The 13th Floor

The Abominable Snowman! The Wild History and Legend Behind the Yeti

At the top of the world, in the frozen wasteland of the Himalaya Mountains, lurks a terrifying, towering, man-monster known as the Abominable Snowman! 

Locals still speak in hushed whispers of the creature they call The Yeti and their terrifying encounters with a giant man-like creature that would appear without warning – only to vanish in a swirling maelstrom of wind, ice and snow. And the villagers are not the only ones said to have witnessed the elusive frost giants that roam the perilous mountain range between Nepal and Tibet. According to lore, the monstrous Yeti, a towering fur covered creature may be some sort of “missing link” – some THING in the evolutionary scale between ape, man and demi-god – a force of unparalleled nature NOT to be reckoned with.

And unlike its cryptid cousins, Sasquatch and Bigfoot, the Yeti’s secret origins may be discerned in ancient pre-Buddhist religious rites. In the glowing embers of warming fires, the mountain villagers once worshipped the Yeti as a supernatural entity – a god of the hunt. Depicted in totems festooned everywhere in villages, temples and shrines, the Yeti appears as a menacing ape-human hybrid. Illustrations portray the snow colossus brandishing a great stone weapon to slay both beast and man alike.

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In some regional dialects, the terror titan was known as “Meh-teh” or “Migoi” – translated as “wild man of the snows.” For centuries, tales of the Yeti and his preternatural prowess were handed down across the generations. Around fires, warmed by the glowing embers, frightened villagers told oft-repeated tales of horrific encounters with the man-beast-god during the long cold nights. Wizened elders recalled group Yeti attacks on villages. The brutal killing and dismemberment of a man who dared encroach upon their domain. The mysterious disappearances…

Supposedly, the stench of a Yeti was reputedly so foul, so fetid, it induced immediate nausea.

By the 19th Century, reports of the Yeti began to filter back to the civilized world by adventurers who dared to brave the foreboding slopes. Exploring the upper regions of Nepal in 1832, B.H. Hodgson reported that his Sherpa guides had seen a towering non-human covered from head to toe in dark hair. At the sight of Hodgson and his armed party, the creature allegedly fled in terror. Writing in The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Hodgson at first dismissed the sighting as an “orangutan”. But what was an ape – especially a species native to the tropical climate of Borneo and Sumatra – doing in the frigid Himalayas? Other European mountaineers soon recorded seeing strange unknown footprints. Many believed a lone bear might be to blame – others were none too sure.

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The Westerners from the outside world soon came to believe that the Yeti was no myth but a very real species. As the new century dawned, explorers began to search for the Yeti in earnest. In 1921, a British Mount Everest reconnaissance expedition led by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Howard-Bury came across inexplicable tracks while trekking a then-unknown region northeast of Mount Everest – the Lhagba La. The baffled explorer wrote that the tracks made in the soft snow were “rather like those of barefoot man”. His Sherpa guides “at once volunteered that the tracks must be that of ‘The Wild Man of the Snows'”, he wrote, adding that they said the tracks were made by the “metoh kangmi'”- the snowman that was a man-bear. A journalist stationed in Calcutta later mistranslated one of the Sherpa’s words as “filthy” – or in British empirical lingo – “Abominable”.

The Yeti now had a nickname worthy of newspaper headlines – the Abominable Snowman. And within four years, he was witnessed by no less than a photographer and member of the Royal Geographic Society!

Near the Zemu Glacier, some 15,000 miles above sea level, the renowned N.A. Tombazi reported that he had seen the elusive snowman at close range. At some 200 feet away, Tombazi spotted something resembling a man but wasn’t. He closed in for a better look.”Unquestionably, the figure in outline was exactly like a human being, walking upright and stopping occasionally,” he wrote, adding that the creature stopped to pick at some bushes. “It showed up dark against the snow, and as far as I could make out, wore no clothes.” It then vanished but not before they beheld its footprints – chillingly described as “those of a biped.”

In 1951, mountaineer Eric Shipton took an actual photograph of a purported Yeti footprint at the base of Mount Everest. This photographic evidence ignited a worldwide fervor for news about the snowy man-thing. Even Sir Edmund Hillary, who achieved fame as the first man to scale Mount Everest, reported seeing puzzling footprints in the snowbanks. The British tabloid Daily Mail promptly sponsored several “Abominable Snowman” expeditions.  More weird snowy footprints were witnessed and a purported Yeti scalp was found hanging in a monastery.

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As evidence of the Yeti’s existence mounted, Hollywood came a-calling – looking to make a killing off the fresh-faced monstrosity. Notorious B-movie director W. Lee Wilder (KILLERS FROM SPACE) quickly turned around a B&W cheapie entitled THE SNOW CREATURE in 1954. No slouch to story-telling, Billy Wilder’s less competent brother quickly spins a crisp 69 minute yarn of a rapacious Yeti marauder captured by an expedition and brought to Los Angeles. While customs officials engage in a heated debate with an anthropologist as to whether the fiendish find is “man or beast”, the titular terror escapes and runs amuckAfter visiting the oft-filmed low-budget LA landmark, Bronson Caves and terrorizing a woman, the Kong-like manimal meets an untimely end in the sewer drains of LA. Despite its shortcomings, the fearsome flick sports great B&W cinematography by Floyd Crosby who later shot several Roger Corman’s Poe pictures. THE SNOW CREATURE can be seen here in all its full public domain glory.

In 1957, horror luminary Peter Cushing starred in the second of his 22 Hammer Films, following his star-making turn in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, in the aptly named THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN. Director Val Guest enlisted acclaimed SF writer Nigel Kneale to revamp his BBC-TV teleplay THE CREATURE into a feature film. Originally intending to call their Yeti yarn, THE SNOW CREATURE, they soon discovered the earlier film. A quick title change and an American star, Forest Tucker, to please their stateside distribution partner, Lippert Films, and Hammer began lensing their widescreen epic on location in the French Pyrenees mountains before returning to the backlot.

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The film features Cushing as a scientist (natch) and Tucker as a hunter who wants to stuff and mount the Yeti. Their respective expeditions converge at a monastery straight out of LOST HORIZON – High Lama and all. Ignoring the holy man’s warnings they both set off to find the mythical creature. But after a Yeti is killed accidentally, mayhem ensues – Hammer style. But the snowmen are no match for guns. Nor is Tucker for the Yeti brood. Only Cushing remains to wax philosophic by film’s end.

With lurid taglines promising the “Demon prowler of mountain shadows – the Dread Man-Beast of Tibet! – A timeless terror to freeze you to your seats…”  THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN is more in the subtle tradition of Kneale and Guest’s great Quatermass films – more “think piece” than monster-on-the-loose horror show. The film suggests that the Yeti is no missing link and may actually be superior to Man. The telepathic feral creatures are shown fleetingly until one startling close-up of the creature’s unblinking, profoundly thoughtful eyes.

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Regardless of its box office grosses, the film remained in constant rotation on the cathode ray tube for years, firmly cementing THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN as a Tinsel Town brand name – one that was ultimately co-opted by MONSTERS,INC as kid-friendly shaggy named Sulley.

Yet, for the real-life seekers of the unknown – the inexplicable – the unfathomable – the quest continued. In 2007, TV producer Joshua Gates and his “Destination: Truth” team, went in search of the Yeti after a series of large footprints were discovered near Mt. Everest. He later claimed to have found Yeti hair samples which a DNA analyst concluded were of unknown origin.

Recently, the BBC reported here that the Yeti has now dropped out of sight – even among the local residents of the once inaccessible Himalayas. Technology may be to blame as villagers no longer have to scale the icy peaks to scour for firewood when homes are now lit by a flick of a switch. No mountain top forays – no Snowman close encounters. “We haven’t gone to the mountains for more than two decades now and we are really not sure if the Yeti is still in our mountain ranges,” a Bhutanese villager divulged, adding, “Maybe it will never be found.”

Throughout the years, despite the many attempts to solve the mystery of the Abominable Snowman, the Yeti remains still-at-large – concealed within the craggy fortress of rock and ice known as the Himalayas.

And, perhaps, for good reason.

The Yeti may want to keep its distance from the deadliest of all Earth’s creatures – Man.

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