The Yeti: Legend, Lore, and Climbing Mystery

Mysterious Creature of the Himalayan Mountains

Yeti footprint
A Yeti footprint was found near Mount Everest on December 13, 1951 in Nepal. Topical News Agency/Getty Images

The mythical Yeti is a mysterious and unknown creature that has long inhabited the remote and mostly uninhabited Himalayan Mountains, including Mount Everest, in central Asia, including Nepal, Tibet, China, and southern Russia. This almost supernatural and legendary being is an erect bipedal animal that is over six feet tall, weighs between 200 and 400 pounds, is covered with red to gray hair, make a whistling sound, has a bad smell, and is usually nocturnal and secretive.

Yetis are Mythological Figures

The Yeti has long been a revered figure in Himalayan mythology that predates Buddhism. The various peoples inhabiting Tibet and Nepal in the heart of the lofty range, which includes Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain, do not see the Yeti as a proto-human type of creature but instead a man-like animal that seems to exist with supernatural powers. The Yeti comes and goes like a hairy ghost, just showing up rather than being found by tracking. Some stories tell of it flying in the air; killing goats and other livestock; kidnapping young women who are taken back to a cave to rear children, and throwing stones at humans.

Names for the Yeti

Even the indigenous names of the Yeti reflect its mythological character. The Tibetan word Yeti is a compound word that roughly translates as "bear of a rocky place," while another Tibetan name Michê means "man bear." The Sherpas call it Dzu-teh, translated "cattle bear" and is sometimes used to refer to the Himalayan brown bear. Bun Manchi is a Nepali word for "jungle man." Other names include ​Kang Admi or "snowman" which is sometimes combined as Metoh Kangmi or "man-bear snowman." Many modern Yeti researchers, including the great mountaineer Reinhold Messner, feel that Yetis are actually born that sometimes walk upright.

1st Century AD: Pliny the Elder's Account of the Yeti

The Yeti's existence has long been known by Sherpas and other Himalayan inhabitants who observed the mysterious creature for thousands of years, including an account by Pliny the Elder, a Roman traveler, who wrote in Natural History in the first century AD: "Among the mountainous districts of the eastern parts of India…we find the Satyr, an animal of extraordinary swiftness. These go sometimes on four feet, and sometimes walk erect; they have also the features of a human being. On account of their swiftness, these creatures are never to be caught, except when they are either aged or sickly…. These people screech in a frightful manner; their bodies are covered with hair, their eyes are of a sea-green color, and their teeth like those of the dog."

1832: First Yeti Report to the Western World

The legend of the Yeti was first reported to the western world in 1832 in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal by British explorer B.H. Hodgeson, who said his guides had previously spotted a hairy bipedal ape in the high mountains. Hodgeson believed the red-haired creature was an orangutan.

1899: First Recorded Yeti Footprints

The first recorded Yeti footprints, still the most common evidence of the Yeti's existence, was in 1899 by Laurence Waddell. He reported in his book Among the Himalayas that the footprints were left by a large upright hominid. Waddell was, like Hodgeson, skeptical of the stories of the mysterious ape-man after talking to locals who had not actually seen a Yeti but had heard stories of them. Waddell figured the tracks were left by a bear.

First Detailed Yeti Report in 1925

N.A. Tombazi, a Greek photographer on a British expedition to the Himalayas, made one of the first detailed reports about the Yeti in 1925 after observing one on a mountainside at 15,000 feet. Tombazi later recounted what he saw: "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." The Yeti disappeared before he could take a photograph but later Tombazi stopped while descending and saw 15 footprints in the snow that were 16 to 24 inches apart. He wrote about the prints: "They were 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 the instep were perfectly clear, but the trace of the heel was indistinct."

Yeti Sightings and Signs in the 20th Century

From the 1920s through the 1950s there was a lot of interest in both climbing the great Himalayan peaks, including the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks, as well as trying to find evidence of the Yeti. Many great Himalayan climbers saw Yetis, including Eric Shipton; Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953; British climber Don Whillans on Annapurna; and the great alpinist Reinhold Messner. Messner first saw a yeti in 1986 as well as later sightings. Messner later wrote the book My Quest for the Yeti in 1998 about his Yeti encounters, explorations, and thoughts on the elusive Yeti.