The Abominable Snowman
In the late 1890s, the story of the Yeti, a huge ape-like creature, had first reached Westerners, when explorers posing as religious pilgrims began getting deep into Himalayan regions of Nepal. The beast was also known locally as Meh-teh, which translates to “man bear.”
The term “Abominable Snowman” entered the lexicon in 1921, when the Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Howard-Bury, found many strange tracks at high altitudes in the snow that he surmised were caused by a large ‘loping’ grey wolf. His Sherpa guides “at once volunteered that the tracks must be that of ‘The Wild Man of the Snows.'” They told a journalist from The Calcutta Statesman that they were the tracks of a “metch kangmi” meaning “filthy snowman,” which was later mistranslated as “abominable snowman.”
A report in 1948 claimed a physical encounter between two Norwegian prospectors, Aage Thorberg and Jan Frostis, who were searching for radioactive minerals for the Indian government, when they met with two Yetis. An attempt at capturing the creatures with a rope led to injuries to Frostis and one of the beasts being wounded by gunfire.
In 1951 British explorer Eric Earle Shipton, trekking at 19,000 ft in the Himalayas, spotted a mysterious 13-inch footprint in the snow. His now iconic photograph caused a global stir. Further furor ensued when in 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hilary, the first two men to finally reach the top of Mount Everest, also came across some strange tracks.
As more and more Westerners made their attempts at climbing the tallest mountain in the world, tracks were regularly sighted as was the creature itself. Evidence was mounting. Speculations were swirling. Popular science and the general public needed to know–was this inhabitant of the snowfields of the uppermost slopes of the Himalayas, this Abominable Snowman, a “missing link” between Homo sapiens and earlier primates? The world of science had to assemble a crack-team that could take on this high-altitude challenge, investigate the mystery and pacify the questioning masses. The pursuit and capture of this ape-man creature would rely heavily on the professionals and the experts in the sporting field of mountaineering. To head up the first serious expedition, Walter Morgan “Gerald” Russell, Aimée Crocker’s famous zoologist grandson, was called.
After World War II, Russell, who saw action as an officer in the British Royal Navy in the Mediterranean and the Normandy landings, returned to his passion for cryptozoology. He journeyed to China to find and capture a rare, little known animal, the golden takin, but was forced to abandon his efforts because of advances by Chinese Communist armies. The early years of the 1950s found Gerald making a series of films on native methods of catching wild animals in Asia and Europe.
In 1954 the Daily Mail of London sponsored an expedition to Nepal in search of the Abominable Snowman. They selected Russell, the well-respected animal collector and naturalist, the man who successfully captured the first live Giant Panda, as one of its A-Team leaders along with: Dr. Biswamoy Biswas, curator at the mammals section at the Calcutta Museum, Tom Stobart, a pioneering cameraman who produced the documentary The Conquest of Everest in 1953, mountaineer John Angelo “Jacko” Jackson, animal photographer Stanley Jeeves, anthropologist Charles Stonor, and reporter Ralph Izzard, an old Cambridge chum said to have been the major inspiration for the fictional spy James Bond.
Russell had extensive experience hunting and capturing wild animals and, although he had never worked at high altitude, he had many years of arduous trekking experience through rugged and dangerous terrains. He was also a dead-eye marksman and firearms expert.
The Daily Mail objective: capture the smallest of several kinds of Yetis reported to inhabit the Himalayas, the Teh-lma, and determine whether the rare and elusive creature was a legitimate “missing link.” Their further goal was to capture a male and a female alive. Though that would take a series of miracles to pull off.
The Teh-lma, which means “little thing,” was thought to live in the steamy mountain valleys of Nepal and Sikkim. They were reported to be between three and four feet tall with hunched shoulders, a sharply pointed sloping head and covered in a thick reddish-grey hair. They were believed to survive on a diet of frogs and other small animals.
Some of the takeaways of the Daily Mail Expedition included photographs of ancient symbolic paintings of the Yeti at Tengboche gompa and shots of large footprints in the snow, some of which could not be identified as belonging to any known animal. The expedition team investigated scalps kept in monasteries of a few villages traditionally looked on as from Yetis, some over three hundred years old. Russell was given presumed droppings of the creature to examine. The locals were interviewed. Their stories about the Yetis were deemed reasonable and consistent.
Apart from the search for the Yeti, which was neither captured nor spotted, the crew collected over a hundred species of plants and seeds, and took many photos of the various animals and birds of the little known Himalayas of Eastern Nepal, at the highest tree line in the world. The expedition’s medical officer was also instrumental in stamping out an outbreak of smallpox in the Sherpa village of Namche Bazaar. They acquired a great deal of data on the way of life, the agriculture, and the economics of the Sherpas.
Though the expedition did not capture a Yeti, it did succeed, however, in dynamically captivating both the scientific community and the thrill-seeking public. A saturnalian Abominable Snowman mania erupted. The Snowman quickly assimilated into popular culture. The Daily Mail Expedition inspired countless television shows, magazine articles and films with titles like Man Beast, Snow Creature, Half Human starring John Carradine and The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. starring horror film icon Peter Cushing, which is considered something of a minor classic.
Yeti fever spread further when fossils were found in the hills of Northern India, geographically near the Himalayas, in 1955. (The discoveries were actually the fossilized teeth and jawbone of the largest ape known, classified as Gigantopithecus, who inhabited the earth 100,000 to nine million years ago).
The Russians soon joined the hunt for the man bear of the Himalayas. In 1958, Russell was selected as deputy leader of the Slick-Johnson Snowman Expedition to Nepal. Texas oilman Tom Slick rushed plans to find the legendary Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas in an effort to beat a Russian search party. “We must hurry up because the Russians are sending out expeditions on a similar errand in the Pamirs,” Russell warned. It was in the Pamir Mountains of Soviet Central Asia, an extension of the Himalayas, that a Soviet scientist reported seeing the snowman twice during the summer of 1957. Competition between the two most powerful nations in the world became uncompromising. It would seem that the Russians and the Americans were running three races simultaneously during the Cold War–the space race, the nuclear arms race and the race to find a Yeti in the Himalayas.
The financial backing of Slick equipped the party with 5,000 pounds of baggage to be carried by 70 porters. Russell was excited about the trek into the rugged mountains of eastern Nepal and the prospect of the search. Gerald and his five-man team, which included Peter and Brian Byrne, big-game hunters from Ireland; Captain Pushkar Shamshere, liaison officer appointed by the Nepalese government; and some fifteen Darjeeling Sherpa porters left Biratnagar on February 24, 1958 to scour and trek the Arun River valley in eastern Nepal until the end of May. Footprints of the snowman had been sighted in that area by Nepalese parties and scalps were there to be examined.
“The sole object of the expedition is to film the creature, possibly in its natural environment,” Russell said. Norman G. Dhyrenfurth, a Swiss mountaineer and a former University of California instructor, was in charge of the photography.
During this expedition, Russell’s guide, a Sherpa by the name of Da Temba, claimed to have seen a Teh-lma in the middle of a creek in the Chhoyang River Valley. Though Russell did not see the creature himself, he was able to find its tracks on more than one occasion.
Sadly, health issues forced Gerald Russell to leave the Slick-Johnson Snowman Expedition in April. He appointed Dyhrenfurth deputy leader. Gerald Russell’s experiences with both The Daily Mail Expedition and the Slick-Johnson Expedition produced evidence for the reality of the Teh-lma’s existence including hair and feces, footprints and sightings. Russell reported that the form of the feces was generally humanoid. He also photographed and made casts of some footprints. It was determined categorically that the prints of the Teh-lmas were definitely humanoid, and that the creatures were bipedal, always running on their hind legs, which is not a simian [or monkey] characteristic.
Russell thought the yak herders who claimed to have seen the Yeti must be considered reliable witnesses because, “they are a calm and pastoral people and, furthermore, unshakable in their testimony.” When it was suggested that the Yeti may be a spirit, they remarked, “A spirit does not leave tracks.”
Dhyrenfurth professed, “All evidence, including the 350-year-old scalp and skeleton-hand of a Yeti at Pangboche lamasery, seems to establish beyond a shadow of doubt the existence of possibly two types of Yeti: a small species which lives in the Himalayan rain forests between 8,000 and 12,000 feet, perhaps only 4½ feet in height, and a larger animal of 6 to 8 feet in height in the higher regions between the villages and the glaciers.”
The Teh-lma breed of Yeti was discussed by zoologists in the fifties with great passion. They thought it would soon be caught like the panda and other animals of discovery once believed to be creatures of folklore.
In 1960, the World Book Encyclopedia Company of Chicago sponsored the Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition and hired Mount Everest hero Sir Edmund Hillary as deputy leader. Hillary concluded that Yeti tracks were distortions of fox or wolf tracks melted by the snow, the scalps were likely fakes possibly belonging to a bear, and that Yeti sightings by Sherpas were unreliable because the mountain porters, “did not make a distinction between the supernatural and the real worlds.” Hillary summarized, “I am inclined to think that the realm of mythology is where the Yeti rightly belongs.”
A 2017 study for The Royal Society of London tested the mitochondrial DNA of purported Yeti samples to determine the exact identity of ‘hominid’-like creatures so important to folklore and mythology in the Tibetan Plateau–Himalaya region. And beyond. They found that they showed no genetic affinity with an ancient polar bear, or from a previously unrecognized, possibly hybrid, bear species, as preliminary findings suggested. They were from an endangered and elusive but very real Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus), known locally as “dzu-teh.” South Tyrolean mountaineer Reinhold Messner agreed in his autobiography My Quest for the Yeti that the Yeti is the Himalayan brown bear, or possibly the Tibetan blue bear (Ursus arctos pruinosus), which can walk both upright or on all fours.
There are those that think the Yeti riddle has been solved but it will never be put to rest.
Tom Slick sponsored a second expedition to Nepal in the late 1950s and then turned his attention to the American Yeti, the Sasquatch, in the Pacific Northwest. He discovered many tracks and made many casts never capturing photographs or indisputable proof of a “missing link.”
In 1958, Slick, ever the far-sighted visionary wrote Permanent Peace, which included a solution to the diabolical U.S./U.S.S.R. nuclear arms race. It outlined a slow reduction of nationalist armed forces which would in time be superseded by a global peacekeeping force.
Slick was inspired by the powers of the mind he observed in the yogis and holy men that he encountered in the Himalayas including an Indian man that could seemingly levitate and teleport. He formed the Mind Science Foundation in San Antonio to conduct research on the mysteries of the mind. Slick considered it the most important undertaking of his eventful life. Now headed by his son Tom Slick, Jr., it is the only philanthropic foundation whose primary purpose is advancing the scientific understanding of the nature of consciousness.
Gerald Russell continued his work as a noted and respected zoologist. He never married but did have a short lived romance with Susan Travers, an Englishwoman who was the only female ever matriculated into the French Foreign Legion. Gerald became an active member of the now defunct Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained (SITU) stationed in Northern New Jersey. Founded by Russell’s friend Ivan T. Sanderson, SITU studied not only cryptozoological wonders, but time and space anomalies like ships, planes and men disappearing in the Bermuda Triangle and other similar “Vile Vortices” distributed in both hemispheres. He became an “X-Files” investigator. Gerald lived a part serious, part fanciful life that the grandson of an outrageously rich, exceedingly inquisitive and boldly adventurous woman is supposed to live.
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