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?
Canada's largest city spreads out along the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario, and it's a dynamic, multicultural and inclusive experience like almost no other place on earth. Not only is Toronto a thriving living city,it's also become one of the world's truly must-visit destinations. Regularly ranked as one of the greatest places to live, Toronto is the cultural center of the country and home to the biggest events, the most pro sports and the greatest concentration of theaters and restaurants.
Recent decades have seen regular multi-million-dollar upgrades to the city's public spaces, with a slew of great museums, iconic architecture and the redevelopment of the now glittering lakefront adding to the city's appeal.
Add in an ever-growing number of world-class hotels, upbeat nightlife that runs from dusk until dawn and a vibrant and diverse culinary scene influenced by the eclectic makeup of the city's people. Bright and bustling, cosmopolitan and cultured, unpredictable and energetic, Toronto has become one of the greatest cities on earth.
What you see and where you go will depend on the length of your stay. A week is good, longer is better. But even a long weekend will give you a taste of 'The Six' — one of the city's many nicknames, reworked recently as 'The 6ix' by one of its most famous sons, Drake.
However long you stay, you can't hope to see it all. So, consider what follows a starting point for your first visit…
City Hall, Toronto
The checklist sites
No visit to The Six can be considered complete without ticking off several of Toronto's true heavyweight sights. All of the following are in or within easy reach of the city's compact, walk-able and very vibrant center.
The CN Tower is unmissable in every sense, a vast freestanding spire that looks down upon the city and takes its place as one of the 'Seven Wonders of the Modern World'. Head up for the city's best 360-degree views, or get your heart racing on the EdgeWalk — a journey around the circumference of the tower's main pod, 116 stories high and tethered by a harness.
Back on solid ground, Ripley's Aquarium is almost right next door to the CN Tower and is home to 16,000 aquatic animals and the Dangerous Lagoon. A moving sidewalk that whisks you through a long tunnel surrounded by sharks and stingrays is guaranteed to make your heart race all over again.
Also close to the CN Tower is the Rogers Center, home to Canada's only baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays. Visit on game day for the full experience, or take the stadium tour to go behind the scenes and through closed doors.
In a city of so many museums and galleries, the Royal Ontario Museum stands out. Not just because it's home to a world-class collection of 13 million artworks, cultural objects and natural history specimens, but as much because it hosts exciting Friday night events that include dance, drink and top DJs.
Two other must ticks include the Art Gallery of Ontario, which houses 95,000 works of art and is free for visitors under 25, and the Hockey Hall of Fame, which taps into Canada's national obsession in stunning depth.
Art Gallery of Ontario
Casa Loma is a must-visit Gothic castle in the heart of the city. North America's only castle is filled with artworks and treasures from Canada and beyond, but its big pull is the network of hidden tunnels to explore as they stretch out beneath the city.
Toronto's multi-cultural makeup is visible all across the city but reflected best in its remarkable culinary scene (see Where to eat and drink). The city's 'fresh and local' mantra is perfectly showcased at St. Lawrence Market, one of the world's greatest food experiences. Pay it a visit and grab a peameal bacon sandwich — a Canadian staple invented in Toronto and now considered the city's signature dish.
St. Lawrence Market
Afterwards, walk off the calories by wandering the historic cobblestone and car-free Distillery District. Once a vast whiskey distillery and an important spot during prohibition, historians mention that even Al Capone would visit the Distillery to load alcohol destined for the States . This iconic landmark now distils creativity within the 19th century buildings now home to hip restaurants, bars, independent boutique stores, galleries and theaters. Visit in December for the Toronto Christmas Market.
Finally, don't even think about returning home without having had a picture taken with your head poking through an 'O' of the multicolored, 3D Toronto sign at City Hall — the most Insta-worthy location in a city of so many. You'll need to head there early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
If you stay long enough, take a ferry and hop across to Toronto Islands, a chain of 15 small islands in Lake Ontario just south of the mainland. They're home to beaches, a theme park and a breathtaking view of the city's skyline and will very happily fill a full day of your stay.
The bucket list
You absolutely cannot leave Toronto without having witnessed the power of the Niagara Falls and its hypnotic mist up close. Trying to visit the Falls from the States is a trip on its own, but it's almost non-optional when you're less than two hours away in Toronto. Take the trip, buy the T-shirt and tick off one of the world's must-see sights.
Explore like a local
Away from the sleek, gleaming towers of downtown lie many of Toronto's less obvious but no less essential attractions. West Queen West is Toronto's hippest neighborhood and artistic heart, a one-mile strip of very chic galleries, stores, restaurants and boutique hotels. Kensington Market is a fantastically chaotic neighborhood and perhaps the best example of the city's famous multiculturalism. It's not a market as the name implies, but a collection of independent shops, vintage boutiques, art spaces, cafés, bars and restaurants from every corner of the globe.
The Bata Shoe Museum is one of the city's quirkiest collections, an unexpectedly fascinating exhibit that retraces the 4,500-year history of footwear. And as you wander the city, you can't fail to notice that Toronto's walls are alive with graffiti. Take a free 90-minute walking tour through the back alleys of Queen Street West and down Graffiti Alley to gain a better understanding of the city's street art scene. If you visit during the sunnier months, escape the hustle by heading just east of the center to High Park, the green heart of the city where forests, walking trails, picnic spots and even a zoo await you. Ideal to unwind after a long day of urban adventures.
When to go With the sun shining, May through October is a great time to visit, but the city is alive through all four seasons. The Spring and Autumn months are ideal as the humidity and visitor numbers are lighter, while Toronto comes alive through the colder months through a wide array of winter celebrations. One of the most spectacular is the Aurora Winter Festival, a six-week celebration that sees the Ontario Place, West Island transformed into four mystical worlds. Whichever season you choose, plan to stay for at least five nights to get a true flavor of the city.
Toronto skyline view
Where to stay To be at the heart of most of the attractions you'll want to see, aim for downtown. One of the best options is the Marriott City Center, not only because it's located right next to the CN Tower but also because it's attached to the iconic Rogers Center where the Toronto Blue Jays play and countless concerts and popular events are held.
Toronto Blue Jay stadium
Opt for a Stadium room and you'll look out onto the field. If you want to experience Toronto's non-stop nightlife, the Entertainment District is the place to be. If you're looking for a luxury experience, discover Canada's first St. Regis hotel in the heart of downtown.
Where to eat and drink Nowhere is Toronto's incredible diversity more evident than in its food scene — taste Toronto and you're tasting the world. The city is brimming with restaurants and cafés serving everything from high-end fine dining to comfort food from an informal neighborhood joint — plus every option imaginable in between.
For fine dining, consider Alo, Canis and Edulis. Book a table at Canoe, Lavelle, The One Eighty or 360 at the CN Tower and you're guaranteeing a view as spectacular as the food. Or experience the city's remarkable fusion food at DaiLo (French-Cantonese), El Catrin (Mexican-French) and the unexpected mashup of Rasta Pasta (Jamaican-Italian).
The above suggestions don't even scratch the surface of a food scene to rival any city on earth, with options to suit every taste and any budget.
How to get around Toronto is perfect to explore on foot or via a growing network of cycle routes. For a quicker journey, buy a Presto card to use the TTC, Toronto's subway, streetcar and bus system.
How to get there Fly into Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) with United and you're around 15 miles west of the city center. The most comfortable route in is via the Union Pearson Express, which runs every 15 minutes and gets you downtown in 25 minutes ($13).The TTC is a cheaper option at under $5, but it can take an hour and a half and involves a number of transfers, while a taxi will take around 30 minutes and cost $45.
United flies to Toronto from numerous U.S. cities including our Hub city locations. Book your trip via united.com or by downloading the United app.
Around the web
Following the devastating wildfires in Australia and powerful earthquakes that shook Puerto Rico last week, we're taking action to make a global impact through our international partnerships as well as nonprofit organizations Afya Foundation and ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency).
Helping Puerto Rico recover from earthquakes
Last week, Puerto Rico was hit with a 5.2 magnitude earthquake, following a 6.4 magnitude earthquake it experienced just days before. The island has been experiencing hundreds of smaller quakes during the past few weeks.
These earthquakes destroyed crucial infrastructure and left 4,000 people sleeping outside or in shelters after losing their homes. We've donated $50,000 to our partner charity organization Airlink and through them, we've helped transport disaster relief experts and medical supplies for residents, as well as tents and blankets for those who have lost their homes. Funding will go towards organizations within Airlink's partner network, which includes Habitat for Humanity, Mercy Corps and Americares, to help with relief efforts and long-term recovery.
Australian wildfire relief efforts
Our efforts to help Australia have inspired others to make their own positive impact. In addition to teaming up with Ellen DeGeneres to donate $250,000 and launching a fundraising campaign with GlobalGiving to benefit those impacted by the devastating wildfires in the country known for its open spaces and wildlife, our cargo team is helping to send more than 600 pounds of medical supplies to treat injured animals in the region.
Helping us send these supplies is the Afya Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to improve global health by collecting surplus medical supplies and delivering them to parts of the world where they are most needed. Through Airlink, the Afya Foundation will send more than $18,000 worth of materials that will be used to treat animals injured in the Australian fires.
These medical supplies will fly to Melbourne (MEL) and delivered to The Rescue Collective. This Australian organization is currently focused on treating the massive population of wildlife, such as koalas, kangaroos, and birds, that have had their habitats destroyed by the recent wildfires. The supplies being sent include wound dressings, gloves, catheters, syringes and other items that are unused but would otherwise be disposed of.
By working together, we can continue to make a global impact and help those affected by natural disasters to rebuild and restore their lives
Australia needs our help as wildfires continue to devastate the continent that's beloved by locals and travelers alike. In times like these, the world gets a little smaller and we all have a responsibility to do what we can.
On Monday, The Ellen DeGeneres Show announced a campaign to raise $5 million to aid in relief efforts. When we heard about Ellen's effort, we immediately reached out to see how we could help.
Today, we're committing $250,000 toward Ellen's campaign so we can offer support now and help with rebuilding. For more on The Ellen DeGeneres Show efforts and to donate yourself, you can visit www.gofundme.com/f/ellenaustraliafund
We're also matching donations made to the Australian Wildfire Relief Fund, created by GlobalGiving's Disaster Recovery Network. This fund will support immediate relief efforts for people impacted by the fires in the form of emergency supplies like food, water and medicine. Funds will also go toward long-term recovery assistance, helping residents recover and rebuild. United will match up to $50,000 USD in donations, and MileagePlus® members who donate $50 or more will receive up to 1,000 award miles from United. Donate to GlobalGiving.
Please note: Donations made toward GlobalGiving's fund are only eligible for the MileagePlus miles match.
In addition to helping with fundraising, we're staying in touch with our employees and customers in Australia. Together, we'll help keep Australia a beautiful place to live and visit in the years to come.