Noel Hanna – In Memoriam
In October 1996 our rural midlands community lost someone dear, unexpectedly and tragically. My brother penned an appreciation at the time, which began with this verse by Tom Williams written in tribute to the late Nickey Rackard, widely regarded as one of the greatest hurlers in the history of the game…
“Old friends they flanked you side by side,
and tears they shed were tears of pride.
An ash tree toppled when you died,
And scattered seeds at random.”
That verse has been churning around in my dazed mind ever since news filtered through this morning of the death of Noel Hanna on Annapurna. Many of us who lived vicariously through Noel’s adventures and admired greatly his pluck and determination, were still basking in the glow of his Annapurna summit success, reported yesterday morning by Chhang Dawa Sherpa. It was a first, another record for Noel. The first Irish climber to summit Annapurna. Today we learned that Noel passed away at Camp IV after returning from the summit.
Noel was a trail blazer. A proud son of Ulster, from the beautiful County Down, he was an accomplished ultra runner, adventure racer and a world class mountaineer. From a farming background in Dromara, he served as a police officer in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and trained as a Close Protection Officer thereafter, while also carving out a career in the world of adventure and mountaineering. His racing achievements included two Marathon De Sables, Himalayan 100 mile races and a plethora of Eco-Challenge adventure races, to name but a few. He was only the sixth Irish climber to complete the ‘Seven Summits’ (climbing the highest peak on all seven continents) and second Irish climber to complete both Bass and Messner ‘Seven Summits’ lists, behind the late great Ian McKeever who became the first to do so in 2007. Not content with the Seven Summits, Noel decided to up the stakes and after reaching the summit on the highest peak on each continent, he then raced to the nearest sea by means of human power (run/bike/ski), becoming the first to complete the ‘7 Summits to sea level’ challenge. Noel also tackled five of the fourteen 8000m peaks, reaching the summit on four. His most significant climbing accomplishments include the following:
Everest (8848m): Twelve attempts between the ages of 38 & 54, reaching the summit an incredible 10 times, including twice with his wife Lynne. Noel and Lynne entered the record books in 2016 by becoming the first married couple to successfully climb Everest from both sides (Nepal/South in 2009 and Tibet/North in 2016). The couple raised £130,000 for Cancer Focus Northern Ireland in the process. Lynne has also made history by becoming the first female from the UK and Ireland to summit Everest from both sides. Noel’s last summit of Everest was on May 12th 2021 at 8:30am. For many of those Everest summits, Noel was working for a commercial expedition team as a mountain guide. In 2019 Noel led a team comprising Jenny Copeland, Shay Lawless and South African climber Saray N’kusi Khumalo to Everest, and shortly after their arrival in Lukla a plane crash-landed at the airport. Noel swung into action to help those involved, however three people including the co-pilot died. The team of Noel, Jenny, Shay and Saray went on to make it to the summit of Everest, however tragedy struck on the descent when Shay, who had pushed on ahead with his Sherpa, vanished near the Balcony, just above Camp 4.
K2 (8611m): Second highest peak in the world. Three attempts (2015, 2018 and 2021), reaching the summit on the second attempt in 2018, becoming the first Irish climber since Ger McDonnell to stand on the summit of K2. He attempted the first Irish winter summit of K2 in 2021, but had to turn back due to extreme low temperatures on the planned summit window.
Kanchenjunga (8586m): Third highest peak in the world. Two attempts, in 2017 reaching 8200m and in 2018 reaching 8353m, but no summits.
Manaslu (8163m): Eight highest peak in the world. One attempt and summit of Manaslu with his wife Lynne in 2019, both reaching the summit on 27th September 2019 without the use of supplementary (bottled) oxygen. Lynne became the first Irish woman to summit an 8000m peak without bottled oxygen, while Noel became the first man from Northern Ireland to do so.
Annapurna (8091m): Tenth highest peak in the world. One attempt and summit of Annapurna in April 2023.
Burke-Khang: One of Noel’s proudest mountaineering moments came on a relatively unknown peak called Burke-Khang (6942m). Noel along with Naga Dorjee Sherpa, Pemba Tshering Sherpa and Samden Bhote took on the technical peak and reached the summit on 5th October 2017, becoming the first to do so. The expedition leader was Bill Burke, the oldest American climber to summit Everest at the age of 72 years in 2014. Noel spoke in recent years about how this stands as his proudest achievement in the mountains.
Other notable climbs included Ojos Del Salado, Pico De Orizaba, Pequeno Alpamayo, Khangri Shar, Monviso (East Ridge), Ama Dablam along with multiple climbs of Mont Blanc, Elbrus, Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro, amongst others. In 2021 Noel received Mountaineering Ireland’s prestigious ‘Lynam Medal’ in recognition of his accomplishments in mountaineering. Noel and Lynne presented Gold ‘Duke of Edinburgh’ Awards on a number of occasions and in 2012 Noel took a Duke of Edinburgh flag to the top of Everest.
Those are some of his accomplishments and challenges, but Noel was much more than a list of mountains. He was cheeky, good-humoured and infectious. We first met at the Nepal Ireland event in Dublin in 2014, just after our Everest expedition had been cancelled following the ice-fall avalanche deaths and subsequent industrial action by the Sherpa. In 2015 we were on opposite sides of Everest when the earthquake struck. Over the years he had been for us, what he has been for so many others… an oracle, a straight-talking and easily approachable source of advice (sometimes necessarily blunt) and encouragement. He didn’t suffer fools and might ruffle feathers on occasion, but his kindness and enthusiasm marked him out from the crowd. In an interview a few years ago he was quoted as saying “You know when you go away there is a chance you’re not coming back but that’s just the way we live and if you were to think about that every time you went out the door, then there’s no point really living life”. He certainly lived life in the true sense, was a pleasure to interact with and is an immeasurable loss to the broad church that is our mountaineering community, as well as to his friends, family and admirers from Dromara to Johannesburg and beyond.
An ash tree toppled today. The seeds it scattered will be Noel’s indelible legacy.
Noel Hanna died on Annapurna, doing what he loved. He was 56.
The author: Paul Devaney is a native of Longford, is co-founder of the Irish Seven Summits project and an aerospace freelancer based in London. Paul is an amateur mountaineer and has completed six of the Seven Summits and attempted Everest in 2014 and 2015. In both seasons his expedition was halted due to major incidents (Avalanche in 2014, Earthquake in 2015). Paul has climbed and trained in the Alps and completed climbs from Alaska to Antarctica and from Jordan to Ecuador. He lives in London with his wife Rima and twin daughters, and has been documenting Irish climbers on Everest & 8000m peaks since 2014.