Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you couldn’t move forward and you couldn’t go back?
Well try standing on a rickety suspension bridge, 200 feet above an ice-cold river, with a herd of Nepalese oxen bearing down on you!
The year is 1987 and I’m 10 days into my 3-week Nepalese trek around the Anapurnas. As my fellow hikers (Australians Steve and Laurie, and Americans Julie and Matt) and I round a bluff, we spy a rickety rope bridge — one of those Indiana Jones piece-of-works, with wobbly wooden slats and rocks(!) covering up the numerous gaps and holes. The bridge looks like it might just hold us – if we watch our steps and proceed very slowly. As there’s no other way to cross the river and continue on our path, we’re left with no other option. It’s either carry on forward or turn back and give up on our trek.
One by one, we slink onto the bridge, testing the planks with each step and holding tightly to the guide wires. Our advance scout, Laurie, reaches about midpoint when a look of horror crosses her face; a Sherpa has appeared on the other side of the bridge, blithely mushing ahead his herd of 15, long-horned, Himalayan oxen! Forget about turning back — these are big, fast beasts. They’ll be on us in a second. Clearly, we’re going to have to share the bridge with the beasts, and may the gods provide room for all of us!
Laurie, who’s at midpoint, plops herself down, takes a seat, and wraps her body around her pack. The rest of us turn to one side and huddle against the guide wires, endeavoring to make ourselves as thin as possible. Within minutes the oxen are upon us, snorting and snuffling — clearly as anxious to get off the bridge as we are. With those big horns of theirs, a turn of an oxen’s head could easily toss any one of us over the edge. Fortunately, an oxen’s focus is very narrow: walk straight, move forward. The beasts (and their blithely-smiling shepherd) pass right on past us without incident, rubbing shoulders with us somewhat amiably as they parade en masse to the other side.
With wobbly legs, my companions and I lift ourselves up and finish our bridge crossing. Against all odds (and oxen), we have survived our high-altitude, cross-cultural encounter –- a bit shaken, but thankfully intact.
And what did I learn from my near-death encounter at the top of the world?:
1) Consider your course carefully before proceeding on a new path. Timing is everything — look ahead whenever possible, and anticipate stampedes.
2) When faced with adversity, stay calm! Panicking only makes things worse (and the last thing you want to do is agitate an ox!).
3) Weigh your options and make a choice. Moving forwards or backwards can often be more risky than standing still, where you are, and weathering the storm.