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?

Looking back at a landmark year with Special Olympics

By Ryan Wilks, October 19, 2020

Earlier this summer, we shone a light on our flagship partnership with Special Olympics and our commitment to the Inclusion Revolution. In that same story, we introduced you to our four Special Olympics Service Ambassadors, Daniel, Kyle, Lauren and Zinyra (Z), who, this month, celebrate one year working at Chicago O'Hare International Airport as part of the United family.

This groundbreaking, inclusive employment program took off as a part of our ongoing partnership with Special Olympics, a community relationship that employees across the company hold close to heart. The original 'UA4' (as they call themselves) have become an integral part of the United team serving customers at O'Hare Airport. Even from behind their masks, their wide smiles and effervescent spirit exude and bring life to the service culture of excellence we strive towards every day.

"The UA4 are more than just customer service ambassadors. They are shining examples of how inclusion, accessibility and equity can have monumental impacts on the culture and service of a business and community," said Customer Service Managing Director Jonna McGrath. "They have forever changed who we are as a company. While they often talk about how United and this opportunity has changed their lives, they have changed ours in more ways than we can count."

In the two years of partnership with Special Olympics, United employees have volunteered over 10,500 hours of service at events around the world and donated over $1.2 million worth of travel to the organization.

"This inclusive employment program is what community partnerships, like ours with Special Olympics, are all about: collaborating to identify areas where the needs of the community intersect with the cultural and business opportunity, then creating the infrastructure and programming to bring the two together," said Global Community Engagement Managing Director Suzi Cabo. "Through this program, our goal is to show other companies that when you put a committed effort and focus towards inclusion and breaking down barriers, you transform lives. I challenge other business around the world to follow our lead in joining the Inclusion Revolution."

Check out the video below to hear from our Special Olympics Service Ambassadors firsthand.

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Spotlighting our own during Hispanic Heritage Month

By The Hub team, October 13, 2020

We celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 th through October 15th and take the time to recognize the important contributions of our colleagues of Hispanic descent in the United family.

This year, we hosted virtual events organized by our multicultural business resource group UNITE to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, covering topics ranging from immigration reform to Hispanic leadership. We're also taking a moment to highlight Latinx employees nominated by their peers for their contributions both at and outside of work.

These nominees have demonstrated leadership in their position and through their character. Take a moment to read their own words about how their background and heritage plays a role in the way they interact with customers, in how they support their colleagues and why it brings valuable perspective to their work.

Vania Wit – VP & Deputy Counsel

Photo of Vania Wit, VP & Deputy Counsel for United Airlines

"I am the Vice President and Deputy General Counsel in the legal department. I am an attorney and have worked in the legal department for over 21 years and am currently responsible for a number of different legal areas – such as litigation, international, commercial and government contracts, labor, employment and benefits, antitrust. I have the privilege of working with a tremendous team of attorneys who are directly leading and managing these areas. One of the things I like most about my job is simply getting to know the backgrounds and personal stories that everyone has about their paths to United or their passion for the industry. Being the daughter of immigrants from South America and growing up in a family who relies heavily on air travel to connect us to our close family and friends is an integral part of my story and what drew me to this industry and this company."

Kayra Martinez – International Flight Attendant, FRA

Photo of Kayra Martinez on board an aircraft

"I love that my work as a flight attendant brings me all over the world and allows me to connect with diverse people across the globe. Because of my Spanish heritage, I've been able to use my language as a way to connect with passengers, crew members and people from every nationality. In addition, my heritage gives me a very close connection to family, creating community and using inclusion as a way to bring people together. After transferring to Europe, I was able to study German, more Spanish, Italian and Arabic. Outside of work, I'm the director and founder of a nonprofit organization that empowers refugees through art. Hundreds of children and adults fleeing war-torn countries have found healing through my art workshops. These refugees are currently displaced in Greece. Their stunning paintings are then sold in art galleries and communities around the world, raising awareness and putting income directly into the hands of refugee artists."

Adriana Carmona – Program Manager, AO Regulatory Compliance

Photo of Adriana standing in front of a plane engine

"I've been incredibly lucky to have amazing leaders during my time at United who have challenged me from day one to think outside the box, step out of my comfort zone and trusted me to own and deliver on the tasks assigned. I think this sense of ownership is largely shaped by my Latino background, which values responsibility, respect and accountability and taking full charge of what's in your control to be able to deliver accordingly."

Harry Cabrera – Assistant Manager, AO Customer Service, IAH

Photo of Harry Cabrera

"My desire to help people is what drove me to start my career in Customer Service over two decades ago. Currently I provide support to our coworkers and customers at IAH , the gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean. As a Colombian native celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, I'm proud to see the strength that my fellow Latinos forge every day at United Airlines. Family values are a cornerstone of the Latin community; I consider my coworkers to be part of my extended family. Mentor support throughout the years gave me the opportunity to grow professionally. The desire to do better and help others succeed is part of that heritage. I collaborate with our Latin American operations and create ways to improve performance. No matter what language you speak, the passion for what you do and being approachable makes the difference in any interaction."

Juciaria Meadows – Assistant Regional Manager, Cargo Sales

Photo of Juciaria Meadows in a Cargo hold

"During my 28-year career, I've worked across the system in various frontline and leadership roles in Reservations, Customer Service and Passenger Sales in Brazil. I moved to the U.S. in 2012 to work as an Account Executive for Cargo. It did not take too long for me to learn that boxes and containers have as much a voice as a passenger sitting in our aircraft. My job is to foster relationships with shippers, freight forwarders, cosignees, etc. and build strong partnerships in fair, trustworthy and caring ways where United Cargo will be their carrier of choice. That's where my background growing up in a Latino family plays an important role in my day-to-day interactions. I've done many wonderful sales trainings provided by United and my academic background , but none of them taught me more than watching my parents running their wholesale food warehouse. Developing exceptional relationships with their customers, they always treated them with trust and respect. They were successful business people with a big heart, creative, always adding a personal touch to their business relationships and I find myself doing the same. It's a lesson that is deep in my heart."

Shanell Arevalo – Customer Service Representative, DEN

Photo of Shanell Arevalo at work

"I am Belizean and Salvadoran. At a young age my family moved to California from Belize. Although I grew up in the United States , one thing my parents taught me was to never forget the culture, values and principles I was raised on. This includes showing love, compassion, and respect to all people. We learned to put our best foot forward for any situation and always put our heart and mind into everything we do. In my position as a customer service agent, it's the difference of showing the love, compassion and respect to our passengers to show that this is not just a job but rather a passion of genuinely caring for our people. Being Latina, we are raised to always take care of our family, and the way I take care of passengers is the way I would take care of my family. If there's one way I know I can make a difference with our Spanish speaking passengers, it's being able to speak the language. The glow that comes over a passenger's face when they realize there's someone who can speak Spanish is absolutely an indescribable feeling. With that glow comes comfort and joy. The small comfort they get from knowing someone can connect with them makes all the difference in their experience."

Around the web

United Cargo responds to COVID-19 challenges, prepares for what's next

By The Hub team, September 30, 2020

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, United Cargo has supported a variety of customers within the healthcare industry for over 10 years. Three key solutions – TempControl, LifeGuard and QuickPak – protect the integrity of vital shipments such as precision medicine, pharmaceuticals, biologics, medical equipment and vaccines. By utilizing processes like temperature monitoring, thermodynamic management, and priority boarding and handling, United Cargo gives customers the peace of mind that their shipments will be protected throughout their journey.

With the global demand for tailored pharmaceutical solutions at an all-time high, we've made investments to help ensure we provide the most reliable air cargo options for cold chain shipping. In April this year, we became the first U.S. carrier to lease temperature-controlled shipping containers manufactured by DoKaSch Temperature Solutions. We continue to partner with state-of-the-art container providers to ensure we have options that meet our customers' ever-changing needs.

"Providing safe air cargo transport for essential shipments has been a top priority since the pandemic began. While the entire air cargo industry has had its challenges, I'm proud of how United Cargo has adapted and thrived despite a significant reduction in network capacity and supply," said United Cargo President Jan Krems. "We remain committed to helping our customers make it through the pandemic, as well as to doing everything we can to be prepared for the COVID-19 vaccine distribution when the time comes."

Our entire team continues to prioritize moving critical shipments as part of our commitment to supporting the global supply chain. We've assembled a COVID readiness task team to ensure we have the right people in place and are preparing our airports as we get ready for the industry-wide effort that comes next.

In cooperation with our partners all over the world, United Cargo has helped transport nearly 145 million pounds of medical supplies to aid in the fight against COVID-19, using a combination of cargo-only flights and passenger flig­hts. To date, United Cargo has operated more than 6,300 cargo-only flights and has transported more than 213 million pounds of cargo worldwide.

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