Of course it was a bad idea, but even the guide considered it safe. He bought 400 rupees’ worth. So did some of my Sherpa friends. The interpreter planned to give it to her parents to improve digestion, eyesight and stamina. Why not try a piece?
Nobody knew what this thing was, but it looked harmless. A tapered cylinder stretching two inches long, it had ridges popping across and a tuber sprouting out one end. It resembled a shriveled caterpillar with a tumor growing from its forehead.
As we trekked to Hungung, a remote village in Nepal, we heard the locals proclaim the magical properties of “YAW-Sheh GOOM-bah.” It treats sunburn, strengthens nails, regenerates the hairline! It’s the well-known Himalayan Viagra! It’s the world’s only half-plant, half-animal. One bite accelerates thinking, relaxes the mind and makes the fat man slim!
A porter named Krishna told me about a depressed Englishman who swallowed the “magic vegetable” yarsagumba. He immediately started a hotel business, made millions and seduced a beautiful woman. A German tourist on the same trek refused to try it. Two days later, a freak avalanche crushed him to death.
“Please, please,” Krishna said, assuring me I was lucky to find anyone who’d sell it. “I’ll eat the other half.”
I later found out that yarsagumba—one of several names and spellings it goes by—forms when a fungus attacks ghost moth larva. The caterpillar mummifies, and a mushroom shoots out of its head, spreading spores that kill other caterpillars.
We nearly met the same fate. Forty-eight hours after buying the stuff, three of us were convulsing. Making matters worse, it had been cloudy for days. This meant the solar cell only had the juice for a two-minute SOS.
I phoned my cousin. She never sleeps and has a high limit on her MasterCard. It was 3 a.m. in Los Angeles when Amanda answered.
“So you’re in a village in the Himalaya,” she responded. “You just OD’ed on a caterpillar with shrooms growing out its head—and you want an evac on a Soviet-era helicopter?”
I meant to answer, but the line went dead.
Hungung is a curious place. To get there, I took a flight to an airstrip in Tumlingtar, Nepal. Then I joined 23 others smashed into and on top of a flatbed truck that jostled along until the road ended near a cliff. Next, we trudged five days over switchbacks and passes, crossing canyons over bridges made of rusted chain link. The area lacks running water, electricity, machinery and an official spelling. Almost everything is made from stone, reeds, wood and dung mortar. Speaking in one of the Sherpa languages, children in Hungung petted my skin and asked why it was white.
I had left for Hungung to research a book about K2’s heroes, seek peace and avoid frustrations at home. I met the yarsagumba dealer on the way back. His gnarled arms and dented face made me think of a tree stump. A group huddled around him, and he unfolded a grubby handkerchief that revealed the yarsagumba.
He combed his fingers through the pile. Speaking in Nepali, he said you should chew the “worm bean” straight, but you can also grind it to a paste, brew it as tea, rub it on your skin or sprinkle it on food. Its value exceeds $100,000 per kilo. But he liked me and would cut a deal.
I distrust hard drugs; life is psychedelic enough without them. I didn’t imagine yarsagumba could be a narcotic. Everyone described it as medicine. I haggled, bought some worms and, along with my friends, ate one. It tasted like English Breakfast Tea and had the texture of wood. I waited for the energy boost to power me up the 1,200-meter climb planned that day. Nothing happened.
At camp that evening in Num, a villager examined our worms. We’d been scammed, she said. For that inferior stuff to work, we’d need to gorge ourselves on two dozen pieces. Playing it safe, I swallowed another. My friend Pasang Lama took two.
A few hours later, my vision blurred. The ground morphed, wobbling and sinking beneath my boots. Black polka dots scattered across my field of vision, winking off, on, off, on, then darting away in green streaks. My jaw vibrated. Everything I touched was velvet. Time turned frenzied, cartoonish. Drugs aren’t for everyone, but that caterpillar was working for me.
We crouched inside a hut around a fire, eating rice and dahl. Nobody else felt the effects of the half-plant, half-animal. Some claimed I was faking it. Pasang swallowed another. If I felt weird, this 25-year-old mountaineering prodigy wouldn’t let me go it alone. Oblivious, I sang a Sherpa tune resembling “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and shoveled handfuls of rice into my mouth. The yarsagumba made everything taste like truffles in A-1 steak sauce.
Next thing I remember, I woke in a sweltering tent. Although on the ground, I groped for a handhold to prevent myself from falling through. The walls of the tent seemed to be closing in on me. I needed to get outside.
Crawling on hands and knees, I sucked in the balmy air and wondered why the weather had turned tropical. I noticed the water in my Nalgene had frozen. Strange. Wind thrashed at my face, freezing my eyelids. Realizing my senses were off, I ducked into the tent, tossed the water bottle inside my sleeping bag and forced myself to bundle up.
A moment later: blump, blump blump. Something was rapping on my tent. I unzipped the door and craned out. Aava Shrestha, our interpreter, was wild-eyed. Pasang needed help. Krishna was deteriorating. So were others. Hurry.
“What do you want to do?” she asked. “He’s going to die.”
I tried to think.
Aava stared at me, growing impatient. She repeated herself. “He is going to die.”
My legs felt detached, but they shuffled out of the tent. Pasang, sprawled on the rocks with a sleeping bag jammed under his head, jerked his torso forward. His neck whipped back. It looked as though he were being electrocuted.
A village doctor arrived with an antique stethoscope and inflatable armband. Two men pinned down Pasang so the doctor could get a reading.
“This can’t be right,” he said.
The doctor tested himself and then got another reading off my friend’s flailing body.
Pasang’s blood pressure was zero.
The doctor pronounced him dead, but Pasang protested the diagnosis. The convulsions continued. Exasperated, the doctor suggested some saline and left in search of an IV.
By then, my cousin had called a helicopter for Pasang. He was a friend of hers, too, and she’d been nursing an infatuation for months. The helicopter cost $1,880 an hour with a nonrefundable deposit for the three-hour trip. The locals were astonished. Why would an American spend so much to save a Sherpa?
I explained: Sherpas frequently save Westerners. Sometimes we like to return the favor.
Frantic, we scanned the skyline and listened for the beat of propeller blades. Nothing. Pasang’s convulsions had mellowed into a full-body quiver, but his eyes were glassy, and he’d stopped talking. Was he getting better? Worse? We sat in a circle around him, Krishna praying, Aava holding back tears. I held Pasang’s hand and watched my friend in silence. The helicopter wasn’t coming that day. Thunderstorms had grounded it in Tumlingtar.
Next morning, the sun rose, and so did the dead. Pasang could talk enough to tell us to send the helicopter back. It wasn’t worth the price, he said. They charge more in an hour than the average Nepali makes in a year, and he’d be fine.
We couldn’t cancel the flight or get our money back. So, what the hell, why not enjoy a jaunt on an old bird that had proudly served the Soviets?
Villagers swarmed out of their homes to watch the creature land. Or try. It took three attempts to touch down in a mushroom cloud of diesel and dust. I hunkered inside its battered body, and the machine convulsed as if it too had overdosed on yarsagumba. The seats were unscrewed, which made me wonder about the propeller blades.
We lurched up. Hovering between rest and restlessness, death and transcendence, I leaned against the window and watched the mountains, forests and millet fields zoom past in a freewheeling blur.
Maybe one of the yarsagumba myths had turned out true? Life felt precious; my soul, repaired. Nearly dying had reminded me to live. I didn’t need to hide in the mountains anymore. Now that I had found what I wanted, I was ready to return. Nirvana was inside a decrepit helicopter, spiraling toward Kathmandu.
Peter Zuckerman's writing has received the Livingston Award, the Scripps National Journalism Award and the Blethen Award. He is writing the history of K2.