The Sounds of the Himalayas - United Hub
Employee Travel Blog

The sounds of the Himalayas

By The Hub team, June 05, 2017

Each week we will profile one of our employee's adventures across the globe, featuring a new location for every employee's story. Follow along every week to learn more about their travel experiences.

By Chicago O'Hare A320 Captain Terry Sesvold

Our never-ending quest for the biggest, fastest or most extreme vacation has taken us all over the world. From driving the ice road in Canada, riding the world's fastest rollercoaster in Abu Dhabi or swimming with the great white sharks in Shark Alley, South Africa, it's a continuous adventure. So the thought of hiking to Mt. Everest base camp seemed like a logical vacation option for my son's senior year spring break. Unfortunately, the 15-day, 38-mile hike was just too much, given his school's constraints. Hiking to Tengboche, a small village in northeast Nepal (approximately an 11-mile hike from Kathmandu), became the better option.

Kathmandu, Nepal, is a little over an hour flight from Delhi. From there we caught our flight to Lukla, Nepal and began our trek. Lukla is the main starting point for the Everest base camp trek and is only accessible by air or a five-day hike. There are no cars; the main mode of transportation is trekking. Everything from building supplies, to cooking gas, to food is flown in and then carried up the trail by porters and donkeys. It's a logistic nightmare considering the terrain and the difficult weather.

Lukla airport

Lukla Airport is one of the most dangerous airports in the world. Located at an elevation of 9,300 feet, the runway is 1,700 feet long and has an 11 percent slope. Landings are performed uphill on Runway 06 that terminates into a mountain, so there is little to no chance of a viable missed approach. Takeoffs are downhill on Runway 24. The end of the runway terminates into a very sharp, steep valley. There is no aborted takeoff option on the runway. There is high terrain surrounding the airport, and they only allow visual approaches. There are several airlines flying into Lukla, but the schedule is heavily dependent on the weather. Flights depart from the domestic terminal at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. After numerous attempts and a day-and-a-half delay, we finally gave in and took a helicopter.

We met our Sherpa guide and porter in Lukla and began the five-mile hike to Phakding. The hike started out as a gentle down slope trek along the Dudh Koshi Nadi River, giving us our first look at the Himalayas. It's a lush green valley with towering mountains, dotted with the occasional prayer flags and a rushing river. As the hike progressed, it became hilly, with a nearly continuous up-and-down path that ended up about 800 feet lower than Lukla. I was beginning to feel the effects of the elevation, as every step became a bit more difficult. We had frequent encounters with mule and yow (half cow, half yak) delivering goods up the trail. We crossed numerous suspension bridges that got higher and more dramatic as we went along. The bottom of the bridges was slatted, which offers excellent views, or terrifying ones, depending on your perspective, of the valley and the river below. We ended up in Phakding just before sunset and stayed in a small lodge overlooking the river.

Yak in the Himalayas

The second day of our trek began early in the morning and took us on a 4.5-mile hike to Namche Bazaar. We continued to follow the Dudh Koshi Nadi River past the rhododendron and magnolia forest to Monjo, where the river splits and becomes the Bhote Koshi Nadi. We stopped for lunch in Jarsale, the last village before the uphill hike begins. The next three hours were the most difficult portion of the base camp hike. It was a 1,900 feet altitude gain over a very steep and uneven trail -- roughly the height of the Willis Tower. After careful thought, I decided to hire a horse, who I called Fred, to schlep my couch potato body up the mountain. It was one of my more brilliant decisions in life.

The trail passing Jarsale followed along the river and was easy to navigate. I asked my guide to send Fred ahead and have him meet us at the steep part. Fred was a little too anxious, and he took off -- I wouldn't see him for quite some time. We came up the Larja Bridge, one of the most dramatic bridges at just over 400 feet; it's not for the faint of heart. These bridges gently sway in the wind and move with every step you take. The trail to the bridge was steep, and I was looking around for good old Fred. Our guide pointed to the top left side of the bridge, and there he was. I did ask our guide where the elevator was, but I'm not sure he understood my humor. I dragged myself, huffing and puffing, to the top of the bridge and started chanting the Rocky theme song while pumping my fists into the air. My son had no idea what to make of my craziness. I took the requisite photos then glanced over at my son, who seemed to sense my excess spunkiness.

Approaching the center of the bridge, I stopped, closed my eyes and listened. I heard the churning of the river below. It was a powerful, low-frequency rumble that resembled the sound of a freight train off in the distance. I heard the occasional chime of the mule train bells and a faint woosh of the breeze through the trees. No cars, no cell phones -- just the sounds of the Himalayas. The bridge swayed gently in the breeze. I opened my eyes, looked down through the slats in the bridge, and thought, "Wow, we are high up." I had a perfect view of the mountains, the valley and the thundering rapids below. It was an awe-inspiring view that I will never forget.

I continued my run across the bridge with my arms wide open, ready to greet Fred like a long-lost friend. He seemed less excited to see me -- he'd been up this mountain before, and I'm guessing he wasn't too crazy about carrying me.

The next two hours were a grueling, very steep climb over makeshift stairs that were uneven and spaced between 10 and 20 inches high. The guide book said this part of the hike is difficult ... HA, I would love to meet the person who determined that. For some reason, Fred liked to hug the outside of the trail. Under normal circumstances, that wouldn't have bothered me, but considering that the drop is several thousand feet down, it was a bit disconcerting.

Terry's son on Kongde Ri mountain

We arrived in Namche just before dinner, and I could clearly see the fatigue and sheer exhaustion on my son's face. He is a competitive swimmer who swims over five miles a day, and this hike wiped him out. As we passed other hikers coming into town, the look on everyone's faces was the same; they were completely spent.

Namche is a double acclimatization day, which means we had to spend two days there before going higher to prevent altitude sickness. The plan for our next day was to hike to Everest View Hotel at 13,000 feet, take a few pictures then return to Namche for an early dinner. What was described as an easy hike was in reality a 1,700-foot, nearly vertical climb to the Syangboche Airport, followed by a gradual climb to the Everest View Hotel. Good thing I still had Fred on standby. The views from there were amazing, offering the first clear views of Mt. Everest as well as 360-degree views of the Himalayas. We made our way down around noon, just as the clouds started to roll in. It was an impressive sight to see the weather change so quickly. By the time we returned to Namche, the entire area was completely engulfed in fog.

Our next day was planned for Tengboche, but, because of constant weather issues in the afternoon, we decided to spend another night in Namche and hike the Khumjung Valley instead. We stopped at the visitor's center to view the Sir Edmund Hillary statue with Mt. Everest clearly visible in the background. We made our way up toward the Syangboche Airport, then followed the valley toward Mt. Everest. This area has been rightfully described as the most beautiful hike in the world, and it did not disappoint. We were completely surrounded by towering, snowcapped mountains that stretched as far as we could see, with Mt. Everest prominently displayed at the end of the valley. The trail was narrow, with a sheer drop off of several thousand feet. The river that we passed just a few days prior was barely visible below. We cut across the Khumjung Valley and made our way back for our final night in Namche.

United employee, Terry and his son at the visitor center in Namche.

Back in Lukla, it was déjà vu, and our hopes of getting to fly out of Lukla quickly disappeared. We ended up taking a helicopter back to Kathmandu.

It was an epic trip that was spectacular, exhausting, terrifying and humbling all in one breathtaking vacation. The Sherpa people were nothing short of amazing. Their warm smiles and endless energy made the long, sometimes treacherous days, a little easier. Perhaps it is their unconnected, technology-absent existence. Maybe the things that are supposed to make our lives a little easier are actually contributing to our stress.

After a quick stop in Delhi to see the Taj Mahal, we headed back home. We hopped off the plane and made a quick dash through customs, enjoying the oxygenated air. As I exited customs, I saw a sight that almost brought a tear to my eye... there it was, I've seen it a million times, and I will admit, maybe even took it for granted, the beautiful piece of modern machinery that can effortlessly transport me up two flights of stairs without so much as a whimper. As if the day couldn't get any better, I boarded a train that whisked me to Terminal 1, a mere few hundred yards, in just a matter of minutes. What would my Sherpa guide think of such foolishness?

Shaping an inclusive future with Special Olympics

By The Hub team, July 24, 2020

If your travels have taken you through Chicago O'Hare International Airport anytime since October 2019, you may have had a friendly, caring and jovial exchange with Daniel Smrokowski. Daniel is one of four Service Ambassadors thanks to our ongoing partnership with Special Olympics. This inaugural ambassador program aims to provide Special Olympic athletes employment opportunities within our operation, affording them a unique and meaningful career.

Since 2018, our partnership with Special Olympics has become one of United's most cherished relationships, going beyond the events we take part in and volunteer with. While the plane pull competitions, polar plunges, duck derbies and Special Olympics World Games and other events around the world are a big part of our involvement, the heart of this partnership lies with the athletes and individuals supported by Special Olympics. To advocate for their inclusion in every setting is one of our biggest honors, and we take great pride in the role we play in the organization's inclusion revolution.

Aiding in the success of Special Olympics' mission to create continuing opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, throughout the two-year partnership, United has volunteered over 10,500 hours and donated over $1.2 million in travel to the organization. The impact of this partnership is felt at every level, both at Special Olympics and within our own ranks.

"The Inclusion Revolution campaign, led by our athletes, aims to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities. United Airlines has joined in our fight for inclusion, empowering our athletes with the skills needed to succeed and opportunities to contribute their abilities as leaders," said Special Olympics International Chairman Tim Shriver. "United Airlines believes that people with intellectual disabilities should be perceived as they really are: independent, world-class athletes, students, employees, neighbors, travelers, and leaders who contribute to make this world a better place."

Our Service Ambassador program is just one of the many ways Special Olympics has impacted not only our employees, but also our customers. "I see every day how our Service Ambassadors connect with our customers the moment they walk into the airport lobby," said Senior Customer Service Supervisor Steve Suchorabski. "They provide a warm, welcoming smile ad assist in any way they can. To see these young adults hold positions that a society once told them they couldn't is truly the most heartwarming part of my job," Steve continued.

"The opportunity to be a part of the United family means everything to me," Daniel said. "I feel so much pride showing up to work in a Special Olympics/United co-branded uniform, working among such a loving and supportive community. The relationship between these two organizations is truly helping to shape my future while letting me use my gifts of communicating and helping others. Hopefully, I can spend my entire career at United," Daniel added.

In honor of Special Olympics' Global Week of Inclusion in July, we're asking our employees, customers and partners to sign a pledge to #ChooseToInclude at jointherevolution.org/pledge.

And be sure to check out Daniel's podcast The Special Chronicles.

United works with partners to send food to USDA food bank

By The Hub team, July 23, 2020

In collaboration with food-logistics company Commodity Forwarders Inc. (CFI), United moved nearly 190,000 pounds of fresh produce to Guam for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program. This new program was created to provide critical support to consumers impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

A variety of fresh fruits were transported from Los Angeles (LAX) to Guam (GUM) on United's newly introduced, non-stop cargo-only flight – a route added to meet cargo demand during the COVID-19 crisis. The fresh food was repacked in 10-pound cases in Los Angeles, prepared for departure at CFI's LAX location, and flown to GUM by the United team. Through this beneficial partnership between United and CFI, the perishable goods were kept cool during every step of the process and distributed as part of the food bank program in Guam.

"Everyone on our team has worked relentlessly during the pandemic to get critical goods to where they are needed most. Establishing a comprehensive network of cargo-only flights have allowed us to keep the supply chain moving even while passenger flight capacity has been reduced," said Regional Senior Manager of Cargo Sales, Marco Vezjak. "Knowing that we are able to help during these difficult times – in this case the Guam community – is our biggest reward and greatest motivation to keep moving forward."

United is proud to play a role in maintaining the global food supply chain and helping people access the supplies they need. Since March 19, United has operated over 4,000 cargo-only flights, moving over 130 million pounds of cargo.

Jessica Kimbrough named Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer

By The Hub team, July 10, 2020

Jessica Kimbrough, currently Labor Relations and Legal Strategy Managing Director, will take on the new role of Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer Managing Director.

Jessica assumes this new and expanded position to focus on global inclusion and equity as part of our enhanced commitment to ensure best practices across the business to strengthen our culture.

In this role, Jessica will be responsible for helping United redefine our efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion – ensuring that our programs and approach are strategic, integrated and outcome-oriented, while we continue to build a culture that reflects our core values. She will report to Human Resources and Labor Relations EVP Kate Gebo.

"Jessica's appointment to this role is another critical step our executive team is taking to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion remains a top priority at United," said CEO Scott Kirby. "Given her drive, experience and commitment to champion collaboration and allyship among our employee business resource groups, she is uniquely qualified to take on this position and I look forward to working closely with her."

As Labor Relations and Legal Strategy Managing Director, Jessica worked closely with senior management to create and maintain positive labor relations among our unionized workforce, providing counsel on labor litigation, negotiations, contract administration, organizing issues and managing attorneys who represent United in labor relations. Previously, she served as Labor and Employment Counsel in our legal department.

Jessica has a passion for creating a pipeline of diverse lawyers and leaders, and was honored as one of Chicago Defender's "Women of Excellence" for excellence in her career and civic engagement in 2017. She currently serves as President of uIMPACT, our women's employee business resource group.

Jessica's new role is effective immediately.

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