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Read Reinhold Messner's “Encounter With a Yeti” in the May/June 2000 ADVENTURE.

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q and a
Reinhold Messner
Climbing Legend, Yeti Hunter
Age 55
Home South Tyrol, Italy
Day Job Member, European Parliament
Number of Toes Three*
    "It goes on two legs when it meets people. It’s telling you, Go away or you are a dead man."

Reinhold Messner has made a life of redefining the possible. In 1978 he bent the accepted boundaries of the human body, summiting Everest without supplemental oxygen—arguably the greatest alpine feat of all time. He went on to bag all 14 of Earth's 8,000-meter (26,250-foot) peaks—another record. Now he's made a Messner of the yeti, yanking the improbable abominable snowman into the realm of fact.

"These highest points were losing their mystery," Messner lamented in 1986. By the end of that year he had all the mystery he could handle: A close encounter with a yeti in the Himalaya sparked a 12-year search resulting in his new book, My Quest for the Yeti. In the current ADVENTURE Messner remembers that first meeting. Here he reveals the nature of the beast, why Hitler yearned for yetis, and much more.

Note: To listen to the audio clips, you'll need RealPlayer.

  What did you think of the yeti legend before you encountered one?

Before, I thought it was a fairy tale. I didn’t believe in a real creature behind the yeti. I had seen pictures of the footprints from the '50s, '60s, '70s, but I never cared about them. I said, “Okay, let them say what they say. It’s all bull.”

  What happened when you first encountered a yeti?

When I saw a yeti for myself that night [in 1986], I was only looking and thinking, What’s that? But I couldn’t see colors or faces. I could only see a shadow because it was very late.

When I approached the place where the yeti stood before it ran away, I found a footprint, exactly like the footprints they took photographs of in the '50s. And I said to myself, “Strange.” They were footprints like those of a two-leg-going animal.

Audio:  "I found these footprints—always huge footprints"

Much later I find out that a Tibetan bear [a rare species of brown bear, according to Messner], in difficult ground—especially snow—puts the back foot in the footprint of the forefoot, so that two footprints appear as one. And the footprints look like those of a two-leg goer.

  So what exactly is a yeti?

The yeti is the sum of many, many, many tellings of a legend. The local people have a lot of fantasy creatures because they live without television and without Hollywood, so they have to create their own figures or myths. But most of these figures, like the yeti, are built on real, existing beings out of nature.

The local people tell each other the story. And from time to time somebody brings along a new part because they’ve been in touch, in the night, with one of these creatures. So the yeti is the sum of this fantasy figure and the zoological reality behind it—a Tibetan bear. The legend and this Tibetan bear match.

Audio:  "The legend and the Tibetan bear are matching"

  How do the legends and this bear match?

The legends all describe the yeti as two and a half meters [eight feet] high. If it’s big, they say it is black. If it’s very small, they say it’s reddish, because the small Tibetan bears are reddish.

Everything matches perfectly. They all say, for example, when the yeti is whistling, run away because it’s becoming dangerous. It goes on two legs when it meets people, to show that he is big and strong and dangerous. It’s telling you, Go away or you are a dead man.

Audio:  "There is one trick..."

  Is it in fact “big and strong and dangerous”?

It is able to kill a yak with one fist. No other animal can do this in the Himalaya—you know, a yak is big like a buffalo. I found a dead yak killed with one hand by a yeti—or a Tibetan bear.

Audio:  "It is able to kill a yak with one fist"

  You saw a yak killed with one blow?

I did not see how he killed him, but I saw first the footprints of the yak and the following footprints of a huge chemo—in some areas they call the yeti chemo.

Afterward we found the dead animal. He killed the yak and he put it underground, to store the meat like a bear would.

  Why haven’t locals recognized the bear as the true yeti?

  Audio:  "It's coming only in the night"

It is a night animal, so they see only a huge shadow, a dangerous animal. And they know they have no chance in the night to compete, so they don’t go out. They see sometimes a dead yak, sometimes in the morning a goat is missing in their herd.

In their stomachs, a few of them know this is a bear, but not all of them. They call it a bear with human abilities

Audio:  "They call it a bear with human abilities"

  What is the Nazis' connection with the yeti?

One Nazi man, an SS man, was sent by Hitler and Himmler to the Himalaya to search for the yeti. The Germans were hoping that the yeti could be the basis [or missing link] of the Aryan race. Himmler was sick about this stuff.

The man's name was Professor [Ernst] Schaefer. He died a few years ago. I had contact with him, and I had a few fights with him. He tried to hide his identity, because he was in prison in Nuremberg for three years. He was a great scientist, but he was really also involved in this crazy Nazi philosophy.

Audio:  "Hitler—and especially Himmler—was sick about this!"

  Did this Nazi believe the yeti was a bear?

Schaefer found out that behind the yeti probably is a Tibetan bear, and he brought two to Salzburg. He told me before he died, “I was quite sure that the Tibetan bear is the yeti, but if I had said this to the Nazis, they would have killed me.”

  Did locals ever point out a bear and call it a yeti?

In the eastern part of Tibet they said to me, “This yeti is stealing women, he’s killing yaks, and sometimes in the wintertime he comes and steals a goat. And he is a little bit like we are, and when he is whistling we have to run away”—exactly the stories the Sherpas tell about the yeti.

Finally they brought me to a place. They said, “There is one! You see it?” And it was a Tibetan bear. And they said, “This is exactly what is stealing the women and killing the yaks.”

  What was the closest you ever got to a "yeti"?

I went to Pakistan, and I reached a small village high up in the mountains. Again they told me that 100 or 200 years ago there was a yeti running around, and he stole this woman, and this woman was living two years with the yeti. And I said, “Don’t tell me bull. This is crazy!”

I said, “This animal still exists?” They said yes, there are maybe three or four still. I said, “Where?” And they said, “Nobody can go there. It is too dangerous and too difficult.”

And I said, “I can go everywhere. I’ll pay you, you show me the place. We will see if you are lying.” They brought me there—and what did I find? A Tibetan bear.

  Were the locals afraid to approach it?

They were afraid to go. The last [bear sighting] was the best one. He was young, maybe six, seven years. And he was leaping [then] he lay down and began to go to sleep.

We reached a place maybe a hundred meters [about a hundred yards] from this sleeping animal, and the local man said to me, “No more. It is too dangerous.” And I said, “We have to go near because I’d like to finally see the face of my friend, whom I’ve been following for 12 years.” He said, “No!” But he went maybe 20 meters [about 20 yards] more.

Then he was sweating, he was shivering. And I said, “I’ll go a little bit more.” He held my hand, didn’t let me go. I got free and he stayed back.

I approached a distance of 20 meters [about 20 yards] from the bear. It was quite dangerous, because when he woke up, he became very, very angry. But I sprung up and I did a huge yell and he ran away.

Audio:  "When he woke up he became very, very angry"

  What was the biggest obstacle to your search?

The Chinese. They don’t let you go in these areas. I never even spoke to them about the yeti there, but it was still very difficult to get a permit. When I did my first traverse of eastern Tibet on foot, I did it without a permit. I was very lucky I did not end up in a jail.

Audio:  "I was very lucky I didn't end up in a jail"

  How do you like being in politics?

I prefer not being in politics because I would prefer much more to produce—let’s say, art. All my work begins with an idea in my head, and afterward I like to put this idea into reality. But now I am in a trap until my term in the European Parliament ends. I am free in April 2004.

  What is the greatest adventure?

The Shackleton Endurance expedition is the best adventure of the last century—especially how he [Ernest Shackleton] was able to save all his people. It was technically a failure.

Shackleton always failed. But how he failed! Now that I’m approaching 56, I am beginning to understand that failing is more important in life than having success. Sometimes you need success, but it’s important to have a chance to fail like Shackleton failed. It’s beautiful how he failed.

  Got any bigfoot theories?

Believe me, bigfoot is in reality the grizzly. Somebody will prove it like I proved the yeti story. It’s very logical, the whole thing.

—Ted Chamberlain

*Other seven toes lost to frostbite while descending Nanga Parbat after an avalanche.

Art courtesy of Reinhold Messner; portrait of Messner by Gerhard Heidorn


May/June 2000:  Previews | Q&A | Photos | Ask the Expert | Wild Animal Forum | 6 Hikes
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