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Peculiar Footprints, An Inhuman Scream—and the Search for the Abominable Snowman Heats Up

updated 01/21/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/21/1980 01:00AM

In the late afternoon of November 10, high in the Himalayas of Nepal, John Edwards and fellow climber John Allen had reached the point where they had to turn back. The light was fading and they were far from camp. Unless they made it before dark, they would never survive the night at 17,000 feet. As they picked their way down to base camp in the Hinku Valley, Edwards spotted an overhanging boulder that formed a natural cave—a possible camp site when he returned the next week to scale Mount Mera with other members of the British Hinku Expedition. Motioning to Allen to wait, he went off to investigate. In that freezing wilderness, Edwards could not believe what he saw: a set of almost-human footprints.

"My first reaction was that someone had walked through the snow in bare feet," the explorer recalls. "But of course I then realized that nobody else could be up there and certainly not in bare feet. In the rarefied atmosphere of high altitude, one's brain is not always as sharp as it could be." Assuming that he had stumbled on the lair of some unusual animal, Edwards shouted to Allen, 200 yards away on a ridge, to join him. Both men were then jolted by another, terrifying sound: As Edwards recalls it, "a piercing, chilling, inhuman scream that lasted five or 10 seconds." Edwards and Allen are convinced that what they heard was the voice of the Abominable Snowman.

Tibetans call it "Metoh Kangmi," or the Yeti, and the lore of the Sherpa mountain guides abounds with tales of sightings and grisly encounters. No sighting has ever been substantiated, yet the Nepalese government has put the Yeti on its endangered species list. When the first Westerners tried to climb Mount Everest in 1921, they reported finding the animal's mysterious tracks at 21,000 feet. Since then the lure of the Snowman has attracted adventurers from all over the world to the snowy wastes of the Himalayas.

The Soviet Union claimed in 1964 that its scientists had found a Yeti and identified it as a surviving form of Neanderthal man. Others have offered tracks, bones, even a scalp allegedly taken from the beast (subsequently proved to be that of a serow, a wild goat antelope). Everest's first conqueror, Sir Edmund Hillary, concluded after a lengthy expedition that the Yeti does not exist. But in the mountains the legend goes on—and Edwards' party does not doubt that it is based on fact. Says Edwards categorically: "I now firmly believe that there is some unidentified animal—call it a Yeti if you like—lurking in the Himalayas."

Like his companions—British postal executive John Whyte, 56, Dr. John Allen, 29, and lawyer John Brooks, 48—Edwards, 43, is an experienced mountaineer of some repute. He was with the first party to scale the east face of Mount Mawenzia in Tanzania (where he discovered the wreckage of a VC-10 that had been missing for nine years). The expedition to Mount Mera was undertaken in part for pleasure and in part to collect high-altitude plant and insect specimens for London's Natural History Museum.

The BBC donated an ancient 16mm camera for photographing "fauna footprints," and the RAF provided transport to Nepal, but the four men split the rest of their expenses. In 28 days they accomplished all they had hoped for—thoroughly exploring the Hinku Valley, scaling Mera and another previously unclimbed, unnamed peak nearby. But their perilous expedition climaxed on the morning of the 18th day, when they returned as a team to the footprints Edwards had spotted the afternoon before.

Whyte, the expedition leader, remembers his astonishment at what they saw. Using the BBC camera, they filmed the footprints. Although they had no precise way of measuring them, they noted that the tracks were of varying sizes, the largest roughly five by eight inches. Whyte suggests that the prints belong to a male/ female pair of Yetis, perhaps with offspring. Whyte's team gathered droppings also found at the site to take back to England for scientific analysis. "We have photographed a print that no one can satisfactorily identify," Whyte says. "I am convinced that there is an animal of some kind up there that is not yet recorded by naturalists."

In the past, skeptics have not been easily swayed—even by previous photographic evidence of the Yeti's tracks. Sir Edmund Hillary argued that "Yeti footprints" are simply those of a more conventional beast, enlarged and distorted by melting in the sun. Whyte insists that the tracks his party found were crisp and clean-edged, with no signs of melting.

Even cynics are becoming more open-minded in the light of other new evidence: Desmond Doig, who co-authored with Hillary a book debunking the Yeti, now says he believes the Yeti is fact, not myth. One American explorer, Jeffrey McNeely, has suggested that even Hillary agrees. "I'm convinced Sir Edmund not only believes the Yeti exists but has actually seen one," McNeely says. His theory: that Hillary is concerned for the welfare of the Yeti, which he thinks is a descendant of the prehistoric Gigantopithecus man, and wants to discourage other explorers from stalking it.

Nonetheless, the photographs of Edwards' discovery raise more questions than they answer. The droppings have yet to be analyzed, and none of the four explorers claims sophistication in the science of animal classification. Although no pictures of the Yeti itself have ever been taken, Whyte argues that the beast's scarceness stands to reason: It lives in the dense forests at the foot of the mountains, he theorizes, and only rarely ventures above the timberline to eat lichen and moss. "How often does one happen on a fox?" asks Whyte. "Or run into a deer?" Infrequently indeed, and the Whyte expedition's close encounter with the legendary Yeti is an experience none of them will soon forget. Yet perhaps it was a mistake to go. The men seem determined to continue their search. As Edwards puts it, "I'll never rest until I get back there."

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