The yeti, mythic kin to bigfoot, has puzzled the west since 1832 when a British naturalist reported tales of a "hairy ape-like creature" loping nonchalantly across the Himalayan snowfields. For decades circumstantial evidence of such an animal — 16-inch-wide footprints, monstrous scat, the neatly skinned remains of snacked-upon yaks — has teased travelers to the region. Sir Edmund Hillary claimed to have seen footprints; Sherpa Tenzing Norgay insisted he'd spotted several of the beasts themselves. Still, no one could definitively prove the yeti's existence.
Then last month the famed Tirolean alpinist Reinhold Messner announced that, at long last, he had solved the riddle. Messner, who in 1978 accomplished what is still considered the greatest feat in mountaineering — the first solo ascent of Everest without oxygen — is a legend in Europe, a wealthy 53-year-old adventurer who resides in a 12th-century castle nestled in the Italian Alps. Messner first saw the yeti in 1986, has enjoyed several sightings since, and says he has evidence that will prove the yeti to be a rare nocturnal Tibetan bear known to occasionally walk erect. More precisely, Messner describes the yeti as a cryptozoological dichotomy, the sum of the living, breathing Tibetan bear and the centuries-old legend. About 1,000 of them are thought to remain, haunting the high Himalayas by night, shadowing the movements of trekkers, sleeping the day away in caves. Messner has published his controversial findings in a new book, Yeti, and he was in Munich defending himself when we found him.
Q. Royal Air Nepal once used a yeti as its symbol. Does your yeti look like that one?
A. No. The living yeti is clearly a bear. There's no doubt. I followed this being for 20 years and only after last summer was I sure that I could prove what is the yeti.
Q. Then what do they look like?
A. They are huge. When they are startled they get up on two legs and on two legs they are really huge. They are two meters and 20 high. They also whistle.
Q. They whistle like they're happy?
A. No they whistle like [makes whistling sound] when startled. I can't prove it, but I have a feeling this means "go away."
Q. When you saw your first yeti you described it as having bright red or black hair.
A. It was dark, so I wasn't exactly sure what is the color. The next one I saw in the moonlight. It was black. But I was not able to tell what it was. Only that it was big, it stood on two legs, it was hairy, it was stinky.
Q. Stinky? What did it smell like?
A. Like garlic.
Q. A nice garlicky smell, like pasta aglio olio?
A. No, no. Like rotten fat. It's not a good smell.
Q. You also saw a yeti with long white hair ...
A. One with a white head, yes.
Q. It was big, smelly, with long white hair — like Gregg Allman?
A. A little bit maybe, like on the head. I took one photograph last fall in the western Himalayas of one sleeping on the highlands. When he woke he looked at me like a scientist looking at a foreigner. For a moment his was like the face of a child.
Q. He recognized you as a foreigner?
A. He was thinking ... maybe he's not able to think, we don't know ... but he looks like, "Who is that? What are you doing?"
Q. Sir Edmund Hillary said that yetis don't like the smell of foreigners. Is that true? Or did they just not like the way Sir Edmund smelled?
A. I think that is right. They do not like human meat, in that they do not like our smell like we do not like their smell. And normally, they go away when they smell human beings. They live on the edge of human places. The local people in remote areas call them by other names. "Yeti" is a Sherpa name. It means "man of the rock."
Q. Like Gregg Allman again?
A. Jah, the man who lives in rock.
Q. Hitler hoped to find a yeti, didn't he?
A. Hitler liked to leave people with the fantasy that there is a snowman. The Nazis had this view that life came from heaven, from the ice, and they hoped that somewhere in the Himalayas some original Aryans survived as snowmen and they could find one and show that they came from the ice and from heaven.
Q. Hitler thought his ancestors were yetis?
A. He was hoping. Well, more Himmler that Hitler. The SS chief. He was crazy.
Q. But he believed in the yeti, like you?
A. In a special way of the yeti. I believe in the yeti as an animal.
Q. Do people call you crazy?
A. They called me crazy before, and they call me crazy now.
Q. A former Nazi gave you a yeti skeleton, right? How did that happen?
A. This man wrote me that he had a skeleton and head of a yeti. Of this Tibetan bear. When he died a professor wrote me that maybe the widow would give me the skeleton if I asked her, because she'd like to get it out of the house.
Q. Maybe it smelled ...
A. Not from the smell. It's perfect. I'll put it in my castle. All the fakes and the mummies and the skeletons of the yetis will be in a tantric room. You know what a tantric room is? I have a tantric room exactly like I have seen it in Tibet, and I'll put it in my tantric room.
Q. You know, Sting is into tantric things.
A. He could come and see it, jah.
Q. Tibetan legend says that female yetis like to harrass women, while the male yetis like to kidnap pretty women. Should female climbers and trekkers be scared?
A. Actually, the legend says that female yetis are catching men and bringing them into their caves and having relationships.
Q. In 1984, two Australians say they saw yeti tracks on Everest's summit. Which route do you think they took?
A. This is bullshit. This is not possible. Yetis do not live at that altitude. They are living between 4,000 meters and the glaciers. They walk on glaciers if they have to cross one valley to the next to look for females. You'll see, in 10 years it will be clear about the yeti — like today we know about the gorillas in Africa, but at one time it was the same story. The yeti has a zoological answer, but the legend will still be alive.
Q. So you're not killing the legend?
A. I'm changing the legend. My yeti legend is based on reality. And the reality is only possible in the wilderness. If you take away wilderness from the world, the yeti is gone. If you put the yeti in a normal American zoo it's just an animal. It takes three things to make the yeti: a real animal, a legend, and the wilderness. If you have these three things you can make a yeti. All our real legends, they were born in wilderness, but wilderness doesn't exist anymore. You have a little bit in Alaska, a little in Tibet, a little in Antarctica. And so these beautiful legends will disappear, because we let the wilderness die.
Q. In the way you're describing, the yeti is really sort of a state of mind isn't it?
A. Yes, the yeti is a state of mind.