In January of 1959, nine Soviet college students were killed under mysterious circumstances while hiking through the Ural Mountains in what's now known as the Dyatlov Pass incident.
On January 31, 1959, 23-year-old ski hiker Igor Alekseyevich Dyatlov and his team of eight experienced ski hikers from the Ural Polytechnical Institute embarked on a journey to reach the peak of Otorten, a mountain in the Northern Urals.
None of the hikers were ever seen alive again.
The Hikers Enter Dyatlov Pass
From what was recovered from cameras and diaries discovered at the site of their deaths, investigators were able to piece together that on February 1, the hiking team began to make their way through the then-unnamed pass leading to Otorten.
As they pushed through the hostile climate toward the base of the mountain, they were hit with snowstorms that ripped through the narrow pass. Decreasing visibility caused the team to lose their sense of direction, and instead of moving toward Otorten, they accidentally deviated west and found themselves on the slope of a nearby mountain.
This mountain is known as Kholat Syakhl, meaning “Dead Mountain” in the language of the indigenous Mansi people of the region.
To avoid losing the altitude they had gained, or perhaps simply because the team wanted to practice camping on a mountain slope before their ascent of Otorten, Dyatlov called for camp to be made there.
It was on this solitary mountainside that all nine hikers would meet their ends.
Before embarking on this journey, Dyatlov had told his sports club that he and his team would send them a telegram as soon as they returned from the hike. However, when February 20 rolled around and there was still no communication from the ski hikers, a search party was mounted.
The volunteer rescue force that trekked through the Dyatlov Pass found the campsite but no hikers — so army and police investigators were sent in to determine what had happened to the missing students.
When they arrived on the mountain, the investigators weren’t hopeful. Though the students were experienced hikers, the route they had chosen was remarkably difficult, and accidents on tricky mountain trails are not unheard of. With so many days gone, they expected to find bodies and sad but uncomplicated answers.
They were only partially correct. Bodies they found — yet the state in which they found them only raised more questions. Their discovery would open a mystery that continues to this day.
Investigators At Dyatlov Pass Stumble Onto A Shocking Scene
When they arrived at the campsite, the first thing the investigators noticed was that the tent had been cut open from the inside, and most of the team’s belongings — including several pairs of shoes — had been left there.
They then discovered eight or nine sets of footprints from the team, many of them clearly made by people with either nothing, socks, or a single shoe on their feet.
These tracks led to the edge of the nearby woods, almost a mile away from the camp.
At the forest’s edge, under a large cedar, the investigators found the remains of a small fire and the first two bodies: Yuri Krivonischenko, 23, and Yuri Doroshenko, 21. Despite temperatures of −13 to −22°F on the night of their deaths, both men’s bodies were found shoeless and wearing only underwear.
They then found the next three bodies, those of Dyatlov, Zinaida Kolmogorova, 24, and Rustem Slobodin, 23, who died on their way back to the camp from the cedar tree:
While the circumstances were odd, the cause of death was clear: all the students had perished from hypothermia. Their bodies showed no indication of severe external damage beyond what had been inflicted by the cold.
It wasn’t until the other four bodies were found two months later that the mystery deepened.
They were discovered buried under the snow in a ravine 75 meters deeper into the woods than the cedar, and their bodies told dramatically different stories than those of the other members of the group.
Three of the ski hikers had fatal injuries, including Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolles, 23, who had suffered significant skull damage in the moments before his death. Lyudmila Dubinina, 20, and Semyon Zolotaryov, 38, had major chest fractures that could only have been caused by an immense force, comparable to that of a car crash.
In the most gruesome part of the Dyatlov pass incident, Dubinina was missing her tongue, eyes, part of her lips, as well as facial tissue and a fragment of her skull bone.
They also found the body of Alexander Kolevatov, 24, in the same location but without the severe wounds.
This second group of bodies suggested that the hikers had died at distinctly different times; they appeared to have been making use of the clothes of the people who died before them.
Dubinina’s foot was wrapped in a piece of Krivonischenko’s wool pants, and Zolotaryov was found in Dubinina’s faux fur coat and hat — suggesting he had taken them from her after she had died, just as she had taken from Krivonischenko.
Experts Struggle To Make Sense Of The Evidence At Dyatlov Pass
The mysterious circumstances of the Dyatlov Pass incident beg for an explanation, and many have been put forward.
Early on, many Soviets suspected that the students’ deaths were the result of an ambush by the local Mansi tribesmen. A sudden attack would account for the way the hikers fled their tents, their disarray, and the damage done to the second group of bodies.
But that explanation fizzled quickly; the Mansi people were largely peaceful, and the evidence in the Dyatlov Pass didn’t support violent human conflict.
For one, the damage done to the students’ bodies exceeded the blunt force trauma one human could inflict on another. There was also no evidence of any footprints on the mountain beyond those made by the hikers themselves.
Investigators then conceived of a swift, violent avalanche. The sound of snow collapsing, an early warning of the deluge to come, would have frightened the hikers out of their tents in a state of undress and sent them sprinting for the tree line.
An avalanche would also have been powerful enough to inflict the injuries that killed the second group of students.
But controversy raged. Would the experienced hikers have made camp in a spot that was vulnerable to an avalanche?
Then, too, there was the fact that when investigators found the bodies, they noted no evidence that an avalanche had occurred any time recently in the region. There was no damage to the tree line, and searchers observed no debris.
No avalanches had been recorded at that site before, and nor have there been any since.
The avalanche hypothesis was characteristic of most of the theories put forward in the early days of the mystery; it offered an incisive solution to some aspects of the puzzle but utterly failed to account for others.
Some tried to explain the hikers’ strange behavior and lack of clothing with an in-depth look at the effects of hypothermia. Irrationality is a common early sign of hypothermia, and as a victim approaches death, they may paradoxically perceive themselves to be overheating — resulting in removed clothes.
The trauma to the second group of bodies, in this version of events, is caused by a stumbling plunge over the edge of a ravine.
Yet hypothermia doesn’t explain why the hikers left their warm tents in a panic for the frigid world outside in the first place.
Other investigators began to test the theory that the deaths were the result of some argument among the group that got out of hand, possibly related to a romantic encounter that could explain some of the lack of clothes. But people who knew the ski group said they were largely harmonious.
More compelling is the point that the Dyatlov skiers would have been no more able to inflict the damage to their fellows than the Mansi — the force involved in the deaths rendered them extremely unlikely to have been brought about by humans.
The Mystery Of Dyatlov Pass Takes A Turn Toward The Supernatural As Conspiracy Theories Abound
With humans effectively ruled out as the culprits, some began to posit nonhuman assailants. People began to whisper that the hikers were killed by a menk, a kind of Russian yeti, to account for the immense force and power necessary to cause the injuries to three of the students.
This theory is popular among those who focus on the damage to Dubinina’s face. While most explain her missing tissue by positing a visit from small scavengers or perhaps decay resulting from her partial submersion in a watery under-snow stream, menk proponents see a more sinister predator at work.
Other sleuths point to reports that small amounts of radiation were detected on the bodies, leading to wild theories that the students had been killed by some sort of secret radioactive weapon. Those who favor this idea stress the strange appearance of the bodies at their funerals; the corpses had a slightly orange, withered cast.
But had radiation been the cause of death, more than modest levels would have registered when the bodies were examined. The corpses’ orange hue isn’t surprising given the frigid conditions in which they lay; they were partially mummified in the cold.
But for many, the possibility of a mysterious military weapon is too intriguing to resist. Some say the ski hiking team was unfortunate enough to stumble into the USSR testing a concussive weapon or perhaps a parachute mine exercise.
This explanation is popular because it is partially supported by the testimony of another hiking group, one camping 50 kilometers from the Dyatlov Pass team on the same night. This other group spoke of strange orange orbs floating in the sky around Kholat Syakhl — a sight proponents of this theory interpret as distant explosions.
The hypothesis goes that the sound of the concussions drove the hikers from their tents in a panic. Half-clothed, the first group died of hypothermia while attempting to take shelter from the blasts by waiting near the tree line.
The second group, having seen the first group freeze, determined to go back for their belongings but fell victim to hypothermia too, while the third group got caught in a fresh blast further into the forest and died from their injuries.
Lev Ivanov, the chief investigator of the Dyatlov Pass incident, said, “I suspected at the time and am almost sure now that these bright flying spheres had a direct connection to the group’s death” when he was interviewed by a small Kazakh newspaper in 1990.
Censorship and secrecy in the USSR forced him to abandon this line of inquiry. In the end, the hikers’ deaths were officially attributed to “a compelling natural force,” and the case was closed.
The pass in which the hikers lost their lives was named the Dyatlov Pass in honor of Igor Alekseyevich Dyatlov, the leader of the lost expedition.
A monument to the nine hikers was erected in the Mikhajlov Cemetery at Yekaterinburg, where the only people who will ever know the truth of what happened that night in the Dyatlov Pass were laid to rest.
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