Yarsagumba: The Himalayan Viagra

Yarsagumba: The Himalayan Viagra

“Everyone was really excited to take it,” says Peter Zuckerman, referring to the yarsagumba (YAW-Sheh GOOM-bah) he procured during his week-long trek to Hungung, a remote Nepalese village near the Tibetan border, one situated in the vicinity of 27,765-foot Makalu, the world’s fifth-highest mountain. Zuckerman, who was making the journey to visit the home of a Sherpa named Pasang Lama (part of the research for his book Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day), had no idea that yarsagumba has long been used in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine, and that it’s a primary source of income for many inhabitants of the mountainous region, who pay upwards of a hundred dollars a year for harvesting licenses. Only later did he find out that the caterpillar fungus—which reportedly sells for up to $800 an ounce at Chinese herbalist shops in New York—is created when spores of Ophiocordyceps sinensis infect, kill, and mummify a caterpillar, and the fungus grows out of the head of its host.

While Zuckerman doesn’t recall yarsagumba as being especially unappetizing (“it has the consistency of a twig and tastes a little like English Breakfast tea,” he says), the individual who sold it to him remains a vivid memory. “He was the strangest looking person I’ve ever seen,” he says, noting that the man “looked like a walking tree stump,” not only because he was short and thick, but because “he had that condition where one’s skin looks like tree bark.” Unwilling to pay the dealer’s initial asking price of “five million dollars,” Zuckerman haggled, and ultimately convinced the so-called Tree Man to trade his supply for pocket change.

The seller’s disquieting physical appearance aside, Zuckerman wasn’t sure he wanted to ingest the mysterious fungus. But the peer pressure was intense. The native Nepalese accompanying him on the trek started by extolling the virtues of yarsagumba, claiming that “it does everything you could ever want,” and regaling him with stories about how “it makes a stupid man smart and a fat man skinny.”

Taking their argument to the next level, “They told me about a German man who didn’t take yarsagumba when he had the opportunity and the next day his teeth fell out and he got leprosy and his wife left him and he got buried by a rock avalanche. Then they told me about an American who took it and the next day he seduced a beautiful woman and started a business and became incredibly powerful and famous. They were basically telling me that if I didn’t take it I was going to die and that they wouldn’t respect me and I would have bad karma so they wouldn’t talk to me again.”

Zuckerman did eat some of the yarsagumba—though not nearly as much as most of his companions—and says it was as good as advertised. “Drugs aren’t for everyone but they were working for me,” he says with a laugh, noting that like a lot of psychedelic drugs, “when you’re high [on yarsagumba] everything tastes really good.” He also confirms that its reputation as the Himalayan Viagra is well deserved. “I didn’t participate, but let’s just say that people were getting in all kinds of relationships,” he relates.

In hindsight, Zuckerman says he now understands why yarsagumba is regarded as a cure-all miracle drug in Nepal, Tibet and China. Before the experience he says he doubted whether he’d be able to complete the research and writing of the book, which necessitated traveling to dangerous parts of Pakistan, not to mention places in Nepal—like Hungung—that are officially off-limits to foreigners. “The drug gave me a renewed sense of purpose and the feeling that I was going to make the book happen,” he says, “whereas before I wasn’t sure it was going to come together. I began wondering if there was some truth to the stories about how yarsagumba helps people realign their priorities.”

On the other hand, Zuckerman recalls that the yarsagumba did make him feel uncomfortably disoriented, so he turned in early that evening, only to be awakened by his interpreter (who had decided to stay sober and take her share of the yarsagumba back to her parents). Wild-eyed, she burst into his tent and declared that several members of their party were near death. When Zuckerman stumbled outside he found Pasang and friends “on the ground convulsing and foaming at the mouth, looking like they were being electrocuted.”

Traditional healers were called in to tend to the victims but when no one responded to their treatments, Zuckerman chartered a Soviet-era helicopter to evacuate his sickly comrades, a sequence of developments he found difficult to explain to his “Buried in the Sky” co-author, Amanda Padoan, who he reached in California via satellite phone.

“Interestingly, once they recovered no one really remembered being sick,” advises Zuckerman, another victory for yarsagumba’s stellar reputation. As to why everyone became violently ill, he says he can only speculate: “We probably got bad yarsagumba, or they took way too much. Maybe both.”

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