‘I lost a chance to climb Everest, but these people lost their loved ones’
Wild Geese: Avalanche foils Everest summit for London-based engineer Paul Devaney
Paul Devaney in Antarctica in 2014
Despite hailing from one of Ireland’s flattest counties, Devaney’s interest in high altitudes came early. After completing his Leaving Cert at St Mel’s College in Longford in 1996, he studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Limerick.
“I applied for a work-placement programme at Rolls Royce in Derby in the UK in 2001 after finishing my degree.” To his delight, Devaney got on the programme, but started his training in September, just after the horror of 9/11.
Despite the sombre mood, the training programme saw him gain secondments in engineering, design, operations and customer business.
“After the placements ended in 2003, I worked as a fleet operations manager for aerospace operations, delivering impact mitigation [to] emerging technical issues through fleet optimisation.”
In January 2005, Devaney moved into a customer service role, working on an overseas assignment with Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong as a service delivery manager, managing and approving the engine rework program with Cathay Pacific and Dragonair technical-planning teams.
During his time in the Far East, a trip to base camp at Mount Everest was to change his life. He decided to climb the highest peak on each of the seven continents and co-founded Irish Seven Summits to raise funds for charitable causes while completing the challenge.
But first, Devaney returned to the UK, where he worked as a manager for new products introduction, working on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, before taking up a role in Hartford, Connecticut, in the United States as a customer director with Aero Engines. “I was responsible for customer portfolio and technical issues relating to engines powering Airbus A319, A320, A321 and Boeing MD90 aircraft fleets in the Middle East and India region.”
In 2011 he moved to Berlin as a business manager responsible for the Rolls-Royce portfolio of engines powering the worldwide Boeing 717 aircraft market.
By 2013 Devaney had ascended Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Denali in Alaska, Mont Blanc in the Alps, Mount Elbrus in Russia, Aconcagua in Argentina and Kosciuszko in Australia, but wanted to focus on completing his summits in Antarctica and Nepal.
“I wanted to invest fully in the challenge, so in January 2013 I began full-time training preparation to complete expeditions in Mount Vinson and Everest.” Mount Vinson was cold and remote, but he made it to the top in 2014.
Mount Everest was the last mountain to climb and training was intense. “The majority of my training took place at the University of Limerick sports arena including their state-of-the-art National Altitude Training Centre where I spent 150 days living in simulated altitude conditions for Everest.
“I covered most basics, from using aluminium ladders to crampons to running in an altitude gym and climbing mountains.” But as Devaney was to find out, no matter how much you prepare for such an expedition, force majeure can play an unexpected hand.
While Devaney was on a training climb a few kilometres away from Everest in spring of 2014, a serac broke off above the Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 Sherpa who were laying ropes for the upcoming climbing season which lasts between April and May. The 2014 season was abandoned and everyone left base camp.
“I returned to Everest in 2015 and things were going really well. On April 25th, I was on a rest day at base camp after a month of rotations and climbing. Suddenly the Earth moved and a massive avalanche flattened base camp killing 19 people and over 8,500 across Nepal.”
Devaney spent the following days helping with the recovery on site, which he says was exceptionally well organised, before leaving the region to see the horrific damage that the earthquake had caused. Though his Mount Everest dream was over, he spent the weeks following the earthquake engaged in voluntary relief work in Kathmandu.
“I lost money and the chance to fulfil a dream, but these people lost their loved ones and livelihoods. Many lost everything. It was just eye-opening and heartbreaking.
“I’m not sure I will ever be in a situation again where the variables are in place to go there. It costs tens of thousands of euro to climb Mount Everest and you need to be in the right space psychologically, financially and physically.”
Commenting on how busy the mountain has become, Devaney says people get overconfident thinking they can just climb it will little experience. “They think a good guide and a year’s training will get them to the top. It’s even being fast tracked, so busy people don’t have to take too much time out of their schedules. In certain cultures, clients who get to the top get a higher standing socially.
“But you need years of training and you can’t shortcut the on-site acclimatisation. It’s a massive investment, both in time and money, and not one that should ever be taken lightly.”
Closer to sea level, after the 2015 disaster, Devaney returned to the UK, this time to London to start afresh.
“I started a company called Seven Summits Solutions, specialising in design of digital applications for aerospace. Our business aviation authorised service centre app designs are currently in use across the Rolls-Royce business aviation global network. My aim is to bring the energy and challenge of mountaineering into the workplace and help businesses translate the complex into the simple, and provide their customers with awesome user experiences along the way.”
But the aircraft industry has experienced a deadly blow in the past year.
“Needless to say, the past 12 months has been challenging with airlines and aviation firms tightening their belts and avoiding non-core spend, including digital transformation. So it has been an uphill battle recently and will likely remain so for a few years to come.”
As for climbing, completing his seven summits dream is far away. “For now, I’d settle for having the freedom to head out to the Brecon Beacons in Somerset for a hike rather than being cooped up here in our one-bed apartment in London.”
The Longford man still has aspirations for adventure once Covid-19 allows. “The adventure may continue with a trek in Iraq – my wife is originally from Baghdad – or India, but there’s work to be done first.”