How Not To Search For Yeti

Posted by: Loren Coleman on January 11th, 2006

Queensland, Australia’s Courier-Mail on January 12, is carrying a selection from a new book on the life of Sir Edmund Hillary that is not yet available in the USA or the UK. The focus of their article is on Hillary’s 1960 search for the Yeti. But theirs is a softball examination.

Hillary’s “Yeti expedition” has been critiqued in other books, from Ivan T. Sanderson’s Appendix E, “Sir Edmund Hillary’s Scalp – A News Story from Nepal” in Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life (1961) to “Hillary’s Assassination of the Yeti” in Tom Slick: True Life Encounters in Cryptozoology (2002).

But the devil may be in the details here, few as they are, of Hillary’s thin Yeti hunt, in this new book. It is revealed these hunters called themselves “Hillary’s playboys.” From the discussion of how their funding was obtained, it appears the Yeti was the meal ticket for which they had been seeking. What this Australian extract demonstrates is how little effort there was by Hillary and his merry band to find any good evidence of their alleged quest, the Abominable Snowmen:

Ed [Hillary] was delighted and relieved when Hardie agreed to take on the leadership of the building group. He did outstanding work managing the straggling lines of 310 heavily laden porters through torrential monsoon rains to Tengboche, and, by the time the yeti-hunting “playboys” (Hardie’s description) arrived in Khumjung on October 30, the “workers” had plenty to show for themselves.

The Yeti hunters might have been “Hillary’s playboys” when they set out, but after eight weeks trekking in high valleys and glaciers and crossing a snowy mountain pass as winter set in, they arrived in Khumjung a hardened crew, although Yeti-less.

It is clear that their chance finds, nevertheless, were overblown into publicity stunts for their World Book sponsors’ benefit.

The Yeti hunters found sets of footprints on the Ripimu Glacier at the head of the Rolwaling Valley, but hidden microphones and cameras enmeshed in trip wires failed to capture a Yeti’s likeness – or record its famous high-pitched whistle. The rifle with the tranquiliser darts was not required.

They concluded eventually that the footprints they had found were the tracks of a smaller animal which had melted out in the sun.

Michael Ward and Eric Shipton had photographed similar tracks near here on the 1951 Everest Reconnaissance, but those two climbers were far less conspicuous than this large party.

Ivan T. Sanderson, in 1960, soon after Hillary’s debunking expedition returned, critiqued it for being too short, looking in the wrong places (in the snowfields versus the valleys), and having 300 people trek where only a handful of humans should go looking for Yeti. What were they really looking for in two months, on the higher passes, with 20 times the number of people needed?

The footprints found of the “smaller animal” was declared to be of a “fox” (!), although Hillary’s men never clearly showed what species of “fox” exists on the ridges of the Himalayan mountains. On the Wild Kingdom program on this “evidence,” they could only demonstrate that four footprints melt into one large semi-footprint looking shape.

A sketched drawing of a fox leaping through a snowfield was not convincing evidence of a mundane sun-dance explanation for Yeti ptints. The Hillary people never showed that these melted footprints could ever appear to be left and right footprints, as shown by others’ photographs of Yeti tracks. Indeed, the Shipton-Ward photographs from 1951, that Hillay kept citing, did not show anything like what the World Book expedition had stumbled across.

So what was the real reason for why the Yeti hunt was called off? This extract gives a hint:

The final straw on the abortive Yeti hunt seems to have been Peter Mulgrew’s fishcakes, made from tinned Canadian salmon – a recipe Ed and Peter had enjoyed on Christmas Day 1957 in Antarctica.

Doig wrote: “It was never ascertained whether they or the altitude, or both, were responsible for Ed, George, Tom Nevison and Peter himself having a miserable night following the feast. Whatever it was, Ed was prompted by his immediate misery to pull out [of the Yeti search].”

Perhaps, seeing this was all coming to nothing, Desmond Doig, while living in a lower valley village, reportedly decided to pull together materials so the Yeti hunt could continue to get publicity. The article continues:

Doig, meanwhile, had been on the track of Yeti relics. He had managed to purchase a Yeti skin, and Urkien had told him that some monasteries and gompas, (Sherpa temples) had Yeti scalps and skeletal hands. Doig alerted Ed, and after several false starts they began negotiations to borrow a Yeti scalp from Khumjung Gompa and take it to America and Europe to be looked at by scientists.

Village elders were extremely reluctant to part with the precious relic which brought prestige to their village and good luck with weather and crops.

Ed brought to the negotiating table an offer to build a school at Khumjung and pay the salary of its first teacher.

A deal was reached, signed and sealed with appropriate ceremony. Ed would contribute 8000 Nepal rupees for gompa repairs and, in return, Ed and Doig were permitted to take the Yeti scalp away for exactly six weeks.

Khunjo Chumbi, a village elder, would go with them and be with the scalp at all times.

[The] team were less than enthusiastic about Ed’s departure for six weeks, but keeping their sponsors happy is a leader’s job and, without a live animal to show for the trip, this was the next best thing. (And the publicity Ed, Khunjo and the Yeti relics engendered ensured Field Enterprise’s continuing support for Sherpa aid projects for more than a decade).

Khunjo was a handsome, laughing man and a brilliant dancer, who wore his Tibetan clothes with great swagger and charm. All this, along with the fame of Sir Edmund Hillary and the mysterious Yeti relics, contributed to a triumphant progress through New York, Chicago, Paris and London.

In the end, scientists pronounced the skin to be from a blue bear. The Yeti “scalp” had been made from the hide of the serow antelope – probably intended as a ceremonial hat but gradually acquiring the status of an actual scalp.

Of course, this is far from the truth. Allegedly, the “Yeti” skin Doig had purchased had been sold to him as a bear’s skin (despite what he was later to say about it being from a Snowman). All of the 1950s expeditions of John Hunt, Gerald Russell, and Tom Slick had been told in no uncertain terms that these “Yeti skullcaps” were made in imitation of Yeti and used for rituals. It has been a myth of the debunkers that this skullcap or others were pushed off on Westerners as “real Yeti relics.” That just did not happen. But the false stories, making the Tibetans, Sherpas, and Nepalese look foolish, persist down through the years.

The part of the story this new book’s biographer leaves out is that Hillary was carrying around in a separate suitcase a contemporary “Yeti” skullcap he had had made for him from a serow’s skin by Nepalese locals. Hillary had shot the serow himself. The parading of Khunjo Chumbi (who was variously called an “elder” or a “lama” in news accounts, but was merely a village headsman) and the “Yeti” skullcap from one world scientist to the next was a grand publicity stunt.

The scalp might not have been the real thing, but as Mike Gill noted: “Khunjo Chumbi was declared genuine and as an exponent of Tibetan dancing was asked to perform wherever he went, from the Merchandise Mart in Chicago to the nightclubs of Paris.”

Khunjo also gave a winning response to Professor J. Millot of the Musee d l’Homme in Paris when he suggested that Yetis did not exist: “In Nepal we have neither giraffes nor kangaroos so we know nothing about them. In France, there are no Yetis, so I sympathise with your ignorance.”

(Professor Millot, as an aside, was involved in examining the first coelacanths.)

Is this book interested in telling the real story behind Edmund Hillary’s Yeti hunt? Or is the Yeti just the backdrop to another “old boy joke” for “Hillary’s playboys”?

Near the end of the Courier-Mail’s selection, we learn:

Khunjo was anxious to spare Ed the embarrassment of having to concede that he could not produce scientific evidence of a Yeti. He offered to find a real one for him on their return to the Khumbu but, in the end, Ed concluded the Yeti’s existence was cultural rather than physical.

+ + +

This published edited extract from Sir Edmund Hillary: An Extraordinary Life by Alexa Johnston.

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

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