Ain’t no mountain high enough for record-breaking Noel
Iron man Noel Hanna (42) from Dromara, has just scaled Indonesia’s daunting Carstenz Pyramid, the highest summit in Oceania. He talks to Jane Bell about the tough reality of death and glory on top of the world
Noel is now just one peak away from a world record — for the fastest ascent and descent of the legendary seven summits, the world’s seven highest mountains and will be heading to the last one next December Pictures by Ian TrevithickIf you feel there’s something you want to do, life’s too short to let |it go
Scaling the world's seven highest peaks, you might reasonably think, would be challenge enough for one man's lifetime. But for Dromara man Noel Hanna that's only the beginning. The real work, he says, comes with the descent — and not just to the relative safety of base camp.
The intrepid 42-year-old — who makes even James Bond seem a bit of a couch potato — doesn't rest until he has raced all the way down to sea level, covering hundreds of arduous miles on foot, by bike, skis or kayak.
This is a man who starts to sense the finishing line when he has “only” a full marathon left to run.
The prize at the end of it all will be a coveted world record and a place in the Guinness Book of Records. But, more importantly, Noel will have lived his dream and pushed himself to the extremes of human endurance. Life's too short, he believes, to settle for anything less.
On his incredible journey he has witnessed death and glory on top of the world. And he has taken his nearest and dearest along with him, climbing three of the seven peaks with Lynne, his wife of three years. The couple are heading back to Everest this year.
It all started back in 1997, the year that Noel, then a career police officer with 10 years service, and a friend who worked in the courts service, both had a landmark birthday. The pair took up a fitness challenge in Derry.
“Afterwards there was a party and we had a few drinks on board. Both of us had just turned 30 that year and we decided to do something different.” That something different turned out to be a 100 mile run in the Himalayas and, both having succeeded, Noel found he was was soon looking for the next ‘high'.
“I went back to the police for two or three years but found I was getting further and further away from it. In life, I don't want to let anything pass me by. If you feel there's something you desperately want to do, life's too short just to let it go.”
Inevitably, the day job had to go and Noel carved out a new future as an endurance athlete and expedition consultant. His desire to fully test the limits of his own skill and stamina and to achieve a place in climbing history led to the self-imposed 7summits2|sealevel challenge.
It has added up to three years, five continents, hundreds of logistical challenges — and one goal in sight: a world record and a new entry in the Guinness Book of Records.
Noel recently returned to his home in Northern Ireland from the sixth peak in the adventure, the 16,020ft granite face of the Carstenz Pyramid, in West Papua, Indonesia which proved the greatest challenge yet. It's regarded as the most technically difficult climb of all the Seven Summits and the most logistically challenging — only a few hundred climbers have ever undertaken expeditions here because of the region's history of political instability and civilian unrest.
Climbing with a good friend, Canadian Pat Singh, who's in his fifties, they hired local porters en route and, returning to sea level, spent three and a half weeks travelling through the bush.
There, English is rarely spoken. “We went for days without anybody understanding us which is difficult when you're pointing to a map and saying ‘we need to go there'. We ate what the locals eat — a form of sweet potato and bananas and sucked on sugar cane.”
Identifying a favourite peak would be like trying to name your favourite child. “Every one is so different. Back home, I can relive each climb in my mind's eye.”
It's the desk part of the job — sorting out the logistics and putting the practicalities into place — that Noel finds wearisome. “That's the hardest part, definitely. For instance, in West Papua, I couldn't get my bike flown over to the place I wanted it. I had to buy a kiddies' bike over there, spending the last two days of the race on a bike with only one gear — the other gears were broken. After a while there were no brakes either and I had to brake by putting my foot on top of the back wheel tyre. Before long the sole was off my shoe!”
And, often, it's the weather that shapes a climb. “The weather is the biggest decider on whether you get to the top or not. In Alaska the winds kept me on the mountain maybe a week longer than I wanted. We just had to sit it out until we got a window.”
But, despite living for adventure, Noel's too considered to be an out-and-out adrenalin junkie. “You have to keep a fine line whereby you know what risks to take. You need to know what your body is capable of. Everybody takes chances in life but mine are calculated risks.”
Yes, he concedes, people die on mountains but they also die in motorsport, swimming and horseriding — as well as in their beds or under the wheels of a bus. Life, he insists, is for living.
Illness is another hazard. In Borneo Noel was struck down with potentially fatal Leprospirosis or Weil's Disease, caught from contact with rat or bat's urine, and spent a week in an isolation ward at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital.
While he agrees that modern technology, such as satellite phones, means the modern climber is less isolated, he points to the danger of over-reliance on technology. And while clothing and rations for extreme conditions are superior now, historically climbers had many more Sherpas at their disposal.
By and large, the descent of a mountain is the most dangerous. “But a lot of people don't see it that way. All their focus is on getting to the summit but reaching the top is less than half the work — you still have to come back down safely again. A lot of people forget about that and push themselves further than they should.”
Above 8,000 metres is the “Death Zone”, he explains, where the human body is under extreme stress and there's the danger of hallucination and a euphoria that can distort judgement.
Personal survival, he stresses, is on a knife edge and there is simply no spare physical capacity to lift or carry another man. “Yes, you can help them as much as possible but in the end it's your own life you've got to look after.”
In 2006, a week after climber David Sharp's death on Everest, Noel passed the dead body en route to the summit — a grim reminder, if such were needed, of the toll the mountain extracts.
In the extreme cold, death remains frozen in time. Again in 2006, during an ascent, Noel immediately recognised the dead body of a fellow climber who had died on the mountain the previous year.
Everest, in particular, does attract more than its fair share of what might be called adventure tourists.
But Noel, in common with many top climbers, sticks to the north side, the Tibetan side. “Yes, there are certain people on the mountains that shouldn't be there. But I've never seen the side of Everest where people talk about dirty camps and litter. On the north side, the camps are spotless.”
Noel, who has no children (but two much-loved German Shepherds), grew up the youngest of three in the village of Finnis, just outside Dromara. He and Lynne have been married for three years and met through the sport. “I needed somebody to go on an adventure race team to New Zealand in 2001. I picked Lynne for the team — and then picked her for a wife!”
There aren't many couples who could rub along together with maybe four hours sleep in 60 hours of hard graft, but they manage it.
“When you're climbing you rely on each other. You know your own strengths and weaknesses and know each other's strengths and weaknesses.”
To date the world record bid has cost between £70,000-80,000, much of it from his own pocket, though the sixth peak was, appropriately enough, sponsored by the Chicago-based investment firm and on-line brokerage PEAK6 (www.peak6.com).
Noel is now just one peak away from a world record — for the fastest ascent and descent of the legendary Seven Summits, the world's seven highest mountains.
He, and Pat Singh, will be heading to Mt Vinson, Antarctica around December 2009 for the final leg — spending that Christmas Day on the frozen wastes.
This December 25 he expects to be on top of Slieve Donard. An ordinary Christmas of turkey and telly, you see, just isn't an option.
For further information on sponsorship or expedition consultancy, go to 7summits2sealevel.com or call 07764 161718