Footsteps on the Rooftop of the World

British explorer Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury did not see the “Wild Man of the Himalayas” during his trek to Mount Everest in 1921. He only saw strange footprints in the snow. But he did, by accident, attach an enduring name to the iconic snowman. 

Gardner Soule, the author of Trail of the Abominable Snowman, explained it this way: In Howard-Bury’s dispatch to a newspaper in Calcutta, India, his mention of the wild man was somehow garbled. He meant to say: “Mehteh Kang-mi.” This in Nepalese meant simply “manlike wild creature.” But in Calcutta, when the telegram was received, it read instead: “Metch-kangmi.” “Metch” in Tibetan means filthy, dirty or smelly. “Kang” means snow. “Mi” means man. Metch-Kangmi was translated, by a newspaper columnist in Calcutta, as the Abominable Snowman. 

From that moment, when Howard-Bury’s telegram was received, the Western world began to be interested in the Abominable Snowman. Said Soule: “It was such a wonderful name for an unknown animal that it has stuck till this very day.”

Of course, people knew about the elusive snowman years before he was ever given a name. Another British explorer named William Knight spotted him back in a 1903 expedition. Said Knight at the time: “He was a little under six feet high, almost stark naked in the bitter cold, pale yellow all over with a shock of matted hair on his head, small patches of hair on his face, highly splayed feet and large formidable hands. His muscular development in the arms, thighs, legs and chest was terrific.”

In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and his Sherpa partner Tenzing Norgay were the first men to reach the top of Mount Everest. They saw plenty of mysterious footprints in the snow, but they never saw any weird man-like beasts skulking in the flora. Hillary later wrote about his expeditions in a 1962 memoir called High in the Thin Cold Air: “The yeti was a fascinating fairy tale,” he wrote, “born of the rare and frightening view of strange animals, molded by superstition and enthusiastically nurtured by Western expeditions.”

I admit, the narrative is a little bit jumbled in Soule’s 1966 textbook—especially in the beginning. But in his defense he was attempting to parse a lot of disparate information about the Abominable Snowman. It won’t surprise anyone that he neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the beast. All he could do was embrace the romance of such a creature. 

“The yeti could be a 100- or 200- or 400-pound monkey or ape or bear or it could be a cave man or it could be anything in between. Whatever is eventually found,” he concluded, “will be a major zoological discovery. The existence of an intelligent ape or a Neanderthal man would be one of science’s major all-time discoveries.”

[Trail of the Abominable Snowman / By Gardner Soule / First Printing: January 1966 / ISBN: 9780399606427]