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1921, September 22: Colonel Howard-Bury's Yeti Sighting

The Legend:

In September 1921, while Colonel Howard-Bury was leading an expedition making a first attempt on the North face of Mount Everest, the party saw a number of large dark creatures at 17,000 feet moving along the snow of the Lhapta-la Pass. The Tibetan porters identified the creatures as Yeti. After a long climb to the spot the figures were sighted at, a large number of man-like footprints were discovered in the snow.

Howard-Bury's Account, as he told it

       In 1922, Colonel Charles Howard-Bury published Mount Everest: the reconnaissance, 1921, in which he detailed the trip to Everest that he and his party had made in the previous year. According to his book, on September 22, 1921, Howard-Bury and his party were camped 20,000 feet up, and set off at 4:00AM in the moonlight to make their way to a camp at Lakhpa La (the Lakhpa pass, not spelled "Lhapta" as above). Under the moonlight, the mountains "showed up nearly as brightly as in the daytime." They had a long, uneventful, march to the pass... but did see several animal tracks. Most they could identify -- those of hares and foxes -- but one was very unusual, and at first looked like a human foot. The local porters stated that the prints must have belonged to the "wild man of the snows," and Howard-Bury reported the name of this creature was 'Metohkangmi,' which was translated later as "the abominable snow man" [this is the origin for the popular nickname of the Yeti, by the way]. Col. Howard-Bury felt the tracks were more likely caused by a large "loping" grey wolf, which had formed double tracks in the soft snow that merely resembled those of a barefooted man. And that ends all talk of Yeti in his book.

        But if all Howard-Bury and his party saw were tracks, then where did the story of them seeing creatures come from?

The Abominable Snowman Comes to Life

        During his expedition, Howard-Bury sent notes on his progress back to contacts in India, so newspapers and the like would have an ongoing report of his progress. His notes for September 22 essentially mentioned the details about the tracks among the other details of his climb for the day. The newspapers ignored his climb for the day, leaning instead on his paragraph about the tracks: "We distinguised hare and fox tracks; but one mark, like that of a human foot, was most puzzling. The coolies assured me that it was the track of a wild, hairy man, and that these men were occasionally to be foundin the wildest and most inaccesible mountains." This paragraph was accompanied by speculation about a possibly actual human like race living in the mountains, which proved to be a bombshell of a story.

        After the initial newspaper reports of Howard-Bury's party seeing the "footprints", a longer newspaper article started to circulate in January 1922 which claimed that the Everest expeditition had discovered "a race of wild men living among the perpetual snows." A large part of this new article included a statement made to the press by William Hugh Knight, "one of the best known explorers of Tibet," to the effect of having seen one of the wild men from a fairly close distance sometime previously; he hadn't reported it before, but felt that due to the statement about manlike footprints that was made by Howard-Bury's party, he was now compelled to add his own evidence to the growing pile... which is unfortunate, as later investigation has shown that Knight never existed, and his story was likely created by a newspaperman.

        Along with this new statement by Knight, the extended article also presented one new detail of the Howard-Bury party's experience: it claimed that Howard-Bury's native porters stated that they had not only seen the footprints, but had also seen the creatures lurking nearby in the twilight waiting for a chance to attack the explorers. Col. Howard-Bury was undoubtedly aware of this sensational expansion on the story, as a quote from his book (published after) implies [note the differences to the quote above]:

"We were able to pick out tracks of hares and foxes, but one that at first looked like a human foot puzzled us considerably. Our coolies at once jumped to the conclusion that this must be 'The Wild Man of the Snows,' to which they gave the name of Metohkangmi, 'the abominable snow man' who interested the newspapers so much. On my return to civilised countries I read with interest delightful accounts of the ways and customs of this wild man whom we were supposed to have met."

Though Howard-Bury's book on the expedition in no way supported this new story about the porters' supposed sighting, newspapers continued to repeat the account for years afterwards... at least until 1949, when I have the last copy of this variation in a newspaper that I can find. In 1936 in his book Attack on Everest, Stanley Snaith took both the new version of Howard-Bury's experience, and the false story of William Hugh Knight's experience, and polished them for a whole new generation. In his text, Howard-Bury's track that was vaguely human-like became "a naked foot -- large, splayed, mark where the toes had gripped the ground, dent where the heel had rested." From Snaith's book on, there was no more doubt... Howard-Bury's strange track was from then on always described as definitely "man-like".

        Given all the pressure for Howard-Bury to have encountered the Abominable Snowman that everyone else had decided was there, it was probably inevitable that it would be claimed that he did... and I think I know where this new story started.

The Definitive Guide to Yeti (sort of...)

        The earliest, and most influential, source that I have found so far with the Howard-Bury sighting legend is Ivan T. Sanderson's 1961 book, Abominable Snowman: Legend Come to Life. Sanderson's version of the legend is that Howard-Bury and his party were on the North side of Everest near Lhapka-La (not "Lakhpa La") at 17,000 feet when they watched, through binoculars, "a number of dark forms moving about on a snowfield far above." The party made for the snowfield, which took a great deal of time; when they arrived, they found a large number of strange footprints in the snow. In Sanderson's book, Howard-Bury is quoted as stating the size of the prints were "three times those of normal humans." Sanderson then states that Howard-Bury attributed these huge footprints to "a very large, stray, grey wolf," after which his porters assured him the prints were made by the human-like wild men now labled as the 'Yeti'. All this variant information, Sanderson assures us, was submitted as a report to Kathmandu, and from there it went to newspapers by way of a newsman named Henry Newman, the first to coin the term in print of "abominable snowman." Sanderson, by the way, also claims that this event happened in 1920, not 1921.

        It needs to be noted that Sanderson's book on the abominable snowman of the Himalayas has been a starting point for over forty years worth of researchers investigating stories of the Yeti... and so his incorrect account of Howard-Bury's Yeti sighting has been copied worldwide. Yet it is an incorrect version, as neither Howard-Bury's book about the trip nor the newspaper reports from the time give the legend as Sanderson does. It could be supposed that Sanderson was working from the newspaper reports above that tell the tale of the porters' supposed sighting of Yeti, but for one problem... Sanderson lists Howard-Bury's book on the expedition as a source in his bibliography, so Sanderson must have known that Howard-Bury himself didn't support the porters' claims; and Sanderson's version of the legend doesn't resemble the newspaper accounts at all, which raises the further question of why his version of the legend is so very different from all stories that went before him.

        Unless an earlier source for the legend turns up, it must be assumed that Ivan T. Sanderson created the new legend about Howard-Bury seeing the dark forms at a distance; and as mentioned, unfortunately, many modern researchers started their studies with Sanderson's book about Yeti, and have thus been using a false story as their starting point since 1961!