On January 25, 1959, nine Russian students set out on a strenuous cross-country skiing trip across the Otorten Mountain range, in the northern Urals. Eight days after they were due to arrive at their end destination a search party set out to find the missing students. Fighting against the falling snow and sub-zero temperatures the search party finally came upon the flapping remains of a tent pitched on the uppermost slope of Kholat Syakhl, or “Mountain of the Dead” in the native language of northern Siberia. The tent, the search party discovered had been ripped apart, torn to shreds from the inside out.
This was to be the first riddle in an ever-expanding puzzle. The case became known as the “Dyatlov Pass Incident”, and the unfathomable deaths of nine young mountaineers whose cross-country skiing trip ended in a tragedy so horrifying and perplexing that it has mystified experts, and indeed the world ever since.
Mountain of the Dead
The group had initially set out for a cross-country skiing trip on January 25th by taking a train to Ivdel in the center of the northern province of Sverdlovsk. From there, they caught a truck to the last settlement of Vizhai and set out for Otorten Mountain on January 27th.
The team consisted of ski instructor Semyon Zolotariov, three engineers (Rustem Slobodin, Yuri Krivonischenko, and Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolles) and five students from the Ural Polytechnic Institute (Yuri Doroshenko, Zinaida Kolmogorova, Lyudmila Dubinina, Alexander Kolevatov, and Yuri Yudin). The expedition was led by 23-year-old Igor Dyatlov, for whom the pass would eventually be named. Although Yudin stayed behind at the settlement due to illness, all members were experienced with long ski tours and mountain expeditions. They were more than prepared for the trip, but not the mysterious fate that awaited them in the snow.
After skiing across frozen lakes and uninhabited wilderness, the group began moving through the pass on February 1st. Although they had planned to make camp on the other side, a snowstorm with low visibility pushed them up the slope of a mountain called Kholat Syakhi or “Dead Mountain” in Mansi. Realizing their mistake, they decided to camp on the slope rather than a forested area downhill that would have provided better shelter. Yudin remarked after the fact that it was likely because Dyatlov didn’t want to lose the ground they’d gained.
The film rolls and journals that they left behind paint a picture of high-spirited adventurers exhilarated by a breath-taking landscape. With evidence that they set up camp at around 5 PM, investigators believe the group ate dinner around 7 PM before settling down for the night despite frigid temperatures of less than 5 degrees Fahrenheit and wind chills well below zero.
What happened next is unclear, but forensic pathologists estimate that the central event occurred between 9:30 and 11:30 PM. At that point, something terrified the skiers as they were sleeping, and they ripped their way out of the tent and into the freezing night without turning back for coats, shoes, or supplies. As experienced mountaineers, they would have known that they needed protection, so whatever awoke them must have seemed a mortal peril.
Their footprints in the snow show that they initially retreated down the slope to a large pine on the edge of a forest, beneath which they likely shared clothes before starting a fire. Based on wounds on their hands, Doroshenko and Krivonischenko climbed the tree to get a better view of the campsite, but both soon succumbed to exposure. At some point, Dyatlov and two others attempted to retreat back to the tent, but each died in the snow before they could reach their destination.
The remaining team members Zolotariov, Thibeaux-Brignolles, Kolevatov, and Dubinina stripped the clothing from their deceased friends and moved toward the forested area for shelter, before eventually descending into the ravine where they died. Zolotariov, the last surviving member of the expedition perished shortly after from internal trauma and hypothermia.
Before leaving for the trip, Dyatlov had scheduled the team to return and telegraph their arrival in Vizhai no later than February 12th. However, it was only when relatives demanded action that the Ural Polytechnic Institute began a search and rescue operation that soon expanded into military and civilian authorities. On February 25th, a helicopter pilot spotted the group’s campsite, and investigators found eight or nine sets of footprints circling the badly-damaged tent, which still contained the team’s belongings. They followed the group’s tracks to discover a naked Doroshenko and Krivonischenko by the long-dead fire. They then discovered the snow-covered bodies of Dyatlov, Slobodin, and Kolmogorov at a distance of 200, 400, and 680 meters from the tent, respectively.
After an exhaustive search, three months later, on May 4, the final four bodies were discovered beneath 12 feet of snow in a ravine 250 feet from the tent. They were fully clothed, with items taken from the other members.
Of the four, Dubinina and Zolotariov had crushed chests without any soft tissue damage, and Thibeaux-Brignolles had major skull damage. The doctor who inspected them at the time noted that the force would have been equivalent to a car crash. More disturbingly, Dubinina was missing her tongue, eyes, and other facial tissue. The team’s clothing also had high traces of radiation, and reports noted scrap metal in the area, as well. Although a legal inquest was filed, Soviet investigators were pressured to close the case quickly, and the files were soon archived and classified.
The inquest’s vague conclusion was that the nine deaths were caused by a “compelling unknown force”. At the same time, the very popular region where the bodies were found was closed for three years afterwards, feeding suspicious that something strange had happened there. As a result, the Dyatlov Pass Incident remains a controversial one, with many different interpretations of what happened. What compelled the group to race bear-foot and half-naked into a blisteringly cold night? Some of the most prominent theories include the following:
- Paradoxical undressing could explain why 6 of the 9 skiers died from hypothermia, as one-fourth of hypothermia victims remove their clothes due to a false sense of heat.
- Some proposed that they were attacked by Mansi tribesmen for unknown reasons and that the Russian government covered it up to benefit land negotiations.
- The lead Soviet investigator argued that the group was the victim of aliens, as hikers in nearby areas reported orange spheres in the sky on that same night.
- Yudin believes that his friends accidentally entered a covert military testing ground, whose weapon shocked and injured them in the middle of the night.
- Many mountaineers have argued that the group’s death resulted from avalanche paranoia, such that they fled from a distant rumbling and became lost in the snow.
- A more recent scholar has proposed that the winds around nearby mountains created an infrasound phenomenon called a vortex street that induces panic attacks.
The main difficulty with each of these explanations is the lack of signs of struggle, of animal or human presence, or any clear evidence of what caused the deaths of these nine individuals. Whether it was one of the above explanations or a Siberian Yeti looking for friends, the difficult truth is that we will never really know.
Still, several journalists and researchers have attempted the seemingly impossible work of untangling this mystery but have faced other kinds of difficulties. In particular, Yuri Yarovoi’s 1967 novel dramatized the events based on his experiences as an official photographer for the search party but was heavily censored by the Soviet government. Others have found that much of the files from the original investigation have since gone missing.
In response to the lack of action on this case, Yuri Kuntsevitch founded the Dyatlov Foundation to push for the case to be re-opened and for lost files to be recovered, based on his own experience attending the funerals for the skiers in 1959. At a conference held by the Dyatlov Foundation in 2008, Yuri Yudin, surviving searchers for the group, and technical experts came to the consensus that their deaths were the unintended consequence of a secret military weapons test. Yet despite this, and without conclusive proof, the extraordinary events that took place on that fateful night continues to make the “Dyatlov Pass Incident” one of the great mysteries of the 20th Century.
- Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar
- Mountain of the Dead: The Dyatlov Pass Incident by Keith McCloskey
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