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The fabled yeti

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The yeti (“man of the rocky places”) has been a staple of Sherpa and Tibetan folklore for centuries, and takes three forms: the grey- or reddish-haired, man-like drema, who portends disaster; the huge, bear-like chuti, who preys on livestock; and the red or golden-furred mite, who sometimes attacks humans. Stories of hairy, ape-like creatures roaming the snowy heights first came to the attention of the outside world when explorers reported seeing mysterious moving figures and large, unidentified footprints in the snow. Captivated by the reports, an imaginative Fleet Street hack coined the term “abominable snowman”, a wilful mistranslation of metoh kang-mi, or “man-bear snow-man”, which was how a Sherpa guide described the creature during the 1921 Everest reconnaissance expedition. It wasn’t until 1951, during the first British Everest expedition from the Nepal side, that climber Eric Shipton took photographs of supposed yeti tracks. Since then, several highly publicized yeti-hunts, including one led by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1960, and others led by Reinhold Messner in the 1990s, have brought back a wealth of circumstantial evidence – Messner claimed to have seen a yeti in Tibet himself in 1986 – but not one authenticated sighting, spoor or hair sample. Oversized footprints could be any animal’s tracks, melted and enlarged by the sun. Meanwhile, “yeti” scalps kept at various gompa have been revealed to be stitched-together animal skins, while the skeletal hand at Pangboche is likely to be a human relic.

Messner eventually concluded that his yeti was simply a Himalayan black bear. Zoologists observe, however, that most sightings emphasize the redness of the creature’s hair, which rather suggests that an unknown primate might indeed exist in the high Himalayas. The sadder conclusion is that yetis did indeed exist, within human memory, but, like so many other Himalayan species, they’re either so critically endangered as to be almost invisible, or extinct.

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