The sounds of the Himalayas
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
Right now, around the world, brave members of America's armed forces are on duty, defending our freedom and upholding our values.
When not laser-focused on the mission at hand, they're looking forward to the day when their service to our nation is fulfilled and they can reunite with their families.
They are also imagining how they can use their hard-earned skills to build an exciting, rewarding and important career when they return home.
I want them to look no further than United Airlines.
That's why we are focused on recruiting, developing and championing veterans across our company, demonstrating to our returning women and men in uniform that United is the best possible place for them to put their training, knowledge, discipline and character to the noblest use.
They've developed their knowledge and skills in some of the worst of times. We hope they will use those skills to keep United performing at our best, all of the time.
That's why we are accelerating our efforts to onboard the best and the brightest, and substantially increasing our overall recruitment numbers each year.
We recently launched a new sponsorship program to support onboarding veterans into United and a new care package program to support deployed employees. It's one more reason why United continues to rank high - and rise higher - as a top workplace for veterans. In fact, we jumped 21 spots this year on Indeed.com's list of the top U.S workplaces for veterans. This is a testament to our increased recruiting efforts, as well as our efforts to create a culture where veterans feel valued and supported.
We use the special reach and resources of our global operations to partner with outstanding organizations. This is our way of stepping up and going the extra mile for all those who've stepped forward to answer our nation's call.
We do this year-round, and the month of November is no exception; however, it is exceptional, especially as we mark Veterans Day.
As we pay tribute to all Americans who have served in uniform and carried our flag into battle throughout our history, let's also keep our thoughts with the women and men who are serving around the world, now. They belong to a generation of post-9/11 veterans who've taken part in the longest sustained period of conflict in our history.
Never has so much been asked by so many of so few.... for so long. These heroes represent every color and creed. They are drawn from across the country and many immigrated to our shores.
They then freely choose to serve in the most distant and dangerous regions of the world, to protect democracy in its moments of maximum danger.
Wherever they serve - however they serve - whether they put on a uniform each day, or serve in ways which may never be fully known, these Americans wake up each morning willing to offer the "last full measure of devotion" on our behalf.
Every time they do so, they provide a stunning rebuke to the kinds of voices around the world who doubt freedom and democracy's ability to defend itself.
Unfortunately, we know there are those who seem to not understand – or say they do not - what it is that inspires a free people to step forward, willing to lay down their lives so that their country and fellow citizens might live.
But, we – who are both the wards and stewards of the democracy which has been preserved and handed down to us by veterans throughout our history – do understand.
We know that inciting fear and hatred of others is a source of weakness, not strength. And such divisive rhetoric can never inspire solidarity or sacrifice like love for others and love of country can.
It is this quality of devotion that we most honor in our veterans - those who have served, do serve and will serve.
On behalf of a grateful family of 96,000, thank you for your service.
Each year around Veterans Day, Indeed, one of the world's largest job search engines, rates companies based on actual employee reviews to identify which ones offer the best opportunities and benefits for current and former U.S. military members. Our dramatic improvement in the rankings this year reflects a stronger commitment than ever before to actively recruiting, developing and nurturing veteran talent.
"We've spent a lot of time over the past 12 months looking for ways to better connect with our employees who served and attract new employees from the military ranks," said Global Catering Operations and Logistics Managing Director Ryan Melby, a U.S. Army veteran and the president of our United for Veterans business resource group.
"Our group is launching a mentorship program, for instance, where we'll assign existing employee-veterans to work with new hires who come to us from the armed forces. Having a friend and an ally like that, someone who can help you translate the skills you picked up in the military to what we do as a civilian company, is invaluable. That initiative is still in its infancy, but I'm really optimistic about what it can do for United and for our veteran population here."
Impressively, we were the only one of our industry peers to move up on the list, further evidence that we're on a good track as a company.
The question of where David Ferrari was had haunted retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major Vincent Salceto for the better part of 66 years.
Rarely did a week go by that Salceto didn't think about his old friend. Often, he relived their last moments together in a recurring nightmare. In it, it's once again 1953 and Salceto and Ferrari are patrolling a valley in what is now North Korea. Suddenly, explosions shatter the silence and flares light up the night sky.
Crouching under a barrage of bullets, Salceto, the squad's leader, drags two of his men to safety, then he sees Ferrari lying face down on the ground. He runs out to help him, but he's too late. And that's when he always wakes up.
Italian Americans from opposite coasts – Salceto from Philadelphia, Ferrari from San Francisco – the two became close, almost like brothers, after being assigned to the same unit during the Korean War. When Ferrari died, it hit Salceto hard.
"After that, I never let anyone get close to me like I did with Dave," he says. "I couldn't; I didn't want to go through that again."
When the war ended, Salceto wanted to tell Ferrari's family how brave their son and brother had been in battle. Most of all, he wanted to salute his friend at his gravesite and give him a proper farewell.
For decades, though, Salceto had no luck finding his final resting place or locating any of his relatives. Then, in June of this year, he uncovered a clue that led him to the Italian Cemetary in Colma, California, where Ferrari is buried.
Within days, Salceto, who lives in Franklinville, New Jersey, was packed and sitting aboard United Flight 731 from Philadelphia to San Francisco with his wife, Amy, and daughter, Donna Decker, on his way to Colma. For such a meaningful trip, he even wore his Army dress uniform.
That's how San Francisco-based flight attendant Noreen Baldwin spotted him as he walked down the jet bridge to get on the plane.
"I saw him and said to the other crew members, 'Oh my goodness, look at this guy,'" she says. "I knew there had to be a story."
The two struck up a conversation and Salceto told Baldwin why he was traveling. She got emotional listening to him talk and made a point of fussing over him, making sure he and his family had everything they needed.
About halfway through the flight, Baldwin had an idea. She and her fellow crew members would write messages of encouragement to Salceto and invite his fellow passengers to do the same.
"We did it discreetly," says Baldwin. "I asked the customers if they saw the man in uniform, which most had, and asked them if they wanted to write a few words for him on a cocktail napkin. A lot of people did; families did it together, parents got their kids to write something. After the first few rows, I was so choked up that I could barely talk."
When Baldwin surprised Salceto with dozens of hand-written notes, he, too, was speechless. He laid the stack on his lap and read each one. At the same time, the pilots made an announcement about the veteran over the loud speaker, after which the customers on board burst into applause.
"It seems contrived, and I hate using the word organic, but that's what it was; it just happened," Baldwin says. "Mr. Salceto was so loveable and humble, and what he was doing was so incredible, it felt like the right thing to do. And you could tell he was touched."
On June 27, Salceto finally stood before Ferrari's grave and said that long-awaited goodbye. As a trumpeter played "Taps," he unpinned a medal from his jacket and laid it reverently on the headstone.
"I had gotten a Bronze Star for my actions [the night Ferrari died] with a 'V' for valor, and that was the medal I put on Dave's grave," says Salceto, pausing to fight back tears. "I thought he was more deserving of it than I was."
For the first time in years, Salceto felt at peace. His mission was accomplished.