Adventurers Lynne and Noel Hanna are set to make history next month when they hope to become the first husband and wife team in the world to climb Mount Everest from both sides.
But while their latest adventure will see them enter the record books, the Dromara couple have a more poignant reason for wanting to stand on top of the world’s tallest mountain again.
As they leave tomorrow to make their punishing 8,700 metre, seven-week ascent of the treacherous north side of the mountain, the couple will be carrying with them a very precious cargo – the ashes of their beloved pet dog Babu.
Babu had a special place in their hearts as he was bought just after their last attempt at climbing Everest from Tibet.
Lynne (54) and Noel (49), both seasoned mountain climbers, first attempted the north side of the mountain in 2005, but were forced to abandon it when Noel experienced retinal haemorrhaging in his eyes at 7,000 metres.
On their return home to Northern Ireland they got Babu, a German Shepherd pup, to keep Noel company as he convalesced. Babu means ‘child’ or ‘son’ in Tibetan and the couple say their dog became as close to them as a child over the years.
Babu ran and trained in the mountains with Lynne and Noel throughout his 10 1/2 years, but sadly passed away in December of last year.
Noel says: “As we have no kids we treated Babu like a child. We always said that when he dies we would get him cremated and take some of his ashes to the highest mountain in Northern Ireland, which we did on St Patrick’s Day.
“Babu had been to the summit of Slieve Donard with us about 50 times. We also want to take some of his ashes to the summit of Everest.
“As far as I know we will be the first husband and wife to have climbed both sides of Everest, but for me it means more that we sprinkle Babu’s ashes there and that has made us more determined to be on the summit.”
Lynne agreed that it will be a special moment for both of them: “We both miss him so much. When you don’t have children your dogs become your children and it will be quite a difficult moment for both of us. But it will also be good to leave him at rest there.”
The couple stood on the summit of Everest for the first time in 2009 after climbing the south side from Nepal and are now attempting to scale the north side in Tibet, hoping to reach it by the third or fourth week in May.
Lynne and Noel moved to South Africa four years ago when Lynne was appointed CEO for Paris-based cosmetics giants Clarins, covering South Africa and the Sub Saharan continent. Previously she had been well known as the Northern Ireland manager for Clarins.
She met Noel, a bodyguard and adventurer in 2000, through their joint love of endurance sports.
A match made in heaven, the intrepid duo thrive on extreme challenges and together have tackled some of the world’s toughest races.
Among a long list of endurance events are The Marathon Des Sables, Deathvalley 135, Discovery Eco-challenges and Himalayan 100 miler to name just a few.
They have also scaled summits all over the world and Noel has reached the top of Everest seven times.
Noel’s vast experience and passion has seen him become a world recognised consultant, advising endurance event organisers on course design and expedition logistics and he has led expeditions to all the seven continents.
What they have achieved so far makes climbing Everest – the challenge of a lifetime to most of us – look like a walk in the park for Lynne and Noel.
Lynne readily admits: “I always liked a challenge and swam my first mile when I was 11. It has just always been in me to challenge my body and my mind.
“We met when Noel was training in the Burrendale Hotel in Newcastle, where Clarins had a salon. He was going on a challenge and asked one of the girls if they knew anyone who would be interested in taking part. They suggested me and he rang me, but I wasn’t able to go on that trip.
“The next year he was doing an adventure race in New Zealand and rang me up again and asked if I wanted to take part and that time I did.
“There were lots of races and events that I would have loved to have done and Noel had done most of them. I was lucky I met Noel as he was a similar type of person who appreciated the amount of work that goes on in the background to do a challenge.
“We started to work our way through the list of challenges Noel had done and have now done them together. We have just one left to do, the Los Angeles Crest, which we hope to do soon.
“We had done the longest race and the toughest and we just thought why not try the summits of the highest mountains and that’s what we’ve done.”
The couple started to climb a few years ago and have gradually built up their experience and stamina by tackling ever higher peaks all over the world, until they conquered the highest in the Himalayas.
Not content to do it once together, they now aim to become the first husband and wife team in the world to scale it from both sides.
As well as climbing Everest, Noel is also hoping to complete his ‘7 Summits 2 Sea Level’ challenge, which will see him climb the highest peaks in each of the seven continents of the world and return to sea level under his own steam. With just two summits left to do, he is hoping to attain his goal by the end of the year.
Rock falls and avalanches are just some of the difficulties which the couple could face as they attempt their latest challenge.
On their last attempt they had reached 7,000 metres and were so close to the top that even when Noel suffered haemorrhaging in his eyes he was still reluctant to give up.
He says: “The pressure at that height caused the blood vessels in the back of my eyes to burst and that means everything looks red and you can’t see properly.
“I made loads of phone calls to the Royal in Belfast and hospitals in England, but we had no choice but to abandon it. When we came back I couldn’t drive for two months and that’s when we got Babu and he went everywhere with me.
“Anyone who knew Babu fell in love with him, he was nearly like a human. We have two other German Shepherds, Ruskie and Budda, and they are like our children.
“I’m just hoping this time around the altitude won’t have the same affect … it was just one of those crazy random things.”
The couple are so attached to their dogs that when Lynne was offered her promotion to CEO for Clarins in South Africa four years ago, neither she nor Noel would consider the move unless they were able to bring their beloved pets.
They love their new lifestyle in the sunnier South African climes and are regular visitors back home to Northern Ireland, where they have kept their house in Dromara.
It was a major move up the career ladder for Lynne, who first started working on the Clarins beauty counter in a shop in Belfast 25 years ago.
Clarins are fully supporting her in her Everest challenge and she is hoping to raise funds for a South African college which sponsors the education of children from the townships.
She says: “It was a big challenge and a big change from Northern Ireland moving here, but the basics are the same. There are department stores and beauty counters here just as there are in Belfast.
“We have clear blue skies here and little rain, so from that point of view the move was not that difficult to make.
“I wasn’t changing jobs as such as my role is very similar, although it takes in the Sub Sahara from the Democratic Republic of Congo down so it is a huge area.
“It is exciting and new and it wasn’t a difficult move, but my only concern was could we bring our dogs. I told the company if they can’t go then I can’t go and if we hadn’t been able to take them I wouldn’t have taken the job.
“After 2005, when we had to abandon the climb, we always said we would go back and we just had to wait until the time was right and I could get the time off work. Clarins have been brilliant in supporting me and it is very exciting.
“It is probably going to be the first time Noel and I have spent two months together for a long time as he is always away on some adventure.
“We will be supporting Ridgeway College in Johannesburg, which is a huge charity project that is also supported by Clarins.”
Lynne and Noel are undaunted by the challenge despite the risks and dangers, with avalanches and earthquakes posing the greatest threats.
Noel was at base camp when the huge earthquake hit Nepal in 2005, killing over 8,000 people and injuring 21,000.
The mountain had to be closed, forcing him again to abandon his climb.
He says: “It was such a large earthquake and in a way great to have that experience. You hear people saying about the ground moving and you take it with a pinch of salt, but standing on rocks in the middle of that, it really did move, even though we were far away from it.
“Our main worry was that we were camped close to a glacier lake and we were hoping the wall of the lake wouldn’t burst and take out part of the base camp.
“The mountain had to be closed and we were told that when we got down it would be like a war zone, but when we were driving to Kathmandu we didn’t see any damaged buildings.
“There are gambles to climbing, but I think it is just the buzz of being up there and pushing your body to the extremes which drives you to do it,” he adds.
“The main objective for me is taking our dog’s ashes and sprinkling them on the summit.
“At the summit it is just so nice if the weather is good. People think when you reach the top the hard work is done, but more people get killed going down than going up.
“The big challenge is keeping yourself fit and healthy and not getting any chest or cold infections and eating healthily. With the altitude you do lose your appetite, but it is like a car which needs petrol put in it and you do need to fuel your body.
“We are lucky that we have a company called Pharma Nord which supplies us with vitamins and fish oils and a brilliant product called Q10, which is something your body produces less of as you get older and which is necessary to maintain muscle.
“A lot of it is out of our control, like the weather and earthquakes, they are things that we can’t do anything about.
“You just have to try to give yourself as much time as possible and know your body and what you are capable of.”
Lynne is similarly practical in her approach and is somewhat reassured to have Noel, with his vast experience, by her side – something which also comforts family back home.
Her main concern on this expedition is how her body will cope above 7,000 metres as she hasn’t experienced that height on this side of the mountain, having had to abandon her last attempt.
She says: “I think you just have to take it one day at a time and keep your focus.
“I am less stressed being with Noel as I know his capabilities. No one knows what’s out there and for everyone concerned it is the unpredictable factors such as avalanches and earthquakes that are the main risks.”
And Lynne adds: “When you get to the summit you are shattered, but it is unbelievable to be standing on the highest place on earth.
“It is so serene and very calm and beautiful. I really hope we see it again and get up and down safely.”