INTRODUCTION: Yak Shaving
Coined by MIT’s Carlin J. Vieri, and popularized by wacky Nickleodeon cartoon duo Ren and Stimpy’s song “Yak Shaving Day,” the phrase “yak shaving” describes how I found myself writing a book entitled Life By The Horns: The Yak Way – What We Sapiens Can Learn From This Sexy Beast.
Nickledeon's "Ren and Stimpy" popularizing an animated yak, shaving.
What does it mean to “shave a yak”?
Idiomatically speaking, “yak shaving” refers to “what you are doing when you're doing some stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what you're supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal relations then links what you're doing to the original meta-task.”
In short, “’yak shaving’ is all that stuff that you need to do to solve some problem.”
So my problem, really more of a creative challenge that proved neither “stupid” nor “fiddly,” let alone “little”?
Writing a book about the yak, one of the planet’s most mysterious high altitude beasts, a species which has co-existed with humans for millennia on their own terms.
And the shaving - the “stuff” I needed to do to write Life By The Horns?
Let’s see - I started a yak farm in 2007 with three Vermont families and ran it for seven years.
Thanks to donations from 209 funders totaling $8,100, I "kickstarted" a mobile 2 wheeled food cart – the YakItToMe! mobile BBQ food wagon - that cooks up exclusively grass-fed yak meat.
I spent ten years traveling around world in search of yaks and yakkers to interview.
All of which found me, a decade into life as a “yak shaver,” sitting down to write this book.
Ren, Stimpy, and Carlin Vieri would be pleased.
Was there a single defining moment in which I decided to move beyond “shaving the yak” and start the writing process?
If I had to razor in on one instance, I’d surely say this book emerged out of a trekking trip into Nepal's high Himalayas during May 2016.
Here’s a richer lather describing how I came to shave this particular yak.
In 2007, my wife Kate and I hatched a bold, audacious, and (in retrospect) somewhat crazy plan with two neighboring families to bring the very first yak herd to Vermont’s Green Mountains. We formed a formal business partnership called “Vermont Yak Company. Our HQ? A dilapidated dairy barn surrounded by two dozen acres of neglected pasture just west of the Mad River in the town of Waitsfield. By the following spring, we had loaded our “starter” herd onto a 53-foot animal trailer in Cold Spring, Minnesota and transported two dozen bewildered yaks 1,000 miles east to Vermont to live with us at “Steadfast Farm.” After growing our herd to more than 60 yaks by 2013, with many epic family-friendly adventures along the way (Horny bulls! Maverick mamas! Fuzzy calf cuties!), we made a collective decision to sell our yaks, just as I was spinning off a separate seasonal food cart project – the YakItToMe! mobile BBQ food wagon –allowing me to pursue my interest in yaks to this day.
So why yaks, anyway? As an environmental historian by training, I find a deep fascination (our kids might say “obsession”) with these remarkable age-old creatures, and I feel myself inexplicably drawn to all things yak. After Vermont Yak Company sold our yak herd, I grew my yak food cart business as a seasonal “side hustle,” while researching the species scientifically classified as bos grunniens (the “grunting ox”) - one of planet Earth’s most mysterious mammals, as very little recorded history exists to describe these otherworldly creatures.
Yaks, I slowly came to understand after many years of study, travel, and conversation, have much to teach us, based on their own unique approach to living for as long as they have on our shared planet, and tracking (“trekking”?!) yak history and behavior – what I call “the yak way” - seemed the best way to figure out what wisdom these “sexy beasts” (more on this phrase in a moment) have to share with us.
Yak ascending towards Larke Pass in the Mount Manaslu region of Nepal.
Having ruminated on a yak book for some time, spring 2016 seemed like the right moment to begin strategically seeking out yaks and yakkers in their native habitat, and the northwest Nepal’s sacred Manaslu region - dominated by the world’s 8th highest peak - felt like the right place. Our pinnacle destination? Larke Pass, crossing the Himalayan range directly below Mount Manaslu at 16,670 feet. Larke is one of the planet’s highest and least traveled trekking crossings, a spectacular mix of high grass pasture and glacier-carved rugged mountain terrain.
Larke Pass is also prime yak country.
A pair of harnessed yaks plowing a mountain town potato field in Nepal's Manaslu region.
Ten of us - five trekkers and five porters - began our Manaslu journey in the tiny village of Soti Khola, after a terrifyingly windy and mountainous six-hour van drive heading west from Kathmandu, Nepal’s bustling capital city, to the resort town of Lake Pokhara, the jumping off point for adventurers heading into the western Himalayas. After nine days of vigorous climbing through awe-inspiring Tolkien’like landscapes, we reached Dharamsala, a seasonal trekking and herding camp comprised of the bare minimum traveler essentials: a crude stone guest lodge with several tiny rooms, a small ramshackle kitchen/eating shed, and a primitive stone hut built for seasonal wayfarers. Half a dozen precariously pitched and rather forlorn looking tents completed the picture, offering laughably little protection if a storm should suddenly sweep down from above. Altogether, the tiny compound dotted a relatively flat section of ground that hugged an immense landscape marked by jagged peaks, glacial rock falls, and sweeping mountainous slopes. We were the last trekkers of the spring season to pass through - a motley mix of Vermonters, Americans, Ukrainians, Latvians, and Nepalese. The locals tending the camp, meanwhile, had one eye on us and the other eye on the sky, ready to bug out before the summer monsoon rain storms blew into the Himalayas in all of their torrential glory, sure to pummel this place into uninhabitable rain-soaked oblivion until autumn’s eventual arrival come September. We arrived at Dharamsala just below Larke Pass to a spectacularly sublime mid-May afternoon. Majestic views of Manaslu’s snow draped mountains - whose sheer sides hosted continual snow avalanches and rock falls - directly to our south, Larke glacier to our east, and bright sun, little wind, and the promise of an early morning summit traverse over Larke Pass to our west made for a stunning spectacle. Bearded vultures and red beaked crows circled overhead, riding steady thermal gusts and calling to each other, while a small herd of mountain sheep boldly approached our camp in search of snacks, stalked by us and our cameras. Barely discernable within this magnificent picture were yaks – tiny hairy dots grazing far below us in the glacial valley, and far above and behind us on the grassy north slope of Manaslu’s massive mountainous flanks.
Our trekking crew going up and over Manaslu's Larke Pass.
After an early dinner of dalbat (lentils and rice, the ubiquitous Nepali national dish - “Dalbat Power - 24 Hour!” exclaim popular national T shirts) we crawled into our tents as a cloud bank settled down over our camp, obscuring the sunset and nearly full moon, already prominently on display in the east. At 2 am, a brief passing gust of wind rattled our tent canvas, nudging me into half wakefulness. As I lay blinking in my sleeping bag, I suddenly heard bells - first a low tone, and then a second higher pitch - directly outside our tent wall. A quiet grunt, and then the chewing sound of ruminating directly above my head, identified my late-night visitors.
Fully awake now, I quietly shimmied to the tent’s bottom and peered out into the chilly night. The mist had lifted, and across the sky, stars shone above and against a western moon set, illuminating at least a dozen yaks, hairy and humped, their ghostlike outlines making their way through the center of our camp, their passing marked only by an occasional tinkling of their laughably tiny bells. I stared in fascination for several minutes at these 1,000 pound creatures traveling nearly noiselessly through our camp in the moon-swept semi darkness, undisturbed by the sleeping humans in their midst, on their way from some place to somewhere else, here to there, as they have done for thousands of years.
Descending from Manaslu's Larke Pass into the Himalayan ice fields of northern Nepal.
As we rose early the next morning at 4:00 am for our meager breakfast, I casually asked my bleary-eyed companions if they had heard any sounds the night before. No one had. Perhaps this visit was intended for me, I thought. A sign, or maybe a blessing. Tenzing, our sherpa guide, glanced at me and smiled enigmatically as I told him my story as we gathered outside in the pre-dawn light for our ascent up and over Larke Pass.
"Yaks." He said this one word, with the glimmer of a grin. "They are mysterious."
At that moment, I realized I must move beyond “shaving the yak” and get busy writing this book.
Four final observations as we begin our journey.
First, as this book’s bibliography attests, I am drawing on all available science and research I’ve been able to uncover in my effort to “hack the yak.” That said, some of what I recount here is based on individual interviews and collective observation of yaks, and as such, is sometimes more speculative, story based, and derived from direct experience than scientifically proven. I make no apologies for this. True, yaks are mammals, and most of our planet’s mammals have been intensively studied. However, while ethologists have observed yak behavior, biologists are scrutinizing yak DNA, and generations of herders and farmers have made much of yaks’ utility, cultivating hard-won wisdom about yaks in the process, the yak still remains somewhat elusive. For a creature that’s been on our planet for so long, yaks still remain relatively hard to pin down. While Life By The Hornssets out to uncover the mysteries of this sexy beast and learn what the yak has to teach us, so much still remains unknown.
Second, a few words about the challenge of hacking the yak. Anyone who has ever been in the company of yaks (and this includes my yak-obsessed scientist friends) will tell you that yaks by their very nature embody a quasi-mystical aura, a sort of “other worldly” quality. Besides “sexy,” “prehistoric” may be perhaps the single best adjective to describe the sound, look, feel and smell of these remarkable beasts, which seem to hail from some bygone age. Perhaps the best way to capture the challenge of the “yak hack” is to observe that even under intense scrutiny, yaks will often do their own yak thing, speaking their own mind in our presence, if only to remind us that their mind, like their 8,000-year yak journey, is ultimately their own.
Third, beyond the yaks themselves, I am indebted to friends, colleagues, and thinkers who have helped me approach this yak hacking project. In addition to being fellow Vermont yakkers, my wife Kate, our daughter Anneka, and our son Theron have remained patient with me as I have taken several years to figure out how exactly to approach trekking the yak way. Additionally, a 2019 grant from the University of Vermont's Humanities Center supported several short research trips to help move along this book, for which I am grateful.
Finally, a somewhat embarrassing but honest stylistic note. Many in the global yakking community (myself included) seem deeply fond of yak puns, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t drop a few in here along the way. I’ll try to keep the yak jokes down to a dull roar, er, grunt, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t sprinkle in some wordplay here and there to make sure you don’t sleep through all of the yaktion.
You have been warned.
And now, our journey to hack the yak begins.
Life by the horns! The yak way – what we sapiens can learn from this sexy beast.