By Hamilton Pevec
During the monsoon of July 2013 my wife, Devika, asked me if I wanted to go to the high country to hunt mushrooms with our brother-in-law, Suklal Gurung. I said yes, of course, and then followed up with: “what mushrooms are we hunting?” Devika went on to describe a caterpillar that was also an herb, that was also a mushroom, that was also medicinal. This is how I first learned about Ophiocordyceps sinensis, a new-to-me mushroom. Also known as the caterpillar fungus also known as Yartzgumba. The Tibetan name translates into winter worm summer grass.
This rare and precious mushroom is a parasitic fungus that attacks the ghost moth larvae. The fungus spores enter the caterpillar’s body or the larvae eat the mycelium that lives along with the high alpine plants. Once in the body, the fungus travels to the caterpillar’s brain and compels it to move to a certain depth, where the fungus consumes the insides of the insect. When the conditions of moisture, temperature and atmospheric pressure are just right, a mushroom, the reproductive fruit body of the fungus, erupts from the head of the caterpillar.
It is this tiny mushroom that we were going to hunt. Ophiocordyceps sinensis is so small it can easily hide behind a single blade of grass. It is considered the world’s most expensive parasite, $25,000 per kilo wholesale.
We hiked for three hours to the tree line to arrive at Suklal’s base camp nestled into a white rhododendron grove. Suklal had carved out the mountainside to make a flat space big enough for his tent. That’s how steep it was.
After unloading new supplies at base camp, we continued to hike up into the rocky grassland that the Nepali locals call “lake”. We spent the entire day scouring the ground, pushing through the dry grass, seeking the almost invisible treasure.
Enveloped in clouds, visibility would change rapidly; it was easy to get lost. I did my best to keep up with Suklal, but did not have the same stamina as he and his friends at 13,000 – 15,000 feet elevation. At one point I stopped to rest and when I looked back they had all disappeared into the mist. I know enough about backcountry travel to stay put and get found, rather than wander off into the unknown. Suklal eventually came back for me.
Sometimes the mist would clear to reveal the Kali Gandaki River Valley, in the region of lower Mustang, of the Annapurna Massif. We hunted in the lap of Niligiri, a dramatic, holy mountain wearing steep cliffs of rock and ice. A roaring, ripping, crashing sound would occasionally frighten us, reminding me of how close we actually were to the avalanche zone. But since Niligiri was usually shrouded in cloud, it was only the roar of the ice and rock that would scare me into submission. I was constantly looking up wondering what would fall out of the grey shroud.
I spent two days filming with Suklal and his friends on their annual migration to the “lake”. Suklal spent about ninety days at his camp, making the most of a short season. This foray would make up most of his annual income and be the most important event of his year. Suklal will sell his catch to a wholesale buyer for between US$3 – $10 per mushroom depending on the markets and the quality of his stash.
Seven years later, in March 2020, I had just escaped Nepal’s border lockdown protocol and found myself in a Colorado trailer doing my fourteen days of quarantine and decided to resurrect this project. For the next month I worked on SUKLALS HUNT with the help of mycologist and author Daniel Winkler, and composer Wilson Hart. The film premiered at the 2020 Fungi Film Fest and then traveled the international festival circuit, making a stop at Emory University as part of a Ph.D program on indigenous micro economies.
Now you can watch the film for free any time you want on my You Tube channel.
SUKLAL’S HUNT is a pilot episode for a documentary series I am producing about mushrooms, their people, and the relationships betwixt the featured fungus, the land and the economy. My next episode is about tricholoma magnivelare, also known as the world famous Matsutake Mushroom.
This documentary film series is part of a larger entrepreneurial enterprise called Hamilton’s Mushrooms. I am now providing organic high potency mushroom extract powders to finance these films and other mycology centered content. Please visit my website, or find me on Amazon to purchase your organic mushroom medicine.
I would very much like to collaborate with you. Do you have a mushroom story? Maybe it is a healing journey, maybe it is a hunt or a trip, please feel free to reach out and connect with me. Thank you for your attention. Mush Love. Hamilton Pevec