The ability to push the limits of physical and mental endurance beyond what is considered humanly possible is not for everyone. A few are blessed with the physical capacity and the mental stamina to breach the boundaries imposed by conventional ideas about human physiology. For nearly 150 years since mountaineering began as a sport in Europe, no one considered it humanly possible to climb an 8,000-metre high Himalayan peak without the use of supplemental oxygen. Then came the legendary Italian alpinist, Reinhold Messner, who in 1975 became the first man alongside Peter Habeler to ascend Gasherbrum I in the Karakoram mountain range without oxygen. They did it in just three days.
In 1978, the duo repeated their feat on Mount Everest, becoming the first mountaineers to climb the world’s highest peak without oxygen. Two years later, Messner became the first to solo ascend Everest without oxygen support. Over the next eight years, he climbed all the remaining 8000-metre peaks in the Himalayas in a similar manner. When he reached the top of Lhotse in 1986, he became the first human to climb all the fourteen 8000-metre mountains in the world without supplemental oxygen.
It had taken Messner 16 years to achieve this legendary feat. In 2013, the great South Korean climber, Kim Chang-ho, beat his record by ascending all the 8,000ers without supplemental oxygen in less than eight years. Then in 2019, another legend emerged. Nirmal Purja, a 35-year-old Nepalese climber, stretched the possibilities of what humans can achieve even further: he climbed all the 8,000ers in just six months and six days. “It is impossible; I was told so many times? So, I named the expedition Project Possible,” Purja said in a magazine interview recently.
What distinguishes men like Nirmal Purja, Kim Chang-ho, and Reinhold Messner is the toughness of their minds and bodies in embracing the worst of human fears and the will to plough ahead despite the adversities. In the world of adventure, these are the toughest of the tough.
The capacity for superhuman endurance is not limited to alpine dwellers like Messner or rugged Himalayan climbers like Purja. There are plenty of men and women closer home in India who constantly push the limits of possibilities. Till about two decades ago, for example, there were hardly any marathoners in India beyond a handful of men, mainly from the military, who were into competitive running. Similarly, most ace mountaineers came from government institutions such as the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and were part of large-scale, government-sponsored expeditions.
But today, you have men like Arjun Vajpai, who has so far summited six 8,000ers in his quest to become the ﬁrst to climb all nine peaks accessible to Indians. Or Keval Kakka from Mumbai, who is hot on his heels with six 8,000-metre summits of his ownBut today, you have men like Arjun Vajpai from Delhi, who has so far summited six 8,000ers in his quest to become the first to climb all nine peaks accessible to Indians (five are in the Karakoram, where the access is through Pakistan), Or Keval Kakka from Mumbai, who is hot on his heels with six 8,000-metre summits of his own. They are both men from middle-class homes who privately fund their adventure, raising money from a variety of private sources. Similarly, there are many Indians who regularly run in the toughest ultra-marathons and iron men competitions worldwide, and a handful of others test their endurance by participating in gruelling cycling events like the Race Across America (RAAM).
Who are these formidable Indians? This article lists 10 men who have been pushing the limits of what is possible in the world of adventure over the last decade. These are India’s toughest men. From Prabhat Koli, the 22-year-old from Mumbai who hopes to swim the seven most challenging open-water stretches in the world, to 50-year-old mountaineer, Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu, who has climbed Mount Everest seven times.
Keval Kakka, Mountaineer
In 2012, Keval Kakka had a revelation while pursuing a degree in engineering. He had always been interested in the outdoors, but besides the odd weekend trek, he had never had the opportunity to explore his options further. When the prospect of a sedentary desk job started gnawing at him, he decided to do something about it. Soon, he dropped out of college and began pursuing his mountaineering certiﬁcations. He would set off for local crags around his home in Mumbai to hone his skills and, alongside, try to gain an understanding on how he could make climbing his profession. He set up his own trekking company and started leading hikes to sustain himself. But after reading up and talking to experienced mountaineers, climbing 8,000-metre mountains became an obsession.
In just ﬁve years, he has climbed six 8,000-metre mountains in Nepal. In 2017, he ﬁrst climbed Manaslu and pulled off an ascent of Cho Oyu the following year. He proved just how comfortable he was in that environment by making a double ascent of Everest and Lhotse within a span of a few days in 2019. After the pandemic brought climbing to a temporary halt, he returned last year to summit Annapurna I.
This spring, he pulled off his sixth ascent of an 8,000er after climbing Dhaulagiri. While there are other personal goals that he wants to attain, Kakka also hopes to infect those around with the same love for nature that had captivated him around a decade ago.
Kabir Rachure, Ultra-Cyclist
There was a time when the gym was Kabir Rachure’s second home. Then one day, he gave up on body sculpting when he heard of a triathlon. Swimming and running were activities that he was familiar with, but cycling had been more of a fun activity that he had enjoyed as a child.
After his ﬁrst 60km ride in 2015 from his home in Navi Mumbai, Rachure thought he had ridden enough. Yet, there was the desire to understand how far he could go. The triathlons were put on hold. He was soon a regular at brevets and decided to take his next big step by signing up for the Deccan Cliffhanger — a 600km ride from Pune to Goa. Though he ﬁnished beyond the time limit, Rachure knew he would be back to improve his performance. He took up a regimented training routine, and a year later, he was on the podium at the same race.
Since then, cycling has become his passion. After wrapping up his day job as a practicing lawyer, he puts in the tedious hours at training. Winning local races such as the Ultra Spice and the Great Himalayan Ultra gave him the conﬁdence to tackle something more signiﬁcant. In 2019, he ﬁnished the Race Across America — a 3,000-mile ride that runs from the west coast to the east coast of the United States. He experienced unpredictable weather conditions that hampered his progress all along, but after 11 days, 22 hours and 43 minutes, he became only the third Indian to ﬁnish the race. And on his second attempt at RAAM in June, Rachure became the ﬁrst Asian to ﬁnish on the podium in his category and the ﬁrst Indian to ﬁnish the race on two occasions.
Abhilash Tomy, Sailor
Growing up, Abhilash Tomy was never too far from the sea. He decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and joined the Indian Navy, where he was ﬁrst exposed to the world of competitive sailing. Though he started with dinghy sailing, he had the opportunity to learn about the world of big boats and high seas over time.
In 2012, he was handpicked for a circumnavigation effort around the world. Starting from Mumbai, he pulled off the non-stop, solo attempt in 151 days — only the 79th person in the world at the time to achieve the rare feat. It led him to bigger things, and in 2018, he was invited to the Golden Globe Race for another circumnavigation attempt.
That race would change his life. Three months and 10,500 nautical miles into the race, his boat was hit by a vicious storm in the Southern Indian Ocean, leaving him with life-threatening injuries. He had to be rescued by the Australian Navy and was ﬂown back to Goa by the Indian Navy. The incident has failed to curb his enthusiasm for solo sailing. He has since quit the Navy and is gearing up for another shot at the Golden Globe Race in September this year.
Ashish Kasodekar, Ultra Runner
Until eight years ago, Ashish Kasodekar was a regular feature on the Pune basketball circuit. Then in 2014, he ran his ﬁrst 15km. He enjoyed how he felt in the open, and the distances kept growing with time. With the athletic base that he had built over the years, it took little time for him to ﬁnish his ﬁrst half marathon, followed by a marathon.
After ﬁnishing the Khardung La Challenge in Ladakh and the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, Kasodekar realised he had it in him to attempt bigger distances. When he came across La Ultra – The High, a high-altitude ultra-marathon in Ladakh, he knew he had found his muse. He started by running the 111km category and followed it up with the 333km race at the same event a few years later. In the thin air at altitude, Kasodekar felt at home, despite the challenging terrain and the sheer effort of his endeavours. Then in 2019, he created history by becoming the ﬁrst and only Indian to ﬁnish the staggering 555km distance — an effort that took him an incredible ﬁve days, 6 hours 18 minutes.
These days, running is ﬁrmly ingrained as part of Kasodekar’s lifestyle. As part of his travel business, he regularly takes runners to various races across India. Time and again, he takes on personal projects — more as a lifestyle rather than a challenge – that test his abilities. Last year, he celebrated his birthday by running a marathon each day for 60 consecutive days.
Kaustubh Radkar, Triathlete
Till 2008, Kaustubh Radkar lived a sheltered middle-class life, far from the world of endurance. He was ﬁrst exposed to the world of triathlons when he met people who had ﬁnished an Ironman race. An ace swimmer during his school days in Pune and a recreational runner, cycling was what demanded all of his attention during the initial push.
Even as he chased a business degree in the United States, Radkar took baby steps into the world of triathlons. After his ﬁrst Ironman in 2008, he completed six more over the next ﬁve years. By 2016, he had ﬁnished an Ironman on every continent. The drive was to keep improving his performance, and though it often proved to be demanding, he persisted with his efforts to bring his best in each race.
In 2016, he earned a ticket to the prestigious Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, and ﬁnished it under grueling conditions. After pulling off 30 Ironmans — the most by an Indian — Radkar has put his competitive streak on hold. These days, he’s donned the role of a coach to train the next generation of triathletes.
Prabhat Koli, Endurance Swimmer
At a swimming summer camp while still in school in Mumbai, Prabhat Koli ﬁrst displayed an affnity for water. Once he took on a rigorous training routine, it was evident that he could also go the distance. After acing big swims in the Arabian Sea, Koli tested international waters by swimming the English Channel in 2015. It set the stage for his attempt at the Oceans Seven challenge, which features some of the toughest open water swims in the world. Over the next few years, Koli went on to swim the Catalina Channel, the Molokai Channel, the Tsugaru Strait and the North Channel. He also swam around Manhattan Island to achieve the Triple Crown of open water swimming (English Channel, Catalina Channel and the swim around Manhattan).
The pandemic halted his exploits, but in the time ahead, he hopes to ﬁnish swimming across the Strait of Gibraltar and the Cook Strait to become the youngest Indian to pull off the Oceans Seven challenge.
Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu, Mountaineer
The mountains were all around Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu while growing up in a far corner of Uttarakhand. By the time he was in his teens, he had climbed his ﬁrst mountain, Nanda Kot. The opportunity had arrived quite by chance when he had decided to ﬁll in for a missing support staff member. It was the start of an illustrious mountaineering career that has led him to the summit of mountains such as Mamostong Kangri, Nanda Bhanar, Nanda Ghunti, Kamet, Satopanth, Mana, and Abi Gamin.
But today, Dharmshaktu is best known for his climbs on Mount Everest – a mountain he ﬁrst ascended in 1998. Ever since, he’s gone on to reach the summit of Everest on six other occasions, which is the most by an Indian. He also climbed Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, in 2008 as part of a Border Security Force expedition.
For his achievements, he was awarded the Padma Shri in 2014, even as Dharmshaktu vouches to continue climbing in the years ahead.
Arjun Vajpai, Mountaineer
Starting young has its perks. In 2010, Arjun Vajpai became the youngest person in the world to climb the Everest. It put the spotlight on him as the world sat back in anticipation to gauge his potential. And the Noida-based youngster didn’t disappoint.
Over the next eight years, he took on taxing climbs in the Nepal Himalaya, summiting peaks such as Lhotse, Manaslu, Makalu, Cho Oyu and Kangchenjunga. It wasn’t easy — while Vajpai’s stellar resume looks impressive, he’s also had eight unsuccessful attempts for various reasons. For instance, on Makalu, the ﬁfth highest mountain in the world, he could not get to the top on two occasions before reaching the summit in 2016.
While Vajpai is a familiar face on the climbing circuit these days, he’s constantly looked to evolve as a mountaineer by taking on new challenges time and again. Last year, he raised the bar by returning to the mountain that started it all for him — Everest, and this time, without supplemental oxygen. And even though he was unable to summit this time, rest assured, he’ll be back ﬁtter and stronger in the time ahead to give it a go yet again.
Kieren D’Souza, Trail Runner And Mountaineer
As a child, Kieren D’Souza was fascinated with adventure. He would devour books on Bachendri Pal and the Everest. The connection with the outdoors happened while at college in Bengaluru, where he also took up running as a serious hobby and pursued an introductory mountaineering course. In 2015, D’Souza relocated to Manali to chase his trail running dreams full-time. Since then, he’s taken on many races in India and across the world. He ﬁnished second in his age category at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in Europe and won the 111km category at La Ultra – The High in Ladakh. In 2018, he also represented India at the Trail World Championships.
Besides racing, D’Souza has been chasing personal projects that involve a mix of running and mountaineering. He’s pulled off speed ascents on Friendship Peak and Deo Tibba in a fraction of the time mountaineers take to get to the top. He followed it up with another project in Ladakh last year, where he reached the summits of ten peaks over 6,000 metres in just 26 days. D’Souza is changing the face of Indian mountaineering and how these climbs are approached through his speed attempts. These days, he’s trying to ﬁnd the right balance between these projects and racing to raise the bar for himself and the trail running community.
Amit Samarth, Ultra-Cyclist And Triathlete
A little over seven years ago, Amit Samarth was pursuing a promising career in public health. That was until he discovered the world of endurance. It started out with short runs and bicycle rides while still working his day job. The moment he got comfortable in the water, he decided to take on his ﬁrst half Ironman distance in Phuket, and went on to ﬁnish 15 more in the time ahead. Then in 2016, he pulled off his ﬁrst full Ironman distance in Busselton, Australia, and another in Hamburg, Germany, this year.
Over time, he realised that he quite enjoyed the cycling leg of the triathlons. He started increasing the hours spent in the saddle as part of his training. It readied him for his ﬁrst big challenge in the Race Across America (RAAM), a 3,000-mile bicycle ride across the United States, which he ﬁnished in a time of 11 days and 21 hours.
The following year, he took on the daunting Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme, a grueling 9,100km stage race in Russia. After a massive effort, Samarth clocked 379 hours, 51 minutes, and 44 seconds to become the ﬁrst Indian to go the mammoth distance. Last year, he rode the 6,000km distance across the Golden Quadrilateral highway network of India in a record time of 13 days and 9 hours.
The work clothes have long been tucked away in the closet. These days, he is a full-time coach, spreading the ﬁtness bug in his hometown of Nagpur. His efforts bore fruit when two of his wards made the cut for the triathlon event at the Commonwealth Games. For Samarth, it’s just one of the many goals that he’s knocked off over the years.
(Lead Image: Unsplash)