The Mystery of Dyatlov Pass by EM Hilker

It felt like a new world to the citizens of the USSR. The year was 1959, and Nikita Khrushchev had formally ruled over the Soviet Union for nearly a year. He had begun the process of “de-Stalinizing” the country, allowing the citizens – many of whom could not remember a time before Stalin’s totalitarian rule – more liberties. People were being released from the Gulags, and it looked like the USSR was moving towards the future. The Cuban Missile Crisis had not yet begun. It was a time of new freedoms for young people, and the 9 university friends were taking full advantage of it. They were all either current or recent students at the Ural Polytechnic Institute in modern-day Yekaterinburg, members of the UPI hiking club, and all nine were very passionate about their sport.

Ranging in age from 20 – 24 years old, the seasoned hikers and skiers strove to attain the highest classification available, Class III.  All had achieved Class II, and to qualify for Class III, they needed a long, difficult trek. And they had a plan: a multi-day winter excursion through Otorten Mountain. It was, by all accounts, a very challenging route but the area itself certainly wasn’t considered impassible, and in light of their shared experience when 23 year old group leader Igor Dylatlov submitted the plan for the adventure to the Municipal Sports Committee, it was approved. 

With the exception of 21 year old Yuri Yudin who needed to drop out of the adventure at the last possible stop before the mountain due to the flareup of some chronic illnesses he’d long suffered – including a heart condition and rheumatism –  things went more or less as they’d anticipated, plus or minus some unexpected but not severe hiccups along the road. There was a run-in with law enforcement over the group’s singing in a train station, and a stop off at a school house where they inspired the young charges with their bravery. They were joined by hiking instructor Alexander Zologaryov, 37, along the way, and according to their diaries he was a good traveling companion. All was going well.

The group was due back on February 12th. When they missed their deadline, at first there was little concern on the part of the families and even less concern by the University and Municipal Sports Committee – the going was sometimes very slow on a wintery mountain expedition – or a summer mountain expedition, for that matter – and it was by all accounts a very challenging route. Soon, however, the families became concerned and pressed the authorities for help. A day, maybe two, was reasonable they felt, but that day stretched out into a week and finally, on February 20th, a search team was at last formed. The area in question was enormous, even harder to search in the snowy depths of that Russian winter, and it took 6 days before the group’s abandoned campsite was located. Their tent, pitched, was more or less upright, or at least the poles were, though the tent’s roof had collapsed under the weight of the snow atop it. Inside, despite the collapse, all was in order. There were sleeping bags laid out on the floor, boots neatly lined up. There was an abandoned container of hot chocolate, now frozen, and a flask of vodka waiting for somebody’s attention, alongside some salo, a calorie-dense Russian dish of gelatinous salted pork and pork fat that can be eaten in a variety of ways and is a sensible food to bring along on such an expedition. But there were none of the missing people there and, upon further inspection, the searchers quickly realized that the wall of the tent hadn’t been torn by wind or animal; it was cut cleanly through as if with a knife. And there were footprints – some barefoot, some in socks, and one set had on a single boot. All belonged to the hikers, but no one knew where they’d vanished to, or why. The area was remote, with nowhere for them to have gone without their supplies; there were no villages, no towns, no settlements for them to have fled to in that bitter, bitter cold. 

The first two bodies were found shortly thereafter, roughly a kilometer from the campsite (or 0.621 miles), alongside a tree with broken branches and the remains of a fire. There were branches broken on the tree; perhaps one of the dead men had climbed it to gain a better vantage point, or had torn the branches for the fire and had fallen. Georgy Krivonischenko, 24, and Yury Doroshenko, 21, wore only their underclothes. There were cuts and bruises, burns from their fire, but nothing that should have caused death to occur. Both deaths would be ruled as being caused by hypothermia, in the end, with no clear indication of how the two men had come to be in such a state of undress under the tree.

The following day, the searchers located the group’s leader Igor Dyatlov, alongside 22 year old Zina Kolmogorova and 23 year old Rustem Slobodin midway between the nearby forest and the campsite, and all three of the hikers had also succumbed to hypothermia. It was felt that, by the way their bodies were oriented, they had been trying to find their way back to their tent when they’d succumbed to the cold and snow. Like their friends who had been discovered under the tree, they were also woefully underdressed for the deep cold.

The remaining group members’ bodies were located two months later, in a forest ravine. Unlike their friends, these had experienced grievous physical impact trauma. Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel, a 24 year old recent graduate from UPI, had suffered a crushed skull. The group’s youngest member at just 21 years old, engineering and economics student Ludmila Dubinina had died of internal bleeding caused by a severe chest trauma, and was also missing her tongue. Last minute addition and mountain hiking instructor Alexander Zolotaryov, 37 had also suffered a severe chest trauma and had many broken ribs. Among that group Alexander Kolevatov, 25, alone had died of hypothermia like his previously located friends. They were, however, better dressed than the others had been, and it became apparent that in their struggle to survive they had used the clothing from their deceased comrades. Even the extra clothing under those weather conditions was simply not enough.

And still, no one knew why any of it had happened.

According to their journals and the film found in the cameras left behind in the tent, the group had set up camp on the side of Kholat-Syakhl, which is translated variously as “Dead Mountain” or “Silent Peak” – in reference to the lack of plants and animals for food, not as a warning to the curious – around 5 in the evening on February 1st. Yudin, the hiker who was forced to turn back only days before disaster had befallen the group, believes that they had made the choice to set up camp on the mountain side rather than camping in the shelter of the trees further down the slope for the challenge of the thing. The group in general, and Dyatlov in particular, were very determined to challenge themselves at every available opportunity, and camp on the side of a mountain would have been very much in character for them. As far as anyone could tell, all started off well: the tent was pitched properly, as expected, and the group settled in for the night, undressing from the weather, eating some supper, and resting comfortably – at least for a while.

The condition of the bodies led investigators to believe that the group had fled their tent around midnight. There were no clues among their belongings indicating what caused their flight. They seem to have simply cut open the side of their tent, rather than using the door, and ran out into the night.

There are a number of things that were odd about the circumstances surrounding their flight from the tent and subsequent deaths, clearly. The temperature at the time of their deaths was roughly -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit). While the group were, in fact, accomplished outdoors people, they wouldn’t need to have been to know to not venture out in such extreme weather without shoes and proper clothing – humans are naturally adverse to such extreme temperatures. Some have brought up the phenomenon of “Paradoxical Undressing” – the situation in which a person suffering hypothermia suddenly finds themselves feeling overheated and takes off their clothing in response– but by all accounts it wasn’t that the hypothermia-struck hikers removed their clothing as they froze, but rather that they ran out into the cold from the relative warmth of their tent without them in the first place. Their belongings were neatly stored and easily accessible – even in a hurry, it ought not have been time-consuming to have put something on their feet and to have donned at least their coats – and the fact that they fled in such a blind panic that it hadn’t occurred to them to dress is very unusual, and very worrying indeed.

And then there are the injuries. The injuries suffered by three of the four hikers found in May were profound, Dr Boris Vozrozhdenny noted that the powerful chest and head injuries could not have been inflicted by another human, as humans simply cannot generate that kind of force. The missing tongue appears to be less of a mystery – the bodies had lain there for nearly three months as the temperatures warmed with spring, and it’s entirely reasonable that bacteria or small animals had consumed it.

Even stranger, the clothing of the hikers, when analyzed, were shown to have been contaminated with radiation. There was no obvious source of radiation in the environment, and further adding to the incredible oddity of the situation, there had been glowing orbs sighted that evening over the mountain. There were multiple witnesses to the orbs, including by hikers from another group on their own expedition in the area that night. 

There are a large number of theories, of course, on what really happened to the group that night.

A few of those theories originally suggested didn’t make it very far: an animal attack has been proposed repeatedly as being the obvious solution, but no evidence of such was ever uncovered: there were human footprints, but not animal tracks – the slit cut in the tent was definitely done by a sharpened object rather than an animal, as well as having been cut from the inside, and the hikers’ injuries are inconsistent with an animal attack, completely aside from the mountain having been named for the lack of game up there in the first place.

Another theory that seemed to have gone nowhere in a hurry was the suspicion of violence by the Mansi – the indigenous people who occupied the area. It was suspected, briefly, that this was murder perhaps in retribution for the students trespassing on their lands, but there were a number of reasons why that was quickly dismissed: there was no evidence of a human attack in the same ways there was no evidence of an animal attack – no unknown footprints, no injuries consistent with a human attack. Additionally, the Mansi were traditionally very friendly and welcoming with hikers, and often they would welcome them with tea. There wasn’t a settlement in the area, there wasn’t enough game to make hunting in the area a viable option, and a number of Mansi were involved in the search for the missing hikers. Indeed, The third group of hikers were in fact initially located by a Mansi search party member – an odd thing for him to have drawn attention to if there was a conspiracy to murder these young hikers and conceal that fact. Generally, as well, the Mansi were not and are not culturally aggressive people. They didn’t consider that area of the Urals to be particularly sacred. There was no motivation for them to have done it and no evidence that indicates the involvement of any other humans at all, Mansi or otherwise.

More convincing to a number of people, including group survivor Yuri Yudin, is the idea that the Dyatlov group came across something very secret and very dangerous, and either saw something and died for it, or stumbled upon a weapon’s test and were killed by the weapon being tested. Yudin, among others, specifically suspected an explosion, perhaps related to the sightings of the mysterious orbs. There was no evidence recovered that suggested an explosion, but the extreme force of one might explain the incredible trauma inflicted on three of the four last found hikers.

The military/weapons test theory accounts for perhaps the radiation on the group’s clothing, and it is of course all conjecture but perhaps the glowing orbs were themselves were some kind of  experimental weapon that discharged – though not “exploded” in a way that left predictable evidence – and killed the curious hikers, who had, as suggested at one point by the lead investigator in the case, Lev Ivanov, left their tent in a rush to catch sight of the strange orbs. And, perhaps, their bodies were scattered with the force of the thing. This seems unlikely considering the paucity of weapons that appear as orbs that have been reported in the 60 years since the hikers’ deaths, and the inconsistent timeline by the various witnesses on when precisely the mysterious orbs had been seen. 

The bodies reportedly had darkened skin and white hair, as recalled by Igor Dyatlov’s younger sister Tatiana, who was twelve years old at the time and had attended the funeral. A number of people have in fact pointed out the darkened skin as a sign of radiation, though others have said that it was simply the result of the bodies being left out in extreme temperatures for nearly a month before they were located. 

What perhaps makes the military/weapon theory more compelling, and has given it much of its longevity among mystery-seeking amateur detectives, is that the government behaved very oddly around the funerary rites for the hikers. When the families reacted angrily to the announcement that the bodies would not be brought back for burial and strongly objected, the government reluctantly settled on two memorial services rather than the single one that the families had wanted, and a funeral procession that was to avoid all major routes so that a minimal number of people would see it. They did their best to draw as little attention to the deaths and burial as possible, and in doing so succeeded in drawing additional attention to the deaths and burial. The government, if they weren’t trying to cover something up, did not help themselves. 

The official cause of death, according to the Russian government, is that the group perished due to an avalanche. Critics of this explanation will point out that there are no records of avalanches in the area. A 2021 study published in Nature, however, using computer models and taking into account the arguments against the avalanche hypothesis (specifically, that the expected accumulation of snow/debris was not found at the campsite when it was discovered, the slope of the peak wasn’t steep enough for an avalanche, and the injuries weren’t common among people who have fallen prey to an avalanche), has suggested that the chunk cut out of the snow above the tent – done for safety –  and the steep section they had chosen to camp at to shield them from the winds had put them in a precarious and dangerous situation. The winds that blow down the slopes at night as the temperature cools and gravity pulls the dense air downward, called katabatic winds – same mechanism behind the infamous Santa Ana winds in California – unloosed that slab of snow created by the cut section directly above their tent and pulled it right down on top of their tent. Even a small slab could have caused mortal injuries such as those suffered by the hikers. This does not, of course, account for the radiation on the clothing, nor why they had gone out without clothing. There are, as well, people who suspect that the hikers heard winds howling outside, went to take a quick look, and got blown away by those same strong winds and were unable to find their way back to their camp. The study authors are clear that they offer this as an option, and not as the final proven explanation for the events that night.

American Dyatlov expert Donnie Eichar, author of “Dead Mountain”, a book that explores the doomed expedition at length, offers the compelling theory that infrasound could be the cause of the tragedy. Infrasound has been much-studied as a weapon for its effects on humans, for it can cause severe headaches, panic, and hallucinations. It is also a natural phenomenon (said to be below 20 Hz and inaudible, though the inaudibility is not strictly true for all people). 

Eichar believes that the panic caused by the infrasound was the triggering event for the hikers’ flight from the tent, and from there the extreme cold, low visibility, and the rocks lining the ravine that that the final four hikers fell into, did the rest. 

Eichar consulted with atmospheric and environmental scientist Dr. Alfred J. Bedard, Jr, and. after a great deal of investigation, the two men came up with a theory that seemed to fit the facts as understood based on photographs, the proximity of the tent, the evidence gathered at the scene, and in combination with the weather as recorded on the evening of February 1 1959 on Kholat-Syakhl: the symmetrical dome atop the mountain would have made for the optimal environment for the formation of a Karman vortex – that is, the spherical dome interfered with the blowing wind, such that it created small vortices that swirled madly down the mountain, generating infrasound and causing panic, feelings of terror and dread, extreme headache, earache, and nausea, which caused them run out into the cold and darkness in a blind panic, and given the blowing snow and the fact that the moon had not yet risen, were unable to find their way back.

Also uncovered by Eichar, is that the radiation levels found on the clothes, while higher than  expected, could easily have been a result of nuclear testing occurring that winter north of where the hikers died. It has been confirmed that such testing had been done that very winter. The weeks and months that the cold, empty bodies lay there would have been plenty of time for the clothing and bodies to have become contaminated by radiation.

As in all such cases, it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll ever know beyond a shadow of a doubt what happened to those brave young people. There still exists today a number of foundations and research groups which are still trying to find the answers that must be out there somewhere, and are dedicated to honoring the memory of the courageous hikers who strove to survive, sticking together until the last possible moment. The area in which the hikers died is now known as “Dyatlov Pass” in memoriam, guaranteeing that, at least in some small way, they will never be forgotten.


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