Saturday, May 21, 2016

Chinese Medicine

Tears slide from beneath my sunglasses, hit my jacket, and freeze onto the puffy folds. Through the scummy window of our car,  the Shuangqiao Valley rushes by. My life since Chad was killed reels through my head like a shaky homemade movie. I see my stabbing, lonely descent from Fitz Roy. Then, the undulating journey through my depression and self-loathing. A comforting image of standing on top of a route dedicated to Chad flashes and then is extinguished by a vision of myself crumpled over the toilet, puking my guts out after another night of drinking too much. My Argentine nightmare has led me to these mountains and hopefully to Chad's friends in Ringlong, a dusty village a few miles down the road.

"Chadderbox" told me endlessly about the people and mountains in central China. On approaches into the Torre Valley or the Cascades I would listen hard to these stories from the east. In the spring of 2007, Chad was on his second trip to the area. Backed by the McNeill-Nott grant, he, Jay Janousek, and Joe Puryear were attempting the mighty blade, Siguniang. In late april Mr. Ma, their expedition liaison and the friend we were seeking in Ringlong, delivered the agonizing news that Lara, Chad's wife, had been killed in the Alaska Range. Heartbreak, anger, sickness, and finally salvation through Buddhism led Chad back to Siguniang in the fall of 2008. That season, he and Dylan Johnson spread Lara's ashes atop the 9,000 foot ridge they completed.

I rock back and forth from one numb foot to the other. The cold is sharp in Ringlong so I join the locals on the warm side of the street. One of the men standing in the sun is Mr. Ma, but he doesn't understand why we've come looking for him. Steve Swenson, a mentor and one of my partners on the trip, phones Dalu, a Chinese friend who is showing us the ice climbs that are stamped onto the hillsides of the Shuangqiao Valley. "Dalu, do you mind coming by and translating for us? We've found Mr. Ma, but he doesn't understand why we're looking for him." Within minutes, Dalu arrives and explains who we are. He also informs Mr. Ma that Chad was killed two years ago and that I had been with him. Mr. Ma seems shocked for a moment and then takes the news in with somber grace. Without further delay, he ushers our team into his home.

I duck my head under the low eve of the Ma Family compound. A concrete hallway leads to a small, shadowed courtyard. I imagine Chad's laughter ricocheting off the gray walls before rising into the blue square of sky above. An older lady with kind creases in her weathered face places oranges, fried yak cheese, and small candies on the knee high table we're crouched around. A round of chang is poured and we find a buzz in the ruby red fruit wine. With a significant language barrier not much is said. Smiles replace words and gestures communicate basic concepts like, "chang is good!" We drain our shot glasses and give two thumbs up. The response is simple and the red jug of wine rotates around the room again.

Sitting back, I take in the scene. I make subtle connections between the Chad I knew and this small corner of China. It was here that Chad fell to pieces and here that he began to rebuild himself into a content and happy person. "Can I turn my life around? Can I heal and live fully again?" The questions drift through my consciousness like rustling leaves. There is a lightness to my self examination that I haven't felt before. Rather than crushing pain, I feel a peaceful hope. That I've found myself in China making sense of the tragedy in Argentina is a testament to the interconnectedness of our world.

When the chang is gone, we step out into the courtyard. This time, it is awash with sunlight. A warmth counters the sharp edge of cold air. Walking towards our car I look back over my shoulder. Mr. Ma leans into the doorway and watches the world go by. He seems so content. There's no doubt, his sense of peace rubbed off on Chad. Now, I'm the one affected.

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