For centuries, the mountain people of Nepal and Tibet have feared the yeti, a man-beast they say inhabits the snow-fields of the Himalayas.
The creature is said to have supernatural powers and the strength of 10 men. It is said to have an apelike body, with long arms, bowed legs, shaggy brown hair and a cone-shaped head. Its most striking characteristic is its face, usually described as round and white, with thin lips, intelligent eyes and other humanoid features.
No yeti has ever been captured, nor has reliable photographic evidence been submitted for scientific scrutiny. And no body or skeleton has been found. Most Western observers dismiss the creature as legend.
But the hunters and farmers who live in the region insist that the creature is real and respect its mystical powers. Buddhist monasteries are said to hold the scalps of thousands of yetis as religious artifacts.
The first Westerner who claimed to have encountered the yeti was Lt. Col. C.K. Howard-Bury, leader of a British reconnaissance expedition to Mount Everest in 1921. On Sep. 22, the expedition found a group of very large, humanlike footprints in the snow near Lhakpa La in Tibet. Since the prints were three times the size of a normal human foot, Lt. Col. Howard-Bury concluded that they were made by either a large bear or wolf. His Sherpa guides disagreed, however, claiming they had seen such tracks many, many times. In Nepalese, they informed him that a metoh or mehteh kangmi, meaning "snow creature" or "wild creature" had made the footprints. When reports reached the West, the beast was soon given its most enduring Western name, the abominable snowman.
According to Keith Tutt, author of Unexplained Natural Phenomena, Sherpas who live in the Himalayan region believe the metoh, or yeti, has been a part of their fauna for more than 200 years. "Most believe the creature lives not in the mountainous regions, however, but in the dense Himalayan forests just below the snow zone," he said. "When the creatures are seen in snowy regions, the local people say it may simply be travelling between wooded areas, or looking for mosses or lichens that grow on the rocky outcrops."
Reported sightings of the "abominable snowman" increased as more Westerners ventured onto the Himalayan peaks.
One of the first climbers to give an eye-witness account of a yeti was the Italian N.A. Tombazi, a member of a 1925 expedition. The figure he saw was "like a human being, walking upright and stopping occasionally to uproot or pull at some bushes. It showed up dark against the snow and, as far as I could make out, wore no clothes."
Photographs of a yeti's footprints taken in 1951 show impressions measuring 8 inches wide and 13 inches long. In 1955 Royal Air Force photographers snapped more pictures of giant prints in the snow, as did a 1979 British expedition led by climber John Edwards. Two years later, in 1981, a Polish mountaineer found a footprint 14 inches long and 7 inches wide.
In 1987, German mountaineer Rheinhold Messner claimed to have had a face-to-face encounter with a yeti: "He was bigger than me, quite hairy and strong, dark brown-black hair falling over his eyes. He stood up on two legs."
In 1988 BBC television producer John Davidson observed a yetilike figure while working on a film project in the Himalayas. Some photographs were taken, but scientists have yet to verify their authenticity.