Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Looking Back on Nepal

John Kascenska, Everest in the background

“When you go to the mountains,” Edmund Hillary said, “you see them and you admire them.  In a sense, they give you a challenge, and you try to express that challenge by climbing them.”

Some people express that challenge by climbing them. Most of us do not. Among those who do is John Kascenska, owner of Kingdom Adventure Mountain Guides, who was trekking in Nepal last April when the devastating earthquake struck. 

The 7.8 magnitude quake, centered about 50 miles northwest of Katmandu – followed by hundreds of aftershocks and a second major quake in May -- left over 8000 dead, more than 20,000 injured, and hundreds of thousands homeless. That first quake on April 25th triggered a deadly avalanche on Mt. Everest and brought the climbing season to an end.  Kascenska, close enough to hear the avalanche, was with a small group from International Trekking, based in North Conway, NH.

They were hiking along a lateral moraine of the Khumbu Glacier on their way to Gorak Shep, when the earthquake occurred. A small outpost located at the base of Kala Patthar, Gorak Shep is a frequent and last stopping point for most trekkers on their way to Everest Basecamp.

"It was a bit unnerving," Kascenska noted in his low-key manner, "being on the glacier during an earthquake along with aftershocks."

Over the course of several days, they worked their way back to Namche Bazaar and then to the tiny airport of Lukla for a flight to Katmandu.  Fortunately, none of the trekkers or the porters of the group were injured during the journey.  

Kascenska, a retired faculty member and Associate Academic Dean and Lyndon State College alum, has climbing in his blood. He made his first climbing expedition in 1982 to the Pacific Northwest, where he climbed Forbidden Peak and Mt Olympus, among other classic climbs.  Since then he has made two trips to Denali, expeditions to Ecuador, France, and Africa, where he has summited Kilimanjaro four times.

On the eve of the anniversary of the disastrous quake, we asked Kascenska to share some memories and photos of his trek through Nepal.

Namche Bazaar

You were ready for an adventure when you traveled to Nepal last April.  Even so, you couldn’t have imagined what unfolded.
Yes, I was in Nepal travelling as a guide in training with Rick and Celia Wilcox, owners of International Trekking – North Conway, New Hampshire.
Following two days of air travel, plus an adventurous flight from the capital city of Kathmandu into the village of Lukla, our 22-day trekking journey was launched as we headed toward our final destination of Everest Base Camp. Never did our group think that we would find our trip temporarily interrupted by a major earthquake that violently shook our immediate trekking, as well as many other parts of Nepal on April 25, 2015.

International Trekking group

While hiking between the villages of Lobuche and Gorak Shep (the original base camp for early Mt. Everest expeditions on the south side), I heard what first sounded like the familiar sound of a large avalanche coming off a mountain ridge far off in the distance. What soon followed was significant vibration and shifting of the ground underfoot. Having experienced “minor earthquake tremors” before while climbing in Tanzania on Mt. Kilimanjaro, it was clear to me that this was a major event. As a group, we were fortunate that we were in a safe location on a large flat area on a lateral moraine of the Khumbu glacier. Following the first major tremor and several aftershocks, we continued toward Gorak Shep to meet with our porters, and the relative safety of our tent camp.
Following our arrival at Gorak Shep, the effects of the earthquake became very clear to us. We quickly learned that a large avalanche had swept down a saddle between Mounts Pumori and Lindgren, killing several and injuring many more people associated with the numerous Everest climbing expeditions. During the next few days, news reached us that extensive damage and massive loss of life had occurred across many regions of Nepal, softening our successful climbs of two trekking peaks: Goyko Ri (17, 575’) and Kala Patthar (18,514’). Our team of Sherpas who accompanied us on our trek were no less affected; we soon said goodbye to our new-found friends, as they returned to their families in nearby villages. It was definitely an experience that will be forever etched in my mind.

You’ve been on a number of treks with International Trekking.

The trip to Nepal was my fifth trip with Rick and Celia Wilcox from International Trekking. On four previous trips, we travelled to Tanzania, located in East Africa. The purpose of those trips was to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest point on the African continent and a mountain that is considered to be one of the “Seven Summits.” We had good fortune on all of our trips to Kilimanjaro with four successful summit climbs.
I have known Rick and Celia for many years. I first met Rick while I was in college, and little did I know we would share some great adventures together, including my first trip to Nepal. For many years, Rick encouraged me to come to Nepal with him, but I never had enough free time to take a month away from other work obligations until last spring. I have had a lifelong interest in climbing and mountaineering, and over my career have had a number of opportunities to travel and explore many mountain destinations, both domestic and international.

Once they were home in New Hampshire, the Wilcoxes got to work raising money to send back to Nepal.

Since the earthquake, both Rick and Celia started an immediate fund raising campaign to help rebuild the homes of our Sherpa friends that had been damaged. To date more than $40,000 has been raised, all of which has been directed to rebuilding homes in Khumjung, a small village in the Khumbu Valley. Khumjung is well known as the being the host to the Hillary School, founded in 1961 by Sir Edmund Hillary who along with Tenzing Norgay were the first mountaineers to have summited Mt. Everest in 1953. Through Rick and Celia, I am aware that much rebuilding has already taken place to restore homes that were damaged.

Damage to International Trekking sherpa's home

Tell us about Kingdom Adventures Mountain Guides.

Kingdom Adventures Mountain Guides, LLC is located in the East Burke, VT.  We provide professional instruction in rock and ice climbing, mountaineering, avalanche education, and wilderness medicine training. We also work closely with other guide services, like International Trekking and International Mountain Climbing School to promote some of their programs as well. For 2016, we have a full slate of wilderness first aid, CPR, and wilderness first responder courses being offered.

You bring to your business and programs a great deal of expertise.

Throughout my career, I have maintained a number of professional credentials including American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) Certified Single Pitch Instructor, SOLO Certified Wilderness First Responder and SOLO instructor, American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Level I Course Leader, and a professional member of the American Avalanche Association. I am also a former Director of the American Alpine Club, and hold degrees from Lyndon State College, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina State University. In addition to directing KAMG, I teach part-time and provide consultation to a number of colleges in New England, including serving on the risk management advisory council for Dartmouth Outdoor Programs. 

High plateau on way to Lobuche

Tell us about the trip to Nepal that’s planned for this coming October.

Yes, another trip to Nepal has been scheduled for this coming fall. We will be trekking toward and climbing Mera Peak, a 21,247’ peak (6654 meters), first climbed by Jimmy Roberts and Sen Tenzing on May 20, 1953. The peak is located south of Mt. Everest. I am very excited about an opportunity to return to Nepal to trek and climb in a different area, but also looking forward to seeing our Sherpa friends and spend time with them in the mountains.
While Mera Peak is classified as the highest trekking peak in Nepal, it is still a substantial endeavor that will require proper acclimatization and a best level of fitness to reach the summit. Once on the summit, we will have an opportunity to view five of the highest 8000 meter peaks in the world including Mount Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyu, Makalu, and Kanchenjunga.

I am also planning a trip back to Nepal and a trip to Kilimanjaro in July 2017. Anyone interested in learning more about planned trips to Nepal and Tanzania, or wanting to contribute to additional fundraising for our Sherpa friends in Nepal, may contact me at

This interview appears in the April 2016 issue of the award-winning The North Star Monthly, first established in Danville in 1807.  Check out their site:

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Novelist Síle Post Wears the Green

 Síle Post 
  If you’re yearning for an Irish adventure this St. Patrick’s Day, but your budget has you staying in place, why not set out on a voyage to the Old Country with Síle Post’s courageous Áine O’Connor, as she journeys back to her homeland along the Dingle Peninsula, where a bequest and a mission await her?
     The rightness of the move washes over her as she works to rehabilitate the neglected garden adjacent the stone cottage she’s inherited.  “This was how it felt to be truly rooted in place,” wild salmon conservationist Áine muses. “To feel so close to the earth, the sky, and the sea – understanding the very life force that animates their essence, flows through humans as well, uniting all creation. Isn’t this the reason to live close to the Earth . . .  To experience this life force pulsing through our veins, invigorating us to feel, to see, to love – real love.”
     That real love of Place infuses Post’s beautifully written Your Own Ones, recently published by Vermont’s Green Writers Press.  In environmental activist Dede Cummings, who founded the fast growing house just two years ago, Post says she’s discovered her “kindred literary spirit.”
     Cummings, with a long history in publishing as a designer, agent, and author of seven books herself, felt called to create a press that would “make a difference.”  "Our mission,” says Cummings, “’to give voice to writers and artists who will make the world a better place,' relies on building a community around publishing books that inspire our readers to grow a deeper appreciation, respect, and responsibility for their natural environment."
     According to Cummings, Post’s Your Own Ones “fits nicely” with Green Writers Press’s growing list of books addressing climate change, notable among them Don Bredes’s acclaimed Polly and The One and Only World, brought out by the press in 2014.  “Post’s commitment to environmental sustainability and the local food movement, as demonstrated through the grassroots movement started in Ireland by her heroine in Your Own Ones, is linked to our mission and help us to augment a hopeful outlook for small groups, urban and rural, around the world that seek to work together to bring about change.”

Dede Cummings 

     With a Ph. D. from The University of Chicago, graduate studies in Ireland and Norway, a decade teaching American Literature and Nature writing, significant publications with university presses, plus continued work on the boards of several scholarly organizations, Post brings to her fiction an uncommon intellectual curiosity, thematic grace, and narrative ease and richness.  Steeped as her work is in place and sustainability, however, it’s never didactic or admonishing. 
    Not one to sit idly by, Post has another book due out this spring, also from Green Writers Press: The Road to Walden North. Cummings says that this novel (as others forthcoming), “segue with our mission  . . . [and] speak to quality of life and the beauty of nature, which is why her forthcoming The Road to Walden North was such an exciting acquisition for us. Post reimagines Thoreau's Walden through the eyes of her heroine, Kate, and many of us will be hopefully entertained and inspired by her writing."
     The author, who has spent over half her life living in the White Mountains and Vermont, keeps that same hope close to heart. “I bring to my writing an overwhelming passion for Place,” says Post, as she creates “unforgettable characters who so love their special places, that they scale seemingly insurmountable challenges to protect them.”
     The reward for her characters – intelligent, fully imagined souls who summon the courage to face those challenges -- is rich.  So is the reward for readers who travel along with them.

What inspired you to write and publish two novels almost simultaneously?

As someone who had taught college literature and writing for well over a decade, I decided, much like Dr. Kate Brown, the heroine of my forthcoming novel, The Road to Walden North, to move from ‘talking the talk’ to ‘walking the walk’: writing my own fiction.

Living in northern Vermont, surrounded by my wonderful organic grower/farmer neighbors, has certainly taught me to adopt a lifestyle based on a ‘local foods-local living’ philosophy—‘grounded,’ so to speak, in actual experience. As one inclined to ‘sow the literary seeds of truth and simplicity,’ as it were, I felt compelled to create stories of local living in fiction.

While the Hardwick local food movement—and the incredible individuals that made it possible—shape the plot and themes of my novel, Your Own Ones, (though set in Atlantic Canada & Ireland), the experience of discovering the simple and the local life in Walden, Vermont, sets the narrative stage for my novel, The Road to Walden North.

Both of your novels have received very positive endorsements from acclaimed author, Howard Mosher. What links your writing?

A recent exchange with Howard Mosher triggered the realization that my decision to focus on writing fiction actually stemmed from the utterly transformational resonance for me of one of his stories. He had me at the title—who would not be smitten by a landscape (place) Where the Rivers Run North?

For almost a decade, while teaching college in Boston, I spent weekends and vacation time in a log cabin deep in the woods of the White Mountains, where I fell completely in love—with the landscape. Howard Mosher’s poignant depiction of the haunting, primeval beauty of the North Country—augmented by Jay Craven’s gorgeous film adaptation, (both of which I picked up one Saturday morning at the charming Village Bookstore in Littleton), struck me in some deeply soulful way. Mosher’s moving account of the people who assumed nearly insurmountable challenges to protect their cherished sense of Place, inspired me to write my own fictional odes to the special places in my life—and the people who endeavor to preserve their ways of living there.

Mosher has praised your “courage to write about big issues.” Tell us about the high stakes at heart in Your Own Ones.

Your Own Ones speaks to North Country readers interested in protecting their special places, as well as in preserving the cultural traditions and practices long associated with those places, that we have, for generations, called Home. Set in agricultural Ireland, the story of a rural place on the verge of losing its special identity, traditions, and local lifestyle, serves as a cautionary tale for both the Irish and Vermonters, alike.

The term, “your own ones,” refers to the natural elements of those special places—the hillside farms, grazing pastures, maple bush, forested mountains, and river-bend hollows that distinguish the landscape of Vermont from other places—as well as to the people who reside and work in those places: our families, friends, neighbors, farmers, and townspeople. 

Idiosyncratic places—and the independent people who reside therein—face the daunting challenge today of losing their individual identity, their time-honored ways, even the topographical features of those special places, in the face of global economic forces seeking to homogenize cultures worldwide.

This issue surely resonates with anyone from such unique places as ours in Vermont, New Hampshire, (or even the traditional areas of Atlantic Canada & Ireland), who has traveled to the seemingly endless sprawl of a large metropolitan area, lined in miles of box stores and shopping malls, followed by residential ‘developments’ with identical houses or apartment buildings, both in this country and abroad.

Your Own Ones chronicles the success story of how, in common economic parlance, Main Street takes on Wall Street, in a deliberate return to their cultural ‘roots’, so to speak—their traditional and local food practices. Who would have thought that (heirloom) potatoes would save Ireland once again?

The “big issues” noted by Howard Mosher refer to the courage of the individuals who people my novel to confront those forces at work in eradicating the particulars of their (and our) special places. Your Own Ones tells the story of how individuals can make a difference, can shape the future of their special places—by simply trying.

Mosher also praises your forthcoming The Road to Walden North as: Fascinating and original . . . following in the tradition of . . . Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” In what ways does your novel relate to Dillard’s remarkable work?

Heralded as a tribute to Thoreau, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek described phenomena through the lens of a naturalist, similar in kind to Thoreau’s essays, yet like Thoreau’s mix of naturalistic detail with metaphysical and transcendental insights, particularly in Walden, Pilgrim blends ‘observation and introspection, mystery and knowledge’—traits resulting in her winning the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

While obviously influenced by and grateful for Dillard’s example, I attempted to contribute to this tradition by relying on the genre of fiction, through writing a novel that blends the motifs of each chapter from Walden, with a contemporary story of the process of awakening for a set of individuals whose lives intersect, both on the campus of Harvard University and within the forested hills of Walden North, Vermont.

You might think of it as a fictional ‘Reader’s Guide’ to Walden for the modern reader. While many claim to have picked up Walden, even more (secretly) admit to not ever completing the book! It was my intention to provide in The Road to Walden North, an accessible, inviting, and intriguing story that illustrates for contemporary readers, the continued resonance of Thoreauvian themes in our lives today. At the same time, the novel celebrates the natural, the local, and the simple through focusing on selected unique characters living in the woods of Walden North, as well as those intrigued by their lifestyles. 

Your heroines are intelligent, accomplished women who have worked hard to reach a place of prominence along challenging career paths. Yet they both step off to take the road less traveled. Tell us about Áine and Kate and the decisions they make.

While some novelists choose to set ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances, I prefer to focus on depicting extraordinary individuals confronted by ordinary circumstances—to see how life experiences, however un-dramatic, mundane even, might shape their actions, their sense of self, and their chosen paths in life. After all, often it is the ordinary, the coincidental, perhaps even the synchronous, events in life that result in life-altering, transformational, and transcendent changes. Of course, the subtle, sub-textual theme inherent in the stories of my female (as well as male) characters is to show that we can all strive to reach what Thoreau called ‘our higher selves’—often by following, the ‘beat of a different drummer’ along the ‘road less traveled’.

 At the same time, though, I’d like to mention that both my novels are not overtly ‘preachy’, but rather humorous, actually—reminiscent of the ‘humor of Maeve Binchy,’ according to one reviewer.  The female protagonists are depicted as modest, self-deprecating heroines with a great sense of humor, able to point fun at their own foibles and misunderstandings, related in witty dialogue. It’s humor, after all, that helps us cope—even thrive—in challenging times.

The Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, VT

What’s your next literary adventure?

While I may have ‘many more lives to live’ as a novelist, like Thoreau, (who separated himself from living amid fellow Concordians in order to study and write about their culture in solitude at Walden Pond), I have returned to my special place in the forests of the White Mts., where I am completing my White Mountain novel, NorthWoods, as well as writing a sequel to The Road to Walden North, called The Vermonters.  I think of my sojourn here in the Northwoods in the Wordsworthian sense of ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’: a literal Yeatsian return to my ‘cabin of clay and wattles made’ in the White Mountains—my ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’.

This interview appears in the March 2016 issue of The North Star Monthly.  Check out their site:

For more information on Post and Your Own Ones,  see her website: 
And for more on Green Writers Press, their mission, and their books, follow this link: