The mysterious Yeti

Features Issue 146 Feb, 2014
Text by Vishal Rai

The elusive cryptid has fascinated the world for decades. The next few pages delves into the legend of the yeti, discusses the many theories surrounding the creature and tells you why running downhill is an advice you should always remember

In 1974, the Sunday Times reported the assault of a 19-year old yak herder in the remote Machermo Valley of the Everest region. What business did a British newspaper have with an incident so far away from their reader base? Simple: At the height of the “Abominable Snowman” craze, it was a yeti attack that the report was referring to! Lhakpa Doma Sherpa, the yak herder, described a 5-foot tall creature that had thrown her some distance and then proceeded to kill a few of her yaks by simply twisting their horns. The Nepali police, it is said, confirmed the assault and a photographer even recorded footprints. Sometime later, a Japanese and Polish base camp were also reportedly attacked by a similar creature.

Apparently, maps of Khumbu Valley even mention the area between Dole and Machermo as the site of a yeti attack.
The yeti legend that has encompassed the entire length of the Himalayas is timeless. Reports of sightings have ranged from the state of Tripura in North East India to the Karakoram range that spans the borders of Pakistan, India and China, but a majority of the encounters have been in the highlands of Nepal, Tibet and Sikkim. The search for the cryptid, though, dates back to the time of Alexander the Great in 326 BC. The Macedonian, on his way to conquer the Indus Valley, stopped at Kashmir where, having heard tales of the yeti, asked to see one himself. This demand could not be fulfilled because, according to the locals, the creatures could not survive at that low an altitude. The first Western account of “hairy apemen” roaming the mountains of Asia came from a 15th century European mercenary in Mongolia but it was Eric Shipton’s world-famous picture of (supposedly) yeti footprints in the snow of the Melung Glacier in 1951 that started a craze that continued well into the 1970s. There were comics about the yeti (Herge’s Tintin In Tibet remains a classic), several movies were made on the topic and, especially in Nepal, the creature still remains a saleable commodity with hotels and airlines named after it.

Sobriquets & Epithets
For a mysterious, rarely seen creature (or maybe precisely because of it), the yeti is referred to by a number of appellations across the Himalayas. The term “yeti” itself is a merger of the Sherpa words “yah” (rock or cliff) and “teh” (animal). However, some researchers have also deduced that the term comes from the Sanskrit “yaksha”, a hairy being with superhuman strength. The Sherpas and Tibetans also call it “Metoh-Kangmi” meaning “unwashed snowman”. The Tibetans have a number of titles – Chemo, Dremo (a human that transformed into a wildman), Chu-mung (spirit of the glaciers), and Mig-de (bear man). The Mongolians call it Almas while the Udshur people of the Hindu Kush call it Baman. In Bhutan, where they even have stamps commemorating the creature, the yeti is known as Mighu or Migoi (strong man). In India, the Sikkimese call it Megur. The people of Tripura, another North East Indian state, believe in “Bura Debota” (old man evil spirit) which has uncanny similarities to the yeti. Ban Manchhe (man of the forest) and Mahalangur (great monkey) are terms used by the Nepalese. A section of the Himalayas that includes Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu is actually called Mahalangur Himal which, incidentally, is traditionally believed to be one of the creature’s abodes. It should be noted that Khumbu, where the Machermo yeti attack took place, is in this very region. Tibetan names such as Rime (forest dweller), Me Shornpo (strong man) and Megod (untamed man) are said to be symbolic of the shamanistic elements of Tibetan religion that contrast greatly with the monastic system.

The popular term “Abominable Snowman”, a creation of journalist Henry Newman in 1921 is, in fact, a misnomer. Newman, who was a contributor for The Statesman in Calcutta, interviewed the porters of the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition (led by Charles Howard-Bury) on their return to Darjeeling in West Bengal. Bury supposedly had come across large footprints in the snow which the Sherpa guides said belonged to the Metoh-Kangmi. The journalist incorrectly translated the word “Metoh” (unwashed) to “abominable”. The name stuck and has been in use ever since.

The Terrible Trio
Although the most common depiction of the yeti is that of a tall (usually 7-feet or above), hairy creature, descriptions from numerous supposed encountehave led researchers to identify three types. The Nyalmo, the largest of the three, is believed to be 15-feet tall. They are bearlike and extremely dangerous and thought to be led by females. Said to be man-eaters, they usually hunt yaks by holding them by the horns and twisting their necks. This killing method corresponds exactly with the incident at Machermo, though the height of that creature was only 5-feet. It is rumored that the Nyalmo also capture and mate with humans.

The Chuti is the second kind. Standing about eight feet tall, they are said to be black and hairy with short necks and, similar to the Nyalmo, have feet that are smaller than their hands. They are both vegetarian and carnivorous and live between 8,000 to 10,000 feet, lower than the altitudes where the Nyalmo reside. The third breed is the Ban Jhakri (forest shaman) or Rang Shin Bombo, although most yeti literature do not consider them yetis. The shortest of the lot (three to five feet tall), they are covered in very long golden or red hair and inhabit forests in the lower altitudes of the Himalayas.

The Ban Jhakris are usually vegetarian. As their name suggests, they are considered shamans of the forest who occasionally abduct children in order to initiate them into shamanism. There have been numerous rumors of such kidnappings in Nepal, the Darjeeling region, Sikkim and across North East India. Perhaps, the “Bura Debota” of Tripura too is a localized version of the Ban Jhakri.

The variations in height from the many reports can be attributed to the different types of yetis living at differing altitudes. Other theories suggest that all breeds live in the higher regions in summer and travel down in winter when food resources run out.

Appearance & Escape Tips
Apart from the discrepancies in height, most people who have encountered the yeti generally agree on their appearance. The head is conical with deeply sunken eyes and a red wrinkled flat face similar to that of an orangutan, although the Nyalmo are black and bearlike. The males have long hair that cover the eyes and a full beard that conceals the rest of the face. The females have large breasts that hang down below their bellies. Folklore recommends running downhill as the best method to escape a yeti - the male’s hair impedes his vision while the female loses her balance thanks to her mammoth breasts. All of them are tailless with long arms, thick shoulders and short legs and a popular belief is that their feet turn inwards, with toes pointing backwards. As nocturnal creatures, they can see perfectly at night and also have acute hearing abilities.

A Matter Of Religion
The yeti has been an integral part of Sherpa and Tibetan myth and religion. Scrolls in monasteries place them between animals and humans. According to a Sherpa legend, they are the children of a Tibetan girl and a large ape which could be a reason why they are believed to exist between the human and animal worlds. Rumors about yeti mummies being preserved in remote Tibetan monasteries have abounded for centuries. Lama Lopen, who escaped to India with the Dalai Lama after the Chinese occupation of Tibet, claims to have come across a shriveled but relatively well-preserved body of a giant ape in the secret catacombs of the Sakya Monastery near Shigatse in western Tibet. The shamanistic Bön religion even lists the Nyalmo as a female mountain deity (“mo” being a female suffix in Tibetan).

Tibetans consider themselves to be descendants of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion, in his incarnation as a monkey god. It is believed that the god married a demon and out of this union came six children with long hair and tails. Slowly, the hair and tails disappeared due to the blessed grains they were fed. Some of the children, their texts say, inherited their father’s qualities and others those of their mother. The Sherpas regard the cryptids to be bodyguards of Dolma, the female incarnation of Chenrezig. Since Sherpas practice the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which retains elements of the pre-Buddhist Bön religion, they believe that a person’s soul moves to the body of lower anthropoids after dying, which is why yetis are revered by some denominations.

The Hindus relate the yeti to the Monkey God, Hanuman, who is also depicted as half-human and half-monkey. They also consider the yeti to be disciples of Shiva and are thought to be spirits from the Sun. The Ban Jhakris too are said to be ardent followers of Shiva although the extremely long hair they possess are reminiscent of those worn by the ancient Tibetan Black Bön shamans.

Sightings, Excursions & A Hollywood Connection
Since the late 1800s, hundreds of sightings of the yeti have been reported yet no clear photographs exist. The ones that do are dubious as are the artifacts in existence. A yeti encounter, for the Sherpas, is a highly inauspicious event. They believe that people who come across the creatures sicken and often meet an untimely death. The tribals of North East India too have similar beliefs.

As is often the case when it comes to such bizarre and enigmatic tales, Western adventurers flocked towards the Himalayas to solve the mystery of the yeti. In the 1950s, there were supposedly more yeti expeditions than missions to conquer mountains. Perhaps the most famous of these is Edmund Hillary’s World Book Encyclopedia expedition in 1960. The mountaineer claimed to have come across large footprints while scaling Everest in 1953 and, a year earlier, had supposedly found a tuft of hair belonging to a yeti that was thrown away by his Sherpa guide citing bad luck. Despite these incidents, he was a known skeptic. His 1960 operation, which discovered a bunch of mysterious furs, was basically undertaken to debunk the yeti myth. The famous Khumjung Yeti scalp was taken to Europe and North America for testing. The scalp was proven to be made from the skin of a 200-year-old Himalayan goat while the furs were of Tibetan bears. A 1972 expedition by Edward W. Cronin and Dr. Howard Emery to Kongmaa Laa also failed to yield results.

The Snowman Expedition organized by the Daily Mail in 1954 came across large footprints which couldn’t be identified. This caught the attention of Tom Slick Jr., a Texan millionaire, who in turn funded a few missions himself. A 1959 expedition of his collected what they believed to be yeti excrement. Upon analysis, these droppings were found to contain an unknown parasite. As parasites are often unique to their host, this meant that the feces were that of a previously unrecognized animal. In an interesting addition to the tales of this expedition, Peter Bryne, a member of Slick’s expedition, allegedly stole a finger from the Pangboche Hand, an artifact said to be the hand of a yeti that was kept in the monastery at Pangboche, Nepal. Byrne replaced the finger with a human one which he wired onto the hand and painted with iodine. He then smuggled the digit into India where it was then taken out of the country by, of all people, Hollywood actor James Stewart (of It’s A Wonderful Life, Vertigo and Rear Window fame). This was later confirmed by Bryne in a book he wrote on Nepalese wildlife. Edmund Hillary, in his 1960 expedition, analyzed the Pangboche Hand and dismissed it as a hoax. Little did he know that he was actually looking at a reconstructed item and not the original artifact.

Theories & Speculations
Like other famous cryptids such as the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and the Chupacabra, the yeti has been a subject of constant scrutiny. We know about the creature’s cultural and religious significance but what exactly is it anyway? The celebrated Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner, the first man to climb Everest without oxygen, believes the yeti and chemo, an elusive Himalayan bear that locals are terrified of, are one and the same. Messner has been studying yetis ever since he had an encounter with a mysterious creature while trekking across Tibet in 1986. His book “My Quest For The Yeti” is a veritable treasure trove of information. He believes that a chemo turns into a yeti down in the valleys where people are unfamiliar with it. In the book, Messner suggests that the notion of the yeti being some kind of monster spread from the Sherpa territories and ignited the imagination of people across the world.

In October this year, the BBC reported the findings of an Oxford University genetic professor, Bryan Sykes. Sykes carried out DNA tests on hair samples from a mummified creature killed some 40 years ago in Ladakh and a single strand of hair found in the forests of Bhutan in 2001. He concluded that the yeti might have been a hybrid of polar and brown bears.
Others believe that the yeti is a surviving giganthopithicus, a giant ape that became extinct 3000 years ago. And then there are those who believe the yeti is an invention of the Sherpas to keep the climbers and tourists entertained.

The Snowman Of The Third Reich
According to Messner, Ernst Schaefer, a Nazi who worked for the SS and Ancestral Legacy, was sent by Hitler and Heinrich Himmler to search for the yeti in the hopes that the creature could be proved to be the basis of the Aryan race. Himmler wanted to confirm that the Nordic race had come down from the skies and believed in glacial cosmogony. Needless to say, their perception of the yeti as a “cold-resistant Proto-Aryan” did not bear fruit as Schaefer deduced that the Aryan Snowman was only a Tibetan bear.

Why Believe In The Myth?
Monsters, and the efforts to understand them, have kindled our imagination since time immemorial. According to Todd Disotell, an anthology professor at NYU, the existence of such fantastical tales may be due to some basic cultural-based need. John Hawkes, another anthropologist, believes that humans have a fascination with the divide between our species and animals, and creatures such as the yeti bridge that gap. But whatever it may be, Messner puts it right when he says that the “yeti belongs to anyone who has heard of it and no one wants to give up the picture they have in their head. The yeti is really thick-skinned. He has no idea that half the world is thinking about him.”

1941 - VS Karapetyan, a Soviet army colonel, performs a physical examination of captured a wildman in the Caucasus mountains

1948 - Norwegian mineral expert Jan Frontis is attacked in the Sikkim-Nepal border

1951- Eric Shipton takes photographs of yeti footprints at Melung Glacier

1953- Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay see large footprints while scaling Everest

1957- The Kathmandu Commoner carries a story about a head of a yeti slain by Nepali soldiers that had been kept for 25 years in Chilunka, 50 km from Kathmandu
- Alexander Georgievitch Pronin, a hydrologist at the Geographical Research Institute of Leningrad Uni, sees a red haired human like creature while on an expedition in the Pamirs
 - Tom Slick Jr., a Texan millionaire, organizes a yeti hunt

 - Slavomir Rawicz and six companions escaping from a Russian Siberian World War 2 concentration camp come across two 8 ft tall creatures in the Sikkim-Bhutan border

1949- Herdsman Lakhpa Tensing is torn apart by a yeti in Nangpala near Nanga Parbat

1952- Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide come across a tuft of hair that might have belonged to a yeti

1958- Monks at Rongbuk Monastery claim that yetis destroyed a sacred rock monument overlooking the monastery
- Kathmandu weekly Kalpana reports that the Raja of Mustang is in possession of a yeti skin

1954 - The Daily Mail puts together a yeti expedition

1963- Russian pediatrician Ivan Ivlov sees a yeti family on a mountain slope in Altai Himalaya in Mongolia. His Mongolian driver tells him it’s a common sight

1970- British mountaineer Don Whillans claims to have seen a yeti while scaling Annapurna

1975- The Rising Nepal reports the attack of a Polish trekker, Janus Tomaszczuk, on the Everest trail

1979- The famous writer Peter Matthiessen writes about seeing a yeti in Dolpo

1986- Anthony B Woolridge takes a picture of a yeti in the Arun Valley. He later concludes that it was “probably a rock”
- Mountain climber Reinhold Messner has a close-up sighting of a yeti in Tibet

2001- Accompanied by Sonam Dhendup, the Bhutanese king’s official yeti hunter, a team working on a documentary for Britain’s Channel 4 find long black hair in the bark of a tree.

2009 - The Russian Pravda newspaper reports that scientists are using Google maps to locate yeti habitats
 - Austrian Times reports that a man took video footage of a hairy apeman in the Tatra Mountains in south Poland. The video can be seen on YouTube by searching for “Polish Yeti Footage”