Adventurer Noel Hanna tells of being first to conquer Himalayan peak Burke Khang
Co Down adventurer Noel Hanna and three Sherpas recently became the first people to have successfully climbed the 6,942m Burke Khang in the Himalayas. The farmer's son tells Joanne Sweeney how got from the hills of Dromara to the top of the highest mountains in the world
IT WAS another climber's dream, but ultimately it was Co Down man Noel Hanna who claimed a historic first when he and three Sherpas successfully climbed to the top of the previously unconquered Burke Khang in the Himalayas last month.
The 6,942 metre mountain borders Tibet and Nepal and sits between Mount Everest and Cho Oyu, two of the highest mountains in the world.
In going where no man has gone before, Noel managed to fulfil the ambition of his fellow climber Bill Burke, an American after whom the peak was named following his three earlier failed attempts to conquer it.
Noel says that his ascent of Burke Khang on October 5 is the highlight of his 20 years as an adventurer – and that's after scaling Mount Everest eight times, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and rest of the highest peaks in all seven continents.
"It was nice, as you can’t even go to the moon nowadays without people having been there before and it was nice that the person who the mountain was named after was on our expedition," the very understated Dromara man says of his achievement.
"Also, we were going on a route that hadn't been done before so it was all new. And it was great to do it as there was another expedition coming to the mountain about a month after us.
"It wasn't really that hard on Bill knowing that I had made it, as he knew within himself that he was unlikely to have made it up – he’s 75 now. Just going up to Camp One on this expedition, which should have taken him five hours, took him 12 hours. I think that in the end he was just glad that someone from his party made the first ascent."
It may not be as high as Everest, but Burke Khang posed many challenges, the greatest of which was to literally lead from the front in encouraging the three Sherpas who also made it to the top, Naga Dorge, Pemba Tshering and Samden Bhote, to continue on when they thought it was too dangerous to go further, says Noel.
"We didn’t know the route and it’s not as if someone could tell us where to go, as nobody had been there before, so we were making our own route and our own decisions,” he says.
"There were a couple of places where the Sherpas didn’t want to go on and that had happened before on previous attempts. There was a crevasse about 10 feet wide and they thought it was too dangerous to try to cross but I was happy enough for them to rope me up so I could go across a snow bridge and put the anchor on the other side for them to cross after me.
"When you're doing this, you’re just hoping that the snow bridge doesn’t break but you take that chance. You’re waiting for it to break as you cross over. In the past I’ve been on crevasses where the snow bridge broke, but for most of the climbs, the crevasses are already roped up before you get there."
The danger of what he does and the possibility of him dying on the mountains is something that Noel has long considered and weighed up over the years.
"It crosses everybody’s mind when you are climbing but the way that I look at life is that when you are born, there’s a day in the calendar when you are going to die. Even if you sit in the house and never go out, lightning is going to strike the house on the day and you are going to get killed sitting in the house.
“Touch wood, I’ve never been injured apart from getting retinal haemorrhaging in 2005 when I had to abandon an Everest climb.”
While Neil Armstrong may have celebrated the first moonwalk in 1969 with his 'giant leap for mankind' speech, Noel marked his big moment with a swig of Moet Chandon Champagne and a few tears for his beloved German Shepard dog Ruskie as he sprinkled her ashes on the snow.
Referring to his wife of 12 years, Lynne, who has summited Everest with him on two occasions, he explains: "We had three German Shepherds who were everything to us and Ruskie, our second dog, died last year so I spread some of her ashes on at the top of Burke Khang as well as on Kilimanjaro earlier in August.
"We spread her mate Babu's ashes on Everest last year, which is only about 10km away from Burke Khang, and I like to think of them together and looking down on us."
In addition to an official certificate from the Tibetan government endorsing the first ascent, Noel got a large tattoo of Burke Khang done on his chest a week later. He's also set to become an action star of the screen as a documentary film is being made of the self-funded expedition.
But, by anyone's standards, he was already something of an action man. A qualified close-protection officer who was part of the security detail for former US president Bill Clinton on a visit to Dublin, he is trained in combat, weapons and advanced driving, and also holds the Guinness world record for Maxtrek, which is the equivalent of going from sea level to the height of Mount Everest (8,848m) and back to sea level – in 21hrs 50mins.
He and Lynne, who is CEO of beauty brand Clarins in South Africa, live in Johannesburg but come home regularly throughout the year to their Dromara home.
Instead of the renowned climber he has become, the 50-year-old was probably destined to become a farmer like his father, had the farm been big enough to accommodate him and his older brother.
Instead, he chose to become a full-time police reservist for 15 years – at 5ft 6in, he was not tall enough to join the regular police. Despite his early introduction to soccer and Gaelic football, thanks to his primary school teacher at St Michael's at Finnis, the legendary Down player Colm McAlarney, Noel didn't really shine at sport until he took up distance running at the age of 30.
He qualified as a fitness and weightlifting instructor in the mid-90s and began to seriously get himself fit before he took on his first epic physical challenge in 1997: he and a friend took part in the 100-mile stage Himalayan Race. He came in first.
The race was to lead him to other adventures in his life, but more specifically, to want to conquer Mount Everest.
"Whenever I was running along – you can’t help but look around you and all I could see was Everest and the mountains around me," he recalls. "It was just spectacular scenery and I just said to myself that some day I’m going to be up there. And luckily enough, it has happened. I believe that the body can do a lot more that people thinks it can. I enjoy challenging the body and challenging myself. All of this is for nobody else. It’s just for me.”
:: To keep updated about Noel Hanna's adventures, visit www.noelhanna.com