The "Wintery" BigfootIn 1832, writing in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, B. H. Hodgson, British Resident of the court of Nepal, made what may be the first reference in English to a strange biped in the Himalayas. He related that as they were collecting specimens in a northern Nepal province, his native hunters encountered an erect, tailless creature with long, dark hair all over its body. Taking it to be a demon, they fled in terror. Hodgson took it to be an orangutan.
In 1889 Maj. L. A. Waddell became the first Westerner to come upon a mysterious humanlike footprint in the Himalayan snows. His Sherpa guides told him that the track, found at 17,000 feet, was from a hairy wild man of a sort long known to them. "The belief in these creatures is universal among Tibetans," Waddell wrote in Among the Himalayas (1899), but none with whom he spoke "could ever give me an authentic case. On the most superficial investigation it always resolved into something that somebody had heard tell of." He was sure these creatures were in fact "great yellow snow-bears."
The first Westerner actually to see what may have been such creatures (though there are other, unsubstantiated claims for that distinction) was Lt. Col. C. K. Howard-Bury, who led a reconnaissance expedition up Mount Everest in September 1921. At 20,000 feet on the side of the mountain that faces northern Tibet, the group found a large number of footprints three times the size human beings would make. The Sherpas attributed them to what Howard-Bury, apparently incorrectly, transcribed as metoh-kangmi. A Calcutta Statesman columnist who was shown the colonial officer's official report mistranslated the word as "abominable snowman." Apparently Howard-Bury had misunderstood the Sherpa term meh-teh, which means, approximately, "manlike thing that is not a man."
In any case, "abominable snowman" entered the English language and popular culture soon afterwards, as a consequence of the massive newspaper coverage accorded Howard-Bury's testimony, notwithstanding his belief that the tracks "were probably caused by a large 'loping' grey wolf, which in the soft snow formed double tracks rather like those of a barefooted man." This explanation is hard to square with what Howard-Bury describes of the prints.
Four years later N. A. Tombazi, a British photographer and member of the Royal Geographical Society, saw a strange creature in the Himalaya range. The incident occurred near the Zemu Glacier, at 15,000 feet altitude. He recorded this account:
The intense glare and brightness of the snow prevented me from seeing anything for the first few seconds; but I soon spotted the "object" referred to, about two to three hundred yards away down the valley to the east of our camp. Unquestionably, the figure in outline was exactly like a human being, walking upright and stopping occasionally to uproot or pull at some dwarf rhododendron bushes. It showed up dark against the snow and, as far as I could make out, wore no clothes. Within the next minute or so it had moved into sonic thick scruband was lost to view.
Two hours later, as the party descended, Tombazi went to check the area where he had seen the creature. There he examined 16 footprints "similar in shape to those of a man, but only six to seven inches long by four inches wide at the broadest part of the foot.... The prints were undoubtedly of a biped, the order of the spoor having no characteristics whatever of any imaginable quadruped,"
From these somewhat vague accounts, plus much more specific and detailed ones from native informants, the yeti (from the Sherpa yeh-teh, meaning "that thing") entered world consciousness. Since then it has inspired countless expeditions, speculations, and debates, with no resolution in sight and the quality of the evidence not significantly improved.
Probably the most interesting sighting by a Westerner took place on Mount Annapurna in 1970. The witness, prominent British mountaineer Don Whillans, was looking for a campsite one evening when odd cries sounded. His Sherpa companion said they were a yeti's call, and Whillans caught a glimpse of a dark figure on a distant ridge. The next day he found humanlike tracks sunk 18 inches into the snow, and that night, sensing the creature's presence, he looked out of his tent and saw, in the moonlight, an ape-shaped animal as it plucked at tree branches. He watched it for 20 minutes through binoculars before it wandered away.
This far from adequate description is the best we have from any other than native sources. Many Western writers are suspicious of Sherpa accounts, as primatologist John Napier remarks, "because of their vagueness as to time and place, the obvious garnish of common folklore themes, and motivation derived from the animistic philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism." There are also other problems, as we shall see, associated with some demonstrably dubious claims of physical evidence of yetis.
Still, if yetis exist, the people most likely to encounter them are the people who share the neighborhood, and that the hardy Sherpas surely do. Investigators who take their testimony seriously have recorded their conviction that at least two yetis exist: the dzu-teh ("big thing"), seven to eight feet tall, and the nich-teh, in the five- to six-foot range. Far more frequently reported than the dzu-teh, the nich-teh is what most people think of as the "abominable snowman." Edward W. Cronin, Jr., gives this composite description:
Its body is stocky, apelike in shape, with a distinctly human quality to it, in contrast to that of a bear. It stands five and a half to six feet tall and is covered with short, coarse hair, reddish-brown to black in color, sometimes with white patches on the chest. The hair is longest on the shoulders. The face is robust, the teeth are quite large, though fangs are not present, and the mouth is wide. The shape of the head is conical, with a pointed crown. The arms are long, reaching almost to the knees. The shoulders are heavy and hunched. There is no tail.
Physical evidence?In the scientific and serious popular literature most of the debate has centered on the tracks which, whatever one makes of the sightings or the credibility of witnesses to the animal itself, undeniably exist. Skeptics usually explain these as the spoor of - conventional animals such as snow leopards, foxes, bears-or even wandering Tibetan lamas (who evidently do not mind freezing their feet)-and sometimes claim that melting has distorted their shapes into "yeti" prints. Though by now a virtual article of faith among skeptics, this last notion is a dubious one. Napier, no yeti believer, writes that "there is no real experimental basis for the belief that single footprints can become enlarged and still retain their shapes, or that discrete prints can run (or melt) together to form single large tracks."
In any case, some of the tracks are found fresh-in other words, before the elements have had a chance to act on them. Among the more impressive incidents involving tracks is one that happened in 1972 to members of the Arun Valley Wildlife Expedition, a multidisciplinary ecological survey of a deep river valley in far-eastern Nepal where many rare animals and plants live isolated and undisturbed. Its participants, including leader Edward Cronin, a zoologist, were open-minded about the yeti's possible existence and even looked for evidence in the course of their two-year effort, but this was not the main purpose of their endeavor.
On the night of December 17, Cronin and expedition physician Howard Emery, along with their Sherpa guides, camped on a depression at 12,000 feet in the ridge of Kongmaa La mountain. The next morning, when Emery awoke and stepped outside, he was startled to find footprints of a bipedal creature which had walked between the two tents sometime in the night. Nine inches long and four and three-quarters wide, perfectly preserved, the tracks showed, Cronin recorded, a "short, broad, opposable hallux, an asymmetrical arrangement of the four remaining toes, and a wide, rounded heel." They looked very much like a yeti print photographed by mountaineer Eric Shipton in 1951.
Expedition members followed the prints for some distance. The creature had come up and down the slope to the north, crossed through the camp, and proceeded over the south slope. Then it returned to the top of the ridge. Its tracks disappeared down the south slope in scrub and rock. "The slope was extremely steep," Cronin wrote, "and searching for the prints was arduous and dangerous. We realized that whatever creature had made them was far stronger than any of us."
If prints associated with the yeti continue to resist conventional explanation, other kinds of evidence have proven disappointing or, at best, am biguous. The 1954 London Daily Mail expedition examined a "yeti scalp," said to be 350 years old, preserved as a kind of sacred object in a Tibetan lamasery. Four years later members of an expedition led by Texas oilman Tom Slick looked at it and another specimen. Two years later, in the course of a much-publicized expedition sponsored by the publishers of World Book bicyclopedia, Sir Edmund Hillary, whose blunt derision did much to dampen subsequent scientific interest in the yeti question, was able to secure yet a third specimen. It turned out, analysts- with the notable exception of British Museum authority John Hill-agreed, to be from a serow (goat antelope).
The 1958 Slick expedition also collected two examples of alleged yeti hands. One, at a lamasery at Makulu, proved to be the paw and forearm of a snow leopard, The other, a far more interesting matter, may be the single best piece of evidence for yeti's existence; ironically, owing to confusion and misunderstanding, it is usually treated as devastating disproof.
In early 1959 expedition member Peter Byrne was permitted into a lamasery at Pangboche, Nepal, where he had learned that a purported yeti hand was kept. The monks had specified that the hand was not to leave the premises, but Byrne, who had carefully worked out a plan of action, managed to persuade the lamas to let him examine it privately. They had no idea what Byrne had brought with him: human hand parts, secured from British primatologist W. C. Osman Hill, a scientific consultant to the expedition. Byrne reported to Slick in a February 3 letter:
I shall not go into detail here of how we got the thumb and the phalanx of the Pangboche hand. The main thing is that we have them, and that the lamas of the monastery do not know that we have them. Because they do not know it is of the utmost importance that there is [sic] no news releases on this or any publicity for some time.... The Pangboche hand is still complete, as far as the lamas are concerned. It still has a thumb and an index procimal phalanx. What they do not know, and what they inust never know, is that the thumb and the p. phalanx at present on the hand are human ones, which we switched.
The stolen samples, which included a piece of skin, were placed in a pack and taken undetected across the Nepalese border. But getting them out of India, where customs were stricter, was a more complicated matter. As it happened, however, two close friends of expedition cosponsor Kirk Johnson were staying at a Calcutta hotel, and Byrne sought their assistance. The friends, film actor James Stewart and his wife Gloria, wrapped the samples in underwear, buried them deep in their luggage, and brought them undetected to London, where they were given to Johnson. Johnson brought them to Hill on February 20.
Hill concluded, disappointed, that the thumb and phalanx were "human." Later, however, he would change his mind, declare them less than fully human-possibly even the remains, unlikely as it seemed, of a Neanderthal man. Two other scientists who examined the samples at the time confessed to puzzlement. Zoologist Charles A. Leone regretted his "inability to make a positive identification," and anthropologist George Agogino later told writer Gardner Soule, "Many people who have examined this hand feel that it is a human hand with very primitive characteristics.... I do not feel that this hand is a normal human hand at all.... It is highly characteristic, however, of all the giant anthropoids." Blood tests of the skin sample indicated it was from no known human or primate.
Because of the circumstances under which the samples were collected-the technical term is thievery-none of this was known when Hillary, who deemed the yeti something of a joke (intimating, for example, that Sherpa sightings and Sherpa drinking habits are not unconnected), declared with much amusement that the Pangboche hand is "essentially a human hand, strung together with wire, with the possible inclusion of several animal bones." This, of course, is precisely what it was after Byrne got through with it. Had Hillary directed his attention to the "animal" (nonhuman) bones instead of the irrelevant planted human bones, he and his associates would likely have been as astonished and puzzled as Hill and his colleagues were. Unfortunately, the present whereabouts of the samples are unknown.
State of the controversy. After the heyday of expeditions in the 1950s, culminating in the debunking that followed Hillary's venture in 1960, scientific and popular interest in the "abominable snowman" peaked, though a few books, magazine articles, and infrequent forays into the Himalayas (such as Cronin's in 1972-74) occasionally have revived the issue. In 1986, in a farcical episode, an English traveler took what he sincerely believed to be a yeti photograph; subsequent investigation conclusively proved that the "yeti" was a mountain rock. In February and March of the same year, the New World Explorers Society collected reports, some relatively recent, from native informants and returned with alleged yeti hair, described only as "long, black, and coarse." The fibers were handed over to the International Society of Cryptozoology for analysis, but the results, if any, had not been published as of late 1992.
Fecal droppings associated with yetis comprise another kind of evidence. Eggs found in samples collected by Slick's 1959 expedition were determined to be from a previously unknown parasitic worm. Bernard Heuvelmans has remarked of this fact, "Since each species of mammal has its own parasites, this indicated that the host animal is also equally an unknown animal."
Most students of the yeti believe the dzu-teli, supposedly the larger version of the beast, is in fact a blue bear. If there is a yeti, it is the meh-teh. Those who think it is a real unknown animal agree that it does not live in the high mountain snows but in the surrounding mountain forests. But what kind of animal is it?
Nicholas Warren offers a conservative positive interpretation. "The concept of a vegetarian ape, occasionally straying from the forests into the high snowfields, is not only logical, but also plausible, as an explanation of the small yeti," he says. More often, however, yeti students from Willy Ley to Edward Cronin to Loren Coleman have been drawn to another, rather more extraordinary interpretation of a sort that has been applied to other kinds of reported, though unrecognized, anthropoids such as Bigfoot and the Chinese wildman: Gigantopithecus, a large prehistoric ape, fossil remains of which have been uncovered in, among other places, the Himalayan foothills.
When Slick showed native witnesses photographs of various animals and asked them which one the yeti most looked like, there was, he said, "a unanimous selection, in the same order, with the first choice being the gorilla standing up, the second choice being an artist's drawing of a prehistoric apeman, Australopitliecus, and the third choice being an orangutan standing up, which they liked particularly for the long hair."