Challenges (Part I)

You should never underestimate the challenge you are facing or your ability to deal with it. Challenges seem to have a way of discovering, as well as developing, latent inner strengths and abilities that had been hiding within you prior to a particular adversity or challenge. When I was growing up, a fellow named Art Linkletter had a television show where he used to say, “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.” I think he was on to something.

The blind author and intuitive philosopher, Helen Keller, once reminded us, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” I remember a life threatening situation I encountered in the rugged Himalayan Mountains of northern India that didn’t just challenge me, but nearly frightened the Scotch-Irish machismo out of me.

I had been requested to travel from Denver to Frankfurt to Delhi, then transfer onto Jagson Airlines to be delivered to the Kullu Valley in the far northwest corner of India. My destination was a city called Naggar, where I was to assess the Shamballa hospital and several clinics that had requested donated medical goods from Project C.U.R.E. With all of the airline transfers, they had successfully lost every bit of my luggage, and I left Delhi with only the shirt and pants I was wearing, and a familiar but empty promise, “We will locate your luggage and forward it to you right away.”

My hosts in the Kullu Valley were Dr. Jatinder Singh and his Hungarian-born wife, Dr. Wangmo. They were a delightful couple having come to serve the neglected Himalayan people of Northern India, Tibet, Southern China, and Kashmir. The warm welcome I received from the doctors and townspeople of Naggar and Ghordor had moved me to tears.

After completing the assessments of the hospitals and clinics, doctors Singh and Wangmo asked, “Don’t you people ski a lot in Colorado? We have a bit of time right now, would you like for us to show you our ski area up on Rotung Pass?” I hesitated. I had borrowed a denim shirt and an ill-fitting pair of pants from Dr. Singh that morning because I still had no luggage. “I don’t think I am prepared to visit a ski area with only a thin pair of pants and a light shirt. Do you think I am dressed properly?” “Oh, yes,” they chimed in, “we will not get out of our Gypsy 4x4. We will just go to the top of the pass and let you see; then we will come back down. You will be fine.”

It was May 17. Rotung Pass didn’t usually open until late June or July, but the road up to the gate of the pass had just been opened. The people from all over blistering hot India wanted to go play on the left-over glaciers and wade in the cold streams. The narrow military road up the pass was crowded with old buses, taxis, and dilapidated cars, puffing and chugging in the high altitude. People coming from as far away as Delhi and Hyderabad, who had never touched or seen real snow before, were competing to get to the glaciers to play. It made no difference that there were no ski lifts, gondolas, or rope tows. The crowds just wanted to touch cold snow.

It was a beautiful day. The doctors insisted we stop and buy fried bread and onion sandwiches and Coca-Cola from the maverick vendors. While we were eating, the temperature began dropping quickly. The doctors told me that when they first came to the area they had started their medical work on the north side of the Himalayas. “You just drive down the other side of the twelve-thousand-foot Rotung Pass, along the high valley floor, and go over a sixteen-thousand-foot pass called Kunlom Pass and down into the Spiti Valley in old Tibet.

“Dr. Jackson,” Dr. Singh excitedly announced, “we need to help our friends over in the Spiti Valley, and since you only send things after you personally assess a facility . . . we will never be closer to them than we are right now. We could hurry and be in the Spiti Valley, spend the night there, meet our friends, check the facilities, and be back to the Kullu Valley by tomorrow.” 

“But,” I inquired, “how do you propose getting by that military guard standing at the gate? He is not allowing anyone to get through and go down the other side of Rotung Pass. Furthermore, I only have a thin shirt and a pair of your pants with legs that are too short.” “No problem,” was the reply. “The Gypsy 4x4 is warm and we will be inside until we arrive at Kaza in the Spiti Valley.” With that, Dr. Singh jumped out and ran over to the soldier guarding the gate. He returned with a smile. There hasn’t been as much snow recently and just today some trucks have been over the pass to take supplies into the Spiti Valley.” The guard had recognized Jatinder Singh as a doctor and had given us permission to go.

About halfway down Rotung Pass we encountered a slight problem. A glacier had slid across almost the entire roadway. We stopped and sized up the situation. Dr. Singh felt that as long as he could keep his downhill set of tires on the gravel roadway, the other set of tires could run up onto the glacier pack and we could pass by safely. Dr. Singh had to keep a good balance to the movement of the 4x4. He couldn’t go too slowly or he would lose his momentum and we would be stuck on the upper side in the snow. And he couldn’t go too fast and run the risk of putting the 4x4 into a slide off what seemed to be a never-ending drop from the downside to wherever the bottom was twelve thousand feet below.

The first fifteen yards went quite well. Then the road base on the downhill side gave way. We had been hoping to count on the road base as our security, but the glacier melt had run underneath and softened the base. Suddenly, I felt the right rear corner of the 4x4 swing downhill, and the left front corner where I was sitting (since India’s cars all had right-hand drive) began to get higher and higher in the air. Dr. Singh let off the gas and we sat perched teetering on the edge with the front left tire three feet off the ground. Everything was in slow motion and I fully expected the 4x4 to just slowly roll on over down the side of forever. I admonished Dr. Singh and Dr. Wangmo to move very gently and try to exit on the uphill side, being careful not to get beneath the auto in case it should roll on over.

Once we were safely out, we had a better chance to consider our plight. The wind had built up measurably and caused a teeter-totter effect on the auto. I told the doctors that our very best chance was to wait for a large India truck to come up the hill from down below and hook on to the front of the 4x4 and gently ease us back onto the glacier and roadway. Dr. Singh, an athletically modeled Indian, wasn’t going to wait for anything. He took off running down the road to seek help. We watched as he took shortcuts down the mountain face, dropping from one road to the next road level instead of running the full distance of the switchbacks. 

While Dr. Singh was gone, we discovered that there weren’t going to be any big trucks coming on the road past us. We were on a by-pass road and the trucks were going on a different military road. By that time, the clouds were moving down from the summit and the wind was acquiring a sharp bite to it. I started looking for some shelter on the bare face of the twelve-thousand-foot mountain pass. What would I do if we were required to spend the night with no food, fire, or protection?

Returning to the Gypsy 4x4 for warmth or protection would not work. About the time I would get tempted to consider crawling back into it, the wind would come up and the 4x4 would start rocking and teetering, and the front left wheel would go higher. The Gypsy could tip in the wind and go plummeting down at any second with absolutely nothing to stop it. The wind continued to pick up, forcing the clouds down from the top of the mountain to where we were, making a cold fog. 

Dr. Singh had run downhill far enough to find a road workers’ camp. He grabbed six workers there and flagged down a truck driver. The truck eventually got to us, but there were at least two immediate problems. The truck could not get any closer to the 4x4 than about fifty yards because of the soft roadway and the piled snowpack. The other problem was that if we weren’t careful, the vibration from the big truck could get the glacier moving again across the roadway. The moving glacier would simply sweep us all off the face of the mountain. 

Several of the men went carefully to the lower corner of the 4x4 and gently pushed up. As they lifted, other men stacked rocks below the wheel. They repeated that process until they had built a base. I was on the front corner of the vehicle trying to add my weight to the leverage. Without a hydraulic jack or a pry bar or a long, wooden pole or any other scientific advantage, the Himalayan mountain men picked the vehicle up about six inches at a time until it was once again level.

The road workers who were chopping at the snow had by then cleared about three or four feet of the glacier for the entire fifty-yard length. Then it was time for Dr. Singh to try his skill at driving the rig back along the ledge to the other side of the glacier.

Experience is not what benefits a person; rather, it is what that person does with the experience that makes the difference. I have learned not to necessarily pray for an easy life, but to pray for wisdom and strength to handle the life dealt to me. What would wisdom suggest we do to get off the face of that treacherous, freezing, Himalayan Mountain?

(Continued next week . . . January 22, 2013)