The hunt for the Abominable Snowman: what's the history of the Yeti legend?
From Alexander the Great to Sir Edmund Hillary, the Yeti has fascinated visitors to the Himalayas for millennia. Jonny Wilkes follows in the footsteps of the cryptid and the explorers who have spent their lives trying to find it
The 1921 British Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition set out from India to find a route to, and hopefully up, the world’s highest mountain, but on their return the team had more to report than the successes of their recce. Interviewed by journalist Henry Newman, they spoke of coming across large footprints in the snow. Expedition leader Charles Howard-Bury concluded that they had been made by the loping of a wolf; local guides and porters, however, said they belonged to the legendary metoh-kangmi, roughly translating as ‘man-bear snowman’.
An intrigued Newman spoke to some of the Tibetans who saw the humanesque footprints, and stories emerged of a mysterious, wild creature stomping across the Himalayas. Now fascinated, he needed an eye-catching name for the newspapers, since his mistranslation of metoh meant he thought it was called ‘filthy snowman’. He came up with something far more evocative: the abominable snowman.
What is a Yeti?
And so the legend of the Yeti – its Tibetan name – went global, capturing imaginations and inspiring a century, and counting, of cryptozoological studies, searches and sightings. The hairy, ape-like biped has come in all different shapes and sizes, sometimes said to be much taller than a human and sometimes small yet frightfully strong, and while most famously depicted with white hair to blend into the snow-covered landscape it can also be reddish-brown and live in the Himalayan forests around the mountains. In movies, meanwhile, the Yeti has been both the killer monster of the 1957 Hammer horror The Abominable Snowman, and the cuddly cave-dweller of Monsters, Inc. (2001).
- On the podcast | Mountaineering on Everest: everything you want to know
Still, when it comes to evidence for the Yeti’s existence, the closest that anyone’s got has been footprints – although not the ones spotted by Howard-Bury and his team. During another British expedition reconnoitring routes up Everest 30 years later, in 1951, climbers Eric Shipton and Michael Ward saw bizarre tracks that ran for about a mile at an elevation of well over 15,000ft. They had signs of claw marks, too. Shipton took a number of photos, with each footprint almost twice as wide as a human’s and larger than the ice axe and boot laid next to them.
These ‘Shipton prints’ became icons of the 20th-century fascination with the Yeti, and marked a significant stride to make physical the creature of ancient folklore. Traditional tales in the Himalayan region referred to the Yeti as a glacier spirit that brought fortune to hunting parties, or as something akin to a ‘boogeyman’ to scare people from venturing too deeply into the mountains. Such a creation was far from unusual: today, the Yeti is part of a family of bipedal cryptids around the world, including Sasquatch in North America, Yowie in Australia, and Mapinguari in the Amazon.
The history of the Yeti legend
Yet the belief in the Yeti as a physical creature became established enough that when Alexander the Great stormed through the Indian subcontinent in 326 BC, he reportedly demanded to see one, only for the locals to refuse by claiming that it would not survive at low altitudes. Throughout the centuries, accounts continued until distinct types of Yeti had formed (the archetypal Meh-teh, smaller Teh-Ima and huge Dzu-teh or Nyalm) and the legend became part of Buddhist mythology as the religion spread across the region.
The Yeti remained mostly undisturbed – in fact, many local beliefs stated it would be an ill omen to see one – until the 20th century, which turned out to be a fertile time for cryptozoology. Two decades after the journalist Henry Newman popularised the term ‘abominable snowman’ in 1921, two hikers claimed to have spotted “two black specks” moving across the Himalayan snow. Then Shipton’s prints in 1951, helped by the conquest of Everest two years later, focused attention like never before on the region and the Yeti possibly hiding within.
More like this
Who has hunted for the Yeti?
In 1959, the US embassy in Kathmandu went as far as issuing a memo to the State Department in Washington DC concerning the groups of Yeti-hunters flocking to the Himalayas. The ‘Regulations Governing Mountain Climbing Expeditions in Nepal - Relating to Yeti’ consisted of three rules for anyone wishing to mount a trip. The first stated that 5,000 rupees must be paid to the Nepalese government for a permit to search for the creature. The second regulation read, “In case ‘Yeti’ is traced it can be photographed or caught alive, but it must not be killed or shot at except in an emergency arising out of self defence.” It went on to say that any photographs had to be surrendered to the authorities, while the third regulation ensured that any “news and reports throwing light on the actual existence of the creature” must similarly be handed over. As it remains to this day, Yeti tourism meant big business for Nepal.
While visitors struggled to make any progress, they kept a lookout for anything Yeti-related. In the late 1950s, an expedition funded by the appropriately named Texas oilman Tom Slick became aware of a curious item at a Buddhist monastery in the village of Pangboche: the mummified hand of a Yeti. The explorer Peter Byrne managed to acquire one of its fingers, allegedly after making a financial donation to the monastery, and smuggled it out of Nepal. He achieved this with the help of Hollywood star James Stewart, a friend of Slick’s, who hid the finger in his wife’s luggage, wrapped in her underwear.
James Stewart hid the mummified finger in his wife’s luggage, wrapped in her underwear
In 1960, another Yeti body part showed up. Having seen strange tracks during his history-making climb of Everest with Tenzing Norgay, Sir Edmund Hillary went looking for the Yeti and came back with a supposed scalp borrowed from a monastery in Khumjung. Testing revealed, however, that the helmet-shaped hide came from a serow, an animal resembling a goat. As for the Pangboche hand, DNA analysis carried out in 2011 proved once and for all that it was human.
All those footprints seen by climbers could also be explained, it seemed. Individual imprints could have been of falling stones that became distorted when the snow melted, while tracks were possibly from a different animal, which created a larger, seemingly unexplainable print when the front and back paws landed in a similar spot. Michael Ward doubted a Yeti’s involvement, instead suggesting the “abnormally shaped feet” of a person, since he had met Tibetans and Nepalese whose big toe “was at right angles to the rest of the foot”.
But what about actual sightings? In 1986, English physicist Anthony Wooldridge, who was on a charity run in the Himalayas, claimed to have seen a Yeti just 150 metres from him, and managed to take photos. The same year, the seasoned Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner, famous for climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen, claimed he, too, had an encounter. He spent years trying to find another Yeti, unsuccessfully, while the conclusion of Wooldridge’s story was that he had seen an unusually shaped outcropping of rock.
Hoaxes and hypotheses: could the Abominable Snowman exist?
Equally questionable second-hand accounts of Yeti sightings have been commonplace, including the report by Ang Tsering Sherpa who said his father had seen one. “Yetis aren’t so big. They are about the size of seven-year-old people. But Yetis are very strong,” he said, before alluding to the magical powers that are sometimes part of the Yeti mythology. “If the Yeti had seen my father first, my father wouldn’t have been able to walk. The Yeti can make people so they can’t walk. Then he eats them.”
All the scientific analysis and debunking of claims did little to extinguish the fascination with Yeti. In 2011, cryptozoological experts and enthusiasts held a conference in western Siberia and announced its “indisputable proof” of the Yeti’s existence, such as the discovery of nests made from twisted tree branches. Shortly afterwards, though, one attendee, the American anthropologist Jeff Meldrum, revealed that the story had been faked by Russian authorities as a publicity stunt.
Cryptozoology has always been rife with hoaxes, motivated by fame and fortune. That’s possibly what led hunters in China to go to the media in 2010 with claims of having captured a hairless, four-legged Yeti (actually a cat-like animal called a civet). But of all the cryptids, the Yeti has been the subject of a staggering amount of scientific research, which has resulted in major advances in the last decade.
In 2013, the University of Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes made a worldwide appeal for any Yeti ‘evidence’ for analysis. From the dozens of samples he received, two hairs – one from northern India in the western Himalayas and the other from hundreds of miles away in Bhutan – matched a prehistoric polar bear, thought to have lived at least 40,000 years ago. Sykes presented the intriguing theory that the Yeti does exist, but as a bear hybrid.
Two hairs matched a prehistoric polar bear thought to have lived at least 40,000 years ago
If not a prehistoric anomaly, other rare breeds of bear could be the real-life Yeti. Reinhold Messner concluded in the 1980s that it might be either the Tibetan blue bear or Himalayan brown bear. In 2017, the American scholar, conservationist and leading figure in the study of the Yeti, Daniel C Taylor, who had spent decades on the hunt for the creature, finally published his extensive findings, among them a comprehensive analysis of the Shipton prints. In Yeti: The Ecology of a Mystery, he named the Asiatic black bear as the most likely contender.
Such findings are unlikely to convince everyone. It has been over a century of excitement and speculation for the abominable snowman; a century of footprints, stories, sightings and samples, coinciding with a century of wider interest in other unproven beasts like the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot. To many believers, the existence of the Yeti represents the wondrous unknowns of Earth, and that won’t be broken simply by a lack of definitive proof.
This article was first published in the August 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99