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  • Dr. Rob Williams

Chapter 5/GET HIGH: Breathing In The Roof Of The World

NOTE: Like all YAK chapters on this site, this chapter is a very rough draft very much in progress. Special thanks to the University of Vermont Humanities Center for providing a grant supporting research for this chapter.


Please email me with any ideas, questions, or good suggestions at contact@doctorrobwilliams.com. Yak on!


WC: 18,000'ish


Yaks get high.


The yak is built to thrive at the planet’s most extreme altitudes, and yaks have worked in close concert with high mountain transhumant human communities for centuries. The Tibetan Plateau, the 21stcentury global epicenter of pastoral nomadic cultures, is best recognized by the Himalayas - collectively called the “Roof Of The World” - mountainous geographic and spiritual icons comprising a majestic sacred geography - stunning peaks, deep valleys, sprawling plateaus, epic rivers - that have mesmerized, challenged and inspired travelers for years. And of course, the Himalayas’ Tibetan Plateau is the place where bos mutus - the wild yak - made its ancient mammalian emergence as a species many thousands of years ago.

2018 Trekking to Nepal's Upper Kingdom of Mustang; Mount Yak in the Distance, and National Geographic 2021 photo of a wild yak on the Tibetan Plateau.

Yaks’ ability to “get high” embodies a little understood biological phenomenon known as “hormesis.” “Hormesis is a characteristic of many biological processes, namely a biphasic response to exposure to increasing amounts of a substance or condition,” explains the scientific literature. “Within the hormetic zone, there is generally a favorable biological response to low exposure of toxins and other stressors.” This favorable response becomes more toxic as dose levels increase –the phrase “biphasic,” captures how increasing doses of stress move the experience from helpful to harmful along a “dose-response” continuum.


“Hormesis studies have revealed animal performance benefits in response to changes in oxygen, temperature, ionizing radiation, heavy metals, pesticides, dehydration, gravity, and crowding,” explains a 2020 scientific essay entitled “A dose of experimental hormesis: When mild stress protects and improves animal performance.” “Almost universally, hermetic responses are characterized by increases in performance that include either increases in reproduction, longevity, or both.” Consider the Himalayas, one of the world’s most inhospitable environments. Try and imagine, just for a moment, cold climates and oxygen deprivation as two positive stresses that, when daily embraced in titrated doses, can build physiological and psychological resilience.


Upper Kingdom of Mustang - prayer flags help mark the region's sacred geography.


In short, hormesis refers to regular self-induced positive stress that, when strategically and voluntarily applied, builds resilience of mind, body and spirit in humans, and can be observed and studied in a wide variety of living creatures, including the yak, as we will see. Hormesis, a vital but neglected scientific concept, is now making a comeback in our new century, thanks to the efforts of scientists, researchers, and adventurers, many of whom have spent decades testing the limits of body and mind.


Meet one such human adventurer: Wim Hof and his Method.


February 2021. Northeast of Denver, Colorado, on the front range of the Rockies, I am sitting shoulder deep in a high mountain lake. Clad only in a blue bathing suit and a gray Kora yak knit hat, I am one of twenty humans gathered in a tight circle, our arms around each other’s shoulders, immersed in 26-degree ice water. We’ve been soaking in a near-frozen Estes Lake for more than five minutes now, and an audible group hum is now moving heat and energy through our human circle, all of us focused on warming our bodies through the power of the mind and controlled breathing. Icy gusts of wind ripple across the lake’s surface, and our breathing circle intensifies our humming energy. Three mallard ducks, seemingly unphased by the wintry weather, go about their business just beyond our huddle. In the distance, barely audible above the wind, the cold, and our breathing, we can discern the voices of our three Wim Hof instructors. “Breathe into the power of the cold,” one says. “The mind is powerful,” says another. “Connect to your breathing, in, out, in, out…”


2021 Wim Hof Method instructor's certification training; Estes Park, Colorado.

Our cold water immersion experience is easily the most challenging hour of our five-day Wim Hof Method (WHM) instructors certification retreat. But wait. Wim who? Popularly known as “The Iceman,” Wim Hof is a charismatic Dutch athlete who holds 26 world records in feats of human endurance, including swimming underneath frozen glaciers and running marathons above the Arctic Circle and in the high Himalayas clad only in shorts and sandals. His superhuman accomplishments have garnered him global recognition and myriad media interviews (VICE, Joe Rogan, Netflix’s ‘The Goop Lab,’ and hundreds of YouTube conversations), and now, scientific research indicates that Hof is accurate in claiming his Wim Hof Method can train others to build resilience via a commitment to daily breathing and cold-water immersion practices, combined with the power of mindset and commitment.


Hof’s claim, that we humans can “get high on our own supply” - hormesis in action - is why we are all here, in this frigid lake, humming together.

Official web site of the Wim Hof Method, featuring Wim Hof himself, "getting high."


Hoffing, big picture. After one year of WHM instructor study and training on our own, twenty of us from all over North America have assembled at the Estes Park YMCA for our final hands-on Level 1 instructor certification retreat. In addition to overseeing and critiquing our WHM teaching skills, our three instructors push us outside into lakes and up nearby mountains, encouraging us to deepen our understandings of mind, body, and resilience. Emerging from Estes Lake after nearly eight minutes in water, we gather along the shore and settle into “horse stance,” sinking into a crouching position, feet splayed out below our hips on the frozen ground, slowly moving our hands and arms across our bodies’ tai chi style, uttering a concentrated “Hoo” with one methodical hand motion, and then “Haw” with the other. As we move warm blood out to our cold extremities via the “horse stance,” the icy wind continues to whip across the lake in front of us.


The three ducks remain unphased, while passing cars stop to yell encouragement and take photographs.


I briefly glance around at my companions, all “hoo haw’ing” in my vicinity. The late afternoon sun has disappeared from the sky, the wind continues whipping, and after ten minutes of warming practice, all of us manage to get our clothes back on, pile into our vehicles, and return to the retreat center. After an hour of warming and recovery (including a post-afterdrop warm bath), we gather in the main meeting room for debriefing and dinner. All agree our afternoon marked a turning point – the challenge of the cold opened up blocked emotional pathways for some Hoffers, while revealing both physical possibilities and limitations for others.


That night, as we recover from the afternoon’s adventure, Josue, one young fellow Hoffer from Arizona’s hot desert country whose energy is infectious, asks me what my spirit animal is.


“The yak,” I reply, without hesitation.


He laughs. “Why the yak?”


I explain.


Hormesis.


Getting high.


Breathing in the Roof of the World.


Continued exposure to high altitudes and extreme cold (I tell him) have contributed to the evolutionary success of yaks as a species. 21st century humans (our Hoffers are hip to hormesis) are coming to scientifically understand what yaks have long known - breathing and cold act as positive stressors, strengthening our body’s immune and autonomic nervous systems, and sharpening mindful focus, clarity and purpose when applied in the right doses. It is no coincidence that, evolutionarily speaking, we sapiens first successfully cultivated hormetic techniques in high altitude cold climates that define Planet Yak, including the Tibetan Highlands, which “have been continuously inhabited the longest, with a human presence noted 30,000 – 40,000 years before present,” according to a 2020 Frontiers In Genetics article entitled “Cross-Species Insights Into Genomic Adaptations to Hypoxia.”


Cross species insights? Indeed. For thousands of years, in the company of yaks, Tibetan monasteries pioneered a legendary practice called “Tummo” (a Buddhist term which translates as “inner fire”), in which monks sit nearly naked in freezing high altitude frigid Himalayan temperatures and, through the power of meditation and breathing, maintain comfortable body temperature and even heat up frozen towels draped over their bodies. An impressive ancient practice of the wonders of strategically applied hormesis – and not for the fragile of body or faint of heart. In our 21st century world, humans like Wim Hof (whose family-run WHM company is not coincidentally called “Inner Fire”) are rediscovering and popularizing these little-known Tummo practices by advocating that we “get high on our own supply,” embracing hormesis through simple daily breathing and cold-water immersion protocols that make our minds and bodies more resilient and, well, more like the yak.


Humans have pursued the quest to “get high” for eons, but our historical understandings of this chase remain meager, at best. Wim Hof’s Inner Fire organization is but one of many global initiatives tapping into ancient secrets related to mind, body, and spirit, a transcendent Buddhist’like “be here now” state popularly understood in the West as Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience, to quote Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s best-selling book from 2008. A decade later, in Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work, researchers Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler expanded on Flow, exploring how psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology are working to unlock what the Greeks called ecstasis, the act of “stepping beyond oneself.”


“When we say ecstasis we’re talking about a very specific range of non-ordinary states of consciousness (NOSC) – what Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Stanislav Grof defined as those experiences ‘characterized by dramatic perceptual changes, intense and often unusual emotions, profound alterations in thought processes and behavior,’” explain Kotler and Wheal. “In ecstasis, the conscious mind takes a break, and the subconscious takes over - as this occurs, a number of performance-enhancing neurochemicals flood the system, including norepinephrine and dopamine (NOTE: the same chemicals released through applying the Wim Hof Method pillars of hypoxic breathing and cold immersion). Both of these chemicals amplify focus, muscle reaction times, and pattern recognition.”

Suisse Yakker Rosula Blanc explains yaks' meditative state - on the back of a yak bull.


Observant yakkers with whom I work sometimes describe yaks as being in a state of altered consciousness, tapping into what scientists clinically refer to as our mammalian parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) state. Perhaps Swiss high mountain yakker Rosula Blanc said it best. “The yak mind is open, deeply meditative, and naturally quiet,” she explains to me one November morning in the Alps, our conversation surrounded by her herd of yaks’ resting energy. “If danger appears, yaks can quickly leap into motion, but they spend much of their time in a deep resting meditative state,” she notes, talking softly in the morning sun. “I see this all the time.”


To “get high,” are yaks practiced seekers of ecstasis?


What can we sapiens learn from the grunniens?


Beyond minds, bodies, and altered states, our emerging understandings of our evolutionary history are revealing startling new insights about how our hominid ancestors cultivated DNA modifications for “getting high,” genetic alterations some sapiens today share with yaks and other high-dwelling creatures. To state it squarely, archaeological and genetic discoveries over the past decade are now completely rewriting the history of human evolutionary emergence.


Two “get high” discoveries are of particular note.


First, a quick trip to Russia. In 2010, scientists discovered a hominid pinky bone in Siberia’s Denisova cave. When scientists sequenced the fossil, they discovered, to their astonishment, that the pinky bone exhibited strikingly different DNA than that of either Neanderthal or homo sapiens. As research continued, scientists realized they had discovered a whole new species of hominid they dubbed “Denisovan” in a 2010 Nature magazine article.


Five years later, an 11-inch limb bone fragment unearthed from the same cave revealed a hominid born of a Neanderthal mom by a Denisovan dad, and in 2016, a Denisovan jaw bone (discovered forty years before by a Buddhist monk in the now-famous Baishiya Karst Cave) emerged 1,500 miles south of Denisova on the greater Tibetan Plateau. As archaeological evidence mounted, paleoanthropologists concluded that an entirely different hominid sub species - the so-called Denisovans - were consorting and interbreeding with Neanderthals and sapiens for millennia, exchanging cross-species genes featuring hybridized DNA sequences.


The Denisovan discoveries rippled outward into popular culture, shedding light on “the nature and length of their occupation, their ability to adapt to high altitude locations, their behavior and survival capabilities in the hostile environment of the Tibetan Plateau,” explains archaeologist Kira Westway. “Similar to a CSI crime scene, human DNA from blood, sweat and skin cells can be found everywhere humans occupy, and the freezing-cold climate of the Tibetan Plateau is the perfect environment for DNA preservation.” In other words, the Denisovans were the “Ice Men” ancestors of many sapienstoday.


Discovery #2. Back in the United States, while Siberian scientists were unearthing Denisovan fossils, UC Berkeley geneticist Rasmus Nielsen was seeking scientific answers to the “Tibetan question.” Is there a genetic explanation, Nielsen wondered, accounting for the physiological superpowers exhibited by Tibetans and sherpas (originally from Tibet) at high altitudes? In his research, Nielsen uncovered a gene variant called EPAS1, known as the “super athlete” gene, which encourages the body to make a protein dubbed “hypoxia-inducible factor 2-alpha,” allowing certain hominids to adapt to changing oxygen levels under the stress of high-altitude conditions.


Curious, Nielsen proved unable to locate a matching gene variant in the 1000 Genomes Project, but upon cross-referencing the EPAS1 gene with newly discovered Denisovan genetics, Nielsen uncovered ground-breaking news: the EPAS1 gene that allowed 21st century sherpas to perform as the planet’s most prolific mountaineers directly matched Denisovan DNA. In other words, today’s Tibetans have been gifted with genes for high altitude adaptation from a sub-branch of hominids that disappeared thousands of years ago. Further research revealed bigger discoveries. Beyond the Tibetan plateau, the EPAS1 gene can be found in sapiens scattered across the globe, including peoples inhabiting Melanesia, Australia, and the high mountain Andes. Even more interesting? EPAS1 gene variants are found in a variety of other mammalian species, including Tibetan dogs, grey wolves, horses, pigs, goats, several species of birds (including the yellow-billed pintail and the cinnamon and speckled teals), and yes, wait for it - bos grunniens - the yak.


How does the EPAS1 gene work? At high altitudes, most species can only respond by increasing red blood cell count to compensate for diminishing oxygen. The EPAS1 gene variant, by contrast, allows high-altitude dwellers like yaks and sherpas to physiologically push each and every oxygen molecule much further, maximizing energetic output at the cellular level. As a thought exercise, imagine how hybrid vehicles garner many more miles on a tank of gas than traditional gas-powered machines. Scientists began to speculate that further study of yak physiology in light of the EPAS1 gene might reveal further findings about how to “get high.”


Over to China, home to the most of the world’s yaks today. Noting that the “genetic mechanism underlying yak adaptation remains elusive,” Chinese researchers recently conducted “a cross-tissue, cross-altitude, and cross-species study to characterize the transcriptomic landscape of domestic yaks,” looking at “eight tested tissues (lung, heart, kidney, spleen, liver, muscle, testis, and brain).”


They summarized their findings in a published 2018 Genome Bio Eval study entitled “The Transcriptomic Landscape of Yaks Reveal Molecular Pathways for High Altitude Adaptation.” “In summary, we comprehensively profiled gene regulation in lung and heart, two key organs for adaptation to high altitude hypoxia, and we identified several molecular pathways showing adaptive changes in yak, which may explain the genetic mechanism of hypoxic adaptation,” the researchers observed. The heart and the lungs - two of many organs targeted for hormetic resilience by the Wim Hof Method.


Another 2020 scientific paper expanded this genetic work on yaks. “Relative to other high-altitude mammals, the physiology of yaks has been reasonably well characterized, and adaptations to hypoxia in this species include an increased pulmonary surface area, reduced gas diffusion barriers, lower hemoglobin, and larger lungs,” explains a Frontiers In Genetics article, “Cross-Species Insights Into Genomic Adaptations to Hypoxia.” “Furthermore, transcriptomic analysis of yaks endemic to an altitudinal gradient demonstrates that EPAS1 expression increases with altitude,” researchers noted, intriguingly pointing out that “genomic analysis of Tibetan cattle also suggests introgression of adaptive mutations driven by life in hypoxia due to hybridization with yaks. Clearly,” they conclude, “this is a common route of accelerating adaptive mutations in domesticated species brought to high altitude by humans.”


“Accelerating adaptive mutations” across successful high-altitude species: thousands of years of successful evolutionary adaptation in cold extreme mountain climates, for both yaks and humans. Transhumant yakking communities, from the famed Sherpa mountaineers to the less well known drokpa people, provide key insights into how to “get high,” co-domesticated evolutionary windows into sapiens/grunniens mutual interdependence.


Time to go breathe in the Roof of the World - the Tibetan Plateau.


Begin with the Romance.


“The history of this high-altitude landscape is more complicated, and more turbulent, than adventure tales can capture,” writes Akash Kapur in a 2021 New Yorker essay entitled Can We See Past The Myth Of The Himalaya? “Romantic visions of the region have obscured the real people who live in it.”


Real people, yes, and real yaks.


The famed Mount Everest, the tallest peak in the Himalayas, is perhaps the world’s most iconic mountain. Tibetans know it as “Chomolungma,” the “Mother Goddess of the World,” while Nepalis call it “Sagarmatha,” the “Peak of Heaven.” Our Western moniker - Everest - is named after former Surveyor General of India George Everest, who never actually laid eyes on the mighty peak. Fitting, perhaps, reminding us that cartographic mapmaking is, among other truisms, a process of imposing political control over geographic landscapes and the creatures that live therein. To this day, the Roof of the World remains hotly contested territory, with China, Russia, India, the United States, and the EU all wanting in on the evolving geopolitical action.


My first glimpse of the Himalayas came in spring 2013 - just a few weeks after our farm team made the difficult decision, after seven years, to sell our yak herd and close Steadfast Farm in Vermont’s Mad River Valley. Despondent, but now free of daily yak farm obligations, I was free to travel, so I made plans to head to Nepal to begin exploring Planet Yak in earnest.


Ongyel Sherpa, a Vermont friend, had brought international visitors to our yak farm on many occasions. The founder of Vermont-based US Sherpa, an import/export business that brought in mountain-made Nepalese handcrafted textiles - hats, gloves, and beautiful yak scarves - to sell to US consumers, Ongyel had obtained an undergraduate degree in business at Burlington’s Champlain College, launched his international company, and married one of my former students, which is how he and I first met. For several years, Ongyel had been nudging me to consider joining him for a Nepal trekking trip with his family’s high mountain guiding service based out of Kathmandu, Nepal. With our yaks gone and our farm closed, I could no longer say No. Together with a half dozen other trekkers, Ongyel and I packed our bags and headed halfway around the world.


One of the world’s highest countries and home to several of the planet’s tallest peaks, Nepal is difficult to get to, a “can’t get there from here” experience, even with efficient international airline service. After a twelve hour flight out of New York City and a subsequent overnight layover in Abu Dhabi (shawarma and shisha for everybody!), our connecting flight skimmed over the high Himalayas just after dawn, when every traveler in our plane cabin - oo’ing and ah’ing with cameras at the ready - were treated to the stunning picture of Everest, Lhotse, Kanchenjunga, and Annapurna poking their peak’ed beauty through a veiled wreath of clouds, the morning sun glinting off their iced snowy spines, collectively radiating back towards us a deep orange glow, beacons of welcome.


Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city, features one of the world’s most unique urban landscapes. Descending towards Tribhuvan International Airport (named after the king of Nepal), I noticed the ubiquitous network of cross crossed trekking trails, a testament to Nepal’s ancient emphasis on universal walkability. As we circled the city for our final descent, into view came a sprawling series of interconnected roads, low slung buildings of every size and description, and exotic looking temple complexes with beautiful names: Swayambhunath (“The Monkey Temple,” complete with iPhone-stealing simians), Durbar, Pashupatinath, and the famed Boudhanath stupa.


Kathmandu's sacred urban geography - note monkey in bottom left.


Once on the ground, Ongyel helped us round up our baggage, herding us into the parking lot where we load up several vehicles for a short drive through the crowded city - Temples! Humans! Cows! Oh My! - to his family’s multi story home, an unassuming compound at the end of a quiet street guarded by temples adjacent to the main road. Turns out, Ongyel’s family home serves as the headquarters for this successful sherpa family - a spiritual center meets private residence meets HQ for their various entrepreneurial and community-minded endeavors.


The sherpa people are the tiniest of Nepal’s ethnic minorities, comprising less than 1% of Nepal’s national population of thirty million people. Though small in stature, the sherpa loom large in the global mountaineering community’s collective imagination, as they are among the world’s highest dwelling human populations and, more famously, they serve as the hard-working and risk-taking mountain guides who have supported decades of successful ascents to the planet’s highest peaks, including Everest. New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary’s celebrated “first Everest ascent” to the top of the 29,035 foot peak on May 29, 1953, would never have happened without his sherpa companion, Tenzing Norgay.


Ever since, the sherpa serve as cross-cultural “brokers” for the world’s trekkers and mountaineers, providing technical and logistical support for adventurers exploring Nepal’s many peaks, operating tea lodges in tiny mountain villages that provide food, drink, hot showers and cozy beds, and stewarding an ancient spiritual geography comprised of temples, stupas, and prayer flags, a mystical landscape within which yaks play an integral role. “The sherpa from Himalaya can survive in thin air with little oxygen,” tersely explains an exhibit at the International Mountaineering Museum in Nepal’s Lake Pokhara District. “In comparison with others, they have big lungs and heart and high percentage of hemoglobin in blood. Their heartbeat is also slower than others.” Perhaps someday, the discovery of the EPAS1 gene will be featured in this exhibit.

Downtown Kathmandu, Nepal - Sherpa urban HQ - launch pad for Himalayan trekking.


In what would be my first of many visits to US Sherpa’s Nepal headquarters in downtown Kathmandu, we arrive at Ongyel’s family home, help unload the vehicles, unpack our overnight sundries, freshen up, and sit down with Ongyel’s family for our first “in country” meal of dahl bhat (lentils and rice, Nepal’s national dish: “Dalbhat Power, 24 Hour”! reads the popular tee shirt). Ongyel’s parents - mother Pema and father Nima - are all smiles and warm words of welcome, making all arriving guests (I learn later) immediately feel at home. I soon discover that Pema and Nima have hosted internationally renowned doctors, researchers, scientists and mountaineers for many decades here. Ongyel’s sister Dadoma, her husband Tenzing (who will be our surdar, chief sherpa mountain guide), and their son Neema are also gathered around the table, and we quickly dive into conversation. We ask how Pema and Nima met, and Dadoma, smiling, shares a brief sketch of her parents’ story.


Having grown up in a high mountain sherpa village in Everest’s Khumbu region, Dadoma explains, Pema and Nima fell in love as teenagers, and “eloped” from their village, making their way via foot trails to Kathmandu (the journey took weeks, Dadoma says), where they rented a small room, sought wage-earning jobs to establish themselves, and gradually built what has become a successful dried packaged foods business to feed the rapidly growing number of trekkers and mountaineers arriving in Nepal every year. An incredible story - the stuff of Hollywood movies - and just one of many remarkable aspects of sherpa life here in the Himalayan region. I ask after yaks, and Dadoma says, “yes, my parents are well acquainted with them.” Turns out, Nima herded yaks as a boy, and then worked with grunniens for years as a mountaineering cook traveling to Everest base Camp (EBC) with many mountaineering expeditions. I ask Dadoma if I might interview him, and Dadoma’s son, Nima’s grandson Neema, offers to help with translation.

Kathmandu rooftops - prepping for trekking in the high Himalayas.


The next morning, I sit down with Nima Thundu Sherpa and Neema Norbu Sherpa - grandfather and grandson - after breakfast to learn more about how yaks “get high” within the context of sherpa culture. From my research, ethnographers explain that yaks serve sherpas (and other Tibetan plateau pastoralists) as messengers to the gods, or even gods themselves, hairy shapeshifters whose goodness or wrath mediates fateful outcomes between humans and the larger natural world. The Nepalese sherpa trace their geographic origins back to Tibet, where they have herded yaks for hundreds of years.


Robert B. Ekvall’s classic 1968 ethnographic research study Fields On The Hoof: Nexus Of Tibetan Nomadic Pastoralism, explains how yaks “get high” in this way:


At all effective levels of social and political structure there exists a special form of offertory guardian-ownership wherein a family, encampment, or tribe makes an offering of livestock to the gods. Any animal may be so offered, but usually it is a male yak, ceremoniously presented to the gods.


Known as !HagYag (god yak), these animals are set completely free and may not be used or even handled by anyone. They are free to go as they please, but if they follow the community in its seasonal move it is a good omen. If they choose to wander off by themselves, no effort is made to control them, but the community does seek to protect them from harm or outside interference, and thus, communally acts a guardian of these livestock of the gods.


The offering is a gesture of piety by the community, and of self-interest in anticipation of blessing. Yet it seems also to be an unwitting making of amends, and an acknowledgement that domestication of the very livestock on which pastoralism depends, and which, by their mobility, make that society nomadic, is an infringement of natural rights as first willed by the gods.” (29-30)


In sum: yak mobility begets human pastoralism, this nomadism is regarded as a natural right granted by the gods, and yaks are enshrined as semi deities within the pastoral pantheon. Breathe in the magic of this high mountain mythology for a moment.

Interviewing Nima and Neema.


The three of us settle into Nima and Pema’s combination study/bedroom just off the kitchen. Burning incense gives the room a subtle mystical aura, the morning is quiet, and after asking for permission to record our conversation, I get started with a quick explanation about Life By The Horns and my desire to learn more about the significance of yaks in Tibetan sherpa culture, explaining that I am curious to hear of Grandpa Nima’s recollections about yaks over the course of his life.


Nima nods, pauses, and then starts with the present.


“My brother has 15 or 16 yak and nak (female yak),” explains Nima through grandson Neema, “along with many zokyop (hybrid mix of ox and yak), and he uses them as pack animals to carry tsampa, salt and other kinds of food.”


I ask what advantages zokyop have over yaks. Why a combined herd?


Zokyop can be sold in southern parts of Nepal and are more versatile than yak - in Tibet, the zokyopgive more milk than yak, but the yak and nak are great for high altitudes, like where I grew up in Khumbu.”


“Are yaks intelligent?” I ask.


“I am shocked at how smart yaks are,” he responds right away. “In deep snow - yaks always remember the way home, and they test the weight of the snow -moving forward and back - almost like they are smelling their way across treacherous conditions,” Nima explains. “The yaks work together to navigate their way through deep piles of snow - one leads, then gets tired, moves aside, calls a friend, and a new yak takes over.”


I nod, astonished. This is the first time I’ve heard this, but Nima’s story will be confirmed by many other yakkers over the next few years.


“What are some other amazing things yaks do?” I ask.


“Our naks always look for yaks during every breeding season,” Nima reflects, “the female yaks are not interested in breeding with ox - they’d rather have yaks to father their babies. We have to keep naktogether with ox for long time for cross-breeding to happen.”


I nod, jotting down notes.


“Yaks are also very strong,” Nima remembers, “and can defend themselves from snow leopards, especially during summer when they are well fed.”


The elusive snow leopard, I’ve read, is the yak’s second biggest predator, after we sapiens.


“Snow leopards aim for a yak’s back, and attack over and over until yaks get tired,” Nima explains, “so yaks protect their backs, and use their horns to hit leopards, which come in one and twos” (“Unlike other animals like wolves, which attack in packs,” grandson Neema adds.)


Grunting while jotting notes, I ask about a yak’s strength and seasonality.


“In early spring, April through June, naks are pregnant or have new calves, and babies cannot walk properly, so there is often a separation between calves with their nak mamas and the rest of herd - this can make it difficult to keep an eye on the entire group of animals,” Nima explains. “And in April and May, we cut off yaks’ “guard hairs” with shears, and then some yaks feel cold and may not have as much energy, so they stay in one place and sometimes get sick - we euthanize them if they can’t go with the rest of the herd.”


I nod, remembering our own challenges with our Vermont yaks in winter and early spring, especially.


“What about yaks’ spiritual significance?” I probe.


Nima closes his eyes and reflects for a few moments. The incense is burning down, and I hear the occasional sounds of traffic outside their bedroom window.


Opening his eyes, Nima slowly gets up and leads us into the hallway, where he points to a hand drawn map of Khumjung village and the Khumbu region hanging on the wall.


“Rimpoche is Tibetan Buddhism’s main god, with an assistant god being the god of the Sherpas,” Nima explains, gesturing to the map. “This sacred hill in front of the mountain” (he points) {marks the home of the main sherpa god – Khumbu ila - who rides a yak in winter.”


I nod, intrigued.


“And every summer, we pray, pierce our yaks’ ears, dress up our yaks with jewelry, and place tsampa(barley) on their backs – all to celebrate the Tibetan gods,” Nima concludes.


The three of us stand in silence for a few moments, Grandma Nima’s words lingering in the hallway, while I mentally jot down his words in my mind so as not to break the spell of this moment.


Nima’s words echoing in my imagination, I thank them both for sharing their wisdom with me, and head downstairs to finish packing for our trek to Everest base camp.


That night, I review my notes. Like yaks themselves, the sherpa people are small but mighty, among the most adept humans in the world at “getting high.” Little did I know in 2013 that I would return multiple times to Nepal to chase yaks and yakkers: the Annapurna region’s Mount Poon trek, Mount Manaslu’s Larke Pass ascent in 2016, a 2018 adventure into the upper Kingdom of Mustang to visit with yak nomads, and an EBC trip organized by www.TrekRelief.org (more on TR later).


Before leaving Kathmandu, Nepal for Everest base Camp and the Roof of the World, a few more observations are in order. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) provides a comprehensive overview of this region. With a focus on what they call the “Hindu Kush Himalaya” (HKH), ICIMOD defines itself as a “regional knowledge development and learning centre serving the eight regional member countries of the Hindu Kush Himalaya - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.”

ICIMOD's web site.


ICIMOD’s work is as ambitious as their proclaimed eight country transregional geographical reach. ICIMOD envisions the HKH region as the “pulse of the planet,” with ICIMOD’s “for mountains and people” advocacy mission guided by this larger vision statement:


Globalisation and climate change have an increasing influence on the stability of fragile mountain ecosystems and the livelihoods of mountain people. ICIMOD aims to assist mountain people to understand these changes, adapt to them, and make the most of new opportunities, while addressing upstream-downstream issues.


We support regional transboundary programmes through partnership with regional partner institutions, facilitate the exchange of experience, and serve as a regional knowledge hub. We strengthen networking among regional and global centres of excellence. Overall, we are working to develop an economically and environmentally sound mountain ecosystem to improve the living standards of mountain populations and to sustain vital ecosystem services for the billions of people living downstream – now, and for the future. (https://www.icimod.org)


Headquartered in Kathmandu, ICIMOD also maintains a robust educational presence at Lake Pokhara District’s International Mountaineering Museum, presenting the world’s visitors with a dizzying array of data points highlighting the Hindu Kush Himalayas’ geographical centrality and environmental importance: 94 of the world’s 100 highest mountains, including all 14 of the world’s peaks above 8,000 meters; 54,000 individual glaciers with 6,000 km of ice reserves; four global biodiversity hot spots; 488 protected areas; 330 important bird areas; six UNESCO Natural World Heritage sites; 30 Ramsar wetland sites; and ten major rivers, the “water towers of Asia” - including the Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtse, Yellow River, and Tarim. One fifth the world’s population of more than “1.3 billion people rely on the mountains of the Hindu Kush Himalayas for water,” explains the ICIMOD exhibit, and “3 billion people depend on food and energy produced in the river basins originating in the Hindu Kush Himalayas.”


“For mountains and people,” says ICIMOD.


People, yes.


But what of yaks, who claim this HKH region, the epic Tibetan Plateau, as their ancient place of emergence? At first glance, the ICIMOD web site, Lake Pokhara exhibit, and printed materials reveal little focus on bos grunniens (surprise!).


Small victories - a 2013 “special publication” celebrating ICIMOD’s thirty-year anniversary - High Altitude Rangelands and their Interfaces in the Hindu Kush Himalayas (unearthed in Daniel Wismer’s Alpine Suisse yak museum) – reveal a single photo of “yak at a distance,” while a scouring of the ICIMOD web site database notes a few mentions of the yak. “Yak productivity and populations are declining, and yak-herding lifestyles and knowledge are vanishing,” states an online August 2020 ICIMOD “Transboundary Landscapes” article. “Yak networks and annual yak festivals across the HKH are key to preserving yak-herding culture and sharing knowledge to ensure the vitality of yak raising as a mountain livelihood option.”


The 2020 article goes on to note:


Yak are an important landscape connector and yak conservation provides an important shared regional interest with clear transboundary needs and regional cooperation benefits.

The transboundary movement of yak across four of our HKH transboundary landscapes is an age-old practice essential for grazing, breeding, and vitality. It brings together communities across the highlands in cultural and economic arenas. Yak are intrinsic to life in the shared landscapes, but their vitality and viability as a mountain livelihood option is eroding.

To revitalize this option and collectively address challenges, we helped establish local yak networks in Bhutan, Nepal, and North Sikkim district in India. The goal is to connect these networks to form an HKH yak network. We also support annual yak festivals in Nepal and Bhutan to connect yak herding communities and other stakeholders for knowledge exchange on herding practices and challenges, technological solutions, value chain development, and trade opportunities. These festivals have been mainstreamed into local and national plans to ensure sustainability.


ICIMOD is correct to “flag” yaks as ancient “landscape connectors,” building cross-species relationships and cross-cultural connections across vast stretches of space and time. Tracking yaks’ ability to “get high” here in in the Hindu Kush Himalayas Tibetan Plateau region brings us back into deep history and beginning with the Pleistocene era’s Qiang people. “The relationship of the yak to mobility, in a very special ecology, is of great significance and analogous to the position and function of the camel among desert nomads of Arabia and North Africa,” Ekvall explains in his 1968 ethnographic research study Fields On The Hoof: Nexus Of Tibetan Nomadic Pastoralism. “Only the domesticated yak makes possible a maximum exploitation of the high plateau, for it appears impervious to cold, able to lick up ‘yak grass’ and browse on high altitude shrubbery, and capable of sustained exertion at altitudes of up to 20,000 feet. At those altitudes, with its great lungs inhaling and exhaling in puffs like the blowing of a locomotive, it can carry a pack or a rider at a steady, and, at times, surprisingly fast pace.”


Indeed, like the bison for indigenous peoples of the Great Plains, and the camel for North African and Arabian nomads, the yak has made possible the rise of a centuries-old transhumant civilization here on the Tibetan Plateau. Unlike the bison, which remained wild, early Tibetans managed to domesticate the wild yak, no small feat given bos mutus’ impressive size, strength and independent nature. Ekvall’s 1968 ethnographic study observes:


Wild yak are impressively large. Big-game records cite figures such as 6 feet, 10 inches at the shoulder for a prize bull, and the bulls have enormous horns. Among the nomadic tribes which hunt them, milk pails are often made from the base cross sections. Yaks are both wary and fierce, and there are many stories of the ferocity of wounded bulls and their tenacity of life. At altitudes where horses are scant of breath yak can outrun them, which makes hunting on horseback particularly dangerous.


And here’s Daniel Miller:


The wild yak characterizes the wild nature of the Tibetan landscape. Standing six feet at the shoulder with massive horns, a wild yak bull is a magnificent animal; the long, black hair on its belly and flanks almost sweeps to the ground. No other animal so evokes the raw energy and sublime grandeur of Tibet. The wild yak is a totem animal of the Tibetan wilderness and it long ago received mythic status among Tibetans. For nomads, the hunting of wild yaks signified bravery and there are many epic tales of these hunts. Wild yak skulls are found on shrines at mountain passes and on house roofs testifying to their significance in Tibetan culture.


So how did early Tibetans - known as the Qiang (translated from the Mandarin Chinese as ‘shepherd’) - manage to co-domesticate wild yaks 5,000 years ago? How did these two species “get high” in symbiosis?


Researchers point to a number of evolutionary explanations. Renowned field biologist George Schaller, for example, flagged yak social structure as one of co-domestication’s central features: “close-knit herds of cows, calves and young males with a well-defined dominance hierarchy but not strongly territorial [which] gives individual animals a sense of social membership or social ‘place’ that can be exploited by people to control captured animals.” Yaks’ “bunching behavior,” exhibited in stressful situations marked by narrow mountain travel and the appearance of predators, offers a second explanation, especially when combined with a third factor, wild yaks’ relative isolation, allowing the Qiang to separate and “tame” wild yaks over time, and at a distance from the influence of their mutus companions.


Most importantly, co-domestication occurred only when the Quiang were able to create sustained settlement patterns in high mountain regions. “Yak domestication must have occurred under conditions in which the benefits of conserving yak for future use outweighed the immediate gains of hunting them,” concludes David Rhodes et. al. in an article entitled “Yak Domestication.” “In this shift from hunting to animal husbandry,” the Qiang “went from exploiting the somatic potential of other organisms to co-opting and increasing their reproductive potential.”


And did wild yaks see opportunities for themselves, allying with their ancient human hunting enemies? So much is still unknown. Take yak dung, as a single example. Some have speculated that the Qiang domesticated wild yak to assure themselves a regular fuel supply, allowing them to survive and thrive on the sparsely timbered Tibetan Plateau. And yet, “wild yak fecal productivity and use are equally poorly measured by modern science,” writes Rhodes et. al. “Dung production of the domestic yak may help to illustrate the productivity and utility of the dung of its wild ancestors, given proper allometric and environmental allowances.” Clearly, co-domesticating the wild yak brought the Qiang many benefits over time: fuel, food, milk, hides, transport, and trade, to name the most obvious.


But what did the yaks get out of the deal?


The quest to understand the origins of the close evolutionary co-domestication between yaks and humans - grunniens and sapiens - continues today. Historical accounts of yakking peoples provided by Western travelers, while few and far between, are illustrative of the uniqueness of yakking transhumant cultures.


To wit:


“The yak is used as a beast of burden; and much of the wealth of the people consists in its rich milk and curd, eaten either fresh of dried, or powdered into a kind of meal,” explained Joseph Hooker in his 1854 travel account Himalayan Journals. “The hair is spun into ropes, and woven into a covering for their tents, which is quite pervious to wind and rain.”


“The nomads are a purely pastoral people, living almost entirely on the produce of their flocks and herds - vegetables and fruits they can never taste - and tsampa, a kind of barley flour, the only starchy food their tents ever boast, which is regarded as a luxury to be partaken of sparingly,” observed Hamilton Bower in his 1894 account Diary of a Journey Across Tibet. “Their tents are of rough blackish sacking, made of yak and goats’ hair, and with a slit at the top through which the smoke escapes; in winter a wall of cow-dung is built on the west side as a protection from the prevailing wind, while stacks of it stored as fuel are to be seen outside.”


“The chief resources of Tibet at the present time lie in the pastures and the herds. There are no natural meadows, and, so to speak, no artificial meadows except a few fields of lucerne,” notes Fernard Grenard in his 1904 account Tibet: The Country And its Inhabitants. “The food of the cattle is supplied solely by spontaneous common pastures, indifferently rich in consequence, but at least very wide. The grass is very nourishing, but hard and rough and is suited only to specially adapted cattle. Sheep and yaks are the most numerous and the most valuable kinds.”


Determined to witness and research high mountain yak pastoralism firsthand, I plan a 2016 trekking trip with Ongyel and US Sherpa to Mount Manaslu, the world’s 8th highest peak, and a sparsely traveled trail when contrasted with Annapurna or Everest. Remember - Manaslu’s Larke Pass was where I had my late-night moonlit encounter with the ghostly herd of yaks who, near noiselessly, moved through our camp and helped inspired this book. We assemble a small but merry band of trekkers - Surdar Tenzing, three porters, Phineas Gage band mate Erica Stroem, a family friend, and two adventurous students from Saint Michael’s College, both of whom brought their digital video production gear and chops to match.


Yaks in the Manaslu high mountain region.


After several days of ascending up through steep river valleys and stunning jungle’like forests, our small group reaches yak country, traversing across high pastures towards Manaslu – prime yak country. We catch our first glimpse of yaks upon reaching the edge of Samdho village, and my heart began racing. Back in the land of yak, and it feels good.




Tenzing books us in at a rustic high mountain tea lodge for two nights, where we would rest, recover, and allow our bodies to “get high” - adjusting to the upper altitudes (my yak kingdom for an EPAS1 gene!) The lodge, managed by a young couple with two rambunctious kids, occupies a strategic location on the west end of town between the main village and the local monastery, which in turn marks the main trekking trail towards Larke Pass.


The first night, we enjoy a garrulous dinner with three other small trekking groups, including a young woman, Candice Young from California, with whom I immediately hit it off. Bright and inquisitive, with a mischievous sense of humor, Candice tells us she has been traveling across Nepal for more than a month, including working with a global team of volunteers in Langtang Village, almost completely destroyed in a horrific mudslide caused by the devastating 2103 Nepal earthquake. “Langtang radicalized my heart,” Candice explains to me over momos and beer, “and I am interested in perhaps starting a volunteer organization to bring adventure travelers to Nepal to help provide disaster relief.” We talk for more than an hour - little did I know at the time the two of us would collaborate to build what is now www.TrekRelief.org. (See Last Chapter)


Acclimatizing in the Manaslu region - Momo and Erica in our hosts' kitchen.


The next day finds our trekking group kicking around the village after a leisurely morning of breakfast, sunbathing, shooting photos, and light chore’ing with our tea lodge family, including playing with their kids for a bit to give them a break (parental responsibilities are the same the world over). As the sky turns gray and ominous, Tenzing and I wander into the village mid-afternoon in search of a yak interview, and are rewarded with an unexpected opportunity for conversation and hospitality, finding ourselves invited into a two-story house for afternoon yak butter tea and a variety of steamed buns.


As we enter their rustic home, Tenzing quietly mentions to me that this family lives on the village’s wealthy side - their good-sized yak herd was the one we trekked past on our way into town the day before. Ascending a wooden staircase, the two of us joined four family members, sitting cross legged on their second story sitting room surrounded by the pleasant smell of the wood burning fire, talking story for close to two hours, breaking the ice with conversation about our travels, the weather, the previous winter here in the village, and my book project.


“What’s so special about yaks?” I ask the patriarch once we warm up, Tenzing translating my question into Tibetan for the family.


“So many ‘best things’ about yak,” he replies, smiling. “Yak milk, butter, spending time with them - the yaks keep us village people busy, with grazing, drying hay grass, feeding, yak babies - we take care of them, and the yaks help us occupy our time up here in these remote regions of Nepal.”


I nod, and he runs me through their sizeable herd numbers. Their oldest yaks, he says, live as long as thirty years.


“Are yaks smart?” I query.


The entire family nods and smiles.


“Yaks are very clever,” he responds. “When yaks sense snow coming, they descend from the mountains - yaks can read the weather.”


I nod, listening.


“Also, when we feed yaks salt - they quickly learn to come down to the house to wait for the salt.”


“Yaks are very intelligent,” his wife says to us, tapping her head knowingly.


The next morning, our trekking teams head out and towards toward Larke Pass. All of us have bonded in our guest tea lodge’s intimate quarters, and we are now enjoying each other’s company - Poles, Americans, Sherpas, Scandinavians, and two very fit young Slovaks, their trekking poles flashing like knitting needles in the bright sunlight - all winding our way upwards towards our goal.


We make a brief stop at the village monastery, and are rewarded with another quick yak interview. A 71-year-old monk named Bim Tang, energetic, near toothless, and all smiles, regales us with yak stories. His family is comprised of (let’s count) ten nak, four cow, two horse, three daughters, one son, one daughter in law, two granddaughters, and one grandson, he tells us.


What do the monks do with yaks?” I ask him.


“Nothing,” he says, laughing. “We barter yak butter oil for our lamps, and trade with villagers for yak things.”


We all smile, bid him a hearty “Derry Rombro” (“Many Thanks”) and make our way up the sloping shoulders of Manaslu.


After some rest and acclimatization, under a warm bluebird sun and a light midday breeze, all of us are feeling good, and a half day’s trek brings us to, elevation wise, the highest village of our journey, directly below Larke Pass. After a delicious dinner of local potatoes, vegetables, bottled beer and a night of sound sleep near altitude, we wake early the next morning for breakfast.

Yak agriculture in Nepal's Manaslu region.


Across the village, in the coolness of the morning, I see what looks to be a small group of farmers moving two yaks onto a tilled field. Curious, I quietly wander over and observe. Two middle-aged women and a single man, who appears to be deeply drunk at this early hour, are struggling to move the yoked pair of yaks, a wooden plow behind their hairy rumps, across a fallow field. The yaks look even more unhappy than the women, with their male companion laughing drunkenly and unhelpfully gesturing between them all. The women flash me a bit of Nepalese stinkeye, and I wave, getting the message, and wish them a cheery “Tashi Dele” (“Good morning!”) before wandering back to our lodge. Yaks and yakkers don’t suffer fools, tourists, or drunken farmers. We saddle up our gear and head upward to our final night’s stop before walking up and over Larke Pass. (See PREFACE).


The next 48 hours prove epic, as we trek up, over, and down the back side of Larke Pass, Manaslu looming, massive and snowcapped, above us. After celebrating our accomplishment with singing and snacks at the top, we descend down a steep rocky trail through glacier ice and snow, eventually making our way back down to human civilization by day’s end.


Larke Pass party, and descending through ice fields back into high Himalayan yak country.


Exhausted but happy, we mark our endeavor with well-deserved night of eating and sleeping, and head out early the next morning. “All downhill from here,” Tenzing jokes with us on the trail, moving with cat’like contemplative grace as we all exchange stories and snatches of song.


We stop in a small village for lunch, and meet a lama named Dawa Norbu, who, I learn after asking, is an experienced yakker. Youthful, bespectacled, and gracious, Norbu is a cultural broker, moving easily between traditional mountain communities (he is from the Manaslu region’s Samagong village) and the larger world in Kathmandu and beyond. He tells me he worked with yaks for years when he was a boy, then went to Kathmandu, returning to his village at age 21, and has moved back and forth from village to city ever since. “For boys, our yak responsibility is to do the hard work of tying yaks, field work, and raising yaks –many girls are scared of yaks,” he says, smiling.


I smile back, and ask him if I can record our conversation. He nods assent.


“I’ve worked a lot with yaks - we bring them to different pastures, and when they come back to our homes, we must tie them up to prohibit fighting amongst the bulls, as we look after yaks as a source of income,” he describes to me over lunch.


He speaks good English, so we settle in and I ask about traditional yakking culture.


“The high altitude is challenging - in wintertime, with lots of snow, we must feed our yaks all winter long,” Norbu says. “In autumn, we store grass for winter - and it is sometimes hard to keep very good nutrition - barley flour and salt, and all our grass is cut with a sickle by hand, with every house setting aside some land for crop harvesting, and other land for grass animals.”


“Are yaks smart?” I ask.


“Some yaks are very smart,” he says, smiling. “In our case, we go to China with our yaks once yearly, and they know when we will go and they run off and hide – yaks don’t want to go to China and carry loads over to China.”


I chuckle. “Do farmers up here eat yaks?” I wonder.


“In the case of meat, we don’t eat animals like yaks in Tibet, unless the yak dies of natural causes, in which case we will eat the yak,” he muses. “We use yaks for transport, wool, milk, and the nak for cheese, butter, and churpi - dried cheese.”


“What of a yak’s religious significance?” I ask him.


“We feel deeply spiritual about our yaks,” he says. “In old age, when our people can’t move their yaks anymore, and others urge yaks to be sold, the old folks say ‘if we sell our yaks, the gods will get angry’ – we get wealth from the animals, and if we sell them, we believe no wealth will come.”


We sit in silence for a moment.


“Yaks are the backbone of our wealth,” he summarizes. “Economically and spiritually.”


“Tell me more,” I prompt.


“We keep our yaks independent, feed them delicious food, and add colored ribbons to special yaks – red and yellow – in the shape of the OM sign,” he explains. Some yaks we name by size, other by color, so my brother might say ‘Oh, the small brownish yak came to the house last night and seems sick…’”


I laugh. “Sounds like you are describing an ill neighbor,” I say. “What are the most amazing things about yaks?”


Norbu pauses, thinking.


‘Yaks carry huge loads - and also, the yak lives a long life,” he responds. “They walk 5,000 meters up the mountain side and just eat grass, going together as a group - as a herd, they are very social - and yaks know their own house.”


“What do you mean?” I wonder.


“Yaks defend each other from bad owners,” he muses. “Yaks know bad-tempered people.”


“Any last words of wisdom?” I ask him.


“In the context of the modern world, yaks are very special – not like other animals – they should be protected and promoted, and visitors should be educated about nak cheese and butter (females) not yak (male) cheese and butter,” he explains. “Yaks give village farmers a sense of pride – if they have more yaks, people say, ‘oh, they are very rich,’ and if someone has no yaks, people make fun – yaks are a sign of wealth and status.”


I thank Norbu for his time, we shake hands, and he heads down the trail, leaving me astonished and pleased at the depth of our conversation.


We encounter one last yakker as we near the end of our Manaslu journey, a 47-year-old Nepalese entrepreneur named Tije, when we stop for lunch and a village visit. Tije owns a big herd of yaks - 33 yak, and 74 nak –with two yakkers in his employ. His hired hands milk his nak herd, and, with a road coming in from below, he is planning to build a cheese factory, as well as supplying yak meat and a wedding ceremony location here in these beautiful hills for wedding couples and their families.


“Yak meets Yenta,” I joke with Tenzing.

Talking with Tije, yak entrepreneur in the Manaslu region.


A man of few words, Tije briefly recounts yak raising challenges: winter feeding with such a large herd, deploying salt to supplement his yaks, and the challenges of supporting newborn calves and mamas. Most of his yaks are up on the karge – the upland flat pastures, he says, waving his hand skyward – grassing up after a long winter. Tenzing and I wish him well, and the next day, we find ourselves back in civilization, driving our way back to Lake Pokhara enroute to Kathmandu.


In a Lake Pokhara bookstore, I find a book about the Drokpa, Tibetan yak nomads of whom I have heard encountered in my yak research. As we enter the 21st century, the Drokpa - “high pasture people” translated from Tibetan and known culturally as the “Herders of Forty Centuries” – may be the most visible of the two million Tibetan speaking nomads who call “The Roof of the World” their home, thanks to the intrepid work of a small number of photographers and filmmakers. Perhaps the most compelling of these documentarians is Daniel Miller, whose photography essay I purchase in Lake Pokhara.

Lake Pokhara, and our 2016 Manaslu crew with Dadoma, Nima, and Pema Sherpa.


“Nomads continue to fascinate us - moving across the grasslands with their animals, their home a tent, nomads evoke freedom,” explains Daniel Miller in what I learn is his iconic 2008 book Drokpa: Nomads of the Tibetan Plateau. Miller’s remarkable photo essay is worth quoting at length, given his long history of intimate immersion breathing in the Roof of the World. After spending three years in the Peace Corps, Miller trekked for ten weeks across the Tibetan Plateau, crossing sixteen passes over 15,700 feet (4,800 meters). After “cowboying” back in the United States, Miller then returned to the Tibetan Plateau, working for years in Nepal, Bhutan and beyond with nomadic peoples, learning local languages (Tibetan, Nepali), hunting wild yaks high in the Himalayas, and developing an intimate understanding of yaks and yakkers. Drokpa is an extraordinary poetically written and beautifully photographed testament to the tenaciousness of high-mountain Tibetan yakking culture, and to yaks as a keystone species in the region.


Fittingly, Miller - who has lived multiple lives as a rangeland ecologist, rural and agricultural development specialist, photographer, writer, cowboy, and yak herder - begins Drokpa with a focus on the yak - “a stunning animal,” Miller notes, whose presence “matched the splendor of the snow peaks of the Himalaya.” More importantly, the yak, Miller observes, has always been central to sustaining Tibetan nomadic life.


Miller writes:


The yak, an exceptional animal superbly adapted to the high altitude, cold environment of the Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya, characterizes Tibetan nomad pastoralism. Tibetans place so much value on it that the Tibetan term for yaks, nor, can be translated as “wealth.” Yaks provide nomads with milk, meat, hair, wool, and hides. They are also used as pack animals and for riding. Dried yak dung is an important source of fuel in an environment where firewood is not available. Without the yak it is doubtful if man could lie as well as he does in the high pastoral areas. The yak makes life possible for the nomads.


Like numerous travelers, ethnographers, and researchers, Miller then speaks of the civilizational success of high mountain pastoralists. “Nomadic pastoralism, the raising of livestock by people who make periodic movements with their animals to different grazing lands,” Miller states,” is one of the great advances in the progression of mankind.”


Of the Drokpa, Miller observes:


Their world cherishes mobility and the liberty to roam in search of grass and water. Nomads are constantly exposed to the elements of nature - rain, snowstorms, and drought; they take these events for granted and face them with remarkable equanimity. Values that humankind admires - courage integrity, generosity - are principles instinctive to nomads. They also have an intimate knowledge of their environment and an amazing ability to handle animals - a skill rare among most people today.


21st century globalization - climate change, geopolitical encroachment by China and Russia, modernization pressures - all pose threats to the Drokpa and the millions of other high mountain pastoralists who have long made the mountains their home. Yaks’ ability to “get high” is also under siege from these same forces.


My next glimpse of high mountain yakkers came during the March 2018 Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier, Vermont’s capital city, which hosta a remarkable documentary film by Chinese filmmaker Yan Chun Su. Entitled “Drokpa: last Tibetan Nomads,” the 75-minute documentary spotlights the lives of a single nomadic family in transition, yaks included. A friend who organizes the festival convinced Ongyel and US Sherpa to sponsor the film, and me to cater the one hundred ticket event with our YakItToMe! grass-fed maple yak sausage sandwiches. The afternoon proves cold - snowy and windblown -but the crowd in attendance prove enthusiastic. I find a convenient spot outside the venue to grill up our sausage sandwiches (the “sherpa sandwich,” for those reading our menu), and the filmmaker herself arrives to introduce the movie, which proves eye opening.

2018 Green Mountain Film Festival DROKPA screening catalog information.


Su’s film begins with a single text screen describing the environmental situation on the Tibetan Plateau, reading


Every year, more than 2,300 square kilometers are lost to desertification.

Since 2015, most all Drokpa have been “resettled.”


The movie’s opening scene begins with a Dropka family driving a bright blue tractor across the plateau surrounded by their worldly possessions.


“We move five times a year - we used to use yaks to move everything, but now we use a tractor,” explains the woman on board. “Old people have told me the land used to be much nicer, lots of tall grass - today there’s not much grass left - most of our pastures have dried out,” observes her husband. Yak herds accompany the tractor, off in the middle distance, occasional grunts emanating into sonic view.


The second scene features yaks grazing at dusk, beyond the nomads’ black multisided yak tents, the women collecting yak dung to power their tent stoves. Yak dung burns much cheaper than charcoal does - it burns really well - and it is safer to use, too - just grass and water,” explains one Drokpa woman. “Every family has at least one yak - these animals are sacred to us and we keep these animals until the day they die - we do this to honor the spirits, the lamas.” Beyond her, in the distance, the Tibetan sky is dark, gray, ominous - portending potential changes ahead.


Su’s film then introduces us to a young woman named Tamku, who tells us that her mother was raised an orphan, married at 16, and “gave birth to me at age 18 – when my father left, my mother raised us, and when I was nine, my mother married her second husband Sandruk.” Interfamilial drama, we learn, marks Tamku’s life among the Drokpa, and yet the yaks have remained a constant. “When it is warm and there is no wind, it is very fun to milk the yaks -it makes me happy,” explains Tamku. “I like to milk the animals, especially beautiful yaks like ours.”


“Drokpa” then telescopes out to look at the impact of the Chinese government’s 21st century “settlement” policies on high mountain yakking communities. We learn that Tamku’s nomadic community is comprised of twelve families, many related to one another. “The government gave us this land at random after they looked at a map,” she explains. “We used to be able to go wherever we wanted, our animals always found enough to eat, but now we have to share this land with others, each group can only graze its animals in specific areas.”


Big picture. The ecological and cultural impacts of the People’s Republic of China’s “Western Development Strategy,” (also known as China’s campaign to “Open Up The West”), which the Chinese government began implementing in 2000, are profound. Goals include “building infrastructure and telecommunications, improving people’s living conditions, and protecting the environment,” according to J. Marc Foggin’s 2008 Mountain Research and Development article “Depopulating the Tibetan Grasslands: National Policies and Perspectives for the Future of Tibetan Herders in Qinghai Province, China.” “The broad approach to regional development has continued at a phenomenal pace ever since, radically changing both human and natural landscapes through construction programs and new forms of land use - nearly all Tibetan herders are now being swept along in China’s rapid pace of globalization, with increasing economic interdependence, cross-cultural influences, and integration into broader geopolitical, social, environmental, and other spheres.”


The Drokpa and their yaks, in short, are at the center of a dramatic transformation on the Roof of the World.


“It’s not a good idea to put seasonal limits on grazing land because it turns the place into a desert even faster,” explains Tamku’s relative. “Our flocks also have to graze in the autumn - there used to be a big lake here and a lot of birds, but now there’s a lot less water here these days and if it doesn’t rain, we don’t have enough water for twelve families.”


“If the sand isn’t too deep, we can try to stop it by spreading yak manure on it,” explains Tamku, “but once the wind creates sand dunes, it’s all over - the desert has won.”


“We’ve got to preserve this land for our children, as we want them to be able to live here,” says a relative. “If there is no pastureland for our animals, we won’t survive here, either. There’s not much we can do to keep the desert from spreading, except cover the land with yak and sheep manure.”


Visual metaphors in Su’s film abound - most ominously, the growth of fences, seen throughout “Drokpa” - that hem in human and yak freedom of movement so vital to their co-domesticated thriving in this inhospitable landscape. The film’s finale fast forwards to the following summer, with members of Tamku’s family reflecting on the transformations they’ve experienced over the previous year.


“The land is divided among several families and the plots are very small - there are fences everywhere - and this causes problems for the yaks because they can’t roam around,” explains Tamku’s uncle. “Fences are bad for the animals - the yaks need a lot of space. They feel better when they can go wherever they want. We have just as many yaks as we did last year, but this year, they are giving less milk. Last year, it was two buckets of milk a day - this year, it is only one.”


“The desert keeps spreading - there may not be any grassland by the time my kids grow up. There has been a huge change in the landscape - this land is still blessed - yet it is getting much harder to live and work here,” explains Tamku’s mother. “For better or for worse, we were born to be nomads. Our yaks are ill - their tongues and lips are enflamed. They won’t eat. In some families, some animals have died. The priest said we should make a smoke sacrifice - that might help.”


As the film ends, viewers bear witness to a PRC-deployed “Open Up The West” sign announcing “resettlement.” Translated from Mandarin, it reads: “Thousands of years of nomad life have come to an end. Let us celebrate the prosperity of the new settlers.” Chinese government policies now dictate that yakking nomads are “commissioned” permanent homes with 7,000 yuan grants, and then nomad families are forced to take out 30 - 40 thousand yuan construction loans, interest free for the first five years to complete the house-building projects. “We are facing some major challenges - some haven’t realized it yet, but this land will not always be blessed,” explains Tamku’s mother. “They say our country is the highest in the world - people say to travel to distant cities, you have to cross the ocean. That’s a lot of water.”


Yu’s film is an eye-opening visual exploration of the myriad challenges faced by those who “get high” on the Tibetan plateau, a story echoed by Daniel Miller in his book Drokpa. The PRC, he explains, is not interested in preserving nomadic life. “The Chinese policy of settling nomads goes against state-of-the-art information and analyses for livestock production in pastoral areas,” he explains. Better solutions? Miller argues for encouraging yak mobility, and empowering nomadic decision making, policy recommendations that fly in the face of two decades of the PRC’s “Western Development Strategy.”


Just two months after screening Yan Chun Su’s film on the Drokpa, I returned to Nepal to “get high” in the Himalayas in May 2018, planning and executing a yak research trip to the remote reaches of the Upper Kingdom of Mustang, Nepal’s last remaining semi-sovereign kingdom. The Kingdom of Mustang features typical topography atypical of the high Himalayas - more arid, less green, and marked by startling bright high desert colors - reds, browns, ochres abound.


As our plane lands in Kathmandu after 36 hours of travel, I can barely sit still.


Time to once again “get high”!


As we gather our wits (and supplies) about us in Kathmandu, Tenzing’s wife Dadoma tells me that her sherpa relative Nima Tashi happens to be in town, and asks - would I like to interview him about yaks? “Uncle Nima” is a mountaineering legend - I met him on the EBC trail below Everest five years previous - and I immediately respond with an emphatic yes. Two hours later, I am out in front of Dadoma’s elementary school talking with the man himself. At age 59, Nima has summited Everest no fewer than ten times, and lived to tell the tale. Roughly half my size, this sherpa radiates the energy of a man half his age, and we jump right into yakking, Tenzing sitting next to us as translator.


Nima tells me of his 28 nak herd plus bulls, and his yak lineage - his grandfather and father before him both herded yaks, as did he until the age of 17. In the early spring months - March and April - he tells me his yak bulls go higher into the mountains, all together with his herd: zokyop for carrying loads, nak for miking, and bulls for breeding. Like Norbu in Manaslu two years ago, he confirms that yaks carry heavy loads, and that the sherpa don’t eat yak unless the animals die naturally - “fall is the best season for yak meat, because the yaks are fat,” he says with a smile.


I ask him about the yak’s unique qualities.


“Many trekkers are now coming to the mountains, and yaks are worth more for best animals - a couple of years ago, yaks increased in price - 60,000 rupees for a yak, while a nak is worth 15,000 rupees,” he explains. “That’s what makes yaks special - for trekking expeditions, price goes up, and naks we use mostly for milk, but sometimes for carrying loads.”


For my last question, I ask him about yaks and spirituality.


“Yaks are spiritual animals for we sherpa in the Khumbu region, and when we have many yaks, we have higher status and more prestige - more land, more compost, more animals,” he says. “Yaks are amazing because they are both herd animals and independent - we always see one leader within a yak herd - and we dress up the leader with colored ribbons.”


I thank Uncle Nima for his time, and the next morning, we head to Mustang, landing in dramatic fashion at a tiny airport immediately donning our packs and heading up towards the mountains for several days along an impressively wide riverbed - into the arid high country.

Downtown Jomsom, gateway to Nepal's Kingdom of Mustang. Dancing with the yak.


After miles of trekking through stunning landscapes, past chortens and stupas, and through tiny mountain villages, we reach Lo Min Tang the capital city, where he bunk in for several days of day tripping, including a visit to a Tibetan yak herding family up in the nearby mountains. Our first afternoon, we walk around town, visiting the Gomba monastery, where a lone monk tours us around, sharing with us ancient wrapped prayer scrolls, dimly lit by the yak butter oil lamps.


Upper Kingdom of Mustang - giant shorten - spiritual gateway to the high country.


“What do monks do with yak?” I ask him, with Tenzing translating.


He smiles. “Nothing. The yak just graze here.”

Kingdom of Mustang - morning view from our Lo Min Tang hotel rooftop.


The next morning, Tenzing, Erica and I jump into a 4WD jeep with Jimmy, our local Mustang guide (all epic stories and flirty smiles), and we drive north, an hour out of town, up to 4,300 meters along the Nepal/Tibet border, to visit with a family of yak herders. Parking the jeep, we walk up a ridge. A low slung staked black tent stitched together from yak hides comes into view, and next to it, a small herd of yaks.


Smiling in welcome, our nomadic family hosts invite us into the tent, where we introduce ourselves, meeting Sunam, Tala and their family. Over tsampa cakes (rolled barley balls) and yak milk (leche), we begin to get to know one another.


“Yak poo doo!” the three of say of the breakfast (“delicious” in Tibetan), and it is: hearty, fresh and filling. The yak milk is delicious, warm, with a powerful taste. Looking around the tent, I spy a wooden yak butter churner, sturdy yak blankets, woven yak ropes, and yak-derived comestibles – impressive, how intimately interconnected these herders are with their yak herds. Sunam tells us they used to move everything by yak, but now, they pack everything on a “lorry” - the “wheeled yak,” they joke, through Jimmy, who translates.


We all laugh.


They will stay here 3-4 months, and then move to the next seasonal camp with their yaks, as an occasional grunt wanders through the tent cloth.


“How long to pack up all this stuff?” I ask, gesturing around.


“3-4 hours to pack up everything, and then move, and in 3-4 hours we can set up camp again,” says Tala, and she and her husband exchange knowing glances. They grow the tsampa, and carry it with them. Once a year, with eight other families they move down the mountain into the valley, along with their yaks, and sheep and goat herd, as well. In spring, they say, it takes them days to find semi-wild yak bulls (they have seven, or maybe eight) to collect them from the wild and bring them back to mate in season: July and August. I am reminded of the Mongolian nomads, who share the same “rogue bull” stories with me.


“When one of their yaks dies, do they eat yak meat?” I ask. If a yak is healthy and dies, they eat the yak, Jimmy explains, but if a yak is skinny and unhealthy and dies, they will not eat the meat. Jimmy tells us this couple have been herding all their lives, and three years ago, 63 yaks were killed due to snow in a storm. Tala and Sunam laugh. “Our parents, and grand parents, and great grandparents - ‘pamah (parents) pamah pamah,’ they say, smiling together - “we’ve been herding yaks a long time.”


We all laugh, and Jimmy mentions that they are looking at buying land in Lo Min Tang.


“Why leave yak herding and go to village?” I ask.


Jimmy explains that it is a difficult decision facing all yak nomads in this region, because of the Chinese military presence on the Tibetan border, and the forces of modernization coming to the region - fences, roads, markets, civilization. “If they stay in Lo, with no land and no houses,” Jimmy says, trailing off…


“Life is good in the mountains and yak herding has been really good cause all the villagers buy yak for meat,” says Sunam. “But now, new roads mean the villagers buy meat and butter from roads and stores, not as much from yak herders like us.”


In the Uper Kingdom of Mustang, for millennia, Lo Min Tang has served as the center for trade and commerce, spiritual and commercial, and more and more visitors are coming to the Kingdom, despite annual caps on trekking permits imposed by Mustang’s government. “Herders face a ‘double whammy,’” says Tenzing to us, using the English phrase. “They are screwed from the north because of China, and screwed from the south because of the Road.”


“What does the future hold?” I ask of our couple, through Jimmy.

.

Again, Sunam’s wife Tala goes off.


“Life is more miserable now - we live far away from villages, hospitals, and following the yaks is difficult,” she explains. “We have big problems - our kids don’t want to raise yaks - ‘too miserable,’ they say, and ‘we don’t want to raise yaks and live this life,’ they tell us.”


We nod, listening intently, sipping yak butter tea and gnawing on churpi, appreciating the quiet sizzling sound of pails heating up yak milk over their stove, the morning wind, which is picking up, soughing underneath the black yak tent.


“We may be the last ones to herd yaks, and our new generation may not live like this,” says Sunam quietly. “They want to go live in the town, in the city, have opportunities - school and jobs.” He tells us their two kids go to school in Kathmandu, and live in a small house part of the year here in Lo Min Tang.


“What makes yaks so special?” I finally ask, redirecting our conversation.


Again, Tala goes off, happier this time to talk of the yaks.


“Yaks are much easier to keep then goats or sheep, much bigger, and they defend themselves better because they are heartier,” she says. Yaks are strong animals - goats require 24 hour care, but yaks need little minding they are independent and self-reliant.” Yaks used to be more valuable for commercial trade before the Chinese closed the border: 1,000 USD for yak bulls and 500 USD for yak cows was the going rate. “Because of the Chinese fencing, we can’t sell yaks for as much money anymore,” Sunam laments.


“Any crazy or funny yak stories?” I ask, through Jimmy.


Like “yaks dancing?” Tenzing jokes with the couple.


The two describe yaks fighting each other, and what happens when one yak kills another yak (bulls) or a yak hits and wounds another yak (cows), rendering an animal useless to them. Yes, they confirm, we herders eat yak meat when a yak dies or is killed by another yak.


Again, they flag China’s presence as a problem here in yak country, too.


“The Chinese say we can no longer cross the border when they built the fence in 2001,” explains Sunam. “We herders used to go close to border, but no longer - when locals go to harvest dung up by the fencing, we get challenged by Chinese soldiers.” Jimmy tells us that yak nomads do not need to register with the government or pay taxes - they are largely free of political ties, not even requiring a social security card. I listen, knowing that this reality is in flux. Jimmy explains that, when a Nepali citizen turns 70 years old, the Nepali government provides money at city offices every 3 or 6 months as a form of retirement and social security.


“What of yaks and the spiritual?” I ask them, through Jimmy.


Sunam and Tala describe decorating the yaks with talismans from spiritual llamas. Ribbons are decorative and they ‘look pretty,’ Tala says, recounting how they tie on colorful ribbons for yak leaders. They also carve the OM MANI phrase on yak horns - a reminder of the sacred connections between Buddhism and yaks here in the high country. Jimmy explains that the black yak - “makhala” in Buddhism - references a powerful traditional country god, so black yaks, like black dogs, crows, or cats in this region, are granted special spiritual significance.


“And every yak is an individual being, with a special personality,” explains Sunam.


After our two-hour visit, including a visit to the herd just outside the tent, we take our leave with bows, prayerful hands, and goodbyes - “Tutchis” (Thank You!) all around. We purchase a number of yak crafts - ropes, a blanket, and several small yak made gifts - as gestures of thanks and support.


In the jeep ride down to Lo Min Tang, the four of us debrief, and I ask Tenzing of his impressions, as a sherpa continually breathing in both traditional and modern ways of life here on the Roof of the World.


“Self-sufficiency and independence are liberating, and it has long been possible to live a stress-free life here in the mountains,” Tenzing muses, lost in thought. “In the cities, herders become enslaved to the system - they have to pay for everything. But out here, they spend all day with yaks - it is a freer life.”


Erica, Jimmy, and I listen.


“But education - learning how to read and write - is an odd problem,” Tenzing continues, “because when herders send their kids to Lo or Kathmandu for learning and more opportunities, their ‘city kids’ return up here to nomad life and say ‘there is nothing here’ - it is ‘too quiet, too remote, too much solitude, nothing to do’…”


After a moment of silence, Erica quips “They have no idea what they’re missing,” and the four of us laugh.


That night, I crack open Daniel Miller’s Drokpa, and re-read his conclusion.


“As long as nomads, imbued with a sense of sacredness of the landscape, are allowed to move in harmony with their animals across the grazing lands of the Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya, there is hope for the future,” he observes.


And his conclusion:


Tibetan nomads offer a rare perspective on life. Their world operates on a rhythm completely different from the one to which we are accustomed. Nomads’ lives are finely tuned to the growth of the grass, the births of animals, and the seasonal movement of the herds. Like many people living close to nature, the nomads have developed a close connection to the land and the livestock that nurtures them. For thousands of years they survived by raising animals. However, Tibetan nomads didn’t merely eke out a living; they created a unique nomadic couture and contributed to, and were part of, a remarkable civilization that was the most powerful empire in Asia over 1,300 years ago.


“A rare perspective on life” - one for both herders and yaks, one which grows rarer every year.


Can “hormesis” - our mammalian ability to titrate daily stress for resilience building, an evolutionary reality recently rediscovered by scientists - support life for humans and yaks here on the Tibetan Plateau in the years ahead?

The 2015 doc film "Sherpa."


Upon our return to Vermont, I sit down to transcribe my travel scribbles and interviews, and uncover a Post-It note reminding me to re-watch a remarkable documentary on the sherpa, the yak, and the 2014 mountaineering tragedy on Everest that kileld more than a dozen in their community. In this award-winning 2015 film, simply titled “Sherpa,” the opening scenes feature a small group of yaks moving steadily up a Himalayan high mountain pass, accompanied by their human herder - the Sherpa star of the film. Against the mesmerizing electronic chanting hum that is the soundtrack, the viewer is immediately transported into the high Himalayas: the climate is cold, the air “thin,” the snow visible on the mighty peaks in the middle distance.


Looking closely - past the mist pouring off the yaks’ shaggy flanks, beyond the steam emanating from their hairy nostrils and mouths - I swear I can see these yaks smiling.


Breathing in the Roof of the World.


Getting High.







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