Two Irishmen were among 11 killed this season on the world’s highest mountain. What draws climbers to the challenge? asks
When boxer Katie Taylor flew into Dublin Airport earlier this month, few among the crowd gathered to greet the newly crowned, female lightweight boxing world champion would have known that Co Down mountaineer Noel Hanna was also arriving.
He was returning from his ninth summit of Everest — having ascended K2 last year — but had no wish at the airport for any ministerial handshakes or photocalls.
Like Taylor, Hanna was bound for Bray, Co Wicklow, but in a very different mood. He was due to meet the family of Prof Seamus ‘Shay’ Lawless (39), one of two Irishmen who died on the world’s highest mountain this season.
“I think his wife, Pam, and family know what happened now, and how...but I’d hope it’s of some comfort for them to know we were there, and that we did everything we could for Seamus,” Hanna told The Irish Examiner.
“It’s still very difficult to believe,” Hanna said, as he recalled the circumstances of Lawless’s disappearance, at around 8,300 metres, on his descent from summiting Everest on May 16.
“Seamus was in such good form, and had been going so well. We first found his rucksack, at the bottom of the Lhotse face, at around 6,800m the day after, when we were coming back down from Camp Four, at 7,900m, to Camp Two, at 6,400m,” Hanna recalled.
Six days later, during an extensive search, Lawless’s goggles and crampons were located, but there was no sign of his body.
Lawless was one of the strongest climbers in the group Hanna was guiding up the Nepalese route, with Sherpa support, on behalf of Seven Summits Treks.
Lawless, described as a “rising research star” and an expert in information retrieval by his Trinity College, Dublin colleague, Prof Vinny Wade, was the father of a four-year-old daughter, Emma.
Lawless had chosen the Barretstown children’s charity as the beneficiary of his Everest expedition, which he was undertaking with his climbing partner, Jenny Copeland, a physiotherapist and mother-of-four from Co Meath. Both had ascended the Alaskan peak Denali, north America’s highest mountain, at 6,190m, as part of their preparation.
Also in their group was Saray N’ksui Khumalo, of South Africa, who became the first black African woman to climb Everest. Hanna says that all three had undertaken their training over several years, on the “strict understanding that one has to be able to survive on a mountain alone”.
They couldn’t have had a more experienced guide in Hanna. His nine ascents of Everest include two with his wife, Lynne — setting a record for first married couple up both sides of the mountain. In 2018, he reached the summit of the world’s second-highest mountain, K2.
A former police reservist from a farming family in Dromara, Co Down, Hanna is both professional mountain guide and “close protection” security guard (a duty he performed for former US president Bill Clinton on his trip to Ireland).
Among his many achievements is the first ascent of Burke Khang mountain, a 6,942-metre technical peak in the Himalayas, which he climbed with Sirdar Naga Dorjee Sherpa, Pemba Tshering Sherpa, and Samden Bhote in 2017. Earlier that season, he had also ascended Aconcagua (6,962m), in the Andes, and had made an attempt on the 8.586m Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest peak.
Hanna makes little of it all, however, stating that guiding is “incredibly rewarding.” So it was with Lawless, Copeland, and N’ksui Khumalo, after a traumatic start to the expedition.
The group had just arrived in Lukla airport, in Nepal, when a small plane with two pilots collided with a helicopter during an attempted take-off.
The pilots, and two policemen near the runway, were killed. Hanna found himself in the thick of the rescue and recovery at the airport, even as he recalls people “very unhelpfully filming and taking photos”.
He witnessed similarly unpleasant human behaviour in the later stages of this Everest expedition.
There was a point when Jenny Copeland had a slip just below the Hillary step, very close to the summit. She was caught off-balance and was hanging upside down on a rope. I shouted to several to help, but no-one offered initially, until someone eventually did pull the rope back up.
Hanna’s priority after Lawless’s fall was to ensure the safe return to base camp of the rest of his very shocked group. He returned up the mountain with a team of eight Sherpas as soon as it was logistically possible to do so.
They spent three nights up the mountain at high altitude. As the weather deteriorated, Hanna also commissioned a helicopter flight and filmed the area from the cockpit, in case Lawless had sought shelter in a crevice or behind a rock.
“Helicopters can only fly safely up to 7,000 metres, but this pilot went to 7,300m,” Hanna says. “I checked the film again when I came back, in case I had missed something... everything was done that could be done.”
A week later, another Irish mountaineer, Kevin Hynes (56), from Co Galway, died in his tent at the North Col, on the Tibetan side of the mountain.
Hynes, who lived for much of his life in England, had previously climbed Everest from Nepal, and had also recorded ascents in Argentina, Alaska, Africa, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, and India.
“Kevin was intensely private and humble about those achievements and would have been quite happy if nobody knew he climbed at all,” Paul Devaney, curator of the Irish Seven Summits website, says.
Hanna, who was also on Everest when Co Kildare businessman John Delaney collapsed and died in 2011, is aware of the debate about overcrowding on Everest.
This season, with 11 deaths, was one of the worst on Everest since 2012. He says that Everest will always attract more attention than other challenging mountains.
“The expedition companies did propose, several years back, that the Nepalese and Chinese authorities should ensure Everest permits are issued to people who have climbed at least one other 8,000-metre mountain...it never went anywhere, and maybe it would be hard to enforce,” he says.
“People died on Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro, but no-one talks about them in the same way,” he says.
As I’ve said before, I have had friends who died in car accidents, but it doesn’t stop me driving.
Hanna has plans to return to climb Everest again with his wife, but this time without oxygen. He is sanguine about the risks and is acutely aware of mortality.
In an interview with Outsider magazine after his Burke Khang ascent, he spoke of living life to the full, believing that “when you are born, there’s a date in the calendar of the day you are going to go”.
“There’s calculated risk, and then there are accidents,” he says. “Accidents happen, sometimes we don’t know why, and we just have to continue living.”