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IN SEARCH OF THE YETI

"Boom boom." Not Basil Brush's catchphrase, but the call of a less unlikely sounding animal, the alma or almasty of the Caucasus mountains east of the Black Sea. It is a sound that a Franco-Russianexpedition heading for area last summer was hoping to record forposterity preferably along with some physical evidence and photographsof the elusive yeti-like creatures locals have long claimed stillinhabit the more out-of-the-way areas of an already remote region. The expedition was to be led by a remarkable 73-year-old Russian, Dr Zh. I Kofman (her name is usually given as Marie-Jeanne Koffman in western press reports) and a French documentary maker, Sylvain Pallix,who was to raise the cash for its high-tech equipment.

The ten scientists who made up the main body of the party (they were to be accompanied by a TV crew, as seems inevitable these days) were promised infra-red cameras, remote controlled helicopter camera platforms, motorised hang gliders and motorbikes - all of which were to be decked out with sponsors' stickers. The aim, according to Pallix, was to capture an alma and take a mould of its face, plusspecimens of its blood, hair and skin before fitting it with a radiotransmitter and turning it loose.

FOOTPRINTS

It was all a bit of a change for Kofman, a French-born cryptozoologist, who, after an adventurous early career in the Red Army, spent over 20 years travelling the mountains on horseback to interview an estimated 500 eye-witnesses, collect unidentified footprints and examine piles of suspected alma droppings. Her research enabled her to produce a detailed composite of the mystery figures,sometimes supposed to be relic Neanderthals, driven into the wilderness by their more successful Cro-Magnon cousins tens ofthousands of years ago.

The almas, according to Kofman's witnesses,walk upright, stand up to 6ft 6in tall, have reddish-brown fur and can move extremely rapidly - at up to 40mph, according to some reports. They are nomadic, mostly nocturnal and extremely shy. Alma babies,when they are seen, are "exactly like human babies, except they are smaller." They have pink skin and are not hairy. From the depth of the footprints she found, Kofman estimates an adult alma weighs up to 500lbs. Working from the droppings, she suggests it lives on a diet of berries, roots, eggs, frogs, lizards and small rodents. Kofman, who recently retired on a 100 pound a month pension and returned to France, summarised her find- ings in two articles published in the journal Archeologiain 1991 and it was these that brought her to Pallax's attention.

EXHIBITION

The documentary-maker was looking for a new project after finishing a film about Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and like many a journalist before him, he exploited the exceptional media interest in'Abominable Snowman' stories. Not only did he begin to raise the sponsorship to mount an expedition, but also found himself fielding dozens of press enquiries.

"The telephones and doorbell never stop," he told the International Herald Tribune. "I only have time to shave every other day."

Whether all the high-tech gear actually materialised in time for the three- month expedition to get underway is not clear from the available clippings, which date from the flurry of media interest last March; nor did we hear of the party setting out, or returning, asprojected, in September. But if nothing else, Pallix succeeded indirecting a spotlight on one of the most promising areas in Asia for yeti-hunting.

Most recent attention has been directed to China, where scientists are taking seriously a spate of similar wildman reports, and claim to have obtained hair samples that prove the existence of the creatures. News of last year's expedition was accompanied by a number of new sightings from the Caucasus and more southerly Pamar mountain chains. One, from Kofman's old Caucasus colleague Gregory Pantchenko, occurred in 1991.He watched an alma from a distance of only four metres for about 90 seconds one night, but either could not afford a camera or had one,but without a flash (reports differ).

Then, in September, an alma report came from a less expected source a second French expedition returning from northern Pakistan. Dr Anne Mallasseand and Mr. Jordi Magraner said they had heard unusual guttural sounds that could have been made by a primitive voicebox and trackeddown witnesses who claimed to have seen the animal that made them.

A somewhat confused report in the Daily Telegraph added: "Eye-witnesses shown pictures of a selection of human and human-like creatures consistently selected the image of a primitive man found preserved in ice some 20 years ago by a Belgian team." This seems to be a reference to the so-called 'Minnesota Iceman', a supposed frozen 'Bigfoot' that toured the carnivals of the US in the late 1960s and was taken up by the great Belgian cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans as a possibly genuine yeti-cadaver. If so, the Pakistani report becomes yet more intriguing, since most researchers have dismissed the Iceman as a latex model created for a circus sideshow.

Magraner, for one, says he believes a further expedition would be worthwhile. He told reporters he planned to return to the region in December to hunt the wild- man with infra-red cameras.

The Pamir wildman tradition is at least as well-attested as the Caucasus folklore collected by Dr Kaufman. The area has been the subject of several significant Russian expeditions, and last spring a Telegraph journalist crossing the area reported that some locals still tell stories about the 'yeti'.

One old shepherd said: "My grandfather used to see them in the high places before the 1917 revolution. People would see them as they walked across the passes on the haj. If you shouted at them, they would run off."

WILDMEN

Wildmen have also been reported from other parts of the old Soviet Union. We wrote of a Siberian wildman back in FT54 and, last April, TASS carried a story about a Karelian journalist, Vyacheslav Oparin,who wanted the Abominable Snowman renamed the 'forest monster' or'tree eater'; he had found bones, he claimed, along the Finnish borderthat showed the animal climbed trees and lived off bark. In Mongolia, according to a feature in Soviet Weekly (7 Mar 1991), two wildmen were actually shot by a patrol during border skirmishes between the Russians and Japanese in 1939.

One of the soldiers who saw the bodies, a man named Kolpashnikov, told the researcher Boris Porshnever the almas were shot by Mongoliantroops after they failed to respond to challenges. "As far as I couldjudge, [the corpses] were large anthropoid apes, their bodies coveredunevenly with red and brown hair," he added. "Their arms weredisproportionately long." However, a more recent Mongolian report, cited in the New Scientist (18 April 1991), turned out to be a hoax. The Communist youth newspaper had printed a photograph of a 'yeti' clasping paws withtwo uniformed policemen, while a plainclothes officer loitered in theback ground. The wildman was in custody at the Ulan Bator circus, it explained.

Sadly for the paper, which bad intended the story as an April Fools' Day joke, an acute shortage of newsprint meant it was not published until days later, convincing a number of readers that the tall tale as true.

A new photograph of 'Yeti' tracks, taken in the Himalayas by the Polish geophysicist Andrzei Zawada, was printed in the Polish magazine Kaledoscope in April 1992.

Climbing Lhotse, Everest's sister mountain, Zwanda and his team had camped at 6,500 feet, near a feature known as the Western Pothole,when word came from a lower camp that the expedition cameraman Jurek Surdul had photographed some unusual footprints he claimed were a yeti's.

Knowing that Surdul had an active interest in the Abominable Snowman,and "being an artist, had a lively imagination", Zawada attached little importance to the story. However, the expedition's Nepalese communications officer ran down the mountain to photograph the tracks,and when he too reported that there was something unusual about them Zawada radioed base camp's resident sceptic Dr Bogdan Jankowski and asked him to assess the evidence.

"I was convinced that in a few minutes Bogdan would get b{ack to me and announce that there had been a mistake, or that it was the imagination of our artist cameraman. [But] in an hour I heard his calm,indifferent voice on the radio, saying: 'I have no doubt that a weird animal of some sort passed by our camp and left strange traces."'Little can be made of the spectacularly indistinct tracks published in Kalezdoscope. Those closest to the camera are partially obscured byshadow, and appear to show little more than double line of large roundprints, each as long, but much wider, than a human footprint Furtherinto the background, the tracks diverge and then converge into an overlaping trail extending to the top left-hand corner of the frame.

The climber thought the tracks might be up to a week old, andcertainly the lack of detail in the prints suggests that they may havebeen melted by the sun and refrozen at least once, rendering them of little real use as evidence. Jankowski followed the tracks for 10Km;they measured 30cm(12") Iong 15cm (6") wide and were about a metre part.

The Poles hypothised that the yeti might have got into the habit ofvisiting the usually deserted camp during the winter in search of food. The Poles were not the only to find possible yeti evidence. On 10 Sept 1992, the Sun published a photograph showing a long singleline of footprints receding into the distance, with a scale provided by the usual ice axe. It had been taken by climber Julian Freeman-Atwood on the Alexandroff glacier, "which is 1000 miles from civillisation' and where "no human had set foot for 30 years." Working from the depth of the tracks, Freeman-Atwood guessed that whatever had left the prints weighed over 14 stones. One 14" print, hesaid, showed the outline of three large toes, and there was evidence that the creature had trailed an arm as it walked. The trail passed within feet of expedition tents and must have been made within hours of their discovery, "or they would have been obliterated by the bad weather."

Leading British climber Chris Bonnington, who mounted his own, some what farcical, yeti hunt in 1988, said the pictures came from a"reliable source". Freeman-Atwood added. "I have seen bear tracks on anumber of occasions - believe me, these were not made by a mountain bear."

Sources: Straits Times (Malaysia), 12 Mar 1992; Int Herald Tribune, 27Mar; [AP] US Lancaster Suinday News, 29 March; South China Moring Post, 30 March;[AFP-Jiji] Mainichi Daily News, Tokyo & BrisbaneCourier-Mail, 8 April; Rocky Mountain News, 10 May, Economist,27Jun;D.Telegraph,9Sept1992.2 [IMAGE] An Artists' impression of a wildman as seen in theHimalayas An Artists' impression of an Alma-type creatue seen byLt-Col V.S. Karapetian near Buinaksk, Dagesan, USSR in 1941