Yeti Sheti: There is something appealing about the idea of an undiscovered creature lurking out of sight

Stephen Alter

A few days ago, an Indian Army mountaineering expedition to Makalu, the 8,485-metre peak in Western Nepal, tweeted sensational news that they had discovered footprints of a Yeti in the snow near Base Camp. With all due respect, I would never question the integrity or motives of India’s armed forces, but the announcement, which infected social media like a viral fever as contagious as dengue, has caused a lot of amusement and some derision. Of course, this is not the first time that mountaineers have reported evidence of an abominable snowman in the high Himalaya and it will certainly not be the last. One of the relatively unknown aspects of alpine adventure is that climbers spend a great deal of time sitting around, acclimatising, waiting for the weather to clear and fighting boredom before setting off up a mountain. Base Camps have always provided a fertile environment for active imaginations, heightened anxieties and colourful storytelling.
The truth is, nobody can prove that the Yeti doesn’t exist simply because it hasn’t been found. Many of us believe in a lot of things for which there is no empirical evidence. And even for a sceptic like myself, there is something appealing about the idea of an undiscovered creature lurking out of sight. I would be the first person to celebrate if somebody came up with hard evidence proving the existence of a Yeti but, at the same time, I have serious doubts, because of so many false leads in the past, many of them based on ambiguous footprints in the snow.
Reports of fabulous creatures inhabiting the Himalaya have been around for a long time. In 300 BCE, Megasthenes, Alexander the Great’s ambassador, wrote: “On a mountain called Nulo there live men whose feet are turned backward, who have heads like those of dogs, who are clothed with skins of wild beasts and whose speech is barking.” This may be the first known report of a Yeti.
One of the earliest modern accounts came from Frank Smythe, a legendary climber and author of mountain literature. In 1937, accompanied by Wangdi Norbu and three other Sherpas from Darjeeling, Smythe spent two months in the Bhyunder Valley of Garhwal, which he describes in his book, The Valley of Flowers. One chapter recounts how Smythe and the Sherpas came upon a set of large footprints in the snow. Wangdi insisted these were the tracks of a “Ban Manshi” or “Mirka,” two common names for the Yeti in the Solu-Khumbu region. Smythe describes his companions’ terror and their insistence that this bloodthirsty creature preyed on yaks and men. They also told him that its feet point backwards. Taking photographs and tracing an outline of the print on the pages of a copy of the Spectator magazine in his rucksack, Smythe followed the tracks, both backwards and forwards, and saw where the creature had crossed a glacier. The route it followed was so expertly traversed that Smythe wrote a piece in the Times, noting that, “obviously the ‘Snowman’ was well qualified for membership of the Himalayan Club”. He showed his photographs to scientists at the Zoological Society in London and they determined that these were the tracks of a Himalayan Brown Bear.
Of course, that didn’t dissuade those who still wanted to believe in the Yeti. A lively exchange of letters from readers erupted in the Times, many demanding that the Royal Geographical Society immediately mount an expedition to find the Yeti. The story was then picked up by Bill Tilman and Eric Shipton, who were Smythe’s contemporaries and two of the greatest British mountaineers. Tilman wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece in the Alpine Journal titled, “Himalayan Apery” suggesting the imminent discovery of a “giant anthropoid”. Shipton took the joke even further, aided by Sherpa Sen Tenzing. Following the 1951 Everest reconnaissance, Shipton published photographs of Yeti footprints that he claimed to have found on a glacier in the Menlung Basin, between Everest and Makalu. Jim Perrin, who has written a biography of Tilman and Shipton, lets most of the air out of this long-standing mystery when he quotes Sir Edmund Hilary, who was a member of the 1951 expedition: “What you’ve got to understand is that Eric (Shipton) was a joker. He was forever pulling practical jokes. This footprint, see, he’s gone round it with his knuckles, shaping the toe. He made it up, and of course he was with Sen Tenzing who was as big a joker as Eric.”
Hilary, himself, used the myth of the Yeti to get funding for some of his projects. He also took the famous “Yeti scalp”, from Khumjung Monastery, to America, where scientists at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago tested the relic and determined that it was a scrap of hide from a serow, a species of goat-antelope. A couple of years ago, on a visit to Khumjung, I paid Rs 250 to view the scalp at the monastery. With a conical shape, it has what looks like a hennaed hairdo and a neat middle part.
Daniel Taylor’s recent book Yeti: The Ecology of a Mystery provides an exhaustively detailed account of the quest for this incredible beast. Taylor, himself, has explored the remote region near Makalu where the Indian Army reported their sighting of footprints. He also describes the expeditions led by a Texas millionaire, Tom Slick, who pursued the Yeti with blue tick bloodhounds imported to Nepal from America. Taylor admits that most of the evidence still points to bears, though he isn’t quite willing to concede that the Yeti will never be found.
Searching for a creature that doesn’t exist may seem like a lost cause, though this impossible quest involves appealing elements of romance and the ultimate reward may be that we discover something else instead. In this spirit, I extend my best wishes to the Indian Army climbers who are on their way to the top of Makalu. May they leave their own footprints on the summit!
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 2, 2019, under the title ‘Yeti Sheti’. Alter is the author of 20 books of fiction and non-fiction.