Saturday, August 27, 2011

Annapurna Sanctuary: Don Whillans and the Yeti

About one and a half hours walk from the south base camp of Annapurna I, lies the base camp of Machapuchare, the fish tail mountain. Nowadays, more than twenty five thousand trekkers make their way every year to the Base Camp popularly known as "ABC".   In a hurry to reach their final destination many of them walk from Deorali in the valley to ABC in one day.  I have watched many of them speeding past the avalanche prone Bagar, climbing up to Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC) for a quick cup of tea and then onto ABC by nightfall. On every occasion that I have been to ABC, I have stayed the night at the Machapuchare Base Camp and each and every time I have ruminated over the happenings there one March evening in the year 1970. 

Around that time most of the great walls of the Himalaya were unclimbed. The British under the leadership of Chris Bonington mounted an expedition to attempt the enormous south face of Annapurna I. Bonington had with him a crack team of British climbers including Don Whillans, his comrade-in-arms from the Eigerwand days. Whillans had been sent up ahead along with Mike Thompson to reconnoitre the face as Bonnington was anxious to know if "it would go", a mountaineering phrase meaning “it could be climbed".

In 1970 there were no lodges at MBC or ABC and Whillans and his team had pitched a camp at MBC for the night.   Around five o clock in the evening as Whillans was about to pitch his tent one of his Sherpas Pemba Tharkey said in a matter of fact way, “Yeti coming".  Whillans turned around but was able to see only a shadow disappearing behind a ridge. 

The next day Mike Thompson and Whillans on a reconnaissance trip spotted a set of tracks around the same spot where Whillans had seen the "creature" drop down behind the ridge. Thompson dismissed the tracks saying “It’s a bear” but Whillans was not so sure. 

Thompson left MBC that evening to meet the main party further down the valley but Whillans remained up at MBC with his sherpas.  It was one of those bright moonlit nights in the Himalaya when it is possible to read a book outside. Whillans comments that “it was fantastically cold" even in two sleeping bags. Across the valley he could clearly see the snow slope and the ridge where the creature had been spotted the previous evening.  Despite the cold, Whillans kept putting his head outside the tent right through the evening to scan the hillside from time to time. One can well imagine the excitement and tension on that cold winter's night below the shadow of unclimbed Machapuchare lit up in the moonlight.  Suddenly, Whillans could clearly see a powerful animal which he described as an ape or ape like creature “bounding along on all fours”. From the shadowy portion of the hillside it came out into the moonlight “bounding very quickly across the snow, heading for the shelter of the cliffs.”

As Whillans watched this incredible sight, the creature disappeared into the shadows and was gone.  Whillans never saw it again.

The next morning Whillans walked up the hillside where he saw the tracks in the snow. Interestingly the two sherpas who were with him just ignored the tracks and pretended that they did not exist!

Whillans was convinced that he had seen the Yeti but the mystery still remained unresolved. 

On one occasion in autumn, on a  similar moonlit night, I stood outside a lodge at MBC and scanned the  opposite hillside for quite some time.   I could imagine Whillan's tent in the snow very close to where the lodges are situated. It was still and silent.  Nothing stirred or moved. With the cold getting to me I went inside to my warm sleeping bag. The Annapurna Sanctuary held on to it's secrets.  

Reference Reading:
  • Annapurna South Face by Chris Bonington
  • High in the Cold Thin Air by Ed Hillary and Desmond Doig
  • My  Quest for the Yeti by Reinhold Messner 

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