Throughout the 20th century, Himalayan travel writing has been peppered with stories of yeti sightings and yeti footprints.
In a previous post, published in my anthology Sherpa Hospitality as a Cure for Frostbite, I described how the great Reinhold Messner believed he’d seen a yeti in a clearing in Tibet in 1986, and how Eric Shipton photographed a yeti’s footprint in the 1950s. In another post, I described how Bruce Chatwin interviewed a lady who’d watched a yeti murder her yaks in the Gokyo Valley in the 1970s. A couple of years ago I did a talk at the Hawkesbury Upton literature festival alongside trekking operator Steve Berry of Mountain Kingdoms, who’d seen a yeti’s footprints high on a mountainside in Bhutan and produced a video about it.
Earlier this year the BBC went a step further and broadcast a 10-part radio series about yetis which included many more stories but no hard evidence. The series featured an interview with no lesser figure than Sir David Attenborough, who talked about a great ape gigantopithecus whose ancient remains were found in China. He speculated that it might still exist in some remote area of the Himalayas.
The programme’s many eyewitness accounts include a sighting by expedition leaders Tim Calder and Raj Joshi, who believed they and their group of clients had seen a yeti near the Mera La in Nepal while climbing Mera Peak. I once had a chat with Tim Calder in Sam’s Bar, Kathmandu after one of my expeditions. I know what you’re thinking – he clearly likes a drink – but he was sensible and serious; not someone who would make up such a story if he hadn’t seen something quite extraordinary.
One of the programme’s narrators, Andrew Benfield, even obtained a yeti-hair necklace from a yak herder in Upper Mustang. But when he took it home and had it analysed, it was discovered to contain a mix of human and bear hair. More damning still was the testament of a scientist belonging to the Bhutanese government’s very own state-sponsored yeti-hunting programme. He had set up hundreds of camera traps in the government’s 300-square-mile yeti sanctuary in eastern Bhutan in the hope of getting some footage of one. The Bhutan Himalaya is where BBC cameraman Gordon Buchanan obtained camera-trap footage of tigers at 4,000m for the TV series Lost Land of the Tiger. But of yeti footage, there was not a sausage.
These stories are so prevalent, and even quite plausible, that it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that at some point in history yetis really existed – and perhaps they still do.
But the world is getting smaller and the Himalayas have now been pretty thoroughly explored. If yetis still exist then surely someone reputable would have seen and filmed one by now?
However, if yetis did once exist, it seems equally plausible that, if not extinct, they are critically endangered thanks (as always) to us. But if they are then how did it happen? There are plenty of stories of yeti sightings, but none of yeti persecution.
Or haven’t there? I recently discovered one in a book called The Moated Mountain by Showell Styles, a long-forgotten work of Himalayan travel writing that I’ve just finished reading.
The Moated Mountain was published in 1955, a year before the greatest mountaineering book of all time, the not entirely serious The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W. E. Bowman. The inspiration for Bowman’s great expedition spoof is generally believed to be The Ascent of Nanda Devi by H. W. Tilman.
I first found out about The Moated Mountain a few years ago when I stumbled across an article in Himal Southasia, a Himalayan cultural magazine based in Kathmandu. The article A Himalayan mystery – solved? was not about yetis but an arguably even more intriguing mystery, what book The Ascent of Rum Doodle was based on. Its author, anthropologist Don Messerschmidt, postulated that it was not The Ascent of Nanda Devi after all, but The Moated Mountain.
Of course, after reading the article I immediately went to the AbeBooks website to see if I could buy a copy second hand. I could, and I did, but it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for over 10 years and I’ve only just got round to reading it.
I should have done so earlier. It’s a great book about a low-key expedition to find and ascend Boudha (spelled Baudha in the book), a 6,672m unclimbed mountain on a ridge south of Manaslu. It’s full of humour and hapless escapades, and written with the same endearing naivety as that of the narrator Binder in The Ascent of Rum Doodle.
The inside front cover also contains one of the best expedition maps I’ve ever seen in any mountain travel book, a 3D sketch of Boudha, the ridges and valleys that guard it, and the routes taken by our intrepid explorers. These contain no fewer than 6 dead-ends marked by crosses, where the explorers tried a route but were forced to turn back (and there were two unmarked dead-ends across the Rupina La on the other side of the mountain).
The book gets its name from the series of valleys (or moats) guarding Boudha that kept barring the protagonists’ way.
On the final one of these, the team crested a rise to find that:
Between Bill and the South Ridge was a cleft 1500 feet deep, the head of a considerable valley holding the lower glacier.
The central premise of the Himal Southasia article is that this matches the climactic passage in The Ascent of Rum Doodle when Binder crests a peak only to see:
The majestic summit of Rum Doodle towered above me, scarcely more than a mile distant; but between us the Conundra gorge plunged to awful and unseen depths.
But what has any of this got to do with yetis, I hear you ask? I’m coming to that.
After one long foray up a high moat the team are dismayed to see a set of footprints disappearing over a high pass – dismayed because it destroyed their feeling of remoteness, of being the only humans in that mountain wilderness.
Their Sherpas – of course – were convinced that the tracks belonged not to a human but a yeti. A couple of days later they set off in pursuit, but the tracks had become hopelessly obliterated by a blizzard that had occurred in the meantime.
Undeterred, Styles (no relation of Harry) asked the two Sherpas who had seen the tracks more closely, Danu and Kami, to draw a sketch of them. The sketch is reproduced in the book. The print measured 10 by 11.5 inches with four toes at the front and one at the back. If you ever see one of these then take a photo – it’s unmistakable.
He goes on to explain that there are generally believed to be two types of yeti: one that eats yaks and a more fearsome one that eats humans.
As to why many explorers have seen a yeti’s footprint but none of them have seen an actual live yeti, he explains that with a tale once told by a monk to a Buddhist scholar.
It concerned a village high in the mountains whose people had been terrorised by yetis and devised a means of destroying them. The yetis were known to be good mimics, who would watch human behaviour and try to copy it. With this in mind a group of brave villagers went out to some nearby crags on an evening when the yetis were known to be watching. They took with them wooden swords and several large jars of water, sat down and shared around the water, feigning joy and merriment as they drank. When all the water was finished they stood up and pretended to beat the living daylights out of each other with the toy swords. Then they returned to the village.
The following evening they went up to the crags again, but this time they left the jars and the swords behind and returned to the village without faking a party. This time the jars contained rakshi (potent home-brewed alcohol) and the swords were as sharp as Gurkha knives. As the men had hoped, the yetis came down from the crags and tucked into the drink as they had seen the villagers do. In very little time the yetis were as drunk as the Barmy Army and in high spirits. They picked up the swords and cut each other to pieces. Very few of the yetis survived and from that day on, those of them that did kept out of the way of humans.
So there we have it. This story also helps to explain why none of the Bhutanese camera traps yielded any yeti footage. As Andrew Benfield said in the radio programme, it is likely that yetis can recognise the scent of humans and keep away. Moreover, if they are such good mimics and like to spy on humans, they would easily learn what the cameras were for and how to erase the film.
Yetis could still be out there and the hunt goes on.