Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland climber ‘devastated’ after search for pal missing on Everest called off

Noel and Lynne Hanna
Noel and Lynne Hanna
Noel with Seamus Lawless and team on the top of Everest
The team on the ascent
Seamus Lawless, Trinity professor and climber

By Stephanie Bell

The local adventurer who led the Everest expedition in which Irishman Seamus 'Shay' Lawless died has said he is devastated that the search for his body has been called off.

Co Down's Noel Hanna (52), who has scaled the world's biggest mountain an incredible nine times, was also part of the search team who went back to try and find the 39-year-old college professor.

Mr Lawless from Bray, who had reached the top of the mountain with Noel, two female climbers and four Sherpas, fell just hours later on his way back down.

He fell in an area known as the death zone at a height of 8,400ft, making the task of finding him a treacherous mission.

Noel from Dromara didn't hesitate to join the search party, but conditions and the area in which Mr Lawless fell meant it had to be reluctantly called off on Friday.

Back home just yesterday in South Africa where he lives with his Northern Irish wife Lynne (57), Noel recalled how Shay had gone missing close to camp 4 on the mountain.

"We reached the summit about 8.30am on May 16 and we had a perfect summit with no queues," he said.

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"For Shay it was a lifelong dream and he had been preparing for it for two to three years and spent his life savings to do it so he was overjoyed and it was a very special moment.

"We were on our way back down and had almost reached camp 4 when we were passing over an area known as The Balcony.

"We put on new oxygen bottles and Shay was the strongest as the two girls were struggling because their goggles were steaming up with the wind.

"Shay decided to push ahead with one of the Sherpas to camp 4 while I stayed behind with the other Sherpa to help the two girls."

One of the girls Jenny was also Irish and a friend of Shay's, while the other was a South African.

All four reached camp 4 stunned to discover that Shay was missing.

Noel immediately joined a search party to return to the spot where Shay was last seen.

He explained: "At first when they told me I thought it was a joke. I couldn't believe it.

"Two Sherpas had gone back to search for him. Jenny, the Irish girl, myself and another Sherpa immediately went back to the area where Shay had fallen.

"Apparently he had needed to go to the toilet and his Sherpa had asked him to wait but the call of nature must have been too strong.

"There were strong gusts of wind at that stage and one of them must have blown him off the mountain.

"When we went back the winds had really picked up and we didn't want someone else to be blown away or put another life at risk so we had to return."

It was because of his experience of Everest that Shay contacted Noel two years ago and asked if he would be prepared to lead him and his friend Jenny to the summit.

A renowned adventurer, Noel has scaled summits and competed in sports adventures the world over.

In 2018 he became the first Irish person to successfully summit and descend K2. It is known as the savage mountain with less than 350 climbers making it up and down the peak and has one of the highest fatality rates with one in four climbers losing their lives.

In 2017 Noel and three Sherpas made history with the first ascent of the technical peak Burke Khang which borders Nepal and Tibet, becoming the first humans to stand on the top. There had been numerous attempts to summit this peak in previous years without any success.

Impressed by Noel's experience, Shay approached him to lead his dream climb to the summit of Everest almost three years ago.

The two men became close friends and Shay joined Noel at a quarry in Castlewellan recently to do some final preparation for the climb.

After leading the two women in his party safely back to base camp last week, Noel didn't hesitate to join a search party last Wednesday to again try and recover his friend's body.

He said: "I went back up with eight Sherpas because I know if it had happened to me then Shay would have volunteered to go to find my body.

"We know it was a body recovery rather than a rescue mission and we were quite hopeful.

"We searched the area for two days but unfortunately we couldn't find anything.

"We did spot his rucksack though and I took a helicopter flight over an area from 6,900 metres to 7,400 metres where we had found it to see if we could find a body but unfortunately we didn't.

"The weather conditions had got a lot worse and mountain season is closing and it was getting to the point when we were putting lives at risk for the sake of bringing a body back and so we called it off.

"I was certainly gutted. Shay was one of the bubbliest people I have ever met and he would have talked to anybody. He was a gentleman and being a professor he was very smart. We got on really well together."

Noel is coming home to Northern Ireland next week when he plans to meet with Shay's wife Pamela who he has spoken to several times on the phone.

Despite the tragedy and pictures of congestion at the top of Everest making world headlines this week, Noel already has plans to return to the summit for a 10th time, this time with his wife Lynne.

Lynne and Noel made history together in 2016 when they became the first husband and wife team in the world to climb to the top of Everest together from both sides of the mountain.

Lynne has also made history on her own by becoming the first female from the UK and Ireland to summit Everest from both sides.

Noel added: "I always said I wanted to do it 10 times and our plan is for the both of us to do it next year, hopefully if all goes well.

"There is no doubt that it is dangerous but to me it is the same thing as losing a friend in a car accident, would it stop you driving?"

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