The Himalayan Yeti -- Believe what you will

by Nabanita Dutt, Nov 16, 2002 | Destinations: Afghanistan / China / Bhutan / Nepal / India / Himalayas


A Chinese hunting party captured an apelike creature that their Tibetan loaders identified as the Himalayan snowman. The creature, severely wounded in the tussle, was held captive in a cage in Patang in the Chinese Sinkiang province until it died a few months later. The animal had a black monkey face and was incredibly strong and stinking. It made strange gutteral noises, and every now and then, a piercing, high-pitched whistle escaped from its lips.


British explorer Frank Smythe came out of Tibet with reports of tall, hairy beasts, said to be the legendary Yeti. His Tibetan and Sherpa helpers said that the species survived in the barren upper reaches of the Himalayas on grubs, rodents and the occasional larger animal, if they could find one. Smythe himself had come across a set of oversized footprints in the snow during his travels. At the sight of them, his loaders panicked and refused to continue.


A mummified finger and thumb was found, along with some pieces of skin, in Nepal. Scientists claimed the fragments were `almost human, similar in many respects to that of the Neanderthal man'.


American scientist Dr Norman Dyrenfurth announced that he had evidence that the Yeti was a `very low-grade human or near-human creature'. He claimed to have culled food scraps, body hair and footprints from caves that the creatures had inhabited and was of the opinion that there were two species of Yetis -- one standing tall at eight ft or so and the other of a more middling, human height.

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Mr Tamang, a respected agent in the Kathmandu travel circuit, has been dining out on his Experiments With The Yeti story for several years now. New in the business and determined to impress his dad with a major package deal, he had secretly posted little ads in sundry European newspapers guaranteeing a Yeti experience in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Even if a bunch of Europeans were stupid enough to believe such a cock-and-bull story, he reasoned, they couldn't be expecting an invitation to tea with the elusive snowman. So a brief sighting from afar would nicely cover his claims, and then he could declare his first foreign package an unmitigated success.

Young Mr Tamang's confidence in European naivety proved correct, at least in the first phase -- nine responses came in from people who were willing to pay an astronomical amount for this unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was only after they had landed in Nepal, that the plan began to go horribly wrong. The Europeans -- hefty men, many of them -- chased the counterfeit Yeti, who panicked and broke into a run down a very visible slope. He stumbled and fell, a hefty on top of him, and Mr Tamang was in deep trouble -- with the law and with his father. Thankfully, the free luxury accommodations in Pokhara and Chitwan National Park arranged quickly by dad went a long way in cooling tempers and Mr Tamang emerged from the escapade having barely saved his skin.

No more Yeti tours for him, he swore, even if a family of them were camping in his backyard. And even now, after he has made his mark in the travel trade with a string of above-the-board schemes, he cannot enter Kathmandu's Yak & Yeti Hotel without being reminded of the painful experience.

The Yeti, as usual, had had the last laugh.

Like in the last page of the Tintin In Tibet comic, where the snowman is gleefully watching the departure of a disheartened search party from behind a snowy rock in the distance.

That image -- which spoke volumes about the elusiveness of the animal -- must have returned to haunt members of many a failed Yeti expedition in the Himalayas: the notion that he is just a step ahead, tracking every move, and even as you are abandoning the search, his intelligent eyes are boring into your back.

As a child I liked to imagine what happened after Tintin and his friends had finally disappeared from sight. Fresh snow would cover their tracks, burying all evidence of human intrusion in the terrain, and the Yeti would resume his life like the disturbance had never happened.

I should have felt happy for the Yeti, now that he was left in peace. But I didn't. What if...? is an unsettling feeling and I almost wished that the snowman had blown his cover.

It is this inability to leave things be, to worry an unsolved issue like a loose teeth until it is finally extracted and bagged, that has elevated the Himalayan Yeti to the stuff of legends.

The does-he-doesn't-he factor has seen countless expeditions launched at enormous expense over the last century-and-a-half by countries all over the world, and each time, the groups of experts have returned with little more than a handful of fur or pictures of footprints to show for it. Nothing to prove conclusively that a band of abominable snowmen is indeed in existence and thriving at an altitude of 20,000 feet in the high Himalayas.

There have been some instances of close encounters, though none have been close enough to clearly document its features and characteristics.

The first reliable report came from N.A. Tombazi (member of a British geological expedition) in 1925, who had spotted the creature at an altitude of over 15,000 ft. Tombazi described an ape clearly resembling a human being, `walking upright and stopping here and there to pull at some dwarf rhododendron bushes'.

Another curious report was filed in 1938 by a Captain d'Auvergue, curator of Calcutta's Victoria Memorial, who had momentarily lost his vision in a snowstorm that had swept up over the Himalayas. He would have died of hypothermia in the blizzard, he said, if a 9 ft tall figure hadn't sheltered him from the worst of it. When he was recovered enough to have a sense of his surroundings, the creature had disappeared.

Captain d'Auvergue's description of a benign, friendly creature, however, is at odds with the one which had crossed paths with a young Nepalese shepherdess near her village. The large ape with black and brown hair had seized the Sherpa girl and would have made off with her, if a piercing scream hadn't sent him scampering. But not before he had killed two from her herd of yaks, and the police who visited the site immediately afterwards, found large footprints among the carnage which seemed to back her claim.

Were these sightings mere hallucinations, as some scientists have suggested, induced by lack of oxygen at a high altitude, or were they the real thing? The absence of conclusive photographic evidence has weakened most cases of face-to-face encounters, and the claimants themselves haven't always been clear about what they had seen.

The discovery of fur, hide, skull and other remnants haven't fared much better under the microscope either. The World Book Encyclopedia-sponsored expedition in 1960 in association with Sir Edmund Hillary, for example, turned up two scraps of skin which appeared to belong to the rare Tibetan blue bear and a skull which was remarkably similar to that of the serow goat. The scalp preserved in a monastery near Namche Bazar in Nepal, better known as the Yeti of Khumjung, is touted as the only authentic specimen, donated by a Lama who had stumbled upon it near the Pangboche village. The rare specimen, having been stolen once, is now kept safe under lock and key in a glass container. Reddish brown in colour, the scalp is about 8 inches high with a thick head of hair parted and brushed back from the centre. But scientists have pooh-poohed this claim too and its veracity remains unproved, though donations from tourists have made some renovation work possible in the modest, nondescript gompa.

Reports of Yeti footprints first began to trickle in during the 1880s, and since then, several more have been discovered in over seven expeditions. Some of the best tracks ever found were photographed by Eric Shipton and Michael Ward in 1951 in the Gauri Shankar pocket of the Himalayas. The prints were fresh when the British mountaineers chanced upon them, 13 inches wide and some 18 inches long. The trail continued for over a mile until it finally disappeared in hard ice.

Opinions are divided on the Shipton photographs, and while some researchers claim that the footprints do not belong to any known species, others attribute them tentatively to the red bear or the languor monkey. Tracks imprinted in snow change form and shape in the sun in any case, and who's to say how long they had been melting before Shipton photographed them. But what of the fact that the prints were clearly those of a biped? The jury's still out on that one.

But the Sherpas and Tibetan mountain communities don't need scientific proof to believe in the existence of the Yeti who shares their barren habitat with them. He is the neighbourhood bogeyman. He is an integral part of their folklore. And he's best left alone. Any Sherpa can tell you that you should run downhill to avoid getting caught by a Yeti. As the animal chases you down a sharp incline, the wind will blow his long hair into his eyes and it's only when he's momentarily blinded that you can give him the slip.

The average life span is more than a hundred years, and they live in caves in families of three. They have reddish brown hair all over their ape bodies, and a human-like face. The male of the species -- standing 7 ft tall and weighing about 300 pounds -- is a loner and spends most of his time outdoors foraging for food. Carnivorous for the most part, they habitually steal yak and sheep from Sherpa villages. The females stay in their caves, tending to the young. Their breasts are so pendulous that in order to run they must sling them over their shoulders. They have a vile, pungent odour, and according to local superstitions, they have supernatural powers. A sighting will invariably bring bad luck, ill fortune or death.

The Sherpas also believe that organized expeditions to hunt down the Yeti will never bear fruit. The animal can disappear at will and it is only by accident, when he's caught unawares, that you can see him. As many in their numbers have.

So there you have it. The unshakeable faith of simple mountain folks in a population of over 100 Yetis living in their midst, and zoologists, anthropologists and truth-finders who are constantly frustrated in their attempts to prove the same by recoveries which have always suggested otherwise.

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