You ain't seen nothing yeti

Reinhold Messner has conquered the world's most terrifying peaks. But his scariest encounter was not with a mountain. Has he finally unmasked the mythical Himalayan beast?
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The Independent Online

"It's a nice view, isn't it?" says someone. Reinhold Messner is looking out across a panorama of London, over grimy rooftops on a rare smog-free day. He doesn't answer. Not surprising, perhaps, from a man who lives for part of the year in an Alpine castle surrounded on three sides by sheer rock, and who was the first person to climb all 14 mountains over 8,000m, and who has come face to face with a yeti.

"It's a nice view, isn't it?" says someone. Reinhold Messner is looking out across a panorama of London, over grimy rooftops on a rare smog-free day. He doesn't answer. Not surprising, perhaps, from a man who lives for part of the year in an Alpine castle surrounded on three sides by sheer rock, and who was the first person to climb all 14 mountains over 8,000m, and who has come face to face with a yeti.

Though many people know Messner, 54, for his mountaineering accomplishments, for almost 14 years he has quietly been pursuing the truth behind the myth of the "abominable snowman".

The term was coined by a British journalist back in the 1920s to describe the animal about which Tibetans and others in the Himalayas told tales that fascinated Western visitors. The first well-known, and documented, sighting of a phenomenon attributed to the yeti was the discovery of naked footprints in the snows of Mt Everest, at 21,000ft, in 1921 by Colonel CK Howard-Bury, then a well-known climber. His porters told him it was metch-kangmi - literally, the stinking man of the snow.

Messner believes that he now knows the truth about the yeti.

"Do you know the yeti?" he asks, his eyes watching me intensely, his voice implying that he's used to people answering no.

I always thought the yeti was real because I read Hergé's Tintin in Tibet in my childhood. The yeti in the book is depicted as a huge orang-utan-like thing living high on the snow slopes. Nobody ever told me that it was a myth, and nobody ever proved that it didn't exist. What's more, as the Tintin story was published in 1960 and has been translated into 28 languages (including Chinese and, ironically, Tibetan) it seems likely that many other children around the world have grown up feeling, as I did, that the yeti was another of the cast of characters who existed as long as you didn't look straight at them, who lived at the periphery of your vision.

Messner, however, despite his many years of travels in the Himalayas, always thought that such tales were utter rubbish - until, that is, he came face to face with a yeti while walking alone in July 1986, somewhere in Tibet.

In his latest book, My Quest for the Yeti, he describes what happened. "Sometime between dusk and midnight... I suddenly heard an eerie sound - a whistling noise, similar to the warning call mountain goats make. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the outline of an upright figure dart between the trees to the edge of the clearing, where low-growing thickets covered the steep slope. The figure hurried on, silent and hunched forward, disappearing behind a tree only to reappear again against the moonlight. It stopped for a moment and turned to look straight at me.

"Again I heard the whistle, more of an angry hiss, and for a heartbeat I saw eyes and teeth. The creature towered menacingly, its face a grey shadow, its body a black outline. Covered with hair, it stood upright on two short legs and had powerful arms that hung down almost to its knees. I guessed it to be over 7ft tall. Its body looked much heavier than that of a man of that size, but it moved with such agility and power towards the edge of the escarpment that I was both startled and relieved. Mostly I was stunned. No human would have been able to run like that in the middle of the night."

To his surprise, he was scorned in Europe and the US when he reported his experience. And so he determined to track down the yeti - if not to capture it, then to understand what animal had given rise to the legend. It's been a long search, and in the process Messner realised that by exploring, he was tearing apart a myth - a process which he sees reflected in the increasing commercialisation of the world's highest mountain, the Chinese invasion of Tibet, and our growing preference for fact over storytelling.

His searches took him through the highlands and lowlands of the Himalayan countries - Tibet, Nepal, and even as far east as Szechwan in China - and to countless fake hides and tall stories. Even by the end of his search, he had not seen one in its lair.

But he did conclude that what we call a yeti is actually a species of bear which split from the main species many thousands of years ago, and has adapted to life in the sparse environment of the mountains, only rarely encountering humans. The legend grew from the oral tradition of the region; though once Westerners arrived, they latched on to it, keen to discover (and tear down) new myths and tales. The end result, Messner believes, is that Western visitors began echoing back the tale of the yeti to Himalayan people who had not heard it, but who found that by telling (and inflating) such tales, they could persuade these rich foreigners to linger.

So there are two sides to the yeti: the reality - a sort of bear-like animal - and the legend, expressed by stories such as the Tintin one, of a powerful man-animal that abducts women and children and takes them back to its cave.

"I define the yeti as the sum of the legend and the zoological reality," says Messner. The Tibetans and Himalayan people have many names for the animal of the legend - chemo, dremo being typical (they never use "yeti").

But it's possible that the yeti legend might disappear, subsumed by the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Messner has seen it at first hand over years. "The Tibetans are losing their culture because the Chinese are taking over the population. There are more Chinese in Tibet now than Tibetans. I am fighting, together with the Dalai Lama, for these people to have their cultural and religious freedom.

"They will never get their political freedom from the Chinese. Once you see it on the map then you understand it - the land is full of oil and uranium which the Chinese want for the next 500 years." (Nobody, after all, has ever accused China of short-termism.)

Yet Messner believes that political oppression could almost be acceptable if the Tibetan culture and religions - the very things that make them Tibetan - were allowed to flourish. In the same way, he supports the idea of a European super-state. Last year, to his faint surprise, he was elected on the Green Party ticket to be an independent member of the European Parliament. Now, he says, "Europe can only survive economically if we put our powers together", but insists that power should be devolved locally as far as possible.

But to kill the oral tradition that gave rise to the yeti would be to kill a source of myths based on real life - something which these days we are very short of.

"We have lost all the myths in Europe," Messner says. "Who takes the story of Bigfoot [a yeti-like animal said to live in the American Rockies] seriously anymore? We have no wilderness for the myths to exist in. We have learned to create our own myths now in the West: these days, they are made in Hollywood, and called Godzilla or King Kong, and they live on a screen."

But it's not just myths that are dying in our culture. Messner gets worked up at the death of adventure, and our appreciation of it. He didn't watch the Olympics (named, it's worth noting, after the mountain where mythical gods ruled). "It's just sport," he says uninterestedly. "I'm not a sport-ish man. I'm more an artist, I suppose. What they do at the Olympics is a different approach to the world to mine.

"Climbing the Dhaulagiri south face isn't like a direct competition. You're taking risk; there's the possibility you'll die. It's like being on the moon: nobody can come to help you if you hit trouble. There's difficulty, danger, exposure, you're living in a world which isn't made for humans, and you feel that every second. In the Olympics you're not going to die. The art of mountaineering is the art of survival." (Just hours before we met, a South Korean mountaineer was killed on Dhaulagiri in an avalanche.)

When more people try to take part in adventure, the effect is to diminish it. Not long ago Messner was offered a "peak licence" - costing thousands of pounds, and issued by the Nepalese government - and the chance to reclimb Kanchenjunga, one of the 8,000m-plus peaks. "I said I would consider what to do when I got to base camp. And when I did, there were hundreds of people there! And folk were coming up to me saying, 'It's wonderful you're here! But look at it! It's so crowded'. And I said, 'That's because you're here'." He went off and climbed an unknown 6,000m peak, preferring obscurity to the crowds.

As for Everest, he is quite dismissive of the "Sunday climbers and housewives" who predominate there. "You can go and do Everest if you're just a little prepared now. You can go to the base camp at South Col and order a cup of coffee! You pay for it and they'll bring it. When they are climbing up the Khumbu Icefall (towards the main route up to the summit) everything has been set up in advance by the Sherpas, with ladders and ropes. When we went up, we had to prepare for 10 days. Nowadays, it has all been done for you."

Yet despite the crowds who plague the highest mountain in the world, a Western-made myth did survive on Everest for 75 years: that of Mallory and Irvine, the British duo who attempted to climb it in 1924 by the North Ridge. They disappeared heading for the top, giving rise to speculation which still persists about whether they were the first to get there.

Messner, who climbed the North Ridge without oxygen in 1980, is sure that they didn't. He is sure that a fearsome section of overhanging rock called the "Second Step" at 8,600m, where the mind and body are dulled by lack of oxygen, would have blocked them completely. But it doesn't matter, he points out.

"The beautiful thing about Mallory is that that made him into a myth of Everest," he says. "He didn't go there to become a myth, of course. But there was the final image taken from far below of him and Irvine disappearing into the clouds, like he was going to Heaven. In our fantasies, he has to go to the summit."

Even when Mallory's body was found last year, Messner wasn't disappointed. The debate reignited over whether the duo might have reached the top; and the search for the camera that they carried with them continues, too. That would contain the necessary proof - though the task of finding a tiny camera on that mountain's flanks is an unimaginably tiny needle in the vastest haystack imaginable. "We find the body but the myth isn't shattered," Messner says, smiling.

Won't his new book destroy the legend? He smiles again. "The Tibetans won't read it. Even if they could read it. And for us in the West, it was important to me to show that this wasn't just some tall tale. The yeti, you see, is a monster created in the people's heads from the reality. I am sure: the yeti will never die."

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