Two Yetis exist. Each has a different identity. The maker of the footprints is a bear; that identity is certain. Beyond the footprint maker, though, is a second Yeti, one asking existential questions about Homo sapiens’ relationship with the wild, and those questions each person needs to answer individually. To help with that, in the Yeti a symbol is given with which to discover one’s own footprints – this is far from an abominable search.

The footprint-making Yeti’s spoor I have tracked across mountains, seen its nests in the high trees, and watched it feed. Tranquilizing it, I replicated the footprints in plaster to match the earlier mysteries found by others in the snow.

As hunger calls (or urge to reproduce) from one side of a mountain this bear, Ursus thibetanus, goes over the mountain. Its prints then emboss in glaciers. That explanation, simple as it is, fits all the facts.

Yet the enigma continues, for the Yeti has a second identity that is more than a bear. This is a mascot that walks the world only loosely tied to the Himalaya. What is extraordinary about this reality is that it lives not in the snows but in human desire. This is not a physical animal. People believe in this Yeti as an embodiment of the human connection to the wild. As an icon represents faith and as an idol symbolizes an idea, so is this second Yeti both an icon and an idol.

What is extraordinary about the Yeti that exists as a bear is that from that enigma whose trail cannot be followed, where the footprints themselves melt the next day, from this resulted real national parks. Moreover, these parks brought a new way to manage the wild by people caring for the wild. The parks that were started by this Yeti are: the Makalu–Barun National Park in Nepal and Qomolangma (Mount Everest) National Nature Preserve in China. The model started there was adapted across the Himalaya in Nepal, China, India, Bhutan, Myanmar, and other places. What resulted across the Himalayan span was protection for the bear and other species.

But beyond, these homes have become havens for the human desire to connect with a primordial wild, the second Yeti. These collected strings of national parks have become an expansive diverse place where people can live in some balance with the wild.

~~~

But how to explain the footprints that launched the search? A half century of continued findings confirms the bear explanation.

After my first book explaining the tree bear being the Yeti, the explanation was repeated around the world. A range of discussants concur that a bear makes these footprints. The mountaineer Reinhold Messner came to this conclusion. So did Disney World, of all places, and the consensus grows. The bear explanation, as noted before, is not original to me; it was first advanced by Smythe in 1937 then reaffirmed by Charles Evans in 1955. While agreement coalesces on the bear, until my explanation no point-by-point elucidation explained the specific Shipton print that launched Yeti interest worldwide.

Alleged Yeti footprint found by Michael Ward and photographed by Eric Shipton taken at Menlung Glacier on the 1951 Everest Expedition with Edmund Hillary in Nepal | Wikimedia Commons
Alleged Yeti footprint found by Michael Ward and photographed by Eric Shipton taken at Menlung Glacier on the 1951 Everest Expedition with Edmund Hillary in Nepal | Wikimedia Commons

Ursus thibetanus, the Asiatic black bear, made that elongated elongated 1951 footprint. When its front paw came down, making those dramatic toes in the snow, it did not press so firmly into the crust to show the bear’s nails on the front paw. Then the hind paw fell onto the back half of the print, elongating to the twelve-inch length and from the hind paw nail marks are evident – and with this feature the story gets more interesting.

The four-inch shorter 1972 prints of Cronin and McNeely, Tombazi three decades earlier, and our discovery that day on the ridge were all made where the hind paw came down with less of an overprint. We have then a “smaller Yeti”.

A fact overlooked by others that proves the Yeti to be a product of misidentification is that no credible Yeti prints have ever been photographed of a Yeti going downhill.

That going uphill is needed to make Yeti footprints is evidence that the mountain makes the Yeti, not the animal. Steep hills make big Yetis, and almost flat slopes make small Yetis.

The hominoid-like thumbs evident on some footprints are created by young bears who have dropped inner digits pressed down on the paw (yearlings and twolings have agile tendons and joints) because they spend much of their time in the trees (becoming therefore rukh balu, tree bears) seeking food. And these dropped inner digits can look remarkably like a thumb when imprinted in snow.

But let us look specifically at that iconic 1951 Shipton and Ward image, showing how Ursus thibetanus is the maker of this mystery that started it all:

Nail marks of the hind paw are revealed in the center of the overlay print. With most observers’ attentions on toe pads at the top of the print the determinative feature of the print’s maker are two nail marks in its center (one on the right side and the other on the left).

The mind-captivating human-like toes on the top that do not reveal nails are created because the front of the bear is less heavy, causing weight not to push the front paw as deeply into the snow as the rear. (Cronin and McNeely’s snow was soft, and so the nail marks did not show.)

The three tipped-to-one-side toes at the top of the print align almost identically with the digits of an Ursus thibetanus front paw while the “thumb” on the left fits with a tree bear’s splayed inner digit. (Bears typically walk bow-legged.)

And, on that Shipton print, when the rear paw came down partway down the print, the nail marks are in the center of the print, an unexpected place for nails if the print was made by one foot but not if it is a second foot. That the rear paws penetrated more deeply is because the rear of the bear is heavier than the front.

Because Shipton mentions “for there were several”, also suggests bear. For it is likely these prints are from one or two cubs accompanying the mother – evidence shown earlier in the photograph of Michael Ward standing beside their mysterious Yeti trail. The explanation of known animal for mysterious Yeti may also include the snow leopard’s eerie yowl which from time to time reverberates off high Himalayan walls, an animal very rare in Sherpa country in the middle of the last century where the Yeti legend grew. But with recent conservation, its numbers increase so the snow leopard is now known to have a range of vocalizations.

I had come to this Yeti/ bear conclusion after sixty years of research (1956–2016). The explanation fits all the facts. Then something remarkable happened as this book was going to the press. I had contacted the Royal Geographical Society for permission for Oxford University Press to publish the iconic Shipton print I had carefully studied for so many years.

The society came back asking, “Which Shipton Yeti photograph do you want?” They sent two images. In my sixty years I had never seen their second one.

This new print, taken a bit further away, has three new details. First, are two nail marks on at the top of the lower partial footprint; nail marks exactly of the expected dimension between the second and third digits for Ursus arctos thibetanus. Second, between the familiar print and now the partial print seen below are three scratch marks; I suggest these marks were made by the bear’s front foot just before it put that foot down. They are possibly rear foot prints, but what is certain is that they are bear nail marks. A third point is of interest; the icy crust was indeed very thin, explaining why the bear’s feet did not sink in, because at the top of this new print the rock beneath is evident.

Daniel C Taylor| Oxford University Press via YouTube
Daniel C Taylor| Oxford University Press via YouTube

So again I argue, the Yeti is a bear. This new print provides added proof. Nonetheless, across now three decades since first making the identification, in letters I receive, questions after lectures, and call-ins during radio shows, the Yeti’s bear identity is not what people focus on.

The Yeti lives in the larger ideology. It is a mascot suit, and inside this suit is a human hunger. A second Yeti exists: the hope that there might be a connection today to eons gone by.

Indeed, that desire is as accurate an answer as that for the first Yeti. Wildness is disappearing. It does not matter that the Yeti is a bear that clambers out of jungles and crosses high passes. To people who hunger for the wild, what matters is to have alive a mystery from the frontier of the planet – reminding us that, in the Anthropocene, wildness is still possible. What helps in this new age of human making is a hope that guides our way as we apprehend the frighteningly changed wild that is coming.

Excerpted with permission from Yeti: The Ecology of a Mystery, Daniel C Taylor, Oxford University Press.