So this weird little worm came up in the discussion last week – it’s kinda gross, but fascinating.
The thing Silang is searching for, on hands and knees, 15,000 feet above sea level on the Tibetan plateau, is extraordinarily strange. The part that’s above ground is a tiny, capless fungus—just a brown stalk, thin as a matchstick, poking an inch or two out of the muddy soil. Eleven hours a day, from early May to late June, Silang Yangpi and his wife and a large group of relatives and friends crawl along steep mountain slopes, combing through a dizzying tangle of grasses and twigs and wildflowers and sedge, seeking the elusive stalk.
When Silang spots one, he shouts with joy. His wife, Yangjin Namo, rushes over. Using a trowel, he carves around the stalk and carefully removes a wedge of soil. He brushes away the excess dirt. And there, in his palm, is what looks like a bright yellow caterpillar. Dead. Attached to its head, unicorn style, is the slender brown fungus. From his pocket Silang removes a red plastic bag that once held dehydrated ramen noodles. He places his find inside, along with the others he and his wife have unearthed, and carefully rolls the bag up. Silang is 25 years old; his wife is 21. They have an infant daughter. The caterpillar fungus represents a significant portion of their annual income.
Across the Tibetan Plateau, these creatures have transformed the rural economy. They’ve sparked a modern-day gold rush. In fact, by the time the contents of Silang’s bag arrive at the gleaming shops of Beijing, they can easily be priced at more than twice their weight in gold.
The fungus is called yartsa gunbu. Translated from Tibetan, this means “summer grass, winter worm,” although it is technically neither grass nor worm. It’s the underground-dwelling larva of one of several species of the ghost moth that has been infected by spores from a parasitic fungus called Ophiocordyceps sinensis. The fungus devours the body of the caterpillar, leaving only the exoskeleton intact, and then, come spring, blooms in the form of a brown stalk, called the stroma, that erupts from the caterpillar’s head. This process happens only in the fertile, high-alpine meadows of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya. All attempts at farming the fungus have failed.
For centuries yartsa gunbu has been thought to possess miraculous medicinal and libidinous powers. Yaks that graze on it, legend holds, grow in strength tenfold. One of the earliest known descriptions of yartsa comes from a 15th-century Tibetan text, titled An Ocean of Aphrodisiacal Qualities, which raves about the “faultless treasure” that “bestows inconceivable advantages” on those who ingest it. Just boil a few in a cup of tea, or stew in a soup, or roast in a duck, and all that ails you will be healed—or so it’s said.
The worms, as they’re colloquially known, have been prescribed by herbalists to alleviate back pain, impotence, jaundice, and fatigue. Also to reduce cholesterol, increase stamina, and improve eyesight. To treat tuberculosis. And asthma. Bronchitis and hepatitis, anemia and emphysema. They’re billed as an antitumor, antiviral antioxidant. A treatment for HIV/AIDS. A balm for those recovering from surgery. They may even help with hair loss.
As the Chinese economy roars, demand for yartsa has intensified—it’s become a status symbol at dinner parties and the gift of choice to flatter government officials. In the 1970s a pound of worms cost a dollar or two. In the early ’90s it was still less than a hundred dollars. Now a pound of top-quality yartsa can retail for $50,000.
Such outsize demand sparks concern that the total annual harvest, now roughly 400 million specimens, may diminish as yartsa fields become overpicked. To harvest the worms sustainably, pickers would need to leave some stalks in the soil to mature and infect the next season’s larvae, says ecologist Daniel Winkler. Instead, most villagers harvest every stalk they find and then move on to higher hunting grounds.
Due to the annual yartsa windfall, thousands of formerly impoverished Tibetan yak herders own motorcycles and iPhones and flat-screen TVs. Battles over worm-picking turf—most areas allow only licensed residents to pick—have resulted in violent encounters, including seven murders in northern Nepal, where a small percentage of the world’s yartsa is picked. In the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, burglars once tunneled, prison-break style, into a shop selling yartsa, making off with more than $1.5 million worth of product. The Chinese police have established numerous roadside checkpoints to prevent poachers from sneaking on to hillsides reserved for local villages.
There are now places, like the town of Serxu—home to Silang and his wife—where, when the ground warms and the grass sprouts, all else in life is abandoned to the pursuit of yartsa. Children, with keen eyes and low-to-the-ground statures, are often the best pickers. Some school systems, helpless against the lure of the worms, close for a one-month yartsa holiday.
At the end of the long picking day, Silang and Yangjin bring their worms to the local market. Serxu’s market, during the height of the season, sprawls along the puddled sidewalks on both sides of the town’s main street. It is customary, in this frontier-feeling place, amid treeless hills speckled with herdsmen’s tents and strung with prayer flags, to dress up for market.
Many wear traditional Tibetan coats, the sleeves so long there’s no need for gloves. Men sport wide-brimmed cowboy hats and leather boots. Knives are strapped to waists. Smiles flash with gold teeth. Women strut about in necklaces strung with amber beads the size of golf balls. A few have braided hair that nearly sweeps the sidewalk. There are even a couple of monks, swaddled in vermilion robes. Religious strictures forbid them from picking or eating yartsa, but it’s fine to buy and sell.
Yartsa dealers carry tiny brass-colored scales and solar-powered calculators. The sides of their hands are often smudged with jotted calculations. Worms are piled in cardboard boxes and wicker baskets or spread on pieces of cloth. When a dealer is approached by someone like Silang—knees muddy, with a bag of yartsa fresh from the fields—the worms are carefully examined. Their value depends on a number of factors: size, color, firmness. The dealer handles each one, often scraping off caked dirt with a special yartsa cleaning tool that looks like a large toothbrush. A crowd gathers.
It is also common practice, when preparing to make a purchase, for a yartsa dealer to keep up a steady patter of mild insults.
“I’ve never bought such bad worms.”
“The color’s no good. Too dark.”
“I’m going to lose money on these.”
Finally, when it’s time to do business, the dealer holds out his arm, the sleeve of his Tibetan coat dangling. The seller slips his hand inside. Then, using finger signals, the two haggle in the coat sleeve, shielded from the curious eyes of the crowd. It looks as if a thumb-wrestling match is going on in there—offers rapidly made and countered, the coat’s fabric stretching and twisting. When the fingers settle and a price is agreed upon, the money is passed through the sleeve.
Silang and Yangjin approach a dealer they’ve worked with before, a man whose name is also Silang—Silang Yixi, 33, in business for eight years. He keeps photos of prized worms on his cell phone. The two Silangs conduct the ritual: the worm examination, the gibes—at one point the dealer returns the worms to the ramen bag and pretends he’s no longer interested—and eventually the haggling. In the end, for their 30 worms, most too small to command top price, Silang and Yangjin are paid 580 yuan, about $90.
Zhaxicaiji steps from her chauffeur-driven Platinum Edition Toyota Sequoia, shoulders her Prada handbag, and strolls, high heels clicking, into the flagship store of her yartsa gunbu empire. She is founder and president of Three Rivers Source Medicine Company, one of China’s best known yartsa brands. She manages 500 employees and 20 stores; annual sales can top $60 million.
Growing up, Zhaxicaiji, who’s now in her late 40s, was like Silang and Yangjin. She crawled in the hills, picking worms. Her family raised yaks and sheep and lived in a yak-hair tent. She started the business in 1998 with $120 of her own money and rode the yartsa juggernaut to success. She plans to expand internationally, exporting yartsa to places like Japan, Korea, and Malaysia. Within a decade, she says, her worms will be sold in the United States.
Her store in the central Chinese city of Lanzhou occupies a full city block; mounted over the entrance is a giant video screen playing commercials advertising her worms. Inside are opulent chandeliers, a trickling fountain, uniformed security guards, and vases of fresh-cut flowers. Her yartsa is exhibited in dozens of museum-style glass cases, the temperature and humidity precisely controlled.
Before a worm arrives here, it may change hands a half dozen or more times. Dealers in frontier markets sell to midsize markets, and those businessmen usually head to China’s biggest yartsa market, which operates year-round, bustling and loud as a stock exchange, encompassing an entire district in Xining, a city just west of Zhaxicaiji’s headquarters. Many of the largest, firmest, most ideally golden worms are selected by Zhaxicaiji’s buyers. Prior to being put on display, all are x-rayed—it’s become common to hide bits of lead wire in worms to increase weight.
A black Mercedes pulls up to her store and four middle-aged men, wearing polo shirts and chunky watches, take seats in front of one of the glass cases. They’re promptly served by a staff of young women in dark skirts, white button-front shirts, and cotton gloves. The men munch on walnuts and raisins and drink yartsa-infused water as they make their selections. The worms are then neatly packaged in maroon wooden boxes with felt interiors and brass clasps, transforming a startlingly unattractive product—a faintly fishy-smelling Cheez Doodle-colored caterpillar with a strange growth emerging from its head—into something practically regal. The boxes are stacked in cloth shopping bags. In a matter of ten minutes the men spend $30,000.
On the fifth floor of a modern high-rise apartment building on the east side of Beijing, resting on her sofa and flanked by her bichons frises—Quan Quan (Little Circle) and Dian Dian (Little Dot)—Yu Jian sips a cup of freshly brewed yartsa gunbu tea. Yu is 40 years old; she’s wearing a cheery flower-patterned blouse and leopard-print slippers. Until recently, she was an executive at a health food company. But in October 2010 she was diagnosed with uterine cancer.
She pursued a modern course of treatment, including extensive rounds of chemotherapy. But she also decided to visit a traditional Chinese herbalist. He prescribed yartsa. She’s been using it for about six months.
Each evening she places two worms in a glass of water and lets it sit overnight. In the morning she boils the water along with some dried dates. She drinks the tea and then eats the softened worms. Yu buys only the highest quality yartsa, from the Tongrentang chain of pharmacies—one of the few brand names more famous, and more expensive, than Zhaxicaiji’s. A bag of 24 midsize worms, enough to last a couple of weeks, costs her more than $550. “I think it’s worth it,” she says, though she is aware of the skepticism surrounding its effectiveness. So far the proof for the power of yartsa gunbu is not in.
Some studies, conducted primarily in China, reveal that it does contain an immune system modulator known as beta-glucan and an antiviral agent called cordycepin. A few clinical trials suggest it can help alleviate many of the conditions it’s long been prescribed for, including bronchitis, asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, high cholesterol, and sexual dysfunction. But critics say the studies have been small and the methodology suspect.
“Until someone does a large clinical trial using a high-quality product, the science we have to rely on so far is not suggestive of a significant effect,” says Brent Bauer, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, who has extensively studied herbal medicines.
What’s more, says mycologist Paul Stamets, wild yartsa may be tainted by any number of unidentified fungal molds, some of which might be harmful. “People could be poisoned,” says Stamets, who has written six books on mushroom cultivation and sells his own mushroom products. “For the inexperienced, it is a form of Russian roulette.” Whether the worms are a potent elixir or an exorbitantly expensive myth, there’s little sign the yartsa gold rush will be over anytime soon. The evidence may be far from certain, but the belief is pervasive.
Yu Jian claims she can feel the worm’s effect—both physically and psychologically. She says it improves her spirits and revitalizes her “life energy”—what’s known in China as qi (pronounced chi). Her actual energy, though, can be variable.
Though she’s quite thin, Yu does have a soft ruddy color and a palpable vigor. On better days, it’s easy to give the worms the credit. Other times, she’s reminded that all cures, ancient and modern alike, have their limits. Yet on her most recent medical visit, she recalls, her doctor was shocked by the swiftness of her improvement. “He didn’t even remember I was a cancer patient,” she says.
A view from the top of the world. Hope to see you tonight at the top of the library – just a reminder that we are on the 4th floor tonight and to just kinda loiter around the 3rd Floor Reference Desk until I come down to get you.
On August 1, 2008, at just about 8 p.m., a massive serac cleaved from a glacier near the summit of K2, the world’s second highest mountain, and barreled down a section of the Cesen climbing route called the Bottleneck. In an instant, one climber was dead, key safety lines were swept away, and 17 climbers were trapped above 27,000 feet with little chance of escape.
In the days ahead, the disaster on K2 would become one of the deadliest mountaineering incidents in history, leaving 11 victims in its wake. The tragedy would shake modern mountaineering to its core. And it would yield a hero, Pemba Gyalje Sherpa.
Pemba, 34, and three members of his Norit K2 team—leader Wilco van Rooijen, Marco Confortola, and Gerard McDonnell—reached the Bottleneck minutes after the serac fell. Rather than face a dangerous descent in total darkness, Pemba’s three teammates decided to bivouac for the night. At 27,000 feet the temperatures would reach minus 40ºF. Pemba, a seven-time Everest veteran, knew the dangers of the death zone. He chose instead to descend the Bottleneck alone, without oxygen, picking his way down the 60-degree couloir guided by a single tattered safety line that had survived the avalanche. He reached Camp IV by 1 a.m. His teammates, he assumed, would be down at first light.
By daybreak on August 2, chaos reigned. More than a dozen climbers were missing or dead, and the weather had worsened considerably. Van Rooijen had staggered away from the team, desperate to get down by a different route, and soon became hopelessly lost. McDonnell had wandered back uphill, apparently confused. Frostbitten and delirious, Confortola had climbed partway down the Bottleneck, unable to remember how he’d done it. Just before he passed out from altitude sickness, a second avalanche swept toward him carrying McDonnell’s mangled corpse.
With his team in shambles, Pemba had to act fast. He heard over the radio that Confortola had been spotted midway up the Bottleneck. “I thought, OK, if we are lucky, I can rescue Marco,” Pemba says. So he began to climb, soloing through swirling snow up the couloir. “It was very scary, but I knew Marco was still alive,” he says. “I could not turn back.”
When Pemba reached Confortola some hours later, the Italian was in bad shape, unconscious and suffering from severe altitude sickness. Somehow Pemba managed to revive him with oxygen and guide him to the base of the Bottleneck. At that moment another slide roared from above, this time carrying the bloodied bodies of two Sherpas and two Korean climbers. A chunk of falling ice blasted Confortola in the back of the head. Dazed, the Italian began to slip. “I was falling,” he told a reporter. “The avalanche would have taken me away. But Pemba grabbed me from behind. He was holding my neck. He saved my life.”
By the time the pair made it to Camp IV, Pemba was shattered, collapsing into his tentfor a few hours’ sleep. When he woke that evening, he got word that van Rooijen, the lost Norit K2 leader, was still alive. He had to go out again.
After a night alone in the open with no water and no ice ax, van Rooijen had been presumed dead. Then, unexpectedly, he called his wife on his satellite phone. Using the call data, the Norit K2 team fixed his location on the mountain’s South Face, far from any known routes.
Armed with only rough coordinates, Pemba, along with another survivor, Cas van de Gevel, struck into terra incognita, picking across avalanche-prone terrain at night. After searching for hours, the pair decided to resume the next day. They finally found van Rooijen in the late afternoon by following the sound of his ringing cell phone. The three men staggered into Camp III well after dark, on August 3, exhausted but alive.
In the weeks after the tragedy, Pemba returned to his Kathmandu home, far from the horrors he’d just witnessed. You’d think that after such an experience, he would never want to climb again, soured forever. But Pemba has no such plans. He’ll be back in the mountains, he says, by the time next season rolls around. Thank goodness. Climbing needs more heroes like him.
K2 tragedy: ‘We had no body, no funeral, no farewell …’
In 2008, 11 climbers were killed on the Himalayan mountain K2 after an avalanche swept away their ropes. How have their families coped since? Graham Bowley talks to some of those whose lives were changed for ever by the disaster.
The Guardian, Friday 12 November 2010
In the cold dawn of 1 August 2008, 31 climbers from eight separate international expeditions set off for the final day’s ascent of K2 in northern Pakistan – a near-perfect pyramid which, though smaller than Everest, has lured the best climbers for decades. Less than 48 hours later, 11 climbers would be dead, in one of the worst tragedies in Himalayan history, a story told in my book No Way Down. The edge of a gigantic ice shelf sheared off, sending blocks of ice down the mountain that killed one climber and swept away the network of fixed ropes the teams needed to get down. Trapped in darkness in the so-called death zone, where body and mind gradually break down due to lack of oxygen, the mountaineers had to climb down without ropes or stay overnight in the plummeting temperatures.
The human cost of climbing and exploration is borne not just by the mountaineers who die or are injured but also by the families they leave behind. Of the 11 who died, eight were married or had long-term partners, others had girlfriends, and six had children. One had grandchildren, and the first child of one of the climbers, a young Nepalese Sherpa, was born back in Kathmandu hours before he died.
Two years on from that terrible day on K2, the repercussions are still being felt. I talked to three of the families to find out how they are.
Cecilie Skog and Rolf Bae
While other climbers’ spouses resented the months they spent away from home and the risks they took, Cecilie Skog and Rolf Bae were both accomplished mountaineers – she was the first woman to stand at both poles and on the tallest peaks in every continent. They often climbed together and shared a passion for the outdoors.
They had met on Mount Elbrus in Russia, in 2003, and married in 2007, just over a year before the ascent of K2. They had moved in together in Stavanger, in Norway, and started a business leading other expeditions.
Cecilie felt ready to have children and they had discussed it. She thought she could return to working as a nurse and when they climbed, they could take their children with them to the mountains. But Rolf wasn’t ready to settle down. He died on the mountain, swept away by an ice avalanche, yards in front of Cecilie.
Cecilie was the first to arrive at K2 in 2008. When Rolf arrived later he brought her a present – a colourful plastic inflatable sofa for their tent, where they socialised with other teams by the warmth of a gas heater, watching DVDs on Rolf’s laptop.
Cecilie reached the summit on August 1 but Rolf turned back, tired and perhaps suffering from altitude sickness. He waited for his wife and they began to descend together. Then, Rolf ventured out under a huge ice cliff and was swept into the void as the ice collapsed. Cecilie composed herself and gradually continued to descend. The next day she got to the base of the mountain – helped, she was convinced, by Rolf’s voice whispering to her. She telephoned Rolf’s parents in Norway to tell them their son was dead. He was their only child. “It’s OK,” Rolf’s father assured her. “We only have you now. You must get down safely.”
Back home in Norway, she couldn’t face the apartment she had shared with Rolf, and moved in with his parents. She continued to rely on their support and the support of her friends as she struggled to come to terms with what had happened.
She also continued to travel – to Greenland not long after K2 and last winter to the south pole with an American adventurer, Ryan Waters. Those trips began to help her get over Rolf’s death, she says. She will not give up her life in the wilderness.
This year, she came to New York, where we met. I was struck that she had brought her climbing harness – she spent many days climbing the walls in a sports centre in Manhattan, and bouldering in Central Park. “It is very easy to sit here and say we should not have done it,” she told me. “But I am glad that Rolf was able to live the life he did. One thing that he taught me: You should not just sneak after your dreams. You should grab them with both hands and hold them really tight and try to live them.”
Next year, she plans to travel back to K2 with Rolf’s father to set up a monument to Rolf. But she will never climb K2 again or any of the Earth’s tallest, most dangerous peaks. She will miss the exhilaration. “But I have decided that’s not for me now. I don’t know if I could tell my mum that I am going back. I could not look her in the eye and say that. One of the hardest things on an expedition is knowing people are sitting at home scared and waiting for you to come back.”
Hugues d’Aubarède was a 61-year-old Frenchman from Lyon with a partner, two daughters and two grandchildren. He had already tried twice to reach the summit of K2 and thought this would be his last chance.
Hugues came to climbing late in life, but his infatuation began in 1972 when he glimpsed the summit of Kilimanjaro from an aeroplane as he travelled on military service. He never forgot it but his wife didn’t approve of climbing, so he got on with his life as an insurance agent. But in 1993, they divorced – and a year later, aged 47, he travelled with his new partner, Mine, to Kilimanjaro.
In 2004, Hugues became the 56th Frenchman to climb Everest. Sometimes he climbed with his daughters, but they never went with him to the Himalayas or other very high mountains. His absences caused friction. Mine and his daughters, worried that one day he might not return. His younger daughter, Constance, was getting married in September 2008 and she wanted him back safely and on time. She sent Hugues a bottle of Chartreuse on K2 and a note with the latest wedding news. She warned her father not to be late – she didn’t want to walk to the altar alone. On K2, he kept in touch with the family almost daily. A friend in Lyon, Raphäele Vernay, kept a blog for him, taking down the messages he called in on a satellite phone. Hugues took comfort, he said, reading in his sleeping bag the text messages friends and family sent.
From the summit, Hugues called Mine and promised it would be his last climb. He was right, but not in the way he intended: after an ice avalanche swept away the ropes, he tried to descend a steep gully and fell to his death.
Five months later, I travelled to Lyon and spent several days with his family. I found a yearning for understanding and a strong sense of loss. I listened to stories of Hugues’ passion for the mountains and glimpsed the fascinating alter ego he had constructed through his pursuit of distant peaks – as if he had stepped out of his life as an insurance agent into one of exotic adventure. “He was a very closed person but he became a lot more accessible,” one friend said.
But as well as love, I witnessed anger that he spent so many months away from his family, and in the end had given his life. In fact, Mine refused to talk to me at first, before consenting to spend hours describing Hugues. His 31-year-old daughter Julia remained silent, carefully listening to my questions to others about her father’s death, while Hugues’s grandchild played at her knees.
Constance refused to meet me to talk about her father. “It was difficult for all of us to relive again this dreadful day,” Mine explained in a recent email. “Two years afterwards we miss him a lot, as on the first day.”
I also contacted Julia recently to ask how she had coped: “I find that these disappearances are hard to accept,” she wrote. “It is quite difficult to have nothing, no body, no accurate story, no funeral, no farewell.”
When her two children are older, she said, she would like to take them to K2 and visit the Gilkey Memorial at the base camp where all the climbers who have died on K2 are remembered. She went on: “I always understood the passion that animated my father about this mountain, and others, and I think it is great that he was able to realise his dreams. He was a great father and even though I miss him very much, I am just happy that he did not go earlier!”
Alberto Zerain was one of Spain’s best climbers. Aged 46 on that ascent of K2, he was the first to reach the summit on 1 August, at 3pm. On his way down, he passed the other teams going up, and made it to the safety of one of the lower camps. He survived – in fact, he slept through the tragedy unfolding above him. But his wife Patricia had no idea he was safe. The Basque climber had taken a satellite telephone to the mountain but the battery was dead. As news of the deaths was carried by the world’s media, she could only sit at home and wait.
I visited Alberto and Patricia – a teacher and translator – in the village where they live with their sons 40 miles outside Bilbao. Andoni and Jon, then 15 and 12, were not interested in climbing, Alberto said, only football. When they were young, Alberto eased off on mountaineering. “I needed to be home to help with the kids, or it’s a lot of work for Patti. I am very casero, a homebody. I like to be at home.”
More recently, he had started to travel again. After K2 he was planning to go to Kanchenjunga, another terrifying peak in the Himalayas – Patricia glanced over uneasily when he talked about his plans to spend more months away from home and his family.
Her anxiety at the time of the K2 disaster was entirely understandable. “I had no idea she had had such a hard time until I got back,” Alberto said.
We talked for hours about his trip and watched a homemade film of his K2 expedition. Afterwards, we drove to a restaurant for a late lunch. He is a gentle, polite man who bonded most strongly on the mountain with the Pakistani high-altitude porters.
I spoke to Patricia again last month. Alberto was away from home again, this time on Everest. He had not been put off by the disaster on K2. She still finds his absences hard. “I understand that it is a very important thing for him to do what he really loves doing,” she said. “But it means he is not at home with me and my children. It is still hard, even after all these years.”
Patricia copes by keeping busy with her job and the children. Her sons seem less affected, perhaps because Alberto has been doing this for as long as they can remember. “But they are still always asking, ‘How is Daddy?’”