THE yeti was asleep. Silently, the climbers drew near. They crept to within 20 metres of the creature so they could film and photograph it.

For three long minutes they stood gazing at it. "Then, he woke and saw us. He looked at us like a small child who has just met someone for the first time. We stood eye to eye; I could have touched him. Then, he stood up and slowly walked away."

Imagine the first certain recorded meeting between man and a new species, the yeti, the so-called Abominable Snowman. Would it have been like that? A gentle, shy peaceable meeting of mutual incomprehension? Italian climber Reinhold Messner claims it was exactly like that. He says he has encountered the yeti; and not once, but four times, once close enough to touch it. More importantly, he claims to have photographs of the creature, including a mother yeti tending her child and a yeti skeleton.

It is shy, says Messner, it is almost 200cm tall, it comes out at night to feed on yaks and sheep and it communicates with its fellow creatures by whistling. The yeti, the supposed gentle giant of the Himalayas, lies at that tantalising edge where science meets wishful thinking. Most scientists dismiss it as a mythical creature, born of imagination, thin mountain air and Tibetan myth. But it would be wonderful if it were true. It is one of the creatures we most wish would exist. If Messner can produce his videos and photographs, it would be the first solid evidence of a creature that has been reported every decade or so for 150 years but which is still generally ascribed to legend.

It is an extraordinary claim. Yet Messner is an extraordinary man - in mountaineering circles, practically a legend. He is the foremost Himalayan climber of any generation. He was the first to climb Everest without oxygen - a feat previously thought impossible - and the first to do it alone. He is the only man to have climbed all 14 of the world's highest mountains.

Now 52, he has been to places few others have reached, in some of the most isolated valleys of the Himalayas. He had his first glimpse of a yeti, he says, in 1986 in Eastern Tibet, after tracking its 35cm-wide footprints. In June last year, he bought a skeleton from nomads on a plain in Ladakh, between India and Pakistan, then began searching the area in earnest.

"I searched for a week, 12 hours a day, in an area with no trees," he says. "I didn't expect to find one so soon. First, we saw a mother with her child. I could only take a photograph from the back. The child had bright red fur, the older animal's fur was black. She was over two metres tall, with dark hair, just like the legend. When they saw us they disappeared."

Two days later, Messner and his companions came across and filmed the sleeping yeti. Can this be possible? Certainly Tibetans and Sherpas of the regions around Mount Everest firmly believe in the existence of the yeti, but despite reports of tracks and occasional sightings, hard evidence for its existence is tantalisingly hard to come by.

The yeti has been rumored in the West since 1832, when the first Englishman to live in Nepal heard of a creature that moved erect and was covered in long, dark hair.

It has other names: Metohkangmi, mirka, sogpa and migo. The first means "filthy snowman" but a mis-translation by a journalist covering the 1921 expedition to Everest gave it the name that has stuck to the unfortunate creature since - though it is generally supposed to be gentle and shy rather than abominable. That year, 32 witnesses - six British climbers and 26 Sherpas - saw tracks ascribed to the yeti, although bears, goats or snow leopards were other explanations.

And while leading the expedition that conquered Everest in 1953, Sir John Hunt was told by the chief lama of the monastery where he was camping that a yeti had played in the snow in that very meadow the previous year. It had been scared away by the noise from conch-shell horns.

In 1960, Sir Edmund Hillary borrowed a "yeti scalp" from Sherpa villagers, but on analysis it turned out to be made from a Himalayan goat.

Yet Dr Karl Schuker, a British zoologist and expert on the yeti, said there could be some truth in Messner's claims.

"There have been yeti sightings over a 2000km range of the Himalayas from Pakistan through India to Tibet and even Burma," he says. `They divide into three types: the `original' yeti is red, there is a taller giant black species and there have been a few sightings of a smaller, red sub-species.

"Messner's sightings have thrown new light on those classifications. The red species may be simply a younger yeti, which acquires black hair as it grows." A major problem in believing the existence of the yeti is that no creature can exist on its own; to avoid extinction there must be a breeding colony of at least 50, if not hundreds.

Messner believes the yeti is far from being endangered: "I estimate that there are a thousand yetis in the Himalayas."

There are, of course, still major problems to accepting the creature exists. It would need a food source; Messner claims it is carnivorous, yet there are few reports of sheep or yaks going missing.

Chris Bonington, the British mountaineer who knows Messner and the region well, does not find that a problem.

"The valleys north-east of Everest are incredibly remote, almost impossible to travel in and thickly forested," he says. "The forests would provide food and shelter as well and would account for the relatively few sightings of the creature.

"On that interpretation, the yeti would venture above the snow line only to travel from valley to valley."

Messner's mountaineering exploits have earned him a castle in the Italian Alps, where he hopes to establish a yeti museum to display his finds.

But, as ever, there is a snag: he is not showing his evidence yet. We will have to wait two years or more, until his book is published, before we can see the evidence that Messner claims to possess.

It might be bad luck for the yeti if its existence is confirmed at last. There will undoubtedly be someone unable to resist the temptation to capture one. If it exists, it will certainly be adapted, like the yak, to the thin air and great altitude of the mountains. Yaks die if brought down to sea-level; their lungs can not cope with the thicker air.

The yeti, too, might pull a last trick on us to preserve its lonely secrets.


SIZE: Height 198cm, weight around 200kg - calculated from alleged sightings and depth of possible footprints.

FOOTPRINTS: Those found have been around 35cm wide and 50cm long.

HOME: 2000km-wide area of Himalayas centred around Everest. Most sightings are in regions from 2500m-3600m and often forested.

SPEED: Local talk suggests 60kmh in bursts - which is almost twice as fast as a human sprinter.

LIFESTYLE: Said to live to about 30, feed on yaks and sheep, communicate with a whistling sound and be nocturnal.

ORIGINS: Possible survivor of Neanderthal man, who may have retreated to Central Asia 38,000 years ago.

FUR: Usually black, red when younger and bright red as a child.

CHARACTER: Not aggressive as first thought; more likely to be a gentle, shy creature.

NAME: Abominable Snowman was a mis-translation of the local word Metohkangmi, which means means "filthy snowman".

(C) 1997 Herald and Weekly Times Limited.

Credit: Paul Cropper

Comment: We can only hope that Messner's claims are genuine, because if they are he may have proof for the existence of a true bone fide cryptid. It would be the first "true" cryptid to be scientifically accepted since Heuvelmans coined the word "cryptozoology" back in the 50's. The alleged yeti skeleton is the most important of Messner's finds, and I hope very much he will let a qualified physical anthropologist examine it.