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: