Mushroom trekking in the Himalaya
For 25 years, Ang Jangmu Sherpa collected mushrooms in forests near her lodge in Tengboche. Just one local mushroom, known locally as petak, provides enough for one meal.
Bhesh Rag Dahal collects and dries mushrooms for the winter months in his restaurant in Tashingma. Since mushroom keep so well, he still has a store of mushroom that was not consumed when tourism collapsed during the pandemic.
He can sell the mushroom in the market for Rs10,000 a kg. Otherwise, he gives them away as prized gifts to relatives and lamas at Tengboche and other monasteries.
In the Solu Khumbu district at the lap of Mt Everest, edible mushrooms are an integral part of diet and an immense, overlooked part of the biodiversity of the Himalaya.
Now, a group of Nepali and American mycologists, who are scientists who study fungi, are identifying mushrooms on a first ever eco-tourism trek to Everest Base Camp.
The three-week expedition that started out in mid-June out was organised by International Mountain Trekking (IMT), and included an international team from Nepal, US, and Mexico. Nepali mycologist and botanist Shiva Devkota and US mycologists Britt Bunyard and Thomas Roehl identified over 150 species of mushroom.
Thousands of trekkers and mountaineers make the journey to Everest Base Camp annually, but few notice the hundreds of species of mushrooms growing alongside the trail.
“I had always seen mushrooms, but I was always in too big a hurry,” says IMT’s Richard Silber who hopes eco-tourism treks will allow the Everest region to be recognised for its biodiversity and the rich fungi populations beyond its mountains.
Silber worked with Devkota and Sonam Jangbu Sherpa also of IMT to construct the first ecological tourism trek of its kind. In addition to mycologists, citizen scientists with interest in mushrooms joined the trek, guided by Phu Chiri Sherpa and Tenzing Tashi Sherpa.
“There is this amazing biodiversity in Nepal — uniquely true because of the extraordinary altitude gradient — within a short band the terrain goes from 6,000ft to the highest point on earth,” Silber says.
The Solu Khumbu’s altitude variation creates the niches for hundreds of unique tree species, making it a rich environment for fungi to grow in relationship with the vegetation. Until now, the region’s mushrooms had never been systematically cataloged.
Devkota holds a PhD in mushroom research and says: “To make conservation and management plans, first we should explore what kind of mushroom species we have. I realised there was a gap, and an opportunity.”
Now there is a push for scientists all over to document things before the precious mushrooms are gone. Says Bunyard: “The forest here is covered with life, but this is one of the most understudied parts of the world. There are no books here, it’s kind of a black box.”
Fungi do not exist in isolation, but are critical to ecosystems. They enriched the diversity of life in the biosphere. “They are partners for pretty much all plants,” adds Bunyard.
Mushrooms form immense underground networks with plant species, cycling nutrients, ensuring plant survival, and contributing to the carbon and phosphorus cycles.
“If you killed all the fungi on the planet, all the trees would die. So fungi are basically responsible for the life of everyone on the surface of the world,” adds Thomas Roehl.
When an environment is damaged by human activity, fungi can still thrive, and in some cases, help jumpstart new life. They also signify ecosystem health. Fungi can be used to indicate air pollution levels, as they struggle to survive in areas with heavy emissions.
Mushrooms on Everest
Even before entering Sagarmatha National Park, the expedition had already identified over 60 types of mushroom, including sightings of rarely viewed species.
The team found Tremella salmonea, first described in 2019, and documented Amanita tullossiana, a new species found in 2019 in the Indian Himalaya.
The researchers believe they identified Amanita innatifibrilla, a species with limited data and unknown range, but once documented in southern China. The team identified the highest mushroom ever found at an altitude at 5,193m.
The researchers worked as they walked, identifying new mushrooms and explaining their discoveries to citizen-scientists.
“This is unlike what you see in any academic institution,” explained Silber during the trek, describing the way the mycologists worked in the field. “They are drawn to the mushrooms like a magnet. They glom onto it. It’s inspiring, really, it’s cool as hell.”
In addition to adding to Nepal’s mushroom database, Silber hopes this mushroom-focused trek is a model for future ecological tourism. In other parts of Nepal, tourists join treks for bird, crocodile, or tiger watching, and the Everest region’s botany, geology, and biodiversity could offer similar opportunities for tourism during the climbing off-season.
Bhumiraj Upadhyaya, Chief Conservation Officer at Sagarmatha National Park, has worked in the national park system for over 30 years, but this is the first mushroom-focused trek he has seen.
“Almost all the tourists come here just to see mountains,” says Upadhyaya. “There is so much more here than just the mountains.”
He explains that major research gaps still remain for snow leopards, musk deer, and pollution nearby the Gokyo lakes.
Scientific research in the region, however, is limited, due to irregular flights, high costs, and poor road conditions. Researchers are far more likely to go to the more accessible Annapurna or Chitwan regions.
Solu Khumbu’s residents could benefit from more extensive mushroom knowledge. People have lived in the Khumbu before the establishment of the national park, so unlike visitors, local communities do not need park permission to forage for mushrooms.
In fact, local mushroom species offer a source of protein and fiber during winter months, where fresh vegetables are unavailable.
“Here they do not have sufficient vegetables and have to depend on planes and jeeps to bring vegetables from Kathmandu. Having knowledge of mushrooms might be helpful for the people for food source and security,” he adds.
Locals grow their own mushrooms, or more often forage in nearby forests. Mushrooms can be dried, stored, and rehydrated for future use, which benefits the lodges who are overwhelmed with tourists in the spring and fall.
Further scientific analysis of the region’s mushrooms could benefit those that rely on the food group. “Perhaps in the future, more people can know about edible mushrooms,” Jangbu Sherpa says. “During the winter there are no vegetables, so we can collect and dry them for the winter.”
Another mushroom tour is already being planned for 2023, and Silber hopes that scientific activity in the Solu Khumbu can become accessible and community-based.
“Of course it is hard to do science in remote areas. If you want to get up here and do this kind of work, it's a big and an important commitment,” he says.
For future projects and research, IMT hopes to work with local populations, including building a science center with a donated house in Phortse. The main goal of research is to help local communities benefit from the knowledge.
“We know through history that western scientists come in, do their work, and leave,” says Silber. “They do not engage or train locals, that’s not part of the research protocol. And it is a big missed opportunity in any community.”
Alok Tuladhar and Shiva Devkota helped with this report.
Shrooms can kill
The work of a mycologist is critical in establishing mushrooms that are highly poisonous. Every year, dozens of Nepalis, mainly children and from poorer families, die from eating toxic mushrooms because the edible and poisonous varieties look the same.
“Most of the people living near the forest, or low income people who depend more on the forest, are the ones getting poisoned,” explains mycologist Shiva Devkota.
Mushrooms, which grow out of the ground only for up to three months in a year in the forest, are discovered, they are collected and shared with family and neighbours. If one of them happens to be toxic, it can kill an entire household or impact the whole community.
In 2019, six people in the same family died in Palpa from toxic mushrooms. In 2016, eight people died in Panchthar district from eating poisonous mushrooms.
Devkota was leading a mushroom expedition to the Everest region last month when he got news of 19 mushroom-related casualties from Butwal. Most mushroom illnesses and deaths, however, are unreported as they occur in remote rural areas.
“There has previously been a communication gap, but now we know that mushroom poisonings are happening, and we hear about the deaths,” adds Devkota.
In the Everest region, most toxic mushrooms are found below Lukla and the ones at higher altitudes are generally safe.
“Just like there are no poisonous snakes the higher you go, there are no poisonous mushrooms here,” says Ang Jangmu Sherpa who has a lodge in Tengboche.
The differences between an edible and deadly mushroom may be imperceptible. “If you don’t know what you are doing, stay away from amonita," says American researcher Britt Bunyard. Amonita has an iconic white cap, red dots, and veil.
In 2021, Devkota and the Himalayan Climate and Science Institute partnered to create educational material for villagers, government agencies and clinics in Gandaki Province when mushroom foraging was more common during the pandemic.
In the Khumbu, mushroom poisoning is not so serious. Locals only collect ones that they know are safe, and even then slice it to see if it has a green or purplish tint, indicating toxins.
“Nepalis have been using mushrooms for a long time for medicinal purposes and for food. They are closely attached with folklore and taboos,” says Devkota who wants to step up awareness so more Nepalis can rely on this important and easily-stored food source.
Read more: Nepal farmer refuses to bury head in sand, Mukesh Pokhrel