The Legend of the Yeti

Christelle Enquist

I believe the Abominable Snowman may be real. There are footprints that stretch for hundreds of miles and we know that in the 1930s a German fossil was found with these huge molars that were four or five times the size of human molars. They had to be the molars of a large ape, one that was huge, about 10 or 12 feet tall. It was immense. And it is not impossible that it might exist. If you have walked the Himalayas, there are these immense rhododendron forests that go on for hundreds of square miles which could hold the yeti.”

– Sir David Attenborough

The West’s fascination with the Yeti began in the 1920’s but really peaked in 1951 when a British explorer named Eric Shipton, looking for an alternative route up Mt. Everest found a footprint that appeared to be hominoid. He took a picture, and the mystery of the Yeti—a Sherpa word for “wild man”—cast a spell over the world. 

What followed was the launch by the Daily Mail of its own expedition to Nepal in 1953 which cost the equivalent of $1.35 million in today’s money, several expeditions between 1956 & 1959 funded by American oilman Tom Slick, one of which was comprised of 500 porters that spent 6 months in the field and included bloodhounds to track the scent. Even Sir Edmund Hilary himself joined the party, mounting a winter expedition together with Griffith Pugh in 1960. 

Such was the craze that the government of Nepal created the Yeti Memo, guidelines that amongst other things, stipulated that any expedition to look for the Yeti would have to pay a royalty of INR 5000 to the government and if the Yeti was found, ‘it can be photographed or caught alive but it must not be killed or shot at except in self-defense.

With Tintin in Tibet by cartoonist Hergé, the abominable snowman also entered the minds of a wider public, and in particular children who grew up reading the adventures of Tintin. 

BUT, what many people don’t know is that long before the yeti made its appearance in the memoirs, reports, and travelogues of British officers, naturalists, and journalists, it was a well- known figure in the myths, legends, folklore, and folktales of several communities living in the Himalayas. The yeti has been an integral part of Sherpa and Tibetan Buddhism myth and religion.

Yetis feature in scriptures and religious buddhist paintings dating as far back as the 1600’s. From tales of a Yeti that cared for Sangwa Dorje, the monk who founded the Tengboche Monastery in Nepal and that houses the scalp of a Yeti to a magical Yeti that cured a monks from gout. There are even guidelines on how to survive a Yeti encounter:

Males have a long fringe of hair over their eyes and females have pendulous breasts which they sling over their shoulders when they run. Your only hope of escaping from a yeti is to quickly determine which sex it was and then run downhill if it is a male, who would be blinded by his fringe, or run uphill if it is a female, who would be impeded by her breasts.

The Project

While encountering a Yeti is highly unlikely (though if I do, I will know what to do), I intend on trekking to the towns and villages inhabited by Sherpas in the Everest region of Nepal and spend time in Kathmandu where over 50 different ethnic groups have significant representation, to dig deeper into the history and traditions of the Yeti and document the journey. 

In 2020, on one of many trips to Nepal, there was a giant Yeti Sculpture in the courtyard of the hotel I was staying at. Intrigued by it, I asked Prem Gurung, the owner, what it was to which he answered: The Yeti is part of Nepali culture. I grew up with stories of the Yeti but today this is slowly being forgotten. 2020 was going to be Nepal’s year and with the 100 Yeti sculptures and the Visit Nepal campaign the country expected to attract 2m people to the country. Then COVID hit. 

Bringing the tradition of the Yeti back locally is an impossible feat, however I hope that with my story I will shed some light on the origins of the Yeti and add a small grain towards the revindication of Nepal’s long Yeti Tradition. Additionally, I aim to give readers a peek into the richness of Nepal, a country that stole my heart in 2016 and that has had me going back ever since.