There are three things certain in this life: death, taxes and Sir David Attenborough’s trustworthiness. So when the legendary naturalist declares that a Himalayan yeti could well exist, we all ought to sit up and take notice.
“Very, very convincing footprints have been found,” Sir David announced in 2009, indicating the existence of a giant ape-like creature in the Himalayas. “Especially footprints found 18,000 or 19,000 feet up. Nobody goes up that high for a joke.”
That validation from our greatest naturalist was all the British explorer Andrew Benfield needed to embark on an extraordinary mission to find the yeti, otherwise known as the Abominable Snowman.
Benfield, who has long been a true believer in the existence of this legendary creature, invited his sceptical friend Richard Horsey to accompany him and provide a counterbalance. Along the way they listened to stories from yak herders, sherpas and mountaineers who all relayed astoundingly consistent descriptions of an unexplained, enormous hairy creature walking around on its hind legs. Their accounts featured bizarre sightings, footprints among the highest peaks and even unsolved killings of farm animals.
It proved to be a truly absorbing search for the fabled creature, and the journey produced enough compelling evidence to sway even committed sceptics.
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Now Benfield’s quest through India, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan has been turned into a gripping BBC Radio 4 series and podcast entitled, with pleasing simplicity, Yeti.
“When I heard Attenborough say the yeti might exist, it was mind-blowing,” he tells the Daily Express. “His knowledge, his breadth of experience and the amount he’s travelled are all exceptional. He is thinking of practical reasons for the yeti’s existence.”
Andrew adds: “As someone who’s been out there in the Himalayas so much, Attenborough recognised the topographical possibility that a yeti could have gone undetected there for so long.
“Unless you’ve walked for three days in the Himalayas, you can’t understand that. When you look down from the top, you realise there’s only one path, and it’s dwarfed by all the mountains and valleys around it. That’s when you start to twig that there is a geographical possibility that something could exist mainly unseen, away from the path. That swung it for me.”
The existence of the Abominable Snowman has been rumoured in the West since 1951 when a photograph of a massive, inexplicable footprint was taken in the Menlung Basin of the Himalayas by the mountaineer Eric Shipton.
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Benfield, 47, who lives in Thailand, has additional reasons to believe the animal is real. “Some accounts involve multiple witnesses, physical evidence, and even police reports, so are not easily dismissed,” he says. “In many parts of the Himalayas, the yeti’s existence is an accepted fact and one country, Bhutan, has even created a national park specifically to protect its natural habitat.”
Furthermore, he says: “We know that there used to be a giant ape roaming around the Himalayas because we have the fossil evidence to prove it. It was 9ft tall and called Gigantopithecus.”
His expedition partner Horsey, 50, who lives in Australia, freely admits he was highly dubious when he set out.
“Andy had been talking about his reading on the subject, and I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, the yeti, whatever,” he says. “I never expected to hear more than some folklore and tall tales. But soon we were in much deeper than I could ever have imagined, uncovering credible accounts, and even physical evidence, that challenged my scepticism and left me more than a little unsettled.”
Horsey’s initial scepticism was influenced by the fact that, in Western culture, the Yeti is a joke figure, parodied in everything from B-movies to comic books. It has featured in Tintin, Scooby Doo, The Mighty Boosh and Doctor Who. It has even been the subject of a Kate Bush song, Wild Man.
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In North America, they have their own reported version called Bigfoot or Sasquatch, and in China they talk about the Yeren. Both are regarded as mythical animals or hoaxes.
Benfield explains: “For decades the yeti has been fetishised and sensationalised by the West, its description and even its name becoming a joke, condemning it as a cartoon creature in most people’s imaginations.”
Horsey concurs: “It has become a bit of a cliche, hasn’t it? It’s been put into the same category as unicorns or the Loch Ness Monster. Stories get distorted, and the media gives a certain spin to things. But the big white shaggy monster in our imaginations was never described like that in the region. That is something that comes from marketing executives in the West.
“The yeti was such a beguiling idea earlier in the last century that it was a great tool just to get money. If you said, ‘We’re going to search for the yeti,’ there was such a craze about the idea that this thing could exist, people would just shower you with money.”
The failure to find any concrete proof diminished people’s willingness to believe in it. Benfield explains how our image of the yeti stems from a 1964 animated film called Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. “They thought a big white shaggy creature would be great, and that stuck. So it’s become a toxic brand.”
He admits that, on their travels, he and Horsey heard some far-fetched stories about the legendary creature. “There are charlatans and fairy tales everywhere,” he adds. “We heard some corkers, such as a guy who told us, ‘The yeti comes every night to my house after my wife has gone to bed.’ We asked him, ‘Really? Oh my God. So how do you know that?’ and he said: ‘Well, it steals all the alcohol.’”
However, there were plenty of other stories far more convincing. “I met this guy in Bhutan at an altitude of 3,000 metres in a remote yak-herding settlement,” Horsey explains. “We came to this field which has high grass about six feet tall.
“He says, ‘When I was walking through this field early one morning last year, I saw this gigantic creature about 80 metres away, and I cowered behind this huge boulder. It was close enough to make out its features.’ He immediately identifies it as a massive gorilla-like creature when I show him photographs.
“He says he was absolutely petrified, way more scared than he would have been of a tiger or a bear. If a tiger or a bear sees you, it is likely to run in the other direction, whereas those giant apes will come for you.”
Horsey, who has worked in human rights and diplomacy, says he has a sixth sense about such accounts. “You can tell when people are spinning you a yarn. But in this case, it really did seem like a very credible story.”
Benfield had a similarly plausible encounter. He had read about a Nepalese woman who, in 1974, claimed to have been attacked by a yeti. She was thrown into a river and her five yaks were killed, their necks snapped in two.
“Amazingly, we managed to track her down,” he says. “She’s 82 now, but she’s still herding her yaks. I met her and found other people who were there at the time. I got all these consistent accounts from them. That really made me think: there is nothing that can twist the neck off a yak up there, nothing has that much power.
“There was no other explanation for that, and there were multiple credible witnesses. That for me was a turning point. What more evidence do you want?”
Benfield is hopeful his Yeti podcast might lead some listeners to reassess their prejudices about this creature. “It’s reminding people that the idea of the gorilla, the panda and the hippo were all ridiculed before they were first discovered,” he says. “We’re still discovering new species every year. For example, a new species of deer – the leaf muntjac – was discovered just recently in Myanmar.”
He believes it pays to be broad-minded and gets very annoyed when sceptics compare his yeti to the Loch Ness Monster.
“I don’t believe in this dinosaur in a lake in Scotland because I am a sane human,” he insists. “But the search for the yeti is something else. While you’re in the mountains, the very physical environment is conducive to being open-minded. It makes you realise there are a lot of things in the world that are bigger than you.”
He is hopeful he has done enough to persuade people the yeti is real. “If they’re not convinced at the end of this, I give up!”
So where is he planning for his next expedition? Perhaps a hunt for the Loch Ness Monster?
With a laugh, he exclaims in mock-fury: “I’m never talking to The Express again!”
- Yeti is on BBC Radio 4 at 11.30pm on Saturdays. The whole series is available on BBC Sounds
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