An expedition led by one of the world’s most acclaimed mountaineers to find out once and for all whether the yeti really exists has been thwarted by the Taliban.
The trip to the remote mountains of northern Pakistan was to have been led by Reinhold Messner, an Italian mountaineer who was the first person to climb Everest without additional oxygen and also to scale each of the world’s tallest 14 peaks.
The 70-year-old adventurer has long been fascinated by the yeti, but believes that the creature is some sort of Himalayan bear, just as he believes that sightings of Big Foot, or Sasquatch, in the Rocky Mountains are nothing more mysterious than grizzly bears.
He and his team were hoping to capture a wild bear in the mountains of northern Pakistan in order to take blood and other samples that they could then compare with the remains of purported yetis collected over the years.
The expedition was supposed to have been conducted in secrecy because of security fears.
But the project was revealed by the Austrian press and has had to be aborted out of fear that news could have reached Taliban fighters in the wilds of Pakistan.
“Right now everything has been cancelled because people who should not have known about the expedition obviously managed to find out about it,” Mr Messner said, in what was interpreted as a veiled reference to the Taliban.
“But I remain available for this interesting project.”
On the expedition to Pakistan he was planning to garner information that might back up a theory posited by a British scientist, Bryan Sykes, a professor of genetics at Oxford University, that the yeti may be an as-yet undiscovered hybrid, the product of breeding between brown bears and polar bears tens of thousands of years ago.
In 2013 he conducted tests on a sample of hair taken from an animal shot by a hunter in Ladakh in north-eastern India 40 years ago, and on another sample recovered from a high-altitude bamboo forest in Bhutan said to be the nest of a “migyhur”, or Bhutanese yeti.
The results suggested that the two samples were a match for polar bear DNA from 40,000 years ago, suggesting that, as unlikely as it may sound, an ancient hybrid species of bear may exist in remote pockets of the Himalayas.
Prof Sykes, who conducted the analysis by comparing DNA from the hair samples to an ancient polar bear jawbone found in Norway, described the finding as “exciting and completely unexpected”.
Mr Messner, who has previously suggested that the yeti may be a rare sub-species of bear known as the Tibetan blue bear, told Ansa, Italy’s national news agency: “We wanted to find out when this cross-breeding might have happened.
According to some theories it was relatively recently, perhaps 11,000-12,000 years ago. If that turns out to be true, one could draw interesting conclusions about the animal’s movements during the last ice age.”
The Oxford University tests have been disputed by American researchers, who say the fur samples probably come from a Himalayan brown bear, a sub-species of brown bear which lives in Nepal, Tibet, northern Pakistan and northern India.
Mr Messner’s interest in the existence of the yeti goes back 30 years.
In 1988 he took part in an expedition to Tibet to find out more about the fabled Abominable Snowman.
Two years later he wrote “My Quest for the Yeti: Confronting the Himalayas’ Deepest Mystery”.
An honorary member of the Royal Geographical Society in London, he now lives in a castle in South Tyrol, where he runs museums dedicated to mountaineering and Tibetan art.
He writes books and lectures around the world about his expeditions, which include crossing on foot Greenland, the Antarctic, Tibet and the Gobi Desert.
“I’m not a scientist but during my expeditions I’ve gathered a lot of information about the yeti that I’m happy to make available to researchers,” he said.