This story traces an arc from my boyhood in the Himalaya, chasing monkeys from my toys, through launching two national parks surrounding Mount Everest. What con- nects monkeys chased from toys and national parks around Mount Everest is the Yeti.
About this mystery of the Himalayan Yeti, legends assert that an animal much like humans inhabits the snows around Mount Everest. Turning the legends to serious inquiry are footprints. Stories do not make footprints—thus, if footprints exist, the maker of those footprints must also exist. And footprints that keep being found in the same basic structure across more than 100 years mean the evidence is not that of one aberrant animal’s trail, for if the prints were made by a freak, after some years that individual would die and the distinctive tracks would stop being found. Moreover, the same basic footprints found in multiple sizes suggest a Himalayan Yeti population that is reproducing.
This book clarifies what animal leaves these footprints. Various explanations were being advanced when I began the search. The prints might be made by an unknown wild man who for more than a century had eluded identification. They might be by an unknown animal but non-hominoid, related perhaps to the giant panda or gorilla with whom the footprints shared intriguing resemblance. A third explanation was the maker was known, but not yet recognized as able to make human-looking prints. And, of course, a fourth possibility— Himalayan Yeti is a materialized spirit: not an animal, but a supernatural being, Science asserts, cannot, must not, exist.
Giving credence to the debate are always the footprints. That footprints were being found was never in doubt. Some ‘thing’ was making footprints. Still today, the mysterious prints continue to be found. Photographs are repeatedly taken. Thus, the Himalayan Yeti is real, for imagined animals do not make footprints. Footprints are made only by real animals. So, as with Mount Everest, the Yeti is ‘there’, and as with those who sought to climb Mount Everest, I began a search to explain the footprints.
My search included discovering prints. It included tranquilizing a specimen of the footprint-maker and replicating in plaster of Paris the earlier unexplained footprints, especially the famous Shipton print from 1951. Solving that mystery took from 1956 to 1983. I searched a 1,500-mile span of the Himalaya, the south slopes (India, Nepal, Bhutan) and the north slopes in China’s Tibet. In dozens of wonderful expeditions, I visited almost every valley sys- tem across fifty years through that swath of mountains; I learned a range of local languages.
But, to my surprise, solving the footprint mystery did not answer the ‘Yeti question’. While my discovery went worldwide in the news media in the 1980s, I realized the Yeti is a symbol of an idea as well as a real animal. My quest evolved. It investigated a con- cept greater than a Himalayan Yeti mystery: the question of humanity’s relationship with the wild. By ‘wild’ I mean life uncontrolled by humans, that which makes Nature alive. For, aside from being a footprint-making animal, the Himalayan Yeti is also an icon of wild humans.
In chasing the animal of the footprints, a search interesting, sometimes dangerous, presented then puzzles: What to do with this animal when I caught it? Put it in a zoo, treat it like a monkey? Bring “a snowman” home as with a human guest? Might it be dangerous … so the safe move is to shoot it, then put it into a museum?
To “capture” the animal there were questions of engagement—how to communicate? If met in Nepal, should I speak Nepali? If met while searching the Tibetan region of China, should I speak Tibetan? OR … might the hospitable approach be to offer food, perhaps a granola bar, or more graciously, and with some humility, sitting down opening my backpack and pulling out a sandwich?
The questions may seem humorous—but when searching high Himalayan snows decade-after-decade... or leech-infested jungles—they are questions one does not want to first answer when unexpectedly discovering the animal. I searched the 1,800-mile west-to-east length of the Himalaya from Kashmir to the Burma border, and the 300-mile breadth from Nepal to central Tibet.
Finally, I realized that all Yeti prints were made going uphill, a chastening discovery. If all prints were going uphill, then the mountain was making the animal. I was searching for an unknown feature of some probably known animal’s print making. Explaining that, though, did not answer the question. Deeply keeping the Yeti alive is its identity as icon and idol. Let me share a few words from YETI, The Ecology of a Mystery, about that quest.
“For after explaining the footprints, and discovering a new understanding of the wild (and biology itself, termed bioresilience) my journey undertaken with many colleagues created national parks. We approached this not in the then customary mode of protecting species (in this case the Yeti and its jungle neighbours) but finding a new approach with which national parks are managed. For if the nature of Nature has changed because of people, to live with this new, a new method is needed to ground human actions.”
In Nepal and China’s Tibet, lands between Earth’s greatest human populations of India and China, was implemented a new way of living with Nature, people as partners. Makalu-Barun National Park in Nepal was established. Then in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, Qomolangma (Mt Everest) National Nature Preserve, at the time the largest protected area in Asia. The quest for the Yeti is more than footprints of a mystery, or an understanding of icon or idol, but a quest to understand the meaning of Nature in our ourselves.