By Michael Parsons | Irish Times
ON THE WEB, 17 March 2012
Who knew that the “Abominable Snowman” — one of the most enduring myths of the last century — had an Offaly connection? Although the county has its fair share of wildlife, the hairy half-man, half-beast wasn’t native to the Slieve Bloom mountains, but was, instead, allegedly discovered by a Tullamore man thousands of miles away in the Himalayas.
Lieut-Col Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury was born in 1881, into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, at Charleville Castle in the heart of the erstwhile “King’s County”. Dispatched, in time-honoured fashion, to be educated at Eton and Sandhurst, he then joined the British army and departed for India.
He took to Raj life with enthusiasm, indulging his passion for big-game hunting, mountain climbing and exploration. He visited Tibet and the mysterious Tian Shan “Mountains of Heaven” on the Chinese-Mongolian border, recording his adventures in riveting diaries which were subsequently published to acclaim.
But his lasting claim to fame was his purported discovery of a mysterious, ape-like creature in the Himalayas in 1921. Howard-Bury was appointed to lead the first British expedition to investigate the possibility of conquering Mount Everest — the world’s highest mountain peak. Funding was jointly provided by the London-based Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society. The “Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition” attracted significant public interest.
The Irish Times published frequent reports including, on 2 September 1921, an account of how the team had managed to “get green food in Tibet” as they struggled to map the treacherous terrain. According to Howard-Bury: “In the higher camps we found young nettles, which formed an excellent substitute for spinach, and, as they grew freely to 18,000ft, we made much of them”. He described a valley “on the sunny side of the mountains” where “the chief vegetation is juniper berries and wild roses” and observed that: “Many hermits in this valley were living in caves in the rocks, supported and fed by the nearest villagers. The blue smoke of juniper incense burnt every morning outside the caves showed the places where they lived”.
Meanwhile “coolies”, hired by the expedition team in India, were busy “collecting natural history specimens” including “strange rats, mice, lizards, butterflies and fish” because “the Tibetans would not catch them, as it is contrary to their religion”.
On 12 October, The Irish Times reported that the expedition had failed to conquer Everest but “that everybody will be glad that at last partial success has crowned the heroic efforts”. A path had been found “which has proved that ascent to the top of Everest’s 29,000ft is feasible for expert and dauntless climbers under favourable weather conditions”.
In fact, it took over 30 years — until 29 May 1953 — when New-Zealander Edmund Hillary and his Nepalese Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
But an extraordinary sequel to the Howard-Bury expedition was about to unfold. An Irish Times story on Friday, 21 October 1921 carried a headline guaranteed to thrill readers: “Wild Hairy Man — Strange Footprints on Everest”.
The report quoted remarks made by Howard-Bury: “We distinguished hare and fox tracks, but one mark like that of a human foot, was most puzzling. The coolies assured us that it was the track of a wild, hairy man, and that these men were occasionally to be found in the wildest and most inaccessible mountains.” And thus was born a 20th-century yarn eclipsed only by the Loch Ness Monster.
On 31 October, The Irish Times carried a further report, from Calcutta, which stated that: “The coolies from Mount Everest bring confused stories about strange wild men . . . who are apparently known to the Tibetans as Meetogh Kangmi or “abominable snowmen” and small colonies of these people are believed to exist on the slopes of Everest”. The creatures were “never seen by any of the white members of the Expedition” but “one coolie described their feet as being turned outwards, and reported that they were supposed to be clothed only in their own hair. They are reported to live on wild animals, and to be hostile to civilised people, but it is quite easy to evade them”.
Very easy, apparently, because, despite extensive searches since, no evidence has emerged to prove the existence of the “Abominable Snowman” also known as a yeti.
But the creature captivated the public imagination — fuelled by thrilling reports filed by Henry Newman, a British journalist working in India, and picked up by newspapers worldwide. He interviewed the expedition team when they returned to Calcutta, seems to have used poetic licence when writing up his story and mistranslated comments made by the “coolies”. Howard-Bury later reputedly said he believed the tracks might have been those of a wolf.
Lieut-Col Howard-Bury became a household name in Britain. He maintained his links to Ireland, where he had also inherited Belvedere House in Mullingar. He was, prior to Independence, a deputy-lieutenant and justice of the peace for Co Westmeath.
After the establishment of the Irish Free State his allegiance switched to England and he became a Conservative MP for the Bilston constituency in the West Midlands in 1922. He lost his seat in the 1924 general election and the following year, bizarrely, tried to enter Irish politics. But his attempt to get elected to the Senate in 1925 ended with his elimination. The following year, he returned to the House of Commons as an MP by winning a by-election in the Chelmsford constituency. He never married and died, aged 80, in 1963.
But the myth of the “Abominable Snowman” — like the Loch Ness Monster — lives on.