If you’re a fan of classic Doctor Who, you’ll probably love the two Patrick Troughton stories featuring the Yeti, from 1967 and 1968. It’s not hard to see why Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln might have been inspired to write stories about Abominable Snowmen, which were often the subject of fevered news reports in the 1960s in particular. Earlier the same decade, Sir Edmund Hillary had brought back a scalp from a Himalayan monastery, purportedly evidence of a Yeti. Actual sightings are far rarer than most people probably realise, and the first I can find is from the 1832 Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which included an article written by Brian Houghton Hodgson.
My shooters were once alarmed in the Kachar by the apparition of a “wild man,” possibly an ourang, but I doubt their accuracy. They mistook the creature for a cacodemon or rakshas, and fled from it instead of shooting it. It moved, they said, erectly: was covered with long dark hair, and had no tail.
Fast-forwarding to the end of the 19th Century, the following quote is from Laurence Austine Waddell, who wrote Among the Himalayas in 1899:
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. The belief in these creatures is universal among Tibetans. None, however, of the many Tibetans I have interrogated on this subject could ever give me an authentic case. On the most superficial investigation it always resolved itself into something that somebody heard tell of. These so-called hairy wild men are evidently the great yellow snow-bear (Ursus isabellinns), 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.
To find a book devoted to the Yeti, rather than just the occasional passing mention, we need to look to the 20th Century. Ivan Terence Sanderson wrote Abominable Snowmen, Legend Come to Life, published in 1961.
It appears that in 1902 British Indian officialdom was concerned with the stringing of the first telegraph line from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, to Kalimpong, Darjeeling in Bengal Province of India just south of the Sikkim border. The job entailed, first, going into Tibet and then stringing the cable out. When the crew reached a pass named Chumbithang near a place called Jelep-La on the Tibet-Sikkim border, an incident occurred that prompted an official report. A dozen workers failed to return to camp one evening and a military posse was sent next day to search for them at the scene of their operations. No trace of the missing men was found, but the soldiers during their wide search for them found a remarkable creature asleep under a rock ledge—or so the report goes. The soldiers were Indians, not Ghurkhas or mountain folk, and this is of significance because had they been they would doubtless have acted differently. The Indians had no qualms about shooting this creature to death immediately. It proved to be human rather than animal in form, though covered with thick hairy fur. Up to this point the report is official. Then it becomes unofficial but for one minor aside to the effect that a full report, together with the beast, was shipped to the senior British political officer then resident in Sikkim, who is correctly named as one Sir Charles Bell.
The unofficial sequence I take from an extraordinary book only recently published by a Mr. John Keel entitled Jadoo. This is the more startling in that it even mentions an incident apparently lost and certainly forgotten over half a century before, yet states that the information therein given was obtained firsthand. The author states that he met in 1957 in Darjeeling a retired Indian soldier named Bombahadur Chetri, who claimed that he was among the party that killed this creature, and that he personally examined it. He is also alleged to have said that it was about 10 feet tall, covered with hair but for a naked face, and that it had “long yellow fangs.” Further, Mr. Keel says that Bombahadur Chetri told him that the carcass had been packed in ice and shipped to this same Sir Charles Bell, but that he did not hear anything further of it.
This is all a bit third-hand and vague, so let’s close this out by looking at some first-hand evidence from N.A. Tombazi’s Account of a Photographic Expedition to the Southern Glaciers of Kancchenjunga in the Sikkim Himalaya (1925):
The morning broke gloriously fine; and the sun streamed into the mouth of the grotto, lighting up the hanging icicles which fringed its upper lip. The heat melted the slender fingers and their fragments fell, tinkling on the floor. I was preparing my instruments and cameras for the start when my attention was attracted by shouts outside the grotto; soon afterwards, the Sirdar and two of the coolies hurried to the tent with the news that a man had been sighted in the valley below. I rushed out—forgetting even to put on one of my snow-boots and gazed searchingly in the direction in which the Sirdar was pointing.
The intense glare and brightness of the snow prevented me from seeing anything for the first few seconds; but I soon spotted the “object” referred to, about two to three hundred yards away down the valley to the East of our camp. Unquestionably, the figure in outline was exactly like a human being, walking upright and stopping occasionally to uproot or pull at some dwarf rhododendron bushes. It showed up dark against the snow and, as far as I could make out, wore no clothes. Within the next minute or so it had moved into some thick scrub and was lost to view.
Such a fleeting glimpse, unfortunately, did not allow me to set the telephoto-camera, or even to fix the object carefully with the binoculars; but, a couple of hours later, during the descent, I purposely made a detour so as to pass over the place where the “man” or “beast” had been seen. I examined the foot-prints which were clearly visible on the surface of the snow. They were very similar in shape to those of a man, but only six to seven inches long by four inches wide at the broadest part of the foot. The marks of five distinct toes and of the instep were perfectly clear; but the trace of the heel was indistinct, and the little that could be seen of it appeared to narrow down to a point I counted fifteen such foot-prints at regular intervals ranging from one-and-a-half to two feet. The prints were undoubtedly of a biped, the order of the spoor having no characteristics whatever of any imaginable quadruped. Dense rhododendron scrub prevented any further investigations as to the direction of the foot-prints, and threatening weather compelled me to resume the march. From enquiries I made a few days later at Yoksun, on my return journey, I gathered that no man had gone in the direction of Jongri since the beginning of the year.
Here we come to an interesting point when looking at contemporary accounts. These kinds of things so often get quoted out of context. It is all too easy to take what you want from that and ignore the rest of the book, but let’s keep reading and see what the writer had to say about his own sighting:
When the news reached Darjeeling the press, as usual, headed their comments with captions of “Wild Man”, “Snow Man”, and the like — seen near Kangchenjunga by an “Italian” traveller. By the time the British and Continental papers had got the news, the length of the foot-prints had been more than doubled; and some ingenious young gentleman on the Manchester Guardian had produced a bird-theory out of his own fertile brain.
When I asked the opinion of the Sirdar and the coolies they naturally trotted out fantastic legends of “Kangchenjunga-demons”. Without in the least believing in these delicious fairy-tales myself, notwithstanding the plausible yarns told by the natives, and the references I have come across in many books, I am still at a loss to express any definite opinion on the subject. However, I can only reiterate with a sufficient degree of certainty that the silhouette of the mysterious being was unmistakably identical with the outline of a human figure. I personally rejoice in particularly acute vision and am sufficiently familiar with the appearances of mountain fauna, to be able to distinguish a bear, monkey, snow-leopard, ostrich, kiwi (if you like) and even a man. I am also somewhat versed in the simple analysis of spoor, and can unhesitatingly state that the prints were those of no wild animal common to the Sikkim-Himalaya. It should be borne in mind that the foot of the Tibetan tribes is inclined to be short, flattened-out and wide across the toes.
I have a theory, which may be worth consideration, if it be not thought too far fetched. Tibet and the contiguous countries are the very citadel of the Buddhist Faith, which in itself is actuated very largely, like the Early Christian Church, by the spirit of asceticism. The country of the Lamas is filled with monasteries; and we must remember that it is only civilisation and increased population that has favoured the cloistral community-system. In Early Church days anchoritism was well recognised and it seems reasonable to suppose that the Buddhist monks may well have turned to this form of mortification, in the same way as the ancient Christian hermits of the Syrian Desert.
I conjecture, then, that this “wild man” may be either a solitary or else a member of an isolated community of pious Buddhist ascetics, who have renounced the world and sought their God in the utter desolation of some high place, as yet undesecrated by the World. However, perhaps I had better leave the conclusions to ethnological and other experts.
There is often a rational alternative explanation to matters cryptobiological, but that’s rarely going to win an historian any fans. Nobody likes a party-pooper, and it’s human nature not to want boring, sensible ideas to get in the way of exciting, unexplained mysteries. At this time of year, I think we can be forgiven for believing in the unknown. Happy Halloween. RP
Some parts of this article were previously included on our sister site Windows into History and have been fully revised, updated and expanded.
It’s most interesting to learn about the authenticity of such legendary creatures like the Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster after first seeing their sci-fi adaptations in Dr. Who. Having recently re-watched Downtime, this one is timely enough. Thanks for sharing your own theory, RP. I’m sure that we all like to have them. Especially nowadays with the increasing popularity of mythologies from Bigfoot to Mermaids. So it’s great that the Junkyard can help boost this popularity. Thanks very much, RP, and may we all have a very nice and safe Halloween. 🎃
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