The first recorded yeti sighting was on Everest 100 years ago. In the course of thirty or so trips to the Himalayas, I’ve heard many tales about the Yeti from Sherpas and they were clearly believers. There are very similar stories from local villagers all along the Himalayas, from Arunachal Pradesh to Ladakh, and even though the names changed they seemed to be talking about three kinds of yeti.
They all range in size and environment:
- First, and largest, is the terrifying dzu-teh, who stands eight feet tall when he is on his back legs; however, he prefers to walk on all fours. He can kill a yak with one swipe of his claws
- There is the smaller chu-the or thelma, a little reddish- coloured child-sized creature who walks on two legs and has long arms. He is seen in the forests of Sikkim and Nepal.
- Then there is the meh-teh, who is most like a man and has orangey-red fur on his body. He attacks humans and is the one most often depicted on monastery wall paintings. Yeh-teh or yeti is a mutation of his name. He looks most like the Tintin in Tibet yeti.
Below are the top ten sightings, some from my personal experience.
Sighting 1: Sonam Hisha Sherpa, Nepal, 1960s
Some of the Sherpas I climbed with had stories about family yaks being attacked, and yak-herders terrorised by a creature that sounds like the enormous dzu-teh. In 1986 in Namche Bazaar, capital of the Sherpa Khumbu region, I met Sonam Hisha Sherpa.
Twenty years previously, he had been grazing his yak/cow crosses, the dzo, high on a pasture. During the night, he heard loud whistling and bellowing while he cowered with fright in a cave with his companions. They were sure they were going to be killed by the dzu-teh after it had finished with their livestock.
In the morning, Sonam and his men found that two dzo had been killed and eaten. There was no meat or bones remaining: only blood, dung and intestines.
Sighting 2: Brian Houghton Hodgson, Nepal, 1830s
The earliest Western account of a wild man in the Himalayas dates from 1832 and is given by Brian Houghton Hodgson, the Court of Nepal’s first British Resident, and the first Englishman permitted to visit this forbidden land. Hodgson had to contend with the hotbed that was (and still is) Nepalese politics. He was particularly interested in the natural history and ethnography of the region, and so his report carries some weight.
He recorded that his native hunters had been frightened by a ‘wild man’:
Religion has introduced the Bandar [rhesus macaque] monkey into the central region, where it seems to flourish, half domesticated, in the neighbourhood of temples, in the populous valley of Nepal proper [this is still the case]. My shooters were once alarmed in the Kachár by the apparition of a ‘wild man’, possibly an ourang, but I doubt their accuracy. They mistook the creature for a càcodemon or rakshas (demons) and fled from it instead of shooting it. It moved, they said, erectly, was covered with long dark hair, and had no tail.
Sighting 3: Pliny the Elder, circa 300BC, India
Alexander the Great set out to conquer Persia and India in 326 BC, penetrating nearly as far as Kashmir. He heard about strange wild men of the snows, who were described as something like the satyrs, the lustful Greek gods with the body of a man but the horns, legs and feet of an animal.
Alexander demanded to have one of them brought to him, but the local villagers said the creature could not survive at low altitude. Later, Pliny the Elder wrote in his Naturalis Historia: ‘In the land of the satyrs, in the mountains that lie to the east of India, live creatures that are extremely swift, as they can run on both four feet and on two. They have bodies like men, and because of their speed can only be caught when they are ill or old.’
Sighting 4: Major Laurence Waddell, Northern India, circa 1889
The first sighting of yeti footprints by a Westerner was made by the English soldier and explorer Major Laurence Waddell. He was a Professor of Tibetan Culture and a Professor of Chemistry, a surgeon and an archaeologist, and he had roamed Tibet in disguise.
He is thought by some to be the real-life precursor of the film character Indiana Jones. One of his theories included a belief that the beginning of all civilisation dated from the Aryan Sumerians who were blond Nordics with blue eyes. These theories were later picked up by the German Nazis and led to their expedition to Tibet in 1938–39.
While exploring in northeast Sikkim in 1889, Waddell’s party came across a set of large footprints which his servants said were made by the yeti, a beast that was highly dangerous and fed on humans:
“Some large footprints in the snow led across our track and away up to the higher peaks. These were alleged to be the trail of the hairy wild men who are believed to live amongst the eternal snows, along with the mythical white lions, whose roar is reputed to be heard during storms [perhaps these were avalanches].
The belief in these creatures is universal amongst Tibetans. None, however, of the many Tibetans who I have interrogated on this subject could ever give me an authentic case. On the most superficial investigation, it always resolved into something heard tell of. “
These so-called hairy wild men are evidently the great yellow snow-bear (Ursus isabellinus) which is highly carnivorous and often kills yaks. Yet, although most of the Tibetans know this bear sufficiently to give it a wide berth, they live in such an atmosphere of superstition that they are always ready to find extraordinary and supernatural explanations of uncommon events.
Sighting 5: Lt-Col. Charles Howard-Bury, Tibet 1920s
Leader of the 1921 Everest reconnaissance expedition, Charles Howard-Bury, saw something strange when he was crossing the Lhakpa’ La at 21,000 feet.
Howard-Bury was one of the extraordinary Everesters. He was wealthy and moved easily in high society. He had a most colourful life, growing up in a haunted gothic castle at Charleville, County Offaly, Ireland.
Then, in 1905, he stained his skin with walnut juice and travelled into Tibet without permission, being ticked off by the viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, on his return (Tibet must have been crowded with heavily stained Englishmen at that time). He bought a bear cub, named it Agu and took it home to Ireland where it grew into a seven-foot adult. So he was familiar with bear prints.
Was Howard-Bury prone to the telling of tall stories? Fellow Everester George Mallory didn’t much like him but thought not. The story he brought back seemed entirely plausible to fellow members of the Alpine Club. He was a careful observer of nature and a plant hunter (Primula buryana is named after him).
Howard-Bury’s diary notes for 22 September 1921 read: ‘We distinguished hare and fox tracks; but one mark, like that of a human foot, was most puzzling. The coolies assured me that it was the track of a wild, hairy man, and that these men were occasionally to be found in the wildest and most inaccessible mountains.’
Later, he expanded the story: he reported that the party (including Mallory, who also saw the tracks) was camped at 20,000 feet and set off at 4am in bright moonlight to make their crossing of the pass. On the way, they saw the footprints, which ‘were probably caused by a large loping grey wolf, which in the soft snow formed double tracks rather like those of a bare-footed man’. However, the porters ‘at once volunteered that the tracks must be that of “The Wild Man of the Snows”, to which they gave the name metoh kangmi.
Sighting 6: William Hugh Knight, Tibet, 1888
One of the best known explorers of Tibet’, and a member of ‘the British Royal Societies club’ said that he had ‘seen one of the wild men from a fairly close distance sometime previously; he hadn’t reported it before, but felt that due to the statement about manlike footprints that was made by Howard-Bury’s party, he was now compelled to add his own evidence to the growing pile’.
Knight said that the wild man was ‘. . .a little under six feet high, almost stark naked in that bitter cold: it was the month of November. He was kind of pale yellow all over, about the colour of a Chinaman, a shock of matted hair on his head, little hair on his face, highly-splayed feet, and large, formidable hands. His muscular development in the arms, thighs, legs, back, and chest was terrific. He had in his hand what seemed to be some form of primitive bow.’
Sighting 7: Major Bill Tilman, Northern India, 1937
“While contouring round the foot of the ridge between these two feeder glaciers, we saw in the snow the tracks of an Abominable Snowman. They were eight inches in diameter, eighteen inches apart, almost circular, without signs of toe or heel. They were three of four days old, so melting must have altered the outline. The most remarkable thing was that they were in a straight line one behind the other, with no ‘stagger’ right or left, like a bird’s spoor.
A four-footed animal walking slowly puts its hindfoot in the track of its forefoot, but there are always some marks of overlapping, nor are the tracks immediately in front of each other. However many-legged it was, the bird or beast was heavy, the tracks being nearly a foot deep. We followed them for a mile, when they disappeared on some rock. The tracks came from a glacier pool where the animal had evidently drunk, and the next day we picked up the same spoor on the north side of Snow Lake.
The Sherpas judged them to belong to the smaller type of Snowman, or yeti, as they call them, of which there are apparently two varieties: the smaller, whose spoor we were following, which feeds on men, while his larger brother confines himself to a diet of yaks. My remark that no-one had been here for thirty years and that he must be devilish hungry did not amuse the Sherpas as much as expected! The jest was considered ill-timed, as it perhaps was, the three of us standing forlorn and alone in a great expanse of snow, looking at the strange tracks like so many Robinson Crusoes.”
Tilman speculates on the nature of the creature: ‘A one-legged, carnivorous bird, weighing perhaps a ton, might make similar tracks, but it seems unnecessary to search for a new species when we have a perfectly satisfactory one at hand in the form of the Abominable Snowman – new perhaps to science but old in legend.’
They followed the footprints for a mile. His diary notes tersely: ‘Sixteen inches apart and about 6–8 inches in diameter. Blokes say it is hairy like a monkey.’
Sighting 8: Eric Shipton, Mount Everest, 1951
“It was on one of the glaciers of the Menlung basin, at a height of about 19,000 feet, that, late one afternoon, we came across those curious footprints in the snow, the report of which has caused a certain amount of public interest in Britain. We did not follow them further than was convenient, a mile or so, for we were carrying heavy loads at the time, and besides we had reached a particularly interesting stage in the exploration of the basin.
I have in the past found many sets of these curious foot-prints and have tried to follow them, but have always lost them on the moraine or rocks at the side of the glacier. These particular ones seemed to be very fresh, probably not more than 24 hours old. When Murray and Bourdillon followed us a few days later the tracks had been almost obliterated by melting.
Sen Tensing, who had no doubt whatever that the creatures (for there had been at least two) that had made the tracks were ‘Yetis’, or wild men, told me that two years before, he and a number of other Sherpas had seen one of them at a distance of about 25 yards at Thyangboche. He described it as half man and half beast, standing about five feet six inches, with a tall pointed head, its body covered with reddish brown hair, but with a hairless face . . . He left no doubt as to his sincerity.”
And then, writing in The Times:
“The tracks were mostly distorted by melting into oval impressions, slightly longer and a good deal broader than those made by our mountain boots. But here and there, where the snow covering the ice was thin, we came upon a well-preserved impression of the creature’s foot.
It showed three ‘toes’ and a broad ‘thumb’ to the side. What was particularly interesting was that where the tracks crossed a crevasse one could see quite clearly where the creature had jumped and used its toes to secure purchase on the snow on the other side. We followed the tracks for more than a mile down the glacier before we got on to moraine-covered ice.”
Sighting 9. Colonel John Hunt, Everest, 1950s
In his book of the successful 1953 British expedition, he described an interesting encounter just after reaching base camp at Thyangboche monastery:
“That afternoon we paid our first official visit to the Monastery at the invitation of the monks. There was a simple ceremony to perform on arrival, the laying of scarves on the thrones of the present Abbot as he, a young boy, was away in Tibet . . . Coached in this formality by Tenzing, I also presented to the acting Abbot our expedition flag.
We were briefly shown round the sanctuary, after which a meal was served in an upper room. Seated with Charles Wylie and Tenzing beside our host, a rotund figure robed in faded red, I questioned him about the Yeti, better known to us as the ‘Abominable Snowman’.
The old dignitary at once warmed to this subject. Peering out of the window on to the meadow where our tents were pitched, he gave a most graphic description of how a Yeti had appeared from the surrounding thickets a few years back in winter, when the snow lay on the ground. This beast, loping along sometimes on his hind legs and sometimes on all fours, stood about five feet high and was covered with grey hair, a description which we have heard from other eyewitnesses.
Oblivious of his guests, the Abbot was reliving a sight imprinted on his memory as he stared across at the scene of this event. The Yeti had stopped to scratch, the old monk gave a good imitation, but went on longer than he need have done to make his point. It had picked up snow, played with it and made a few grunts; again he gave us a convincing rendering.
The inhabitants of the Monastery had meanwhile worked themselves into a great state of excitement, and instructions were given to drive off the unwelcome visitor. Conch shells were blown and the long traditional horns sounded. The Yeti had ambled away into the bush.
Sighting 10. Don Whillans, Annapurna, Nepal, 1970
In 1970, the colourful climber and Manchester plumber Don Whillans saw strange footprints near his camp on Annapurna. At their Annapurna temporary base camp, he found and photographed footprints and later that night watched an ape-like creature about a quarter of a mile away through binoculars in bright moonlight for twenty minutes.
Whillans could clearly see a powerful animal ‘bounding along on all fours. . . and headed straight up the slope in the absolutely bright moonlight. It looked like an ape. I don’t think it was a bear.’ In the morning, he said, his stash of Mars bars had gone. The next morning, he went up to make a full reconnaissance to the permanent base camp site and he took the Sherpas along with him to gauge their reactions to the tracks.
“I thought I’d see their reaction at the point where I’d photographed the tracks the day before. The tracks were so obvious that it was impossible not to make any comment, but they walked straight past and didn’t indicate that they’d seen them.
I had already said that I had seen the Yeti, not knowing exactly what it was, but they pretended they didn’t understand and ignored what I said. I am convinced that they believe the Yeti does exist, that it is some kind of sacred animal which is best left alone; that if you don’t bother it, it won’t bother you.”
So, does the yeti really exist? In my book Yeti: An Abominable History I discuss all the above sightings, including my own when I went back to Bhutan and found something remarkable…