Sorting through history for the Yeti

Whether it exists or not, this mythical monster of Himalayan folklore is Nepal’s top tourist attraction

Yeti painted by Phurba Chitten Sherpa from Namche

Great grey clouds steal the light and weigh down the sky -- no chance of glimpsing any passing comet or rising moon. Relentless rain fills the days, quieting the birds and hammering the plastic sheets that cover the roof’s leaking tiles. Rising to a deafening roar then quieting to a fine drizzle, only seldom are we rewarded with a sun-dappled dawn or a spectacular many-hued sunset. The inundated earth is heavy and sodden, the grass drowned, and flowers dashed. The floods and landslides of Nepal’s annual monsoon seem very real.

Inside the house, my entire early Nepal life is spread across the dining table. Heaps of faded photos, tattered letters, newspaper cuttings, slides and memories, untidily sorted into bygone years with the elusive hope of getting them selected, discarded and stuck into the big blue scrap book. It is a slow and distracting process, perfect for long pandemic evenings. 

During the early days of Tiger Mountain, with summer rains swelling rivers, closing roads and precluding tourism, normally I would be travelling to promote Nepal’s heritage, jungle and trekking attractions. Our source markets were mainly US and Europe in the 1980s, and with industry colleagues I would do sales tours and attend travel shows, encourage media visits and fashion shoots – anything to draw attention to Nepal’s incomparable culture, nature and mountains. 

Between promotion trips, the fading photos testify that you might find me salmon fishing in Iceland with Jim Edwards, leading trips to China for Lindblad Travel, on a wildlife cruise to Alaska or scouting adventure trips in Eastern Siberia. With a marketing budget of close to zero -- Jim was always a little vague about money – none of this travelling would have been possible without the sofas of random friends, and the free standby tickets on Pan American Airlines that we represented in Nepal. 

The joys of flying standby are overstated. Only if there was an empty seat could I board the flight, usually at the very last minute, a nail-biting stressful experience lingering nervously around check-in that I never got used to. Jim counselled to dress smartly as that improved the chances of getting upgraded – in those un-woke days Pan Am served caviar in first class but did not permit blue jeans. I regularly got stranded along their air-routes in Delhi, Frankfurt, London, New York, San Francisco, and once even ended up in Guatemala as the direct flights were full. Even checking the loads and in supplication to the power of the ground staff, never could one be sure to travel.

Sherpa painting fragments with yetis

Other than hippies, I was most often asked about the Yeti, especially in North America where our Abominable Snowman was sympathetically equated to Bigfoot and Sasquatch. Yetis featured in movies, expeditions, books and articles dedicated to investigating the existence of these mythical creatures, upright monsters of Himalayan folklore with distinctive fearsome and hairy characteristics, dreaded by the Sherpas and other mountain peoples as well as throughout Tibet. Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation boasted Yeti service, with a startling statue bearing an inflight tray marking the RNAC headquarters at the bottom of New Road. 

Many early Himalayan mountaineers have claimed sightings since climbing explorers Eric Shipton and Michael Ward first found a Yeti footprint in 1951 on the Menlung Glacier west of Mount Everest. Reports include hunched dark shapes disappearing over a ridgeline, huge baffling tracks crossing remote alpine snowfields, looming shadows appearing in blizzards, and even yaks with their heads “screwed off” by the beast. Such was its intrigue that Sir Edmund Hillary and Griffith Pugh mounted a winter expedition in 1960 to 1961 to Rolwaling and Khumbu in search of the Yeti, a Sherpa word meaning ‘wild man’, with the writer and painter Desmond Doig as the ‘official reporter’. 

Hillary wrote: ‘Our Yeti search gave us many exciting moments as we tracked down the threads that seemed so often to be leading to an astounding answer, but never did. At the end of it all, we reached a definite conclusion that the Yeti was a myth.’ With Sherpa headman Konchok Chombi and Khumjung monastery’s conical-shaped Yeti scalp, they toured the world to tell the story and make scientific tests. Desmond recorded their lack of findings in his book, High in the Thin Cold Air.

Amongst the dusty negatives on my table are contact sheets of photographs I took of Desmond Doig at Bodnath in 1980 being interviewed for an ITV film about the Yeti presented by Arthur C Clark. Our hunt “was a great gaudy mess. Any self-respecting Yeti would have kept way away from us … with our 600 porters, 200 Sherpas and about 40 of us.” Desmond loved any fanciful unsolved mystery, so preferred to keep his options open.

Taunting anthropologists and researchers, the elusive Yeti continues to confound science. Yeti-obsessed ecologist Daniel C Taylor, author of Yeti: The Ecology of a Mystery, found a trail of footprints during a 1983 search of the Barun, but eventually concluded that it is more likely to be a bear. Yetis still court controversy as we saw recently with the aborted Visit Nepal Year 2020 painted sculptures that divided national opinion.

The closest I came to any Yeti was when American scientists, Jeff McNeely and E W Cronin stored a silver tin trunk of 1972 specimens from the Upper Barun Khola in the cupboard under the stairs in the Sanepa house. I vividly recall Jeff showing me the white plaster casts of alleged Yeti footprints, which have since gone missing. 

The precious trunk was confiscated by customs at Kathmandu airport when British zoologist Andrew Laurie tried to ship it out for Jeff in late 1975. Andrew remembers: “A tranquilizing gun had inadvertently been packed in the bottom of the case, and I was nearly arrested for illegal possession of firearms.” The plaster footprints were siezed by customs officials as “national treasures” and never seen again. A recent attempt to trace the lost tin trunk in the government go-downs was unsuccessful. 

As I return to my painstaking picture sorting, I reflect that after the onslaught of so many monsoon rains, there is unlikely to be anything left of the crumbling Yeti relics.

Watch clip of Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World episode on Apemen.

Lisa Choegyal