in tracking the same path Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hilary took in 1953. According to Hari Om, that year – 2017, climbing windows were less; so were the number of successful summits. The navy team tasted success in two stages – the first batch reached the summit on May 24; the second on May 27. Hari Om was part of the second batch. “ For me, it was a dream come true,’’ he said. For his contribution to the expedition, Hari Om was among those selected for the Nao Sena Medal (devotion to duty) in 2018.

At Bhatti Lakes Ultra (Photo: courtesy Hari Om)

In August 2017, little over two months after his Everest-climb, Hari Om attempted the 222km-segment of La Ultra The High. To prepare for the race, the navy team trekked in Ladakh’s Markha Valley. On race day, Hari Om began well but somewhere before the first cut-off he veered off the road, fell and injured his left knee. He reached South Pullu an hour before cut off. But with both knees paining by now, his progress slowed down considerably. He opted to DNF (Did Not Finish) at the 111km-mark. His timing was 15 minutes slower than the 20 hour-cut off for 111km. It was a lesson. Looking back, he appeared to have rushed things – come in to a punishing race too soon after Everest, an endeavor in climbing that was great for the spirit but one that had likely taken a toll on the body. After La Ultra The High, Hari Om rested for 15-20 days to recover from the race and the lingering effects of Everest. But he was back in early October, placing third in the 60km-category under the ` skyrunning’ segment of Hell Race. Days later on October 7, he finished first in the 100km-category of the Bhatti Lakes Ultra; his delight multiplied by the new Salomon shoes he was gifted by the race organizers. Then, on October 28, he finished first in the 100 miler-Ultra Tuffman Beach Championships in Goa, covering the distance in 23:20.

Hari Om running in Solang Valley; part of Hell Race (Photo: courtesy Hari Om)

In January 2018, he completed the full marathon at TMM and in February, the 161 km-category of Run the Rann (he ran this race in Kutch to collect UTMB points), where he ended up fifth overall. He proceeded soon thereafter to Kolhapur where a friend had recommended him to be brand ambassador for the Kolhapur Marathon. He also ran a 50km ultra there, completing it in 4:32. When I met him in Mumbai – a figure clad in shorts and T-shirt, seated on the steps of Regal Cinema – the battering from all this racing was obvious. He was limping – that classic runner’s limp; pronounced at start, forgotten as leg warms up and the mind embraces distraction in talk around running. Equally obvious was that optimism typical of those into extreme sports. Hari Om spoke of getting into trail running and hopefully finding sponsors for the races he wished to attempt overseas. “ I like running very much. I find peace doing it,’’ he said. Back in Dichaon Kalan, amid all the notoriety gang wars fetched it, the village now has a man who climbed Everest and runs the ultramarathon.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Hari Om. Timings at races, descriptions of expeditions and specific altitudes referred to in climbing incidents are as mentioned by interviewee.)

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