The Yeti’s Hand — A True Tale of Himalayan Mystery, Intrigue and Adventure

- June 12th, 2011

UPDATE (SORT OF): Here’s a link to the latest on Mount Everest

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I will make this story as true as I can.

But that doesn’t mean the existence of the legendary Yeti — the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas — is “true” … necessarily.

What is true is that something or some things is/are out there in the highest mountains of the world. There have been just too many sightings and encounters to dismiss. But “it” could be a Himalayan brown bear, a Tibetan blue bear, a langur monkey, an orang-utan or another high-altitude great ape … or it could be the classic humanoid “missing link” snowman we all really hope “it” is. Or it could be all of the above.

yetiyeti

There is no conclusive evidence either/any way — but there is a lot of disputed evidence which some reputable scientists believe is indicative of a currently unclassified creature genetically related to humans.

(Don’t forget: Europeans considered the African gorilla a native myth until 1847.)

A couple of those pieces of evidence were a yeti skull and skeletal hand kept as honoured relics by the monks of the oldest gompa or Buddhist monastery in the land of the Sherpas below Mount Everest.

Our story revolves around how those relics were “discovered” by Western explorers in the 1950s, how part of the hand made its way to a lab in London in the lingerie case of the wife of a Hollywood movie star, how the whole hand and skull were stolen by another mountaineer in the late 1990s and, finally, what a New Zealand commercial airline pilot and adventurer is doing today to try to set things right.

It’s probably a long story so we better begin … in fact, I’ve just decided to break the story into two parts so we don’t get lost forever in the mountains (of words).

Mount_Everest_by_Kerem_Barut

You won’t find the village of Pangboche on Google Maps.

But it’s there, 3,860 metres above sea level, about halfway between the town of Lukla (which you will see on Google Maps) and Mount Everest (or Everest Base Camp, to be more precise).

GoogleMapEverest

You may have to zoom in on these maps, but in the one above A is the Nepal capital of Kathmandu; B is the town of Lukla a couple of hundred kilometres east of Kathmandu; and C is Mount Everest, about 40 km north of Lukla as the crow flies — but hundreds of kilometres up and down hills and mountains as the human walks. you’ll find the village of Pangboche on the map below showing the trekking trail from Lukla to Everest Base Camp.

***everest_base_camp_trekking

And Pangboche has been there a long time. Not as long as the mountains themselves, of course, but probably as long as the Sherpas have lived in eastern Nepal (they moved from Tibet in the mid-1600s). Pangboche is considered to be oldest village in the Khumbu, the Sherpa region watched over by Sagarmatha, which is what the Sherpas call Everest (and which is what we should probably call it too — either that or Jomolungma, which is what the Tibetans, who own the other side of the mountain, call Everest.)

Now Pangboche doesn’t have much — the people make most of their living by servicing the tourists who have the gumption and stamina to trek from Lukla to Everest Base Camp — but they do have a Buddhist monastery, also considered the oldest in the region.

Here’s a link to a Flickr photo gallery of Pangboche taken by a guy named Richard.

The Panboche gompa or monastery is a modest affair, generally overshadowed by the showier Tengboche gompa down the road, but it did once have a claim to fame: The Pangboche Hand.

(NOTE: If the word “gimp” accidentally shows up in this blog post, that’s what the Mac automatic spellcheck on my current laptop seems to want to turn every reference to “gimp” into — this is really funny … I just wrote “gompa”  again and the stupid/oversmart machine turned it into what you see. I have to go back and type in “gompa”  a second time over every instance of  “gimp” to make it stick — I hope, or else this graf just says gimp, gimp,gimp, gimp … and, yes, I snuck a secret “gompa” in there against the wishes of my pushy computer. I think this is a case of technology being too big for its britches. I am really not crazy about a computer (hello HAL) overriding my decisions. Hmmmm, yes, master…. I don’t know if it happens on other systems, but if you own a Mac, try typing “gompa” and see what happens. )

Back to our story …

But first …

The British actually wanted to give Everest its “native” name but there were so many local variations for the world’s highest mountain they gave up in exasperation and resorted to naming it after a colonial bureaucrat (as usual) … who, God bless his soul, objected to the honour because his name could not be written in Hindi and his name was unpronounceable for locals. Despite his objections — “no,no, really, you mustn’t name the highest mountain in the world after me” — Britain’s Royal Geographical Society named the great lump of rock after Sir George Everest in 1865.

Everest-closeup

As for the pronunciation, it’s EV-rest, not EVER-est. Which is funny because George Everest pronounced his own name IV-rist. So I guess Sagarmatha/Jomolungma isn’t named after a British colonial bureaucrat after all.

As I said before, this could go on for a while …

Back to our story …

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A photo of the Pangboche Hand taken in 1958 by Peter Byrne

The yeti cropped skull and severed hand at the Pangboche monastery (yes, I’ve given up on gompa/gimp) were not particularly old — perhaps decades-old, not centuries-old when American-European intruders became aware of them in the 1950s. How old? Nobody knows … or is telling, but the best guess seems to be from sometime around 1890-1900 — the time when wacky Europeans first started going crazy over the long-time locally accepted phenomenon of yeti.

European expeditions — mostly British — into the high Himalayas were few and far between back then, but there was a steady drip-drip-drip of reports of unusual creature sightings, which local guides and porters usually explained away as being a yeti “man-bear” or “snowman.”

Here’s a quick illustrated survey of some reported yeti sightings from an article in the December 1957 issue of Popular Science magazine  entitled “Science Closes In on the Abominable Snowman.”

PopScienceIllustrations

MorePopScienceIllistr

AnotherPopScienceillustration

The 1921 expedition, by the way, was the one that produced the phrase “Abominable Snowman” which seemed to capture the public’s fancy more than previous descriptions.

During that expedition, Lt.-Col. Charles Howard-Bury found a trail of footprints which he suspected were made by a loping mountain wolf but which, because of the effect of melt change, he described as “rather like those of a barefoot man.”

When the group got back to its Indian base at Darjeeling, journalist Henry Newman was waiting for them. When he heard about the tracks in the snow, Newman went to the porters for an explanation. They started talking about “metoh-kangmi” — “metoh” supposedly meaning “man-bear” and “kangmi” meaning “snowman” — but Newman (as the story goes) misinterpreted “metoh” as a similar word for “filthy,” substituted “abominable” for “filthy,” came up with “abominable snowman” and sent the story around the world.

(Newman later apparently said he didn’t believe in the yeti “but it made a cracking story.”)

abominable-snowman-movie-(1957)

tintin-au-tibet-c-1960

The 1950s was the golden age of yeti hunting, primarily because of one man: the aptly named Tom Slick Jr.

Slick Senior made a fortune finding oil in Texas, Junior increased that fortune — and then started spending it to set up philanthropic entities like the Southwest Research Institute, the Mind Science Foundation, the Tom Slick Professorship of World Peace … and mounting expeditions to investigate the Loch Ness monster, the yeti, North America’s Bigfoot and so on.

TBslickJr

Tom Slick the oil man and philanthropist, above, and the yeti hunter, below

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In his down time, Slick was also a world-roaming pilot who dabbled in intrigue with the likes of Howard Hughes and the CIA.

Really. All this is true, just as I promised.

Slick financed several Himalayan expeditions in the late 1950s and, when he wasn’t there himself, turned over the quest to fellow adventurer Peter Byrne. Slick died in a mysterious plane crash in 1962 but Byrne is still alive, telling tales of six decades of adventuring.

And one of his tales — supported by independent evidence — is Byrne’s discovery of the Pangboche Hand and later acquisition of a fingerbone from said skeletal yeti hand.

Byrne has actually told two different versions of the tale — the same in many ways but differing in a key component. I’ll tell you both and you decide which one you want to believe.

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Peter Byrne, above when he was hunting Bigfoot in North America a few decades ago and below a recent photo of the grand old adventurer

peterbyrne

Let’s let Byrne tell his story via a letter he wrote to New Zealand commercial pilot, mountaineer and adventurer Mike  Allsop a couple of months ago. (You can find the whole letter at this link, by the way.) We’ll break off when the story hits a fork in the road:

“In 1958, the second year of the three year American Yeti expedition, led by me and financed by Tom Slick of San Antonio, Texas, I and my brother Bryan were camped in a meadow close to the temple of Pangboche, in the Sola Khumbu region of the central Himalaya. One day, while visiting the temple, I heard one of its custodians talking in Nepalese. This caught my attention because lamas in the Himalaya  normally spoke only in the Sherpa dialect. Being fluent in Nepalese,  I introduced myself and we had a chat. Later the man came down to my camp and we had a chat and he told me that he was an ex-soldier of a Gurkha regiment of the British Army of India …  hence his being fluent in Nepalese. Later, when the conversation turned to my search for the Yeti, he told me that there was a hand of one in the temple and that he would  show it to me if I wished. Which of course I did, to where,  later that night, we went up to have a look at it.

The find — of what looked to me like a partially mummified primate hand, black and glistening from the oily smoke of the temple lamps — was very exciting and I immediately sent a runner off to India with a cable to Tom Slick, telling him  about it. Nepal in those days had no mail or cable system and so we used a post and cable office in India, close to the Indo Nepal border and about a hundred miles to the south. It also had no roads or transport of any kind and so all communication was by runners on foot, using the mountain trails. The runner I sent, a tough little Nepalese hill man named Sarbo,  usually took three days to get to the  border, covering the whole 200 mile round trip in six days. In this case , however, I  told him to stay down there and wait for a reply from the US. This  he did, arriving back at Pangboche ten days later with a cable from Tom Slick.

Slick said that it was imperative that we get  the hand and bring it to England, where it could be scientifically examined under controlled conditions. Failing that we should try and get at least one finger and then get it to London where an associate of his, a Dr. Osman Hill, a renowned British primatologist, would examine it and determine its authenticity.

I talked with the Nepalese-speaking lama about borrowing the hand for examination and he consulted with the other custodians. The answer was no. The hand must not leave the temple. Taking it from the temple would disturb the local deities and bring bad luck.”

And here’s where the story diverges.

According to the first version Byrne told decades ago, he solved the problem by getting the monk on duty that night drunk on rum and, when the monk passed out, switching a human fingerbone for one of the bones in the Pangboche Hand.

This is the alternate version Byrne told in his March 2011 letter to Allsop:

“So I made a  counter proposition, which was that they give me a just one finger and that this would suffice. They all sat down and pondered on this for a couple of days and then agreed to my request if two things were done. One, I would have to replace the finger with another finger. And, two, I would  have to make a substantial contribution towards the upkeep of the temple.

I told the custodians that I would have to consult with my expedition people and sent another cable off to Slick in Texas. His reply was an instruction for me to  come to London immediately for consultation with he and Osman Hill. So I sent another cable back saying that I would do this and could be in London in about a week. A few days later, leaving my brother in camp, I hiked down to the Indian border and took a train to Calcutta and from there flew to London.

A week later, at a luncheon meeting at the Regents Park Zoo-of which Osman Hill was Prosector at that time-attended by the Russian (Yeti) author, Odette Tchernine, Ralph Izzard of the Daily Mail, Tom Slick and Osman Hill, we discussed a strategy for getting the finger and replacing it with another one. The problem, of course, was getting a replacement. But this was quickly solved by Osman Hill who had brought a human hand with him…which he produced from a brown paper bag and, to Ms. Tchernine’s horror,  dropped on the luncheon table amongst the silverware. And so off I went, back to Nepal via Calcutta and another train to the border and another 100 mile hike across the rolling ten thousand foot hills of the middle Himalaya, to Pangboche, covering the 100 mile hike in three days.

We made a donation of ten thousand rupees to the temple-only about $160.00 in today’s rate of exchange but a large  amount for a community where the average income might be as little as $15 in a year- and the lamas then gave me a go ahead to take one finger and replace it with another…  from the human hand I had brought back from London. I did this, drilling and wiring the human finger in place of the one which I removed which (?) I believe was the index finger and my plan  then was to hold on to it until the end of  the year, when we were due to take a break, at Christmas, in Katmandu, and then find  someone there to get it to either the US or the UK.”

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where we will leave the story for a day or two.

When we return with Part 2, we will delve into the movie star smuggling the yeti bone back to Europe, what distinguished Dr. Hill had to say about the bone, what happened to the hand (and the the skull) after that, and how pilot and adventurer Mike Allsop ends up becoming the sort of hero of the story.

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3 comments

  1. Marilyn says:

    Great story so far – can’t wait for the rest of it.

  2. JBntheDesert says:

    This is a great story. Can’t wait for the 2nd part. when will it be posted so I can read who and how it got out of the country. And I think getting the monk drunk and passing out was probobly true because if something really is that sacred to them, I don’t see them letting even a finger go, but you never know. Hurry and post the rest of the story. Thanks.

  3. Randolph Leslie Smith says:

    I saw an old black & white sci-fi or documentary about a group of about 5-7 people went high into the Himalays to find the Yeti, one man survived as everyone became victim of the Yeti “telepathy” manipulating the members of the expedition to take actions that lead to their deaths one by one. One man, the expedition leader, was allowed to survive and was taken into their cave at the end, then when he came down off the mountain was asked what he found, and he replied “There is no such thing, they do not exist”
    I think the title was Yeti, or Yeti of the himalayas, or Himilaya Yeti?
    I want to find it so my wife can see it, can anyone help me locate it?

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