Hamish Harding – The Explorer We Knew

Hamish texted to let me know when his driver would pick me up: “He is in a blue Rolls Royce Phantom. Nearly there I believe.”

Hamish and I had been introduced by Shane Lundgren, who I had flown together with to the North Pole in a pair of biplanes. With Hamish and Shane both accomplished pilots and also working in the aviation industry, they had met and become friends.

When I’d moved to Dubai, Shane put us in touch.

Hamish and his wife Linda lived on the Palm, Frond B to be exact. The first thing you bumped into when you exited the comfort of the Rolls and entered their home was a pool table, standing right at the entrance.

Then the large dogs with big tails swarmed around to say hello.

Back from a paddle on the Palm, Jo Clark and Hamish Harding, a mini-adventure in the heart of Dubai. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

It was Sunday, normally Hamish’s one day off a week I learned, when he was in Dubai. We had platters of sushi, we had a beverage. Friends Faisel and his son Ali arrived and we were soon off with Hamish’s son Giles, on a mix of kayak and paddle boards, headed across the smooth water for a cocktail on the far beach.

We could of sat at Hamish and Linda’s home, we could of eaten more, we could of opened another bottle, but instead we were on a mini-adventure, into the warm, blue Arabian waters. The sun burnt low in the sky, we paddled to the sandy beach bar on the far side of the Palm.

At home, on the palm, on the beach, Dubai. Hamish in red shirt centre. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Faisal and Hamish bought the drinks, with a “Welc0me to Dubai,” toast. Thus the stage was set in Dubai, not for malls and meals as it is so well known for, but for desert adventures, climbs out of the depths of the wadis and into the heights.

Shane had recommended Hamish join The Explorers Club in New York City, where I had also long been a member. We wrote the recommendation letters, our President Richard Garriott added his own stamp of approval and Hamish was duly admitted to our Club.

With his new membership, Hamish soon rallied the members in our area and we formed the Middle East chapter of The Explorers Club, with Hamish as Chairman and myself as Vice Chairman.

Hamish pulled together our Middle Eastern Explorers Club Membership, connecting a diverse and amazingly talented group of individuals, many of us whom would have never met. explorers.me

Hamish had an ever effusive charm that was infectious.

Around Thursday the texts would start, a suggestion for this, a request for something to do, that Jo and I might have discovered in our frequent trips into the Hagar Mountains. Then we would all head out into the hills together.

On our hikes we shared a love of cold places in Antarctica, as Hamish had assisted White Desert and Robyn and Patrick Woodhead with their jets to access the continent, and visited the South Pole with them. On our hikes in the UAE we could juxtapose Antarctic ice while walking through the Desert Sands, comparing the flow of snow to the flow of sand.

We traded messages for a few weeks, Hamish only used WhatsApp, email was antiquated, used by lawyers and people who wrote contracts, he had enough of that in his work.

Soon he followed with:

“Hi Rob, We are going out to Hatta for a mountain hike leaving Dubai at about 11am today Saturday. We have my friend the well known astronaut col Terry Virts staying at our place and coming along. Would you like to join us?” He followed with “Just catching some sleep until then.”

It was 8:35 a.m. and I soon learned Hamish often worked on a USA time frame, with his jet deals often being done in the States. We found the best time to catch up around 5:30 a.m., when he was getting ready to go to bed and I was getting up.

We had a team for this hike. Faisel and his son were back, Terry joined with Jannicke from Norway, who had been on their round the world record setting flight and was visiting to warm up in Dubai, from her base in Svalbard.

It was a blazing hot day, as is often the case. The mountains in Dubai are rocky, tricky, convoluted and challenging, despite what one might think. Hamish arrived with his Range Rover filled with coolers holding cold drinks, sandwiches, samosas and cakes. He had a great chef at home and a big kitchen.

Hamish threw half the food in his pack for the rest of us. Thankfully he not only seemed to cater most of the food, he was never shy about carrying a full pack with all the goodies to be shared.

Hamish serving out lunch to Jo, Faisal rallying the troops behind. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Terry and Jannicke had just arrived in the UAE, still jet lagged from their journeys and the desert at mid-day was less than forgiving. At Hamish’s suggestion we took a short cut:

“Don’t worry,” he said,” you can always get through somewhere in these hills,” he added encouragingly.

So we scrambled up a steep ravine, dodging imaginary sand vipers, and slid down a virtual cliff, weaving through terraces with rather big drops and over into the next valley.

Following a trail was not Hamish’s style.

Terry, Jannicke and Hamish had flown round the world together and were good friends from the One more Orbit flight – they too enjoyed Hamish’s approach to life.

Over the hills and into the heights of United Arab Emirates. From left, Shuttle Commander Terry Virts, Jannicke, Jo, Faisal, Giles, Hamish and Ali. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

With this hike behind us, Hamish had a plan for the following weekend, perhaps inspired by Terry’s two space flights, to get as close as we could in the air of the UAE. We just might need some imagination.

So Hamish booked us onto Sky flights across Ras al-Khaimah. The sky flight is over 2 kilometers long on a zipline across a gorge. You are strapped into a forward facing suit and attached to a cable. They say you can do 120 kph.

I had no desire to do this, I don’t like what I deem cheap thrills. As we signed up Hamish said queitly to me “Robert, how often do you get a chance to fly with an Astronaut?”

Flying with an Astronaut, on the launch platform for the Sky Flight.

He had a point. Jo and I suited up, we flew. We hit warp speed seconds after take-off.

The flight proved amazing, going fast enough that it felt more like sky diving than being attached to a wire. But more than that, it was the company, the joy-de-vivre of the experience together and the chance to elicit at least a story or two from our Shuttle Commander.

As much as Hamish was an international entrepreneur, he was just as at home searching out the fun to be had in our own backyard and inviting his friends along.

It wasn’t just the big adventures for him, it was getting out and making the most of every moment, the enthusiasm of introducing family and friends to one grand, or perhaps not so grand, but very fun, adventure together.

When Hamish came back from his space flight in West Texas he related the highlight as looking down on the earth when at the apogee, and suddenly realizing how small earth was and thinking “what are we all fighting for?”

The Legends of Aviation Dinner, Hamish Harding, Terry Virts, Shane Lundgren.

But the flight is one you buy a ticket for, you sit in a seat, you go for a ride. A good ride, but still, you are just a passenger.

What I was more interested in was the that the next day – out of sight, out of mind, with no crew, no press, no photographers, Hamish and Victor Vescovo went over to the remote Guadeloupe Peak in West Texas and climbed that.

Guadaloupe Peak is a rare gem in Texas, set high above the plains, you climb out around the cliffs and come out at the top of the highest peak in the state, with views across the earth that stretch out forever.

Sunset at the base of Guadaloupe Peak, in the sublime light of West Texas. When tales of adventure waned, Hamish could easily transition to talking about our shared love for fast cars and sleek jets. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Just the day before they had looked down on the Peak from miles above while they were in space. Space and Guadeloupe Peak, all in a few days. One big adventure to be famous for, another little adventure to do because you are a natural born explorer.

Terry Virts was back in Dubai a few months after we first met. Having just launched a new podcast, as well as finished another book, he invited me down to Hamish’s for an interview.

Hamish had a wall hanging he liked, a woven extravaganza of color and the universe, that he suggested as the perfect backdrop. Hamish welcomed me in, proudly showing me his new 2-metre tall propeller propped up against the wall. Some men have toys, Hamish had a polished, glowing propellor and a woven wall hanging of the Universe.

It was a good place to talk about the 7 summits, from being on them, to flying far above them.

Our interview on Down to Earth with Terry Virts, soon turned into a two-way conversation as I related stories from the heights, while Terry relayed his continental view as he rotated around high over the earth every 90 minutes.

It was the most interesting of the interviews I’d had about my latest book, and like many of my Dubai adventures, had started with Hamish’s introduction.

Hosted at Hamish’s, Terry Virts and I take the opportunity to tape a podcast on our latest books.

In our UAE adventures, my wife Josephine and I had discovered that the UAE had a tallest point, on the ridge of Jebel Jais. But it was not the tallest peak, just a point along a ridge, before you stepped into Oman.

The tallest peak was claimed to be an obscure summit, unreachable, as it was dominated by a military post. But looking on the map, this didn’t appear correct as 10 kilometers to the east was another point, right on the Omani border, that was both an independent peak, and a good 20 metres higher.

So we had gone there trail running, climbed the peak up to an official border marker and being unnamed, and awaiting the suitable Arabic name that it should have, I’d given it the working name of Jebel Josephine.

Perhaps now we shall call it Jebel Harding?

Hamish liked the idea of a return when I mentioned it. We could all climb to the true top of the UAE and measure it again, just to be sure.

With plans to also climb Kilimanjaro in a few months time, we wanted to do a longer hike and also sleep out under the stars.

The team to the top of the UAE. Robert (Hamish’s nephew), Jo, Ali, Giles, Faisal and Hamish setting off for our overnight adventure. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

This section of the UAE, high in the Hagar Mountains, is wild and with few visitors. You start at the military base, where they kindly let you park and your car is undoubtably very safe. Then you head east on indistinct and unmapped trails, mostly followed by donkey trains, with their drivers still shuttling loads of various contraband back and forth over the high passes into Oman.

With dramatic brown crags extending down far to the sea, scraggly trees and twisting trails, you soon disappear into an obscure corner of the country.

Nearing the summit, we camped amongst a host of jagged rocks along the trail, curling up between boulders and stones, heating our instant dinners and settling in for the night.

For about 5 minutes.

Then Hamish’s air mattress popped and he was unceremoniously dumped onto the jagged rocks. We all twisted and turned our way through the night and awoke to a cold desert dawn.

Dawn at our campsite en-route to the top of the UAE. Hamish, in blue, center, assesses his rather flat pad after a rather rocky night. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Hamish was up early, we served him a hot drink.

He had no complaints. He had no tale of a difficult night and while I should have thought to have everyone bring an extra ground cloth to protect themselves, he had nary an unkind word.

The real Explorer we knew. Hamish at dawn deep in the Hagar mountains headed for the top of the UAE. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

I had heard far more complaints in far more comfortable circumstances than sleeping on a bed of stones in the desert. Hamish just didn’t complain, it was all part of the adventure and he reveled in it, in his element.

We set off for the top of the UAE, headed into the heights.

We all double checked our watches, our GPS, our phone compasses.

All said the same, this was the real tallest peak as far as we could find in the UAE. Not perhaps the worlds’ greatest exploration, but a little quiet satisfaction of reaching a real summit on a cool and breezy day high, high up in the Hagar Mountains. We looked down over the Persian Gulf, across Oman and far away into Iran on the far coastline.


The team at the top of the tallest peak in the United Arab Emirates. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

At our last meeting in Dubai, Hamish hosted a meeting of our remarkable Explorers Club Middle East group, many on zoom, but a few of us at his home.

The view out onto the beach and into  the waterways was a distraction, the food delectable, the drinks well iced. We shared our latest adventures and plans: I was off to the heights in the Karakoram, he was off to the depths of the Atlantic.

When I shook his hand and stepped out the front door, he asked how I was getting home?

“I’ll just walk to the end of the street and grab a cab.”

He looked at me and smiled, “Oh Robert, just take one of my cars. Do you want the Rolls or the Ferrari?”

Jo, Hamish, Giles, Robert, Ali and Faisal, after the summit. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

The news this morning suddenly made it all so real and Shane summed it up with: “I am starting to feel a bit crushed by the loss of his spirit.”

With the indomitable spirit of a great explorer, on adventures large and small, that was the Hamish we were so fortunate to know.