The Yeti

 Mick Conefrey|   | 

Remarkably, the clearest photographic evidence of the Yeti comes from 1951 when the British climber Eric Shipton photographed a Yeti footprint. But was it a fake?

Yeti- fact or fantasy?

I've been writing about the Yeti recently for a book on the Himalayas. It's a while since we have had a good Yeti story, about time I'd say for another sighting, or at least another expensive expedition in search of it. Modern interest in the Yeti kicked off in 1951 when Eric Shipton and Mike Ward came back from the Everest Reconnaissance expedition claiming to have seen and photographed yeti tracks.

According to Eric Shiptons reports in The Times, he and Mike Ward had followed the prints down a glacier and noticed places where it look as the creatures had leapt over crevasses and used their nails to secure a good purchase on the other side. Using an ice axe and Mike Ward's boot as a reference, Eric Shipton took several photographs.

When they consulted their Sherpa, Sen Tensing, he had no doubt of their provenance: they were Yeti tracks. Most Sherpas at the time did believe in the existence of the Yeti, or ‘abominable snowman’, as they were dubbed in the British press. Murals in local monasteries depicted large hairy man-like creatures walking on two legs. Accounts of their behavior varied. According to some, there were two types of Yeti: one that preyed on Yaks, and another that preyed on humans. Female yetis were said to be slower moving than their mates, on account of the their large pendulous breasts.

When Shipton's photographs were eventually published they created a sensation


In his biography however, published many years later, Eric Shipton commented that he was surprised at all the attention, noting wryly that the he had expected the London Society for Psychic research to pay more attention to them than the august scientists of the British Museum, who inspired  by Shipton’s reports prints, had organized a Yeti exhibition.

Yeti Hunting

For several years afterwards, the hunt was on to bring back more proof of the Yeti’s existence. In 1954, the journalist Ralph Izzard, who had famously tried to gatecrash the 1953 Everest expedition, headed for the Himalayas with Tom Stobart, the famous cameraman. They did not come back with any more hard evidence. A few years later Ed Hillary led a further expedition in search of the elusive Yeti but he too didn’t come back with anything new.

Since then there have been many more expeditions and a few more photographs, but no real hard evidence. So were Shipton’s photos fakes? After all wasn’t Eric Shipton known for his practical jokes? Even if he hadn’t faked the prints entirely, had he cleaned them up and enhanced them to make them look more definite? The writer Peter Gillman has written articles on Shipton's Yeti  for The Times and The Alpine Journal  and is convinced that Eric's photographs are not what they seem.

Eric Shipton- faker?

During the research for Everest 1953, I came across this story many times. Sadly Eric Shipton did not keep a diary that might have thrown new light on this.  Mike Ward did keep a diary, but only the first part of his 1951 volume still exists and it  stops weeks before they sight  the Yeti. In Tom Bourdillon's diary he does re-tell the story of the Yeti prints, but he discovered them some days after Eric and Mike took their photographs and it is not absolutely clear how much he saw.

On the other hand, the personal friends and relatives of Eric and Mike that I talked too, were adamant that the photographs were genuine and there had been no faking or 'retouching'. Though there were no Yeti sightings in 1953, it is clear that both John Hunt and Charles Evans, his deputy leader, thought that the Yeti might exist. Charles Evans, not a man prone to flights of fancy, went so far as to have some Yeti hairs that he obtained from a Nepalese monastery, tested by Scotland Yard and a zoologist in 1954. The tests did not however reveal a new species of humanoid- rather that the hairs came from a type of pig. Years later, Mike Ward wrote a fascinating article in which he speculated that they might have been caused but a distorted human foot, having once encounter a barefoot wandering holyman in the Himalayas. 


We will never know for certain whether the footprints were faked, but there is no compelling evidence that they were. Neither Shipton or Ward made a death-bed confession, far from it. On the other hand, with all the activity in the Himalayas over the last 60 years, it is amazing that nothing similar has ever been seen. In the end, some mysteries can never be solved. Life teaches us though that truth is often stranger than fiction, so lets not bury the Yeti quite yet. 


PS If anyone out there has funding for a new Yeti expedition, I'd love to make the documentary....


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