The Creature from the Avalanche
| When, in
early March of this year, Tony Wooldridge first saw fresh animal tracks
on the slopes of the snow on either side of him, the thought of a yeti did
briefly cross his mind, but only as a funny idea. He was, of course, in
the same general part of the western Himalayas where, in 1937, H W Tilman
followed a set of large ape-like footprints for more than a mile, and where,
in 1976, Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker emerged from their tent on a morning
after a night disturbed by unidentifiable low growls to discover that, whatever
the thing was that had kept them awake, it had apparently and this
may have been what the growling was about scoffed 36 Mars bars complete
with wrappers before wandering off ahead of a wake of tracks very much like
the ones Tilman had found.
Other mountaineers had also had food go missing in this neighborhood, and Wooldridge, who was the first person to have passed through this valley since the autumn snows, was vaguely aware of such stories. Nevertheless, if there is anything that always happens to someone else, it is an encounter with a legendary animal, and after a quick smile at the yeti idea, Wooldridge forgot it. There are lots of interesting sights to be seen in these mountains, and the last thing you need to do up here, especially if you are alone, is to fantasize.
Unlike most Westerners who come to the Himalayas, Wooldridge was not a trekker, a tourist or a climber. He was there as a charity fund-raiser. In ordinary life he is a physicist who does research and development for the CEGB in Manchester, [UK] and he has been on walking and climbing trips to the Alps and the Andes, but on this occasion he was on a 200-mile sponsored solo run for an organization called Traidcraft, which promotes trade, intermediate technology and fair pay and conditions in Third World countries, including India. He was staying mainly in the 1,800m. high town of Joshimath, north-east of Delhi and not far from the Tibetan and Nepalese borders, and was ranging out from there in different directions through the high valleys, over a day or two days or three days. Each day he would set himself a goal and try to run to it in time to run back either to Joshimath or to another, outlying base before nightfall.
It was eleven o'clock on the morning of the fifth day out when he saw the footprints. He had run from Govind Ghat, a village north of Joshimath, to a couple of empty bungalows known as Gangaria and was now trying to reach the closed end of the highest valley he'd gone through so far, about 4,000 metres.
At 3,300 metres he saw the footprints and was struck by their clarity, smiled at the idea of a yeti and then wondered what really might have left them. "I thought it was probably some sort of large langur monkey, because there were a lot of them about, lower down. Between Govind Ghat and Gangaria there were a lot of colonies of them. And I do remember reassuring myself that it didn't look like a big cat.., snow leopards are the only thing I had been told were in the area."
But, of course, a person could spend a good part of his life actively searching for and never even glimpsing a snow leopard. Peter Matthiesson wrote a very good book, Snow Leopard, about his and George Schaller's Himalayan snow leopard expedition, during which, almost incidentally, they failed to get a single reliable sighting. To be afraid of an attack by a snow leopard even granting that you could believe that such an animal would ever consider tangling with a human would be impossible, if only because anybody who was ever killed by one would almost certainly go straight to Paradise.
A bear? "I was under the impression that there weren't any bears around there. Anyway there weren't any claws in the prints." He had also seen a wildlife notice earlier (the whole region is a national park), and it hadn't mentioned bears. In fact, there probably are bears in the area Asian black bears are reckoned to range throughout the Himalayas, and brown bears are also occasionally reported but the footprints did not look like a bear's, and that was that. They did not have paw-like symmetry. He could tell that much, even though he did not stand around for a long time gazing at them. He considered a few more possibilities, but nothing seemed quite right. From a medium distance, he took a couple of pictures.
"I had a long way to go to get up there and to get back down that day. So I didn't hang about too long ... My main concern was with the instability of the snow, because it was so warm that day, and the surface was rapidly getting softer. I realized that the longer I left it, the harder work it was going to be."
The next thing that happened, as he half ran, half-plodded onwards through the wet snow, was that a bird of prey with a six-foot wingspan came in very low and took a particular interest in him. Wooldridge is not a naturalist and had no idea what kind of bird it was although, having looked at a field guide since then, he thinks it might have been a griffon vulture but what had begun as a fascinating close look at a large specimen of mountain avifauna gradually changed character as the bird continued to spiral down at him. "I thought, does it think I'm injured or something? I was obviously going very slowly over the open slopes... and although I had an ice axe with me, I just couldn't afford to take the risk that it might harm me in some way. So finally I shouted at it, and fortunately it disappeared off to the other side of the hillside."
If it seems odd that anyone, naturalist or not, could actually expect that a vulture would harm a human we are big creatures, and it takes an animal the size of a tiger to prey on us remember that Wooldridge had also had a long thought about snow leopards, even though he knew how rare they were and then remember that he was all alone up here. Anything that happened to prevent him from returning on time to base a broken bone, for example could at the very least, occasion an expensive search party, and that, at the very least, could prevent the whole reason for his Himalayan run. As for the most that could happen, that was just about anything that could be imagined. This was not unreasonable fear. It was an extremely mind-concentrating sort of responsibility.
Then, a little farther on it was about noon by now he heard a crash and what he describes as a long rumbling. "My first reactions was that's an awful avalanche somewhere. And then I thought, no it can't be because nowhere around could I see any sign of any snow movement. Maybe I was trying to rationalize it to myself. I don't know. I put it down to soldiers in the valley dynamiting for roads." He pressed on up the slope, which seemed suddenly to get much steeper. It was also as the sun was shining on it, getting warmer and making Wooldridge very nervous. And then, sure enough, stretching across his path was the sweep of debris of a freshly fallen avalanche. "I think now, with hindsight, that this was the noise I heard. I went across the next 50 yards or so to get to another spot where the slope evened out so I could get a good view of it and try to work out where it started, what had started it and what the risks were of something else happening."
"The thing that really caught my eye was this great big smooth slide in the snow as if some pretty heavy rock had slid down it." But there was no rock. Where the rock should have been or where signs that the dock had bounced away should have been, there was nothing except "tracks leading away right from the base of the snow slide across the slope behind a little shrub and beyond it. And right behind the shrub was a shape that couldn't have been a rock."
In an unpublished written account of the incident, Wooldridge describes this shape as "a dark, hairy creature perhaps up to two meters in height, standing erect on two legs. It had a squarish head and long powerfully built torso." In talking about it, he also mentions knee-length arms with brown hair on them.
Edward W. Cronin, in his book The Arun: A natural history of the world's deepest valley, complies all of the remarkably consistent recent eyewitness accounts of the yeti into this description: "Its body is stocky, apelike in shape with a distinctly human quality to it, in contrast to that of a bear. It stands five and a half to six feet talk and is covered with short coarse hair, reddish-brown to black in color sometimes with white patches on the chest. The hair is longest on the shoulders. The face is hairless and rather flat. The jaw is robust, the teeth are quite large, though fangs are not present and the mouth is wide. The shape of the head is conical with a pointed crown. The arms are long, reaching almost to the knees. The shoulders are heavy and hunched. There is no tail."
Except for the shape of the head (and it may only have looked flat because it was lowered as the animal peered down the slope), Wooldridge's description is a good match for Cronin's composite, something that Wooldridge was unaware of before he took off for a run through the Himalayas. He had never thought much about yetis one-way or the other and if pressed would probably have opted for skepticism.
"I remember how quickly I had to revise' my own beliefs. I had to go from the point where I thought, well, a lot of people have been saying there are these strange footprints and there's got to be some explanation for them the level at which I knew about the things to thinking, well, the yeti must exist, because that creature can't be anything else that I know of? It's not a human being; and it's not like any other animal that I've ever heard of. What else can it be? It's a tremendous feeling that having all your doubts and your opinions so shaken into line."
Unlike many people who see or claim to see unrecorded-by-science creatures even unlike many people who have adventured to wherever they are for the specific purpose of finding and photographing them Wooldridge happened to have both a camera with him and the presence of mind to raise it and snap the shutter. The focus was right and the lens cap was off. (In fact, it was a camera with an automatic focus and a lens-cap shutter-lock, something that ought to be attached by handcuff to every member of the International Society of Cryptozoology.) The only problem was, the yeti was standing about 150 metres away, on the other side of an nonnegotiable avalanche slide, and one thing that Wooldridge didn't have with him was a telephoto lens. He had 35mm. The sun was behind the animal. When the film was eventually developed, the image was a silhouette about two millimeters high.
"I took a couple of quick photographs, because I was certain that whatever it was wasn't going to hang around for very long. But it was still there. So I moved Up and got as close as I safely could on the snow. I picked out a spot where some rocks were sticking out, and I was on reasonably solid ground. And I started taking some more photographs.
"And the longer I was there, the more I felt convinced that the animal was in no hurry at all to move off. It was remarkably stationary. It showed virtually no sign of movement. So I studied it as far as I could and took the best photographs I could, mostly from this rocky area. Then I went back down again to where I had taken the first few and took some more from there." He took a roll of color film and loaded another. The animal remained still.
"The only sign of movement I saw was I saw the bush vibrate on one occasion, and when I moved lower down I got the impression, no more than that, that it changed its posture and was looking around the other side of the shrub. And you get that impression, too, from the negatives..." Wooldridge's eyes, there being two of them, with fairly high resolution, were doing better than the camera. "I could get the three, dimensional effect." He could see the brown arms clearly, "and what was most clear, I think, were the features of the head the fact that it was so square for one thing. One other thing that still puzzles me id why it didn't seem to be looking directly at me. It was looking down slope. I was convinced the more I looked at it that it thought its best chance well, I don't know how it thought it could have concealed by instinct maybe, in order to conceal itself it freezes."
On the other hand, maybe a snow-wise animal that has just been nearly killed in an avalanche knows how to keep another pile of snow from crashing down on it. Maybe it knows to go to the nearest bush, hang on and stay still until the snow refreezes. Maybe it was wishing that the human over there wouldn't keep jumping around taking picture. Or may not. All speculations welcome.
About 45 minutes passed, the sky began to darken and it started to snow. Wooldridge admits that all things being equal, he might have considered trying the rather dangerous crossing of the avalanche debris and continuing for a little while with his run, he hadn't reached the day's goal. Hemkund, at the valley's cul-de-sac but that would have meant recrossing the debris later and the snow would have been even more unstable and it also would have meant and this was the factor that went furthest towards making all things unequal trotting nonchalantly past a yeti, an animal that in some of the stories can fell a yak with a single blow. All in all, it seemed a good time to call it a day.
On the way down, he saw more tracks on the slopes below but they were distant and inaccessible and the light was getting worse. He took 5 or 6 photos that, when eventually developed, came out black. As he passed the footprints he'd seen originally, he took some close-ups but three hours had passed and the prints were no longer distinct. After administering the monster-hunter's time worn self kick, he descended towards Gangaria, the village of the Pulna and finally Joshimath.
At first he thought he would "spill the beans down at Pulna and tell everybody what he'd seen and then come back up the next day maybe and see what evidence there was. But He decided against that, partly because He was concerned about the animal. If the locals and especially the soldiers down at Joshimath decided to set off looking for it, well you never know what they could have done. And secondly, the weather was turning bad. So he knew that by the next day the footprints would have been snowed over and provided the animal hadn't been injured, it would have got well away over the col. So there wouldn't have actually been anything to see. He was pretty convinced of that.
"So I decided to keep the whole thing to myself, to go on and finish the run as if nothing had happened. It was very, very difficult for me, because I was bursting to tell." But he kept his secret as he ran through the mountains for several more days, covered his 200 miles and raised £2,300 for Traidcraft, £1,300 over his goal.
In fact, he more or less kept the secret for four more months. Of course, he had the film developed and took the pictures around to people who had seen or failed to see evidence of yetis respectively, for example, John Hunt and Chris Bonington. He talked to Dr. Myra Shackley, archaeologist and long-time yeti enthusiast, and to Dr Brian Bertram, curator of mammals at London Zoo. He talked to other zoologists, anthropologists and mountaineers all of whom he says, seemed fascinated but he didn't go public, as it were, until he appeared with Chris Bonington, on BBC1's Wild Britain in July. Four months seemed plenty of time for the yeti to have escaped its avalanche and to have returned to that untraceable place where all the yetis live.
But mightn't the news now still set off an expedition? "I am very concerned that people should think carefully about whether it's really necessary. One of the natural reactions, I think, among scientists, is to say, to be positive about identifying what it is and in order to find out what we need to do to protect it, we've got to capture one.
"But it seems to me that in this technological age we've got such a lot of ways of studying with remote cameras and image intensifiers at night that sort of thing I'm not at all sure that it is necessary to capture an animal, particularly one like this, which seems to have been coexisting with man for thousands of years. We don't know how many there are... They certainly can't exist in large numbers, and maybe just taking one out of the population might be enough to destabilize it." He says that he is reporting his experience now (and that he had always intended to report it at some point), so that people take stories of footprints and of other sightings more seriously, and so that the Indian government, perhaps with the help of the World Wildlife Fund, might consider this enough evidence to give the animal protection. In his written account, he ends with a quote from Tilman's book, Mount Everest, 1938: "When the dust of conflict had settled, the 'Abominable Snowman' survived to pursue his evasive, mysterious, terrifying existence, as unruffled as the snow he treads, as unmoved as the mountains in which he dwells, uncaught, unspecified, but not without honor."
© From BBC Wildlife Magazine, September 1986 Issue
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