THE STEPS TO HEAVEN
By ANDREW MCGINN
Chase Flack was supposed to tell this story himself.
About standing on top of the world.
Or at least as close to the top of the world as most of us will ever get.
A final email from Flack at 2:56 p.m. on May 31 confirmed the time and place of an interview to talk about his trip of a lifetime to the Great Himalayas of Nepal, about standing tall at the summit of Kala Patthar, a height of 18,519 feet, and gazing out at two of the world’s most formidable mountains: Lhotse, the fourth-tallest peak on Earth, and Mount Everest, the Goddess Mother of the World herself, the planet’s highest.
For a man who had so far lived all 26 years of his life at full throttle, Flack undoubtedly stared at the jagged peaks reflected back in his Ray-Bans that day on Kala Patthar and made a vow to return.
Even if it took another 26 years or more, Everest’s challenge wouldn’t go unanswered.
Tragically, Flack will never get that chance — just as he never made it to the interview on June 5 that he had spent two days preparing for, anxiously poring over hundreds, if not thousands, of photos from his trip in May to the ends of the Earth.
A Jefferson native revered for his adventurous spirit and athletic ability — he was the all-time winningest wrestler in Jefferson school history and went on to grapple at Iowa State — Flack collapsed and died June 1 just yards from the finish line of the DAM to DSM 20K, a 12.4-mile race from Saylorville Dam to downtown Des Moines.
Life, it seems, can be mysteriously cruel.
Someone can literally be on top of the world one moment and completely gone from it the next.
A young man can possess the biggest heart, yet still have it stop with utterly no warning.
“Nobody has answers,” Flack’s mom, Brenda, quietly explained on this day as a steady stream of friends and family still in shock came and went from her home on McDuffie Drive.
“We thought this trip was going to make us so fit,” Flack’s girlfriend, Hannah Woods, spoke up.
The day was June 5, the day Flack had planned to talk all about his eight-day hike with Woods and best friend Jimmy Scieszinski from Lukla in Nepal to the Mount Everest Base Camp.
Scieszinski and Woods insisted on keeping the date in tribute to the friend and soulmate who walked “the steps to heaven.”
That’s what the Dalai Lama, the famed Tibetan spiritual leader, is said to have once called the ascent from Lukla to the base of the mountain Tibetans know as Chomolungma.
“The steps to heaven.”
And only Chase Flack, with those reassuring eyes and a magnetic smile, could persuade someone like Scieszinski, who’s actually petrified of heights, to join him atop Kala Patthar for a better look at heaven.
“Breathtaking,” Woods said of the view from Kala Patthar, which itself is located on the south ridge of the mountain called Pumori. “You don’t even think it’s real.”
Kala Patthar isn’t a mountain per se, but its elevation of 18,519 feet is still higher than that of Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada range (at 14,505 feet, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States) and Pikes Peak in Colorado (14,115 feet).
Initially, no one from Flack’s family had wanted him to venture to the Himalayas, a testament to the region’s deadly reputation.
“I told him to go lay on a beach somewhere,” Brenda Flack said.
Not even brother Clint Flack, who finished the DAM to DSM race 76th overall (out of 3,463), thought it was a good idea for them to go to Nepal.
Truth be told, Clint Flack told his brother he was crazy, which speaks volumes.
After all, the Flacks are probably the closest thing Greene County has ever had to Spartans, a clan of people who seem to emerge from the womb without fear.
Dad Craig Flack had his four kids — the two boys, Chase and Clint, and their two sisters, Chelsea and Chantel — riding dirt bikes and ATVs years before they could legally drive a car.
Together, they were the River Valley Stunt Riders, jumping ramps and each other like the motocross answer to the Flying Wallendas.
“If I went tomorrow,” Craig Flack told The Jefferson Herald in a 2014 profile, “people would say, ‘Well, he made it longer than we thought he would.’”
Clint Flack said he thought Chase was nuts to go to the Himalayas simply because he knew his older brother (by a mere 14 months) too well. And he also knew well enough what usually happens when Chase and Jimmy Scieszinski get together.
Clint Flack was convinced that Chase and Jimmy would veer off the beaten path — which they did, on the very first day.
No Sherpas needed
The “two peas in a pod,” as Woods called them, are like brothers from different mothers.
The two knew of each other in high school — Scieszinski wrestled for Van Meter — but became close while at ISU, where both majored in business.
“We lived on each others’ couches for four years,” Scieszinski, now 25, said.
When Flack started dating Woods, Scieszinski even came along on the first three or four dates, the Chewbacca to Flack’s Han.
The duo initially hatched a plan to climb Mount Everest back in 2014 while cleaning out hog trailers together, a fantasy that took their minds off the work.
“It’s the worst job you could possibly get,” Scieszinski insisted. “The other people doing the job were all convicted felons.
“We should’ve gone to work for McDonald’s.”
Watching videos online about Mount Everest only fueled the dream.
“It just went from there,” Scieszinski said. “We’d never even gone on a hike before.”
Go big or go home, right?
“That’s exactly what Chase would say,” Scieszinski said.
Flack graduated in 2015 from ISU with a degree in management. Scieszinski followed with a degree in marketing.
In January, Scieszinski set off to travel the world. Flack would have gone as well, but had school and a truck to pay off.
Working as a project manager for Dean Snyder Construction, Flack had naturally been the only one excited about Scieszinski’s plan to travel first to Singapore.
Flack, it seemed, was the only one with any iota of faith that Scieszinski would return home alive.
“Everybody else told me I was going to die,” Scieszinski explained.
Woods, 23, who grew up in Guthrie Center but now works as a dental assistant in Des Moines, was admittedly surprised when she learned she was invited on the trip in May to the Himalayas. Scieszinski, who by then was in Thailand, would be rendezvousing with them in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.
“Chase has never been like this about a girl before,” Scieszinski observed.
A fantasy born four years earlier in a hog trailer was suddenly as real as the inoperable brakes on the bus carrying the trio from Kathmandu over steep rises and around hairpin turns to another airport in Manthali.
Twice the bus had to stop, Scieszinski said, to let the brakes cool down.
From Manthali, the trio flew to what’s been called the world’s most dangerous airport — Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, named for the first two men to successfully scale Mount Everest in May of 1953. (On home turf, Tenzing Norgay, Sir Edmund Hillary’s Sherpa guide, naturally gets top billing.)
“There was a plane crash there the week before,” Scieszinski said.
In fact, the wreckage was still there for all to see, a warning that landing on the side of a mountain, on a runway that isn’t level, isn’t for the inexperienced.
Flack, Woods and Scieszinski then set out on foot into the wilds of Nepal, the land of yaks and Yeti — and you learn quickly on a suspension bridge to let the yak cross first — toward the Mount Everest Base Camp, a destination that many don’t reach because of altitude sickness.
The trio spent two days in the village of Namche Bazaar (11,286 feet) in order to acclimate themselves to the increasing levels of elevation.
In Tengboche (12,687 feet), site of a Buddhist monastery, a Sherpa tried selling Flack a horse, calling it a “Himalayan motorcycle.”
If only that Sherpa knew what Chase Flack was capable of on a real bike.
In Pheriche (14,340 feet), the three paid $10 each for a hot shower, their first shower in five days.
At the base camp (17,598 feet), oxygen levels are depleted by 50 percent, Scieszinski said.
“It’s beautiful,” Brenda Flack said of the pictures. “Don’t know if I’d do it, but it’s beautiful.”
Much has been written in recent weeks of the crowds that are overtaking Mount Everest, not to mention its growing commercialization, rendering it a far cry from when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered the world’s tallest peak (an elevation of 29,035 feet).
Flack, Woods and Scieszinski experienced few crowds on the trails they took to the base camp.
“It’s like we had the whole thing to ourselves,” Woods said. “It was so cool.”
They were also blissfully unaware that most hikers hire the local Sherpa people to be porters.
The sight of three Americans lugging 30-plus pounds of their own gear — for Flack, that included a five-pound bag of protein mix — drew inspired looks from the Sherpas they met.
“They seemed to have a lot more respect for us,” Scieszinski said, “when they found out we didn’t have porters.”
In the end, it proved to be the most adventurous trip they’d each undertaken, Scieszinski said.
In their short time together, Flack had already taught Woods how to ski, which was surprisingly harder than it looked.
“He had this smile,” Woods recalled, “and this belief in his eyes that said, ‘You can do this.’”
Everyone had told them the trip to the Himalayas would be the ultimate test of their relationship.
“They said it was going to make or break our relationship,” Woods explained. “It made us stronger than ever.”
With the Great Himalayas behind them, it seemed the sky was the limit for Chase Flack and Hannah Woods — but even then, the sky can be conquered, too.
Woods and Scieszinski now plan to go skydiving in Flack’s honor.