The summit of all fears
Paul Devaney is aiming to reach seventh heaven by scaling Everest and completing the Seven Summits Challenge
When pioneering explorer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he is believed to have replied with the three most famous words in mountaineering: "Because it's there." It's precisely this can-do spirit that has spurred fewer than 300 people to achieve a staggering physical and mental feat known as the Seven Summits challenge, one that sees climbers reach the highest mountain peaks on all seven continents in as many years.
Longford-born Paul Devaney is on course to join this highly elite list. Already, he has tackled Africa's Kilimanjaro (2007), Europe's Elbrus (2008), Australia's Kosciuszko (2010), North America's McKinley/Denali (also 2010), South America's Aconcagua (2011), and most recently, Antarctica's Vinson Massif (2013).
Along with climbing partner Niall O'Byrnes, who has himself scaled five of the seven peaks to date, Paul will tackle all 8848 metres of Everest in a 60-day expedition in April. With over €30,000 raised for charity to date, Paul is now raising money for children's respite centre Liam's Lodge (www.liamslodge.com).
In a sense, Paul will be returning to the scene of the crime when he gets to Everest: it was, after all, a trek to Everest Base Camp in 2005 that inspired him to take on the challenge.
"I actually got into it by accident," he admits. "I never did climbing, and it wasn't a lifetime goal. I was working in Hong Kong for Rolls Royce and I was playing GAA, where the training happened in pretty high humidity and temperatures. I was a month away from returning to the UK for work and someone suggested that I put the high humidity training to use by climbing to Everest Base Camp. I remember thinking, once I got there and saw the most incredible view above the cloud lines, 'well, this is pretty cool'. I'd brought the book Into Thin Air (Jon Krakauer's personal account of the Mount Everest disaster) with me, which is how I found out about the challenge. Then it was just a question of going up one mountain, then trying another mountain, then the next. By the time I knew it, I'd done six."
Of course, it was hardly as easy as all that. Surely climbing the highest mountains in the world is the most gruelling challenge known to man?
"I find it mad that people do triathlons, and people in Ireland are really mad for them," he counters. "I did a marathon last year and they're the hardest thing in the world. I think triathlons and Ironmans look harder than what I do. I've done (mountain climbing) for seven years, so I'm used to this type of challenge by now. Besides, I think your brain weeds out the bad stuff that happened and chucks it away."
Sure enough, there's been plenty of bad stuff along the way: "Elbrus (in Russia) was a pretty rough mountain," reflects Paul. "It's the sort of mountain where people walk right off the edge of it. I lost my footing once or twice; once I flipped over and managed to get myself into the rest position.
"On Aconcagua (in Argentina), we had mules to carry out kitchen gear and tents, and at one point the mules were four or five hours away," he adds. "Due to the weather we got destroyed in the middle of nowhere. Some people got pneumonia and were carried off the mountain. It really comes down to pot luck as to whether you are the person who is okay on any given trip."
Ahead of Everest, Paul is immersed in a dedicated and intensive training regime, but he admits that he has seen some foolhardy, ill-prepared types attempt the feat.
"I've seen some people head up the mountains in their trainers and end up with frostbite," he laughs. "People who have never even seen (mountaineering) ropes arrive on McKinley."
Ahead of Everest, however, Paul is leaving absolutely nothing to chance. For now, he lives at the National Altitude Training Facility at the University of Limerick (he gave up his job in Aerospace Engineering to take on the Seven Summits challenge). The hypoxic house he has lived in since early 2013 enables him to live at altitude – as high as 2800m – while training at sea level. At the moment, Paul spends up to 17 hours in a day in simulated altitude conditions to achieve adaptation for Everest.
His training regime puts that of most elite athletes to shame: currently on the menu is strength training (designed to enable Paul to carry a 25kg backpack and pull a 25kg sled), TRX training and endurance work (including cycling up to 150km per day). He has come to view yoga – part of his regime to build core strength, flexibility and mental focus – as his 'treat'.
By his own admission, the regime means that going to the pub, of having a life in general, is now firmly on the backburner.
"There's not much going on," he laughs. "My girlfriend is based in London, and we definitely see each other, but you put your life on hold until this is all finished. She's not into mountains or running, it's just not her thing, but she supports me all the way."
While he may be in peak physical condition, getting into the right mindset is also paramount. No doubt the fact that Irish men have lost their lives on these mountains looms large ahead of a challenge.
Ian McKeever was killed by a lightning strike on Mount Kilimanjaro in January 2013; two years previously, Kildare mountaineer John Delaney died 50 metres from Mount Everest's summit.
"Of course I'm nervous," admits Paul. "I've studied the statistics on mountain fatalities; I want to know where people died on the mountain and why. Mountain climbing is never a risk-free enterprise; after all, you're at an altitude where humans shouldn't be. But you have to build risk into that acceptance."
Job done on Everest in June, Paul is predictably planning the mother of all parties. One other thing he is keen to do, however, is to get back to work.
"The next goal is to get my career back on the go," he recalls. "Sometime in the distance I might think of another goal. When I was in Antarctica, there were people who had been back from the South Pole, so there's that. I think there'll always be a sense of adventure within me, though. Let's just say I'm not really one for taking up golf."
For more information on the Seven Summits Challenge, see www. irishsevensummits.com.