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“I Ought To Be Thy Adam, But I Am Rather The Fallen Angel.”
—Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, 1818
1974—Barun Valley, Nepal.
Shaggy and brooding—noses skinned by the sun—four of us crouched in the mist. The fire spit orange. Someone grunted. No one spoke. We were bitter, stunned and clinically heartbroken. One day short of the summit, we had been shut down.
The weary majority at base camp had taken a vote. Most of them had quit the climb days or weeks before. They feared getting drawn back onto the mountain. Suddenly we needed to flee before winter sealed the pass, our food ran out and we all succumbed to the kamikaze summit fever of a few die-hards. Overnight the radiant south face of Makalu had changed for them into a devouring monster. Yesterday all of us on the expedition had started the week-long retreat to an airstrip and Kathmandu.
Voices drifted to us from the main camp. Lots of happy talk and laughter: the hot showers and cold beer waiting, the chateaubriand at Boris’s Yak and Yeti, last-minute souvenirs to buy, and home, ASAP. No hint of the confrontation two nights ago that had stopped just short of fists and a knife.
Our little bunch hunkered by the flames, waiting for them to hit the trail. Fritz had a side trip in mind for a few of us.
A soft murmur came through the mist, and then the smell of sandalwood incense. Norbu Lama appeared with a wicker tray. This was a surprise. Norbu was the senior climbing Sherpa, not a cook boy. Every morning he said his prayers, even in storms and up high.
“Breakfast,” he announced. A veteran of many expeditions, he was no stranger to bad blood on the exits. Gravely he served us each a chappati, a hardboiled egg, a finger-sized banana, and—miracle of miracles—one orange per man. Fresh fruit as we left! It was a cosmic slap, the friendly kind.
“Shipton La,” Norbu said. That is the name of the pass in English, after the explorer Eric Shipton, who “discovered” it with Edmund Hillary in 1951. In 1972 a biologist had found yeti footprints up there.
We thanked Norbu.
“Today,” Norbu reminded us, “very long day.”
“We’ll catch up,” Fritz told him. We didn’t budge.
Norbu glanced in the general direction of the cave. It stared down like a Cyclop’s eye.
According to lore, the cave was a hermit’s refuge, a meditation chamber, or a yeti den. Clearly he wished for us to respect whatever we found, or better yet not go into the cave. Leaving a wake of prayers, he disappeared back into the mist.
The cook crew banged their pots clean. They were singing. Another week of trekking, and they would get paid. The ragtag army of porters sorted loads. At last the caravan departed.
The immense valley fell silent. Slowly the symphony began … of invisible waterfalls, the milky glacier stream, a cuckoo bird.
The uninhabited Barun drainage that begins at Makalu has become famous for its extraordinary biodiversity, including rare birds, orchids, red panda, snow leopards, and musk deer. In 2016 an official map named the trail the Yeti Path. Nowadays enough trekkers make it over Shipton La to sustain a few stone huts along the way.
But 50 years ago, there was no path. It was just us, an expedition per season, all aimed at one thing, Makalu.
We had seen the cave back in August. Over the months, a few of us had fashioned it into a reward. If there was time, if we were still standing at the end of the trip, we would delve into its mystery.
We were in prime yeti country. During the approach march, one of the Sherpas had made a joke about yetis and clowned around like a monkey. Then in October word had arrived from the village of Khumjung, near Everest. A Sherpani had been badly mauled by a yeti. It had broken the necks of her yaks and eaten them. After that our clown lost his laugh. He looked haunted. His irreverence, he felt, might have triggered the attack. Yeti wield supernatural power. Out in the vast beyond, things have a way of stirring to life.
We killed our little fire and put on our packs and started bushwhacking. It felt strangely easy, like swimming instead of drowning. Yesterday we had dropped almost 4,000 feet in elevation. The mist felt fat. Drunk on oxygen, I had actually dreamed last night. About a lover, it would be nice to report: instead, still, the mountain.
The dense red rhododendron gave way to a pitched slope. We didn’t have a rope, and wouldn’t have used one anyway. It was a mere scramble, and we were half mountain goat by now.
Things can get prehistoric on a big mountain. The pinched tent life. The lost vocabularies. The days stripped of hours. The cave held a stage more primal than that.
We reached the great yawning mouth. It was colder and wetter than outside, a lost world with its own weather system and a mostly frozen stream. We stood in place while our eyes adjusted. Water zebra striped the walls. A fine spray rained from the craggy dome high beyond our headlamp beams. Icicles hung in the shadows.
At first the cave seemed barren. Silence met our hallos. We split apart to roam.
Bones, someone called out. They were scratched and gnawed. Deer, goat or sheep: the animal had cloven hooves. It would take a powerful predator to drag a carcass up from the forest.
Then we found a small cluster of blackened rocks, a one-man fire pit. Near it, verdigris coated a piece of copper wire—a leftover from an expedition. A scratched shell of a Chinese thermos held a rolled-up folio page with Tibetan script. Tucked underneath a rock shelf, we found a soggy paper mess: a scrap of a Hindi magazine advertisement, two warped playing cards, and the spine from Ray Bradbury’s book Martian Chronicles, all its pages torn out as tinder.
He is intelligent, said Matija.
She, said Fritz.
They live 300 years, said Arnold.
Perhaps they play bone flutes, Matija said. Like Neanderthals, he added.
Matija was tall, with powerful legs.
Their interpretations went on. I listened carefully. In translating the cave, we were translating ourselves. We all knew the conclusion: yeti. That was the story we came for and the one we would inevitably carry down. But first we had to figure out the mist.
The unknown is never fully unknown. We precede ourselves with map fragments, equations on a chalk board, folklore, and so on. We reach great heights on an unclimbed mountain, only to find footprints in the snow. There is always a missing link. Look in the mirror.
Our slight advantage that morning in the cave—our objective edge, if you will—came from the fact that it had not occurred to any of us to bring a mirror on the expedition. Over the past two months we had gotten only occasional glimpses of our faces in a four-inch signal mirror kept at base camp. Otherwise, we shaved by touch and combed our hair with our fingers, gradually losing sight of our faces. In terms of being able to see the yeti, we were as pure as we were ever going to be.
We worked into the shadows. Up close, the icicles became kata scarves, the type draped around people’s necks for greetings and blessings. Pilgrims had plugged the ends into niches in the ceiling. The scarves swam in our lights like silk and cotton ghosts.
The discoveries went on. A bird nest made of shredded prayer flags. Against one wall, nearly swallowed by limestone accretion, a mani stone. A bent iron piton emerged, a broken carabiner, bits of sling and rope, a sardine tin, a BIC pen tube. Stuff lay scattered over the floor. Someone, or something, had been collecting us.
I found a broken seashell. It wasn’t one of those small fish or ammonites you find in the Himalayas, but rather—a thousand miles and 13,000 vertical feet from the closest ocean—a real conch shell, smooth and pink on one side.
A trumpet, said Arnold. The monks, they wake up God to hear them.
I think a monk would not eat meat, Matija said.
No, said Arnold. Yeti.
Finally someone had spoken the word. We knew it was fanciful. A joke.
Fritz had already regaled us with his story of how, years earlier, an expedition had spied him staggering down from Tirisch Mir and mistaken him for a yeti. Climbers, he declared. Like us. Tricksters.
I had my own version. It was too long to speak out loud, but basically, Yes. Monks and yetis. Neanderthals and climbers. Liminal humans … in transition, on the threshold, neither here nor there.
We couldn’t go back onto the mountain, not this year with the pass about to close. We weren’t ready to return home. The cave, the mist, the mysteries: We were each, separately, groping for where we were in the universe. We were looking for footprints in the snow.
For a while longer we went on searching for whatever it is that lives in between. We didn’t take anything. We didn’t leave anything.
My dad was a petroleum geologist. Off we’d go to the middle of nowhere, into the bayou or the New Mexico desert, for him to scout the next drill site or read core samples. It was fun, but also perilous. Watch out for rattlesnakes, he suggested. And scorpions. That glued me to him.
He would kick a few rocks around, and pick one, and examine it for the sweet spot. The most ordinary chunks often held the greatest treasure. One tap with his hammer and the rock would unfold like a sandwich.
There on the palm of his hand lay an ancient fish from an imaginary sea. For my dad it was just proof of a geological era and an oil deposit. For me it was a time machine. I would sniff for that fleeting instant of air. I could hear the roar of dinosaurs. For both of us the fish was a creature from another world.
He showed me how to seek the hidden species. Look straight ahead, he said. Then wait until you start to see sideways. That’s where it all comes from.
One afternoon he showed me a picture taken by the mountaineer and explorer Eric Shipton in a magazine of a very large footprint in the high Himalayas. It’s the missing link, he explained. I was probably five. The print was just a shapeless thud. Missing link? High Himalayas? The ice axe made no sense either. My dad patiently traced the big toe. See it?
A baseball glove, I guessed.
He ran his finger around the edges again.
That was my first one.
Shipton’s photo of a footprint didn’t sweep me away. I’ve never seen or looked for a yeti, or, until this story decades later, given it a second thought. I don’t hunt, rig camera traps, or keep up on the latest. Bigfoot, Nessie and other so-called cryptids bore me. As for the yeti, what’s to love about a nine-foot-tall hair suit that whistles and smells like blood, shit and musk.
Plus, come on, man, the animal doesn’t exist.
Yet here I am, immersed in the yeti. Devoured by it. I thought a few dispatches would retire the subject, a quick campfire rehash. I’m now approaching my third year of research and writing the thing; the work would have been enough for a PhD. dissertation. Blew past this magazine’s deadline months ago. My search for the yeti wakes me in the middle of the night with new compass bearings, fascinating angles, alternate trackways. What started as an article on the history of mountain dragons was somehow taken over by the yeti. Obsession is part of the writing life, but this has become concerning.
Imagine writing a biography of Frankenstein’s monster. It would require a dozen biographies: the life story of his grave-robbed hands, for example, and another of his heart, another of his head, and his brain, and so on. The yeti is a far more complicated creature.
It is a patchwork sewn from a thousand scraps, each begging to be told. Part whisper, part newspaper clipping, part celluloid, part scientific fact, it has been traveling among us for a very long time. Its tracks weave in and out of forest legends and the written record like stitches. It snacks on bamboo and frogs. I would call its lair a labyrinth, but that suggests walls and a plan. Limbo is more like it. The yeti nests in between the borders we draw: east/west, human/nonhuman, savage, sacred and silly, mud and summit, night and day, bright sunshine and the soupiest fog.
There is no telling where you might end up or who you might bump into in there.
For example, I never expected to be meeting with my young father and his fossils again, much less with Alexander the Great, or a boar hunter in Bhutan, the character Tintin, Maurice Herzog, Hillary, Messner, or a Taoist hermit who “published” on trees, walls and leaves. Everest makes sense, that’s the creature’s traditional stomping grounds; but the steaming African jungle, the Arctic expanse, or fur creatures in Disney World? This is what happens when you follow the yeti. Its trail shifts shapes. The footprints lead full circle back into us.
Tracking the creature means tracking its trackers. That becomes especially crucial when the prey doesn’t exist, and the main clue is a dent in the snow. What sort of mortal form creates a nearly shapeless footprint? Who decides the form? In the absence of an actual body, what makes that form collectively acceptable? Put another way, the yeti did not spring from out of nowhere. We were prepared for this Himalayan creature even before Shipton took his photograph.
Few creatures have pronounced their creator so richly, and none so high in the mountains, or so close to the sun. The story of the nonexistent yeti—which, a bit maddeningly, also happens to really exist—is the story of its human beings. The yeti has been collecting us for a very long time, thousands of years, at least. The zoo we inhabit is an ancient place, with mist for bars. It has a grand purpose. The yeti is going to save the world. It started centuries ago, and is picking up the pace. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We are an exotic bunch, far stranger and more colorful than the fantastic beast we chase. We are comprised of the yeti’s accidental witnesses, its earnest pursuers, its body thieves, and grifters, scientists, yogis, true geniuses, eccentrics, B-movie filmmakers, cartoonists, madmen, tricksters, farmers, poets, and world-class mountaineers.
Alexander the Great knew of the yeti; so did Benjamin Franklin. Probably Columbus, too. A Mongolian khan captured two in the fifteenth century, a male and female, a very hairy Adam and Eve. In 1959 the American embassy in Kathmandu promulgated regulations for hunting yeti. The monster has lodged great Rinpoches in its caves, providing wood, water, mice, and tiger skins. The latest PCR machines have parsed yeti hair, bone, and dung with sadly mundane results. Reinhold Messner survived very close encounters. Two years ago, the Indian Army’s Makalu expedition reported massive footprints below base camp. Alexandra David-Neel outlasted a yeti encounter.
My office and studio are piled with books, manuscripts and photos. The monster took over our dining room table shortly before Thanksgiving. A friend recently asked me to go for a hike. Can’t, I told him. Yeti, he said.
My wife wants it gone. She’s not fooled by the roses I bring home. I’m buying the yeti time. Its trail leads a little further. Another mile or so. The top of the pass. Down in the mist. That’s where Eden waits.
The Rolwaling Yeti
At 19, Mary Shelley’s age when she wrote Frankenstein in 1818, I decided it was high time to climb Everest. It was an itch. My dad’s Shipton photograph probably had something to do with it. I quit college, hoddied for a masonry crew of cowboys, and saved for my air ticket. Not one of those men had ever heard of Nepal or could point out the Himalaya on a map. Not one could pronounce abominable, as in snowman. Not one cared past the next paycheck and his Friday night fistfight or fuck. I would eat my lunch on the rooftops to be away from them.
In Kathmandu I took a bus to the trailhead at Bahrabise and headed east. My plan was simple: Show up at base camp, volunteer to carry loads for free, and see how high I could get. I never made it beyond Rolwaling Valley. A tapeworm and a torn meniscus left me stranded on Tesi Lepcha, the pass to Khumbu. Alone and stupefied, I descended to the small village of Beding. The abbot of the impoverished monastery took me in for a week. We ate boiled baby potatoes peeled with our thumbnails.
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One afternoon he attempted to enlighten his shipwrecked guest. We went outside to view an ancient wheel of life mural by the front door. He helpfully pointed out various characters and stories. Doubled over with bloat, I didn’t understand. The mural was crumbling off the wall. The abbot suggested I take a picture. Down to my last roll of film, I merely pretended to.
I had forgotten that afternoon until researching this story, when I learned that Eric Shipton had visited the Beding monastery in 1959, 12 years before I did. He was there as part of a search for the yeti, and had studied the very same mural. Among its demons and monsters and divine beings, down in one corner, hid a yeti.
Even when I wasn’t paying attention, the creature was laying its tracks back and forth across mine, inviting me to meet Shelley, and other sparked minds, urging me higher.
Sometime around the 8th century C.E., a ragamuffin of a hermit named Han Shan wrote the beloved classic Cold Mountain, a collection of 101 short poems.
The bones of an autobiography peek through his words. He was apparently hand-to-mouth poor, slept in caves among the pines and monkeys, and roamed the misty peaks.
One mystery is that scholars can’t locate any trace of the man in the historical records kept by meticulous Tang Dynasty bureaucrats. Unusual, too, is the poet’s name Han Shan, which in Chinese means Cold Mountain. Could the mountain have written the man?
This is the problem with the yeti. Things run sideways. Circles appear. Dr. Frankenstein went to the ends of the earth to chase his monster, which was chasing him. I can only try to keep up. Every tracker knows you have to think like the animal you’re following.
How might a yeti see the world? Han Shan comes close. Is the moon in the pond the moon or the pond? My dining-room table is covered with stuff like that.
Do yeti sing? Birds do. Whales. Crickets. Why not yeti?
Do they get frostbite? Sunburn on their noses? Icicle moustaches?
Do they groom each other? Eat the leeches? Hold very still for the dragonflies?
We read their bones and fur and dung. Do they read us? I strongly suspect that, once the expeditions go home, they examine our evidence. Do they try on our hats? Wear our slings? Click the carabiner’s gate? I fancy them bat-manning up our fixed line to see what on earth possesses us.
Do they loll in the rocks and watch the goraks drafting on thermals? Take siestas? Cover their ears when it thunders? Do they pinch the moon?
The zoo we inhabit is an ancient place, with mist for bars. It has a grand purpose. The yeti is going to save the world.
Silly questions, I know, until you ask what it is the word yeti evokes. Speak the word zebra, and we see stripes. Strawberry: red, sweet, heart-shaped. Everest. El Cap. The Diamond. … They light up our senses. We share a common image.
Yeti, though, what does that mean? I catch the suggestion of a shadow in the mist. A big fella. Sometimes female. It leaves tracks in the snow. Where and when did what image enter our collective mind? How did we learn it? The answer lies in its history, but even more in the private details we bring to it, and especially the spirit that binds us.
The thing that separates the yeti from other mountain monsters is how close to human we want it to be. Like dragons, the creature lives off the land, stays out of sight, and has retreated as far as possible from us. The yeti is no mere mountain fugitive, though. It is a genetic whisker away from being us. It’s personal. That’s how we built it.
On Nov. 8, 1951, Eric Shipton and Michael Ward happened upon a trackway of unusual prints at 18,000 feet on the Menlung Glacier. It was a sunny, windless day, the type that bakes your hands brown as a walnut. They were reconnoitering southern approaches to Everest in preparation for the 1953 British expedition that would make the first ascent.
Shipton took a photo—the photo—of one footprint more distinct than the others. The print measured 31.2 cm (12.2 inches) long and 18.7 (7.3 inches) wide. The photo became ground zero for all things yeti. Every footprint, body part, native ritual, drive-in movie, brand name, scientific monograph, and tall tale radiates backwards and forwards in time from that picture.
That was the picture my dad showed me when I was five. Only now do I realize it was a treasure he kept in his office drawer. My father wasn’t the packrat type. The photo meant something to him. Was it his way of sharing a Himalayan dream he could never realize, or stoking it in his son? What does it speak of the man who brought me into the world?
He cracked open fossils for a living. He explored worlds inside the world, and not only to find oil. Tales of Everest were swirling back then. Hillary had summited. Underneath his Eisenhower-era necktie and his chronic vertigo, did my young father want to touch the sun? Did the yeti whisper to him?
I think of the footprints as stitchwork. Back and forth, in and out, the thread sews together our quiet desires and sensed mysteries, our personal details and heroic voyages into the unknown. My father mowing his lawn and Shipton smoking his pipe at 20,000 feet, the geologist’s hammer and the climber’s ice ax.
Of all the people who should have reached the summit of Everest, and even made its first ascent, it was Eric Shipton. He was one of the greatest explorers and mountaineers of his time. At the finish of one ascent, Shipton would stay on to climb the surrounding mountains. He was with Frank Smythe when they descended into the Valley of Flowers in 1931. (Smythe would return in 1936 and document yeti tracks that his Sherpas insisted were made by inverted human feet.) It was Shipton who gave a 19-year-old Sherpa kid named Tenzing Norgay his first break in the expedition world, and also helped introduce Ed Hillary to Everest in 1951.
Tireless, preternaturally acclimatized, with five Everest attempts under his belt, Shipton should have been a shoo-in to lead the ultimately successful expedition of 1953. He was called to London for an interview by the British Everest committee. It seemed a mere formality. But Shipton had a fatal flaw: He didn’t believe in huge, military-style siege tactics. The committee did. They rejected him. “I leave London absolutely shattered,” Shipton wrote. His heartbreak is part of the yeti story. The monster bears witness to all the ways we move through the world, the pathos as well as our tomfoolery and mighty ambitions. In the same spirit, we read nature for its moods.
Back to Shipton’s 1951 photo. After careful examination, a prominent London anthropologist and anatomist concluded the footprint was not of simian origin. In other words, the most famous ape-man footprint did not belong to a giant ape man.
In 1952 the Natural History Museum in London went so far as to lead a zoo bear across a patch of sand to compare the tracks. The verdict: the track in the image belonged to a Himalayan bear. It was not the first such professional correction, and would be followed by others in coming decades. Another time we will visit the best of the yeti sightings, various forensic conclusions, and the fate of yeti relics, all pieces of our dance in the mist.
For now, the point is that no one really listened. A bear? It didn’t pass the zebra test. Close your eyes, speak the word yeti, and voila. We all recognize it, that tall, hairy, lumbering shape up ahead, our long-lost missing link. It belongs to our liminal, fogbound commons. We were ready for it the way Shipton had been ready for Everest.
In fact, the London verdict notwithstanding, the image of an ape-man sharpened. No one had ever seen or photographed a yeti, but even a child—like me, back then—could tell you what the yeti looked like. Movies account for some of that, plus novels and Mickey Mouse comic books about Shangri La, all meshing to form a strange and wonderful family tree. The most precise and enduring portrait, however, came from two Belgians.
The first was a haughty, thin-skinned fellow—“renowned, but perhaps tragically scorned,” in a follower’s words. A self-described “angry zoologist,” Bernard Heuvelmans was the inventor of cryptozoology, the nonexistent science of cryptids, or animals that don’t exist. In the Belgian scientist’s studied opinion, the London expert had misread Shipton’s photo entirely. In fact, Heuvelmans declared, the footprint and various yeti hands and scalps that were just then emerging in Nepal all pointed to a surviving collateral hominid species, which he termed Dinanthropoides mivalis, or “terrible anthropoid of the snows.”
Standing up to eight feet tall, the giant walked leaning slightly forward with arms reaching to its knees. Its fur color ranged from fawn to glinting fox-red. Its face was flat, forehead high, and it had a sagittal crest with upstanding hair, a crewcut mane.
“Its cerebral capacity should be about equal or even greater than man’s. But the development of the brain must have been affected by the strange shape of the skull giving rise to mental qualities very different from those in which man excels” Heuvelmans wrote. He went on to detail its diet: roots, bamboo shoots, fruit, insects, lizards, birds, and small rodents. Yaks, too: “all grist to its mill in such barren country.”
Heuvelmans’s sharp-eyed deductions helped flesh out other cryptids, too, such as Bigfoot, cuchubara, aliens, and a yeti-like creature frozen in a chunk of ice that had been fetched from Arctic waters by a Soviet trawler that was detained by Chinese authorities looking for contraband, sold to a Hong Kong merchant, and finally placed in a refrigerated truck touring county fairs and stock shows from Texas to Minnesota. This sort of thing is commonplace in cryptozoology.
As luck would have it, Heuvelmans was in New Jersey to promote his latest book, In the Wake of Sea Serpents, when he and a fellow expert managed to track down the so-called Minnesota Iceman following the Wisconsin State Fair. The “specimen” resembled a human, about five feet tall, covered by long dark brown hair, with a sagittal crest, but no prominent canines nor opposable big toe. It was male, skull broken, brains oozing. “Overall,” Heuvelmans wrote, “a description reminiscent … of the Himalayan snowman, synthesized from the most precise details given by observers.”
Somewhat like a fan club, Heuvelmans’s following grew into a collection of delightfully likeminded souls. Nevertheless, his orbit remained small, and his yeti observations would have melted into obscurity if not for a second Belgian.
Herge (the pen name of Georges Remi) was the creator of the beloved Tintin comic book series about an intrepid young journalist’s adventures around the world. Tintin in Tibet starts in Chamonix, swings through Kathmandu, and ends up in a yeti cave on the Tibetan Plateau. The huge footprints that Tintin follows, and the giant ape-man that flees from his camera flashbulb, were custom fit for Shipton’s photo. Here was the missing link we craved, a simian archangel who saves Tintin’s friend after a plane crash, feeding him small, uncooked animals, attempting human speech (no whistling, but rather variations on “hwaarh”), and protecting him from the elements.
Herge’s inspirations included Maurice Herzog (whose book Annapurna electrified readers in the 1950s), Heinrich Harrer (Seven Years in Tibet), the young Dalai Lama, King Kong, Shipton, and—most important—his fellow Belgian, Bernard Heuvelmans, who advised him on what a yeti should look like. The Tintin series would go on to sell 200 million copies worldwide. Close your eyes, say the word yeti, and this is what you’ll see.
In that way, one Belgian’s imaginary animal became another Belgian’s imaginary animal that became all of ours. Never mind that Heuvelmans had fabricated the creature out of thin air, conjuring up an entire species from a photograph of a footprint. The conjury is the crux.
The yeti doesn’t exist, of course. The only problem being that, once upon a time, Everest didn’t either.
Dancing With Monsters
Dr. Frankenstein refused to grace his creation with a Christian name. Like Shelley herself, the creature we know as Frankenstein preached peace and harmony, ate vegan—“I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment,” — and thrived on great storms. He made his home in the “desert mountains and dreary glaciers”, as far from man as possible. But he was incurably drawn to his maker, and vice versa. Frankenstein’s story opened and closed with the man and monster chasing one another across the icy Arctic, an endless loop of footprints in the snow.
Times change. Monsters, too. Maybe it’s built into their life cycle. Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment with nature turned into a Halloween costume. The last dragon was six feet long with a cat’s face; a farmer killed it stealing milk from a cow’s udder. One of the last yetis sighted was reported as the size of a 10-year-old child, walked like a dog, and had a human head. Drag them out from their dens and shadows on the far edges of the world, and they become nothing but freaks at the county fair.
The yeti is a bear of some color. Or a goat, or an amputated human hand, or an orangutan swinging through the forest. It’s a bump in the night, a maximum yogi, a spirit summoned from incense smoke, or a rubber gorilla suit on a Hollywood backlot. It’s a product name at REI. It ought to be every mountaineers’ totem.
The yeti doesn’t exist, of course. The only problem being that, once upon a time, Everest didn’t either. Then along came the British Trigonometric Survey in the 1800s, and it spied a bump—a peak called “B,” and later “XV,” and finally Everest—in the malarial distance, and it came alive upon our maps.
That was an age of real giants, when mysteries were still immense, geographical, physical creatures that ate men. The wilderness itself was a monster. The North and South Poles, and then Everest, were acts of imagination that drove the human spirit to its limit. People died out there, even ate others. We became monsters, too, or the monsters, us. Shelley chose the Far North for her icy stage precisely because it existed in our minds as a threshold. A dangerous liminal space.
We want our monsters. When bathyspheres descended to the deepest point on the planet in the 1950s, people thrilled at the photographs of fish with grotesque fangs. As manned flight into space crossed from fiction into reality, a slew of B-movies conjured the animals lurking among the stars. Footprints in the snow.
One way or another the yeti is what we make of it. More profoundly, we are what the yeti makes of us. Especially in this day of Covid-19, ravaged wilderness, and digital alienation, we are both endangered species. I’m so gratified that the Indian Army climbers found absurdly large footsteps near Makalu two years ago. It keeps the soul up there. Save it, and it may yet save us. Rising to our most primitive myths may in the end be our most civilized act.
The four of us spent a little while longer in the cave that day after we cut loose from Makalu. As Norbu had not told us and yet wished, we took nothing and left nothing. None of us had any idea what we were looking for among the scant relics. Once the word yeti was spoken, each of us imagined our own wild spirit for the place.
The cave wasn’t a joy ride. We were crushed by how the expedition had ended. Nor was the cave eerie, either, nothing so juvenile. Rather we sensed—we summoned—mystery. In turn, it summoned us. The shadows preceded us in ways we could not know. In a year Fritz would be dead on Tirisch Mir. In two years, Arnold would be killed by lightning while guiding in the Alps. Matija, he painted a butterfly on his pack. It charmed everyone. It was like the sun coming out.
I was still a kid back then. It has taken me all these years to pay more attention to the yeti, and now I see its tracks crisscrossing mine a dozen times at least. The Shipton photograph, the crumbling wheel of life, other monasteries, movies, Disney World … dinosaurs hiding inside a rock.
It was time to leave the cave, rejoin the expedition, and get over the pass. Time to return to the rest of our lives. I stood at the mouth of the cave, listening for something in the blue soup below. The mountain was invisible, but of course it existed. Waterfalls etched walls beyond my sight.
On a whim, I opened my lunch, and with all my American baseball might, I threw my orange into the mist. It was an offering, probably. You never know with the gods.
Jeff Long is a New York Times bestselling author. His story “Leper Chai,” published in Ascent in 2020, won Best Mountaineering Article at Banff.