BY: RICHARD EDDE
Deep within the remote Altai Mountains of Mongolia there exists a heinous mystery, one the locals have attempted to keep secret for generations. Now, Harry Olson, an American paleoanthropologist, is in the area excavating for early human fossils. What his team discovers threatens to turn modern scientific knowledge on its head and disrupt the peaceful harmony of the largely superstitious country. It is a discovery so appalling, so sinister, that the lives of the expedition members are at risk from a determined fossil pirate who learns of their discovery and vows to make it his own. Harry and his research team fight to outwit the man who is out kill them and steal their find, but first they must escape the terrible evil they have uncovered…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Yeti by Richard Edde, Harry Olson is a disgraced and troubled scientist on an archeology dig in Mongolia, looking for signs of ancient humans. They uncover bones and teeth (in the wreckage of a Soviet airplane from the late 1960s, of all things), a discovery that starts them on a journey of terror, danger, and death, taking us along with them through the beautiful and rugged country of mountains, steppes, and monasteries, where they inadvertently discover a horror more terrifying and deadly than the wealthy pirate who wants to kill them and steal their find.
The book is incredibly interesting, and I learned a lot about both Mongolia and archeology. With a strong plot, lots of action, and plenty of heart-stopping suspense, it’s a hard book to put down once you pick it up.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Yeti by Richard Edde is a fascinating tale, set in the mountains and steppes of Mongolia. Our protagonist, Harry Olson, is in Mongolia digging for ancient human remains. Wanting to recoup both his self-respect and his mentor’s forgiveness after making a disastrous and unethical mistake, Harry is desperately hoping for an important find to cement his reputation. When they discover the remains of a plane crash, he is naturally disappointed—until they find ancient bones and teeth among the wreckage. Little does Harry realize the effect those bones will have on his live, on the lives of his associates and friends, or on science itself. Their quest for the truth takes Harry, his assistant Dixie, and their foreman Li on a hazardous journey into the remote back country of Mongolia, where they stumble upon horrors they could never have imagined.
Yeti is well written, with a solid plot, a number of smaller subplots, plenty of fast-paced action, and enough edge-of-your-seat tension to keep you turning pages well into the night.
The dark Lisunov Li-2 sat perched like a giant insect on the short runway amidst the driving snow and freezing rain. Its somber hulk housed two Shvetsov-Ash engines and the aircraft was alone on the isolated field. Earlier, the day’s gray light had faded into a grim darkness leaving the men in the small Flight Operations Office shivering in their Soviet great coats. An antique oil lamp filled the single room with a soft, yellow glow. The plane’s pilot, bent over the counter, studying an aeronautical chart while his copilot, at the end of the counter, spoke softly into a telephone.
It had taken some doing to find this small landing strip in the middle of the Mongolian steppe, far from any known civilization. There were no radio beacons by which to navigate, and it was only by luck that the pilots had spotted the field at the last moment. Now, a winter storm ravaged the steppe, making their upcoming flight a perilous one. The maintenance crew sprayed the Lisunov’s wings with de-icing foam in preparation for take-off as soon as the men inside the small shack completed their work.
Engaged in their duties, the pilots did not see the headlights of the Soviet vehicle approach the office. The copilot hung up the phone, stood next to his superior, and pointed at the chart. The office door opened, ushering in a blast of frigid air, and the pilots turned as two men in similar uniforms tramped into the office and shook the snow off their coats. After exchanging salutes, they addressed the pilots with heavy Russian accents.
“Your cargo is in the jeep, Major. Are you about ready?”
“Just about, Sergeant. A few last minute details.”
“What’s this all about, sir?” the other enlisted man said.
The pilot shook his head. “Sorry, state secret.”
“What is in the box?” the sergeant said.
“That I can answer. I have no earthly idea.”
The two enlisted men turned and tramped toward the door.
“We’ll get it loaded for you, Major, so you can be on your way.”
The copilot followed the men out of the office into the blizzard and led them to the large, solitary aircraft.
Inside the Li-2 the pilot made his way to the cockpit while the three men secured the wooden box, which was the size of a footlocker, in the cargo bay. Once they had the box strapped down, the enlisted men waved and crawled out of the plane. The copilot closed and latched the door then settled into his seat next to the major. He retrieved the checklist and began reciting.
The pair quickly ran through the Before Start list, which included the batteries, magnetos, lights, throttles, trims, and instruments.
“Did you unplug the oil heaters?” the major said.
“Yes, sir, just before our preflight.”
“Good. This weather is going to be a bitch. Icing is going to be a constant worry. Ever flown is weather like this?”
“Never this bad at night. I was copilot on a flight over the Urals in a snowstorm a few years ago. That was more than enough excitement.”
“Well,” the major said, pulling on his leather aviator cap, “you are liable to age a few years tonight.”
The copilot smiled briefly and, without looking at the major, said, “I feel comfortable with you at the controls, sir.”
“Let’s continue then and get this baby airborne.”
The copilot ran his finger down the checklist. “Right engine, start,” he said.
“Check,” returned the major.
“Right boost pump.”
“Right engine mixture.”
“Right engine magnetos.”
“Right engine primer.”
“Right engine starter.”
The pair ran through the same checklist for the left engine. The snowfall had lessened but the wind continued to beat against the plane’s fuselage. It creaked and groaned. When the pilot actuated the primer switch, the right engine propeller started turning slowly, then, with a loud explosion, the engine started and its RPMs began increasing. When the left engine was similarly started, the aircraft rocked heavily on the runway.
Both men studied the instrument panel while the major pushed the throttle forward until the RPMs reached 1700. Satisfied with the run-up, the pilot eased off the brake and the Lisunov slowly rambled to the end of the runway. When the plane was positioned for takeoff, both men stared into the dark night ahead. Large snowflakes beat against the windshield and not a star was seen in the densely overcast sky.
Airborne, the aircraft, buffeted by the wind, banked in a long turn to the northeast and locked into a great circular route toward Moscow. The slow climb through the clouds was bumpy, but soon the plane punched through the storm and into clear stable air. The major and his lieutenant copilot settled into their seats and began checking their flight plan.
“Where is our refueling stop, Major?” the lieutenant said.
“Camp Zulu on the West Siberian Plain,” answered the pilot as he feathered the Lisunov’s powerful motors. “You can find it on the chart. It’s halfway to Moscow.”
“Aren’t you curious as to what we are ferrying to the Kremlin, sir?”
“Lieutenant, I have learned over the years to keep my thoughts to myself. I once flew for the Air Defense Force and our mission was to shoot down US planes if they entered our airspace. Quite an elite group of men. But I questioned an order back in ‘61 and now look at me–flying a taxi service for the KGB and during a blizzard, no less. Our KGB friends don’t take kindly to questions. No, take my advice–keep your mouth shut and follow orders.”
“I hope one day to fly for the Air Defense Force but my wife does not like my flying. She says it is too dangerous.”
“My friend, on nights like tonight, she is right.”
“But I still cannot help but wonder what is so important that we must fly in this weather. That it could not wait a couple of days.”
“I’m sure it has something to do with national defense.”
“Must be damn important,” said the copilot.
The plane droned on through the night and, after a snack of coffee and sandwiches, the lieutenant spelled his superior at the controls.
Then the drone of the engines changed.
Not a large change but to the experienced ears of the pilot it was enough to cause him to notice. He scanned the instrument panel.
“RPMs on both engines are down,” he said. “Take a look out your window.”
Both men glanced at their motors, which seemed to be functioning perfectly in the winter air.
“Wing looks okay as well,” said the copilot.
“I’m switching on carb heat,” the major said. He flipped a switch on the panel and continued to watch the tachometers.
“RPMs still dropping a little, sir,” the copilot said.
The pilot pushed the throttle forward, but there was no response in the RPMs. A glance at the altimeter revealed they had dropped five hundred feet.
“We may have some carburetor icing,” he said. “Need to get lower.”
“But sir,” the copilot said, voice quivering, “the Altai are just ahead. We have to get over them.”
“I don’t think we can make it, Lieutenant. If we keep icing up, this plane won’t fly at all. I think we should turn around.”
By this time, the engines were definitely turning at much lower RPMs and the Lisunov was losing altitude at a rapid rate. The pilot began a slow bank to the southwest. Suddenly the stall warning alarm began beeping. He pushed the nose down for more airspeed. Added more throttle.
But there was no additional power.
The wings shuddered violently as the airfoil was interrupted and the plane quit flying.
“I’m flipping on the landing lights,” said the pilot over the engine noise. Maybe we can find a place to glide this thing down.”
Passing through the cloudbank created a zero visibility situation. The major shot a glance at the instruments. They were in a sharp bank and nose-down attitude.
“Pull up!” shouted the copilot.
The pilot fought the yoke in a vain attempt to right the aircraft and get it flying again.
It was no use.
The physics of carburetor ice, combined with the dynamics of drag and lift, produced a tragedy that frigid winter night. The Lisunov Li-2 never made it out of Mongolia. When the plane crashed somewhere in the Altai Mountains, its secret cargo was buried with it.
The Kremlin wisely never attempted to locate it.
Mongolia, Present Day:
Even the crisp mountain air could not temper the blood boiling in Harry Olson’s veins. His patience dissipated, Harry let his ire spew forth like mad hornets. Standing before him was Li Chao and Harry pointed a dirty finger at a map overlaid with dark lines forming squares, each identified by a number.
“How many times, Li, do I have to repeat myself? You have to do the digging systematically and not skip over a section. You know that.”
Harry, affectionately known as Harry O–after the 1970s television program of the same name–to most members of the expedition, was finding it difficult to keep his temper in check.
Li Chao was the expedition’s guide and foreman of the Mongolian workers who were spread out over the lower side of the mountain. Short in stature by Mongolian standards, he had large dark eyes and hair that hung straight over his ears. He shifted his weight and stared at the map as Harry continue his tirade.
“Understand, Li?” Harry waited for the man’s nod before finishing. “So please, let’s try to do better. I need your help in this. All right, let’s get back to work.”
Dismissed, Li turned and strolled back to the group of workers bent over their tools. Harry folded the map and made his way to the expedition’s command tent, dug a bottle of water out of a box, and collapsed into a canvas chair. His breathing slowly returned to normal, the air hunger brought on by the elevation and his momentary outburst at Li Chao.
Harry’s tall frame didn’t fit the small chair. Rubbing his temples, he tried to ease the pounding in his head, a head covered with dirty-blonde hair that receded at the temples. Since he had arrived at the expedition site, its high elevation had interfered with his normal sleep, leaving him with a constant headache. Soon, he hoped, he would acclimate to Mongolia’s steppes. It had taken several weeks to get the compound organized and, as site foreman, Li had excellent credentials, but Harry couldn’t tolerate shortcuts as had just occurred. It would place the whole expedition’s discoveries, if any were found, at risk. He set the water on a large table in the tent’s center as Dixie Zinn, his graduate assistant, entered.
“What was that all about,” she said, brushing a lock of brown hair from her face.
“I was just telling Li, once again, how important it is to follow the map section by section and not skip over one. It puts the entire dig at risk if he allows that kind of mistake to happen. He should know better, Dixie.” Harry took the map out of his pocket and spread it out on the table.
“I think he knows. Between overseeing the workers and keeping us all provisioned, he’s got too much on his plate, that’s all. I wouldn’t be too hard on him. Li does a good job.” Dixie leaned over the map and squinted. “Which sector did he overlook?”
“Right here,” Harry said, pointing. “G2. I sent him back out to get a few people over there now.”
“You’re not thinking it was a mistake bringing him on the expedition? He had good references and he supposedly knows this area well. He guided us here without any difficulties. Remember?”
“Of course. He has worked several digs in this general area of Mongolia where the teams were searching for hominid fossils, as we are. He seems familiar with the routine. Besides, he speaks English, which helps, since most of the workers only know Mongolian or some Russian.”
“More people speak English in the capital, but you’re right–out here, not many. Like I said, however, I think he does a good job. It would be hard to replace him if he quit.” Dixie looked out the tent’s door at the Altai Mountains with their snow-capped peaks in the distant haze. “Would you be offended if I offered a suggestion, Doctor Olson?”
“Not at all, Dixie. I value your input. Go ahead.”
“Well,” she started, averting her eyes, “you might consider giving some of Li’s chores and responsibilities to someone else. Let him concentrate on the digging and the workers. Someone else can worry about the kitchen and the commissary. I think if you would do that, you’d find Li a much better foreman.”
Harry looked at Dixie and smiled. “How can someone as young as you be so wise?” he said. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it.”
“You’ve got a lot to be concerned with, that’s all.”
“I’ll tell Li of the change today. And thanks. This is a big undertaking, this project.” A figure appeared in the doorway of the command tent. Harry waved. “Ah, Sube. Dixie, this is my friend from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.”
Dixie nodded to the man who was dressed in jeans and a denim shirt.
Harry picked up the coffee pot, beckoning the man inside. “Care for some coffee, Sube? We were just discussing the day’s work.”
“No thanks, Harry. How is the work progressing? Does it look good?”
“Yes, very. We know this region of Mongolia is promising for hominids,” Harry reminded him. “When the team of researchers from Germany, France, and the United States found that skull in the Republic of Georgia that dated 1.7 million years ago, it seemed to prove your hypothesis–that our early ancestors left Africa on their way to Asia. That skull showed clear signs of African ancestry and is probably Australopithecus. If early hominids crossed the Asian land bridge on their way to North America, it stands to reason that there should be hominid fossils here in Mongolia.” He paused to take a gulp of water.
Dixie smiled at Sube. “And in addition, our colleague Ross and his team found some rudimentary stone tools in the Gobi Desert last year. Remember, Harry?”
“Of course. Their paper in Anthropology made all the news outlets. Isotope analysis of the basalt places the age of the site at about 1.77 million years old, but the paleomagnetic signature of the sediment burrows themselves encompasses a period from 1.77 million to a little over a million years ago. So it is still far from conclusive.”
“Interesting,” Sube mused. “Do you hope for similar finds here in the Altai Mountains?”
“One never knows,” Harry confessed. “Those same researchers found and recorded nearly four dozen of the stone artifacts and rodent fossils known to have lived more than a million and a half years ago which were found with the tools confirming the age. So it’s a very good possibility.”
Harry found another two bottles of water and offered one to Sube and one to Dixie. Then he got a bottle for himself. After taking a couple of big gulps, he continued. “Of course, these theories beg the question as to why the hominids left Africa. Most plausible would be they left to find food as the African savannas began to shrink in size.”
Sube gazed at Harry and rubbed his chin for a moment. “I have heard that theory. But have you any plausible reasons for being in the Altai other than the Gobi Desert find?”
Harry nodded. “Yes, there are rumors that Yves Montague has uncovered a frontal bone and possibly more from just over the border in Russia, but it is unconfirmed at present. From what I have heard, it supposedly came from a pit dug for gold mining. Then, a small fossil finger bone was found at the Denisova Cave in these Altai Mountains in southern Siberia. Nothing about the bone seemed unusual, and it was assumed to belong to one of the Neanderthals living there in that time period, between 30,000 and 48,000 years ago. When the mitochondrial DNA of the bone was sequenced, however, it belonged neither to a Neanderthal nor to a modern human. This could, quite conceivably, be a landmark discovery, changing the way we view Asian hominid history. The finger bone was nicknamed the X-Woman, X for unknown and woman because mitochondrial DNA is maternally inherited but, in fact, it didn’t necessarily belong to a female. As you know, males have mitochondrial DNA too–they just don’t pass it on to their children.”
“I see,” Sube said. “So the Altai could be a potential source for early human remains?”
“Absolutely,” Harry assured him. “And your government has been kind enough to grant us the necessary permits. We are very grateful.”
“My field is geology,” Sube replied, “so I am in the dark when it comes to DNA. It seems quite complicated.”
“Yes, it is,” Dixie said. “But it is an invaluable tool. With an upper molar tooth found at Denisova, which also had the mitochondrial DNA sequenced, that mitochondrial DNA sequence was very similar to that of the finger bone, indicating that both individuals probably belonged to the same population.”
“It gets involved and complicated in a hurry,” Harry said, taking a gulp of water. “Where Neanderthals differ from modern humans by an average of 202 positions in the mitochondrial DNA genome, the Denisovan individual differs from modern humans by an average of 385 positions. This implies that the most recent common mitochondrial DNA ancestor of the Denisovan, Neanderthals and modern humans lived an estimated 1,000,000 years ago. This made them about twice as old as the most recent common mitochondrial DNA ancestor of Neanderthals and humans. There is speculation that the Denisovan might belong to a previously unknown species, but it is also possible that it belongs to a relic Homo erectus, or to a Neanderthal that had retained an archaic mitochondrial DNA sequence, or even to a modern human.”
Sube shook his head. “An unknown species? I thought–”
Harry Chuckled. “Archeologists are constantly finding new hominids that take years to sort out. So, the theory goes, the Denisovans then headed east. Some 50,000 years ago, they interbred with humans expanding from Africa along the coast of South Asia, bequeathing some of their DNA to them. Researchers have looked for evidence of interbreeding comparing the Denisovan genome to the complete genomes of five people, from South Africa, Nigeria, China, France and Papua New Guinea and much to the scientist’s astonishment, a sizable chunk of the Denisova genome resembles part of the New Guinea DNA.”
Sube rubbed his eyes as if pushing away fatigue. “And from New Guinea?”
Dixie patted his shoulder. “And they may have come out of the Caucasus and Pamir Mountains of central Asia, before crossing into the Altai Mountains here in southern Mongolia.”
Harry smiled at Dixie, glad she had finally decided to come on the expedition. She was energetic and good-looking. Her left cheek sported a small dark beauty mark that turned darker when she became excited. When he had approached her with the idea, she was skeptical, not sure she wanted to spend time alone with an unmarried professor in a distant land.
She told him that, when she had called her parents for their opinion, they quizzed her repeatedly about his background, who his parents were, and if he had ever made a pass at her. She answered all their questions, but they still were not sure if it was a good idea.
But he convinced her that, as her major professor in charge of her doctoral thesis, he was not the least bit interested in her as a woman and only desired a competent colleague. He had no time for such doings right now. However, he had asked her to call him by his first name.
She had proven him right, for she was as energetic as she was competent, always willing to listen while he bounced ideas and new theories around. As she sat across from him now, he realized she was as beautiful as she was intelligent. She smiled at him now then turned back to Sube. “We think Australopithecus became extinct somewhere around two million years ago so if Ross’s skull is indeed an Australopithecus it would cast an entirely different light on our current theories of hominid development. To find such an early fossil here in Mongolian Asia would not only be earth-shattering news for the scientific community it would cause most of us to rethink how we as Homo sapiens came to be.”
“This has been most interesting. Thank you, Harry, and you too, Dixie.” Sube stood shook both their hands. “I can now report to my government that there is much hope for a successful excavation.”
As Sube left, Harry noticed that Dixie was gazing at the mountains. He exhaled a long, slow breath. “Beautiful up here, isn’t it?”
She smiled and brushed a lock of hair from her face. “It is, indeed, Harry. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as enchanting. Even our rustic living conditions haven’t dampened my enthusiasm.”
Harry stood and stretched. “Well, I need a short nap before dinner. Still haven’t completely acclimated to the altitude yet. I will see you when the dinner bell rings.”
With that, he walked out of the command tent and headed to the rear of the expedition compound and his personal tent. He zipped the mosquito netting shut, reclined on his cot, and closed his eyes. His thoughts drifted to Dixie. He was glad she was along for the ride. He made a mental note to apologize to Li for accosting him earlier. Li was a team member Harry couldn’t afford to lose.
When Harry awoke, the sun was setting behind the peaks casting long purple shadows over the Altai Basin. He could hear music emanating from the mess tent, indicating that dinner was almost ready and everyone was congregating, socializing, and discussing the events of the day. The quiet hum of the camp generator pulsed in the background as Harry made his way to dinner.
Soft yellow lights burned inside the large tent that served as both kitchen and dining hall. Entering, he found Dixie sitting at a long table, chatting with Li Chao, and sipping a soft drink. The young man frowned at Harry’s approach.
“Li, I owe you an apology,” Harry said, sitting next to Dixie. “I was frustrated earlier today and I’m afraid I took it out on you. Unfairly. I’m sorry.”
Li looked up from his folded hands and smiled. “Li accepts apology, Harry. All forgiven. When I was studying at Brandeis, I heard of this new professor at California Pacific University and his theories. I have wanted to work with you for quite a while and I am thankful for this opportunity. I understand and there is no reason to apologize.”
Harry extended his open hand. “Nevertheless Li, I am sorry. I’m glad you’re with us. And I want you to appoint someone else to oversee the kitchen and commissary duties. It will free you up to devote your time to the dig and we can spend more time together going over everything.”
Dixie tossed her head back and laughed. “Good, that’s settled. Now, let’s eat. I’m starved.”
Over dinner of stewed chicken and boiled potatoes, Li continued a discussion he had started the previous evening. “This past week here in the Altai steppe has been like coming home for me. I remember this place from my teenage years. The major factors that make the Altai Mountains a recreational domain of great value for Mongols are the amazing natural diversity, along with a small population of people who are historically nomadic and who have a very natural way of life. Finally, remoteness from any industries. The people here live only for tourism and agriculture. All this has ensured that the Altai region stayed untouched by industrial development and remains a very special place.
“During the Soviet times, Altai was a mecca for adventure tourism, especially rafting. Altai Mountains have a lot of rivers, Katun, Biya, and Chuya, being the longest of them. There are also dozens of smaller mountain rivers that are fed by Altai’s glaciers. Along all these rivers, there are a lot of places for recreation and fishing. As you have seen, you can easily put a tent anywhere you want.”
Dixie nodded. “The vast expanse and remoteness of this area astounds me. Trekking to this site I didn’t see any other people except our group and we traveled for days.”
Harry held up a hand in protest. “Oh, please, don’t remind me of that pack trip. My backside is still aching from being on that horse for days. And those camels. Whew.”
“Camels and horses have been a way of life of my nomadic ancestors for generations. My grandfather used to tell stories of packing his family and possessions onto three camels and trekking for a week, searching for new grazing for his small herd of yaks. Fortunately, my father moved to the city so my sister and I grew up in a more conventional environment. But my close friend Bao, who tends our animals, grew up in this basin. The modern population is a mixture of indigenous Altai and Russian settlers, some of the latter still leading the life of Old Believers in their villages, with strict rules and very much isolated from civilization. There are a few remote villages in the Altai where you can see wool being spun on a hand loom and hear traditional Altai throat singing.”
“You grew up in a city?” Harry said, pushing his plate of chicken bones away.
“Yes, in the town of Kosh-Ut on the Katun River. Seems a long time ago.”
“Your parents still living, Li?” asked Dixie.
“No, they died several years ago. My sister moved to Beijing and is a nurse there. How about you, Dixie? You ever going to get your doctorate?”
Dixie shot a glance at Harry, who took his plate and excused himself from the table.
“If Harry–er–Dr. Olson ever approves the final draft of my dissertation, I could defend it this fall. I think he’s dragging his feet.”
“Doesn’t want you to leave, eh? I don’t blame him. You have been a tremendous help to him already on this expedition.”
“I don’t see how. We haven’t found anything of note yet. He just has me busy keeping a journal and making sure the sectors are dug properly. It’s getting pretty boring, actually.”
“I guess you have to put in your time, as they say. I do hope we can find something of value before the weather closes us down for the year.”
“Me too,” Dixie said with a long sigh.
The pair left the mess tent as the cool evening dusk was settling over the camp.
© 2015 by Richard Edde