TMCnet News

[January 15, 2006]


(New Zealand Press Association Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)Wellington, Jan 16 NZPA - Sir Edmund Hillary's search for yeti in the Himalyas 46 years ago -- accompanied by hundreds of porters -- led him to conclude the creature's existence was cultural rather than physical.

During September 1960, Sir Edmund led a three-part expedition, of 21 scientists, climbers and other specialists and 310 Sherpas with the chief aim of scientific research on acclimatisation to altitude.

But he grafted on two other projects: one party carried tonnes of stores, equipment and building supplies to the Mingbo Valley above Tengboche and built two high-altitude huts, while another group led by the New Zealander searched Rolwaling Valley, west of the Khumbu for evidence of yeti.

The yeti hunters found sets of footprints on the Ripimu Glacier at the head of the Rolwaling Valley, but hidden microphones and cameras enmeshed in trip wires failed to capture a yeti's likeness -- or record its famous high-pitched whistle, according to New Zealand author Alexa Johnston's recently published biography, Sir Edmund Hillary: An Extraordinary Life.

The expedition's rifle with tranquilliser darts was not required, and its members eventually concluded that the footprints they had found were the tracks of a smaller animal which had melted out in the sun.

Two other climbers -- Dr Michael Ward and Eric Shipton -- had photographed similar tracks near the same spot -- 5490m on the Menlung Glacier -- during the 1951 Everest reconnaissance for the 1953 expedition in which Sir Edmund and Tenzing Norgay first successfully climbed Everest. The individual footprints were longer than the head of an ice-axe.

Johnston wrote that Sir Edmund had a longstanding interest in yeti from the many stories he had heard while in the Himalayas or found in his reading. Norgay told him his father had twice seen a yeti, and Sherpas told many stories of people attacked by a yeti or being frightened by its high-pitched whistle.

``The final straw on the abortive yeti hunt seems to have been Peter Mulgrew's fishcakes, made from tinned Canadian salmon, a recipe Ed and Peter had enjoyed on Christmas Day 1957 in Antarctica,'' Johnston wrote.

Desmond Doig, the expedition's reporter and linguist -- one of the 21 scientists, climbers and other specialists who made up the expedition, wrote that it was never ascertained whether the fishcakes or the altitude, or both, were responsible for Sir Edmund, Mulgrew, and several other diners having a miserable night following the feast.

``Whatever it was, Ed was prompted by his immediate misery to pull out.''

But the yeti hunt did have a significant outcome -- it triggered Sir Edmund's efforts to build schools for the Sherpas. Doig did track down some yeti relics, and when he bought a yeti skin was told some monasteries and temples had yeti scalps and skeletal hands.

He alerted Sir Edmund and they began negotiations to borrow a yeti scalp from Khumjung Gompa, a Sherpa temple, and take it to America and Europe to be looked at by scientists. Village elders were extremely reluctant to part with the precious relic which brought prestige to their village and good luck with weather and crops.

To swing the deal, Sir Edmund offered to build a school at Khumjung and pay the salary of its first teacher, and they were permitted to take the yeti scalp away for six weeks.

It and other relics were accompanied by Khunjo Chumbi, a village elder, on a journey through New York, Chicago, Paris and London.

In the end, scientists pronounced the skin to be from a blue bear. The yeti ``scalp'' had been made from the hide of the serow antelope -- probably intended as a ceremonial hat but gradually acquiring the status of an actual scalp.

The scalp might not have been the real thing, but Khunjo gave a winning response to Professor J Millot of the Museum of Man in Paris, who suggested that yetis did not exist: ``In Nepal we have neither giraffes nor kangaroos so we know nothing about them. In France, there are no yetis, so I sympathise with your ignorance''.

Khunjo was anxious to spare Sir Edmund the embarrassment of having to concede that he could not produce scientific evidence of a yeti, and offered to find a real one for him on their return to the mountains.

``In the end, Ed concluded the yeti's existence was cultural rather than physical,'' Johnston wrote.

But the publicity Sir Edmund, Khunjo and the yeti relics generated the expedition sponsor, Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, the publishers of the World Book Encyclopaedia not only stumped up $US125,000 ($NZ182,000) for the expedition but continued to support Sherpa aid projects for another decade.

The expedition was Sir Edmund's first return to Sherpa country since 1954, but not his last: he created the Himalayan Trust, which has built 27 schools, two hospitals and a dozen medical centres, laid water pipes built bridges, and repaired monasteries in the region. The first school was built -- as he promised -- at Khumjung.

NZPA WGT kca ob nb

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