Mountain of the Dead





One of the most bizarre, not to mention flat out terrifying, mysteries of the modern age concerns the enigmatic deaths of nine Russian mountaineers whose cross-country skiing trip ended in a tragedy so ghastly and perplexing that it has mystified experts for over half a century.

Excursions into nature can be serene for some and exhilarating for others, but for an unfortunate few these sojourns into the untouched wilds of our world can be tragic. Still other such journeys into the unknown end in such unfathomably frightening circumstances that they become the stuff of legend. Such is the destiny that befell nine ill-fated skiing enthusiasts in the late 1950s.

Unlike so many of the most intriguing mysteries of the 20th Century — including the fate of the crew of the Ourang Medan or the whereabouts of the missing Anjikuni Villagers of Canada — What makes the so-called “Dyatlov Pass Incident” so fascinating is the fact that there is absolutely no doubt that these events actually occurred… and dreadfully little doubt that one of the last sensations experienced by these poor souls was one of abject terror.

The proof of this tragedy exists not only in the plethora of photographs that have been preserved, but also in the extensive records (many of which are still allegedly classified) of the Soviet military who investigated the odd case and were manifestly unable to reach any definitive conclusions despite an overwhelming amount of physical evidence. In fact, the investigators tasked with solving this case were eventually forced to attribute the whole peculiar affair to: “a compelling unknown force.”

But, before we go any further; like any good mystery we must begin at the beginning…

TEN LITTLE SKIERS

On January 25, 1959, one ski instructor, three engineers and seven students from the former Soviet Union’s Ural Polytechnic Institute, located in the city then known as Sverdlovsk, boarded a train and embarked on a journey to the nearby Otorten Mountain range, which is nestled in the northern Urals, for a strenuous cross-country skiing expedition.

The leader of the excursion was an enthusiastic 23 year-old by the name of Igor Dyatlov — for whom the notorious Pass would eventually be named — who had assembled a crack team of male and female skiers with the intention that this arduous trip would serve as a training exercise for a future expedition to the more difficult and treacherous Arctic regions.

As the group of seasoned skiers left the train station and hopped a truck headed toward their very own “Alpine in the Urals,” one of the team members, Yury Yudin, fell ill and was forced to remain behind at the settlement of Vizhai, which was the last outpost before the Otorten range.

Yudin hugged his comrades goodbye and with envy watched them leave… scarcely could he imagine at the time that he would the lucky one.

Later in life Yudin would claim that the one thing that had haunted him the most over the years was not being able to discover what kind of diabolical force stole the lives of his friends; a fate he would have shared were it not for his unexpected illness. According to Yudin:

“If I had a chance to ask God just one question, it would be, ‘What really happened to my friends that night?’”

Two day after embarking on their adventure, the nine remaining athletes — including engineers Rustem Slobodin, Georgyi Krivonischenko and Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel, as well as students Yuri Doroshenko, Zinaida Kolmogorova, Lyudmila Dubinina and ski instructor and guide, Alexander Zolotarev — all followed Dyatlov toward the first stop on their long and grueling journey, the Gora Otorten mountain.

The date was January 28, 1959. The team would never make it to their destination… and none of them would ever be seen alive again.

THE SEARCH BEGINS

On February 11, 1959, The Dyatlov Ski Team was supposed to arrive in Vizhai. Among their first orders of business, following a hot meal and a stiff drink, were to send their loved ones telegrams announcing the success of their mission.

When no telegrams were received, most of the team’s family members were not concerned, realizing that journeys like this rarely end on schedule, but when over a week went by with no word from the skiers, their relatives began to demand that the Ural Polytechnic Institute organize a search and rescue operation, which they did posthaste.

Within days it became clear that the institute’s ground based initiative would not be able to produce any results on their own and that was when both military and civilian authorities got involved in the search. Military planes and helicopters were swiftly dispatched to the area and it was on February 25, that a pilot first spotted something curious on a mountainside below.

A MYSTERY IS BORN:

The next day the search party — including fellow Polytechnic student Mikhail Sharavin — made their way up to an abandoned encampment on the eastern slope of a mountain listed as “1079.”

The foreboding peak is better known to the indigenous Mansi tribesmen as “Kholat Syakhl,” which (prophetically perhaps) translates from their native tongue as the “Mountain of the Dead.”

The would-be rescuers discovered a badly damaged tent and a plethora of footprints made by what appeared to be at least eight different people radiating out from the devastated tent. Sharavin then described the state of the large tent that the skiers all shared:

“We discovered that the tent was half torn down and covered with snow. It was empty, and all the group’s belongings and shoes had been left behind.”

The search party members quickly realized that the tracks consisted of either bare or sock clad feet and, in one case, a single shoe. Two sets of prints led down a slope toward a densely forested area, but the tracks were covered by snow roughly 1,500 feet away from the tent.

Sharavin followed the trail and found the remains of a fire beneath a looming, ancient pine… and with it something much worse.

Near the long dead fire were the frozen remains of team members Doroshenko and Krivonischenko. The searchers noted with utter bewilderment that even though the men were well within range of the now ravaged tent both men were naked and shoeless, save for their underwear. The investigators also saw that the branches of the old pine had been snapped off up to a height of almost 15-feet.

Forensic tests later confirmed that traces of skin were found embedded in the bark, indicating that the pair had frantically attempted to climb the tree, snapping off branches until their hands were mass of pulpy flesh.

At this point the searchers no doubt began to wonder what manner of “beast” could scare these men so much that they abandoned their clothes, despite the freezing cold, and tore the skin from their palms in a desperate attempt to get to safety. The fact that there were no evident animal tracks and that they had the time to try and start a fire, combined with the fact that the bodies of the men remained untouched only heighted the searchers puzzlement.

Not long after the party found the bodies of Doroshenko and Krivonischenko, they stumbled across the corpse of team leader Dyatlov nearly 900-feet away from the other cadavers, but somewhat closer to the tent. Dyatlov was on his back; one hand was clinging to an undersized birch tree branch while his other hand, locked in ice and rigor mortis, appeared to be protecting his head from some unknown assailant.

Half buried in the snow not far from the tent was the body of Rustem Slobodin, which rescuers found lying face down in the snow. Slobodin’s skull bore a deep fracture nearly 7-inches long; nevertheless medical experts later determined that the most likely cause death was hypothermia, which only compounded the befuddlement of the volunteer and military search party participants.

The carcass of Zinaida Kolmogorov was turned up the furthest away from the group. Traces of blood were found near her corpse, yet it was not revealed if she was its source, although that conclusion would seem likely. The rescuers could not understand why there was no evidence of a struggle.

The party continued their efforts to locate the rest of the team, but a lengthy search for the remaining members turned up nothing. The men on the site could not comprehend why a group of experienced skiers would dash half-naked into the bitter cold of the forest in the black of night. Nor could they fathom the kind of terror that must have inspired these young people to act so recklessly.

Even more perplexing was the fact that the searchers, after inspecting the severely damaged tent, came to the conclusion that the material had been torn from the inside, as if its occupants had been frantic to escape from something that was already sealed in the tent with them or were in such a rush that unclasping the tent from the inside was not an option!

Amidst the broken wood, shredded canvas and debris of the ravaged tent, investigators discovered rolls of undeveloped film and the journals of a few of the expedition members, but rather than helping to illuminate the truth, these finds would only add more layers to this already dense mystery.

MAY 4, 1959:

After two months of fruitless searching, the spring thaw finally set in and the weather let up enough to reveal the corpses of the missing team members in a ravine situated some 225-feet from the pine that served as an arboreal memorial to Doroshenko and Krivonischenko.

The four lost skiers — instructor Alexander Zolotaryov, engineer Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel and students Alexander Kolevatov and Ludmila Dubinina — were discovered buried beneath 12-feet of snow and ice. All had apparently succumbed to brutal internal injuries. Unlike their friends who had perished above, these victims were all fully dressed.

As in the case of Slobodin, Thibeaux -Brignollel’s skull showed evidence of having been struck by a heavy object. Zolotarev and Dubunina’s chests had been crushed inward, shattering several ribs and causing massive internal damage. Strangely there were no indications of what may have caused this severe trauma and, even more bizarrely, the corpses showed no signs of bruising or soft tissue damage.

Doctor Boris Vozrozhdenny, who inspected the bodies, stated that the force with which these corpses were hit exceeded that capable by man and went on to claim that the damage: “…was equal to the effect of a car crash.”

The searchers were startled to observe that Dubinina’s head was tilted back; her stretched mouth wide as if emitting a silent scream. Upon closer inspection the rescuers realized that her tongue had been ripped out by the root.

They also noted that at some point these poor individuals had either exchanged or stolen the clothing off their comrades as Dubinina’s foot was swaddled in a tattered piece of Krivonishenko’s wool pants and Zolotaryov was found wearing Dubinina’s faux fur hat and coat. The searchers were unsure if this was the result of dressing too swiftly in a dark tent or a case of scavenging articles of clothing from deceased teammates.

At the funerals that soon followed the discovery of the bodies, many family members claimed that the skin of the deceased bore an unnatural orange color and, even more disturbingly, most reports insisted that their hair had lost its pigmentation and was a dull shade of grey. Skeptics claim that the orange skin was caused by exposure and that the hair had not lost its color, but it’s interesting that so many of the bereaved relatives took the time to notice these strange features.

As if all of this were not odd enough, some of the articles of clothing found on the bodies were measured as emitting higher than normal levels of radiation.

THE INVESTIGATION:

The compounding enigmas surrounding this fantastic case, combined with the youth and popularity of the victims, sent Soviet investigators into overdrive.

The first thing they did was to try and reconstruct the series of events that led to the Dyatlov Ski Teams shocking demise with the help of the journals and film rolls discovered at the scene.

The primary mystery that faced them was why Dyatlov and his team would have chosen to make camp on an exposed mountain face when a detour of less than a mile would have afforded them some shelter from the harsh Russian elements.

It would be Yudin — the only team member to survive thanks to a timely illness — who would shed light on this question:

“Dyatlov probably did not want to lose the distance they had covered, or he decided to practice camping on the mountain slope.”

The photos developed from the rolls of film found in the tent revealed that the expedition members had set up camp on February 2, at approximately 5:00 pm. on the slope of Kholat-Syakhl, in order to get out of the inclement weather. The group had cleared the tree line and was a mere 10-miles from the first destination on their long trek, Gora Otorten. In the photos they all looked healthy and jovial.

Investigators came to the conclusion that sometime around 7:00 pm. the team ate a meal and not long thereafter members began to settle down for the night. The temperature on the slope was less than five degrees Fahrenheit, which has always made investigators wonder why it was that so many of the skiers were in a state of undress. Whatever their reasons may have been, most researchers agree that at this point everything was relatively normal.

Forensic pathologists later estimated that the events which ultimately led to the untimely deaths of the skiers must have occurred somewhere between 9.30 and 11.30pm. They based this speculation on the undigested food found in the stomachs of the victims. At this point military investigators began piecing this puzzle together to the best of their ability. What follows is, in their best estimation, what occurred:

THE TIMELINE OF A TRAGEDY:

The investigators speculated that sometime before midnight on February 2, the skiers were frightened by an “unknown event.” Members of the team managed to cut or rip through the fabric of the tent in a frantic attempt to escape whatever might have been attacking or approaching them and in their haste they burst out into the icy night mostly unclothed and in a state of sheer panic.

Being experienced skiers and mountaineers, the group must have been fully aware of the fact that they would not be able to survive long in the frigid wastes without protection. This indicated to the investigators that the team must have been convinced that they were facing mortal peril and had opted to flee for their lives.

The generally bare tracks found in the deep snow implied that the team had initially scrambled outward in all directions, but that they managed to rejoin one another down the incline about 900-feet away from the now shredded tent. Investigators then surmised that the group then huddled for safety beneath the large pine that Doroshenko and Krivonischenko tried so desperately to climb.

At this point the investigators speculated that an attempt was made by teammates to share clothes, but the states of undress that so many of the victims were found in would seem to indicate otherwise. Still the evidence suggests that the group, obviously terrified by the prospect of returning to their tent, manage to gather enough kindling to start a fire.

The agents on the case then begin to wonder of if Doroshenko and Krivonischenko’s efforts to climb the tree were a futile attempt at escape or if they might have been trying to gain a better vantage point to see if their tent, which was much higher up on the slope, was still under siege by whatever unknown menace had compelled them to take flight.

At some point during the night investigators proposed that Doroshenko and Krivonischenko likely had succumbed to exposure. It was then that three members of the team — Kolmogorova, Slobodin and Dyatlov — determined that braving whatever it was that had apparently infested the tent was preferable to dying of hypothermia. Resolute (and almost certainly terrified) the exhausted trio attempted to make their way back up the slope — none of them would make it.

With their young leader out of sight one can only assume that the remaining team members Zolotaryov, Thibeaux-Brignollel, Kolevatov and Dubinina hoped for the best, but expected the worst. Likely terrified beyond belief the four remain survivors strip whatever they can from the corpses of their comrades… and almost certainly pray for daylight.

Fearing that their friends are all dead, investigators hypothesized that Zolotaryov, Thibeaux-Brignollel, Kolevatov and Dubinina decided to move nearer to the forest in hopes of finding some kind of shelter. Somewhere along this journey and eventual descent into a nearby ravine the remaining teammates would sustain their fatal internal injuries, but investigators could not find an obvious cause.

The first to perish, according to forensics reports, was Thibeaux-Brignollel. Within hours he was followed by Kolevatov and Dubinina. Zolotarev would be the last to expire from a combination of internal trauma and hypothermia. It was not clear if the removal of Dubinina’s tongue occurred postmortem or if it contributed to her demise.

When all was said and done, the final survivor died less than eight hours after the initial event. As with everything else in this case, the discovery of the missing team members offered more questions than answers, and the most important one was…

WHAT HAPPENED?

While investigators were able to piece together much of what happened that terrible evening from the physical evidence left at the scene, the primary questions remained unanswered; firstly what could have possibly have frightened these athlete caliber skiers so badly that they were willing to freeze to death rather than confront it… and secondly, what (if anything) lethally injured the remaining survivors?

Despite the popularity of the region, for 3-years following this harrowing event the pass was closed to outdoorsmen, hikers and skiers. This was, presumably, to avert the same terrifying fate from befalling anyone else.

This proves how seriously authorities took this case, but after months of dead ends and disappointments the case was closed and the files were sent to what many allege was a clandestine Soviet archive, but even though the final official word on the event was that the skiers fell to: “a compelling unknown force,” that does not mean that there weren’t plenty of theories floating around. The first supposition that the investigators proposed was that they were murdered by…

MANSI WARRIORS… AND GHOSTS:

The first theory offered up as grist for the rumor mill regarding the fates of the nine skiers was that they had unintentionally run afoul of some Mansi tribesman by trespassing into their territory and that these legendarily harsh Siberian natives had dispatched them accordingly. The theory goes something like this…

Mansi natives enraged by the intrusion of the team tear their way into the communal tent and force the mostly disrobed skiers down the slope, where they build a fire. After Doroshenko and Krivonischenko perish, Dyatlov, Slobodin and Kolmogorova desperately try and make their way toward what’s left of their tent. Slobodin’s skull is crushed by the butt of a rifle or some other heavy object, knocking him cold. He and his friends then succumb to the elements.

Following the deaths of their compatriots, Zolotaryov, Thibeaux-Brignollel, Kolevatov and Dubinina are compelled to balance on the steep precipice of the ravine wherein their bodies were found the following spring. Thibeaux-Brignollel is wounded with perhaps the same blunt instrument that claimed Slobodin’s life and Dubinina’s screams prove to be so annoying that one of the Mansi throws her to the ground, breaks her ribs with his knee and forcibly removes her tongue to prevent her from shrieking.

They are both thrown into the ravine, followed by Zolotarev and Alexander Kolevatov. At this point the Mansi leave the interlopers for dead… or so this admittedly dubious theory goes anyway.

Military investigators were swift to dispel this rumor, stating that the damage done to the corpses were inconsistent with an attack by a human being. Some modern day researchers have suggested that the Soviets may have concealed evidence of a Mansi attack in order to avoid a distracting and potentially costly confrontation with the Mansi on their own oil rich soil, which they hoped to exploit.

To even the armchair investigator — a clan of which I am a proud member — it would seem that the total absence of bullet wounds in the victims, combined with the utter lack of footprints, essentially rules out the Mansi as potential suspects in this heinous crime.Add to this the fact that the groups’ provisions were left untouched and we can all but totally dismiss the circumstantial case again these aboriginal hunters

As if that weren’t enough evidence to exonerate these native Siberians, there is conclusive proof that the Mansi assisted in the hunt for the missing skiers. Regardless of how sound the Soviet’s motivation may have been for covering up a Mansi attack, the evidence simply does not bear out this hypothesis.

Intriguingly, Mansi legend has it that Kholat-Syakhl received it’s ominous name after nine Mansi warriors had mysteriously perished on the same peak years before. This has led some investigators to surmise that the region might be cursed or infested by ancient and malicious spirits, but for the most part the mountain was not considered to be a particularly sacred region by the Mansi.

So if we rule out the indigenous human culprits as well as undead ones, then perhaps we should (like so many before us) look to the skies and wonder whether or not the Dyatlov Team might have fallen prey to an…

ALIEN ATTACK:

Like all classic 20th Century mysteries involving groups of missing persons or enigmatic deaths, someone, somewhere is bound to blame strange flying saucers and their insidious occupants for the crime and this case proved to be no different.

According to archived reports, Lev Ivanov, the lead Soviet investigator on the case, collected a report from a group of hikers suggesting that something extraterrestrial might have resulted in the Dyatlov Team’s tragic demise.

The hikers were camping in an area about 32-miles south of Kholat-Syakhl on the night in question when they spied a series of “strange orange spheres” in the northern sky. It’s worth noting that during the next month and a half other residents of the area report similar anomalous aerial phenomenon.

Ivanov himself believed that these spheres might have been involved with the unusual deaths. In a 1990 interview, Ivanov claimed that he had been ordered to close the case and classify the findings as secret.

He stated that officials were worried that reports of U.F.O.s in the area by multiple eyewitnesses — including members of both the military and weather service — could result in some unnecessary speculation. In an interview with a small Soviet newspaper, Ivanov was alleged to have stated:

“I suspected at the time, and am almost sure now, that these bright flying spheres had a direct connection to the group’s death.”

Ivanov speculated that one of the skiers might have spotted the U.F.O.s and that his or her cries might have panicked the other team members into rushing out just as one of the vehicles exploded above, sending them all fleeing in terror. He even speculated that the concussive blast may be what had cracked Slobodin’s skull. I feel compelled to add that the removal of the tongue is one of the most common features in cattle mutilations, but that seems to be a sketchy link at best.

Other “evidence” that researchers claim is evidence of alien interaction is the allegedly orange flesh and grey hair found on the victims — a point which is hotly debated — and the fact that some of the team members were wearing clothes contaminated with a low level of radiation.

While it’s certainly impressive that the head of the Dyatlov investigation supported this theory, and the anomalous radiation readings are intriguing, it seems as if we might be yet again casting unwarranted aspersions upon our intergalactic brethren. While there can be little doubt that there was some kind of bizarre object soaring in the skies above the Urals that night, perhaps it was not from out of this world, but an all too terrestrial…

MILITARY EXPERIMENT GONE AWRY:

This conjecture supposes that the Soviet government was conducting a highly classified test of an unknown weapon on the secluded slopes of Kholat-Syakhl and that — either by intention or accident — the ski team fell prey to this monstrously powerful weapon.

One of the biggest proponents of this theory was the only surviving member of the team, Yudin. Yudin believed that his friends inadvertently entered a covert military testing ground and had paid for it with their lives. He speculated that this was why the military had been so secretive about the investigation and that it also explained his comrades’ irradiated clothing.

After all of the evidence had been collected, the searchers asked for Yudin’s help in identifying who the objects found at the site belonged to. He said that he saw in the mix of his friend’s possessions a torn swathe of fabric that resembled a piece of a soldier’s coat as well as a pair of glasses and skis that had not belonged to any of the team members.

This proof — combined with the fact that Yudin testified to seeing documents that indicated the actual investigation had begun two weeks before the camp’s “official” discovery — compelled him to claim that the military had discovered the camp before the volunteer search party arrived. Yudin also claimed that he knew for a fact that: “there were special boxes with their organs sent for examination,” but this was not reflected in any of the papers that were released.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that the search party found no indication on any explosion on or near the campsite at Kholat-Syakhl. There is also no record of any missile launches in the region, but even in the 21st Century records of clandestine Soviet military operations are still few and far between.

But if we’re dealing with a hazardous unidentified weapon there’s no reason to assume it was explosive. Perhaps there was a bacteriological or chemical spray released that resulted in their panic and eventual demise. A few have even suggested, due to the haphazard method they used in building the fire, that they were blinded by a bright flash, but most researchers do not agree with this assumption

There are also some who believe that it might have been some kind of experimental sonic weapon that employed Infrasound, which has been known to cause feelings from dread to outright panic in humans. Since this sound is inaudible in a classic sense, many people who have been subjected to Infrasound experiments claim to feel that some manner of paranormal force is at work.

This would frankly explain a lot, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s absolutely no proof to support this assumption. Bringing this back down to Earth… literally… there are those who feel that the team may well have surrendered to…

AVALANCHE PARANOIA:

The eastern face of Kholat-Syakhl is a potentially disastrous avalanche zone and while these intrepid mountaineers chose to brave the slope rather than retreat to the safety of the forest, it seems indubitable that they were keeping one ear open for any tell tale signs of an avalanche.

While there is no evidence supporting the theory that the skiers were caught in even a small avalanche, there are a few who suspect that they might have heard a strange rumbling sound during the night, which led them to believe an avalanche was imminent and in their haste to escape they cut their tent and ran half-naked into the 3-foot deep snow drifts.

While this is a distinct possibility, one would envision that the manifest lack of falling rocks and snow would be enough to compel the team to return to their torn tent to patch it up and bundle up in the clothing they left behind. Investigators have reported that the base of the pine tree where the group gathered was just out of sight of the tent, but I find it difficult to imagine that these seasoned skiers would run that far and never look behind them.

Beyond that, “avalanche panic” doesn’t account for the extensive injuries suffered by so many team members. Still, the one element of this mystery that is universally agreed upon is that the frenetic condition in which the team members ripped, then abandoned their tent indicates that they were genuinely afraid. The biggest question has always been “what caused this fear?” and some have suggested that the Dyatlov crew might of had a nasty run-in with a…

VICIOUS SIBERIAN YETI:

Although the evidence for this supposition is scant to say the least, there are some who have proposed that the skiers fell victim to the notoriously territorial wild man of Siberia, known to locals as the Almas. They speculate that the terrifying roar of the beast might have sent the team into a panic, resulting in their poorly prepared escape into the snow.

The two primary reasons for the existence of this theory are the seemingly inexplicable impact wounds found on the skulls and torsos of nearly half of the corpses and an as yet unverified piece of paper that was allegedly discovered near the campsite which read:

“From now on we know there are snowmen.”

While the crypto-dork in me salivates at the idea of lumbering, ape-like beasts dwelling in the dark and forested nether regions of our ever shrinking world, the evidence in this case simply does not support the involvement of hairy hominids. The first and most obvious point is that amidst all the manmade tracks that the searchers found, there is no way a pair of gargantuan, bare prints would have gone undetected.

Secondly, while a punch from a Bigfoot-like beast could most assuredly shatter ones ribcage, why would these commonly gentle giants choose to attack some in the group, while allowing others to succumb to the elements? It might be suggested that they were hurling large rocks from a distance, as these creatures are sometimes known to do, but if that were the case then where was the debris when the searchers arrived? Finally the existence of the note itself is highly debatable and most researchers dismiss the entire theory. I’m inclined to agree.

A LEGEND IS BORN

In 1967, journalist Yuri Yarovoi wrote a novel about this enduring mystery titled: “Of the highest rank of complexity.” Yarovoi had served as the official photographer for the Dyatlov Ski Team search party, so he was privy to inside information. Nevertheless, many modern investigators think that due to the fact that the book was published in an era when Cold War tensions were running high and secrecy was the rule rather than the exception, the likelihood that this book told the full story was not very good.

Regardless of how revealing Yarovoi’s book may actually have been — and he conceded that it was a “dramatization” of the actual events, with a much more happy ending — it did manage to lay the groundwork for the legend that would eventually creep its way past the Iron Curtain and into the outside world.

Yarovoi’s colleagues would later reveal that he had written alternative (and ostensibly more authentic) versions of the novel, but his first two attempts were scratched by Soviet censorship. Sadly, following Yarovoi’s death in 1980, his photos, diaries and manuscripts were, conveniently perhaps, lost.

In 1990, author Anatoly Guschin had been granted “special permission” to study the original files of the Dyatlov inquest for a book he wanted to write about the incident. He later reported that scores of pages had been removed from the files, including an “envelope” mentioned in the evidence list. What this envelope was supposed to contain (or if it ever really existed) remains just one of the many mysteries surrounding these events.

In his book: “The price of state secrets is nine lives,” Guschin speculated that the team had fallen victim to a “Soviet secret weapon experiment.” While his theory was just as controversial as the rest, Guschin’s reintroduced this mystery to a brand new generation of curiosity seekers and the floodgates were thrown open with literally hundreds of articles and documentaries following in its wake, including a 2011 segment on the History Channel’s hit program “Ancient Aliens.”

CONCLUSION

So what really happened to these nine poor souls? For over half a century forensics experts, scientists, military officials and amateur investigators have scratched their collective heads over this eerie enigma… and it doesn’t seem as if any answers are forthcoming.

On February 2, 2008, an investigative conference was organized by Ural State Technical University and the Dyatlov Foundation. The six surviving members of the original search party as well as 31 technical experts assembled in Yekaterinburg, Russia, to look at the evidence and determine the actual fate of the Dyatlov Ski Team. After much deliberation the panel concluded that their deaths were likely the unintended result of a secret military test. Needless to say there are many who disagree with this conclusion.

Regardless of the fact that the victims’ grey hair may be an exaggeration or that the radiation readings might be dismissed due to mild exposure to Radium or Radon in one of the Polytechnic Institute’s many laboratories, the fact is that nine experienced hikers were thrust into such a terrified state that they literally doomed themselves in an effort to escape a fate that they believed would be even more horrendous that freezing to death on an icy mountain slope… what could do that?

In the end we must never forget that this is first and foremost a tragedy in which nine young lives were tragically cut short, with little more than a memorial stone and a rusted plaque to commemorate the terrible loss. Almost as sad is the fact that none of their families were offered the dubious consolation of knowing why it was there loved ones had perished in such a frightening fashion.

There are many who would attribute this mystery to little more than a mundane series of unfortunate mishaps that resulted in nine sorrowful deaths, but these were experienced skiers and it seems unlikely that they would all follow such a foolhardy path. Now, despite generations of effort to debunk and demystify this extraordinary event, the “Dyatlov Pass Incident” remains one of the great mysteries of the 20th Century… and one of the most frightening true life campfire stories I’ve ever encountered.





This photo developed from a found roll of film shows the group setting up their final camp on February 2, 1959.

Nearly 1,000 people were injured in Russia today when a meteor exploded somewhere over the Ural Mountains. But crazy cosmic phenomena are nothing new in the Ural range: 54 years ago this month, the northern part of the Urals played host to one of the most fascinating unsolved mysteries in the modern age.

On the surface, what's become known as the Dyatlov Pass incident seems fairly explicable: Of a party of ten skiiers, nine perished in the middle of a high-difficulty trek in conditions that reached -30 degrees Celsius. But the details, which are mostly based on diaries of those involved as well as records from Soviet investigators, are chilling: On the night of February 2, 1959, members of the party apparently ripped their tent open from the inside, and wandered into the tundra wearing nothing but what they wore to bed.

Three weeks later, five bodies were found, some hundreds of meters down a slope from the original camp. It took two more months for investigators to find the other four bodies, which, curiously, were partially clothed in articles belonging to the earlier-discovered dead. Tests of those clothes found high levels of radiation. Despite that, and heavy internal trauma, including fractured skulls and broken ribs, suffered by some members of the party, Russian investigators reported they could not find evidence of foul play, and quickly shut the case.

The group was made up of students and graduates of the Ural State Technical University, all of whom were experienced in backcountry expeditions. The trip, organized by 23 year old Igor Dyatlov, was meant to explore the slopes Otorten mountain in the nothern part of the Ural range, and started on January 28, 1959. Yury Yudin, the only member of the expedition to survive, got sick before the crew made it fully into the backcountry, and stayed behind at a village. The other nine trekked on, and according to photographs developed from rolls recovered by investigators, Dyatlov's crew set up camp in the early evening of February 2 on the slopes of a mountain next to Ortoten.

That mountain is known to the local, indigenous Mansi tribe as Kholat Syakhl, which supposedly translates to "mountain of the dead," although with a tale like this, I'd take something so perfectly creepy with a grain of salt. Still, the decision to camp on the mountain's slope makes little sense. The group was reportedly only about a mile from the treeline, where they could have found at least a bit more shelter in the subzero conditions. They didn't appear to be strapped for time, and setting up camp on the face of a mountain rather than within a nearby forest is questionable, although not indefensible.

“Dyatlov probably did not want to lose the distance they had covered, or he decided to practice camping on the mountain slope,” Yudin told the St. Petersburg Times in 2008.


Yudin hugging Dubinina prior to leaving the expedition. Via

That camp would be the group's last. Dyatlov had previously said that the team expected to be back in contact on February 12 of that year, but also said that the group might take longer than expected. It wasn't until around the 20th that the alarm was raised, and by the 26th the camp had been found by volunteer search and rescue teams.

When official investigators arrived, they noted that the tents appeared cut apart from within, and found footprints from eight or nine people leaving the tents and heading off downslope in the direction of the treeline. According to investigators, the group's shoes and gear were left behind, and the footprints suggested some people were barefoot or wearing nothing but socks. In other words, they all shredded their way out of their tent and ran off through waist-deep snow in a huge hurry, despite there being no evidence of other people or foul play within the group.

The first two bodies were found at the treeline, under a giant pine tree. Remember that the treeline was about a mile away; investigators wrote that footprints disappeared about a third of a way there, although that could have been due to weather in the three weeks it took for investigators to arrive. The two bodies found were both wearing only their underwear, and both were barefoot.According to reports, branches were broken high up the tree in question, which suggested someone had tried to climb it. The remains of a fire lay nearby.

Three more bodies, including Dyatlov's, were found at points in between the camp and the big tree, and apparently lay as if they were headed back to the camp. One of them, Rustem Slobodin, had a fractured skull, although doctors declared it non-fatal, and the criminal investigation was closed after doctors ruled the five had died of hypothermia.

Two months passed until the remaining four bodies were found buried under a dozen feet of snow in a gully a few hundred feet downslope from the big tree. The inexplicable behavior of the prior five members of the party aside, it was the discovery of this quartet that was most horrific. All four suffered traumatic deaths, despite there being no outward appearance of trauma. One, Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel, also had a fractured skull. Alexander Zolotariov was found with crushed ribs. Ludmila Dubinina also had broken ribs, and was also missing her tongue.

It is possible that the group was searching for help–despite being in, essentially, the middle of nowhere, while missing gear in sub-zero temperatures–before they fell into a ravine. But that doesn't explain Dubinina's missing tongue. And while some at the time posited that the group had been attacked by Mansi tribesmen, coroners at the time stated that the trauma found required more force than humans could inflict, especially considering there wasn't accompanying outward trauma.

“It was equal to the effect of a car crash,” said Boris Vozrozhdenny, one of the doctors on the case, according to unsealed documents looked at by the Times.


Photo from investigators showing the condition of the group's tent. Via

It gets weirder. The final four were better outfitted than the other five, and apparently had taken clothes off the dead as they continued their aimless trek. Zolotariov, for example, was found wearing Dubinina's coat and hat, while she in turn had wrapped around her foot a piece of the wool pants that one of the two found at the pine tree had been wearing. To add to the mystery, the clothes found on the final group were tested and found to be radioactive.

The radioactivity is hard to explain, but the rest of the case does have an explanation that's more plausible than the aliens and nuke experiments people many like to tie into the story. "Paradoxical undressing" is a reported phenomenon in those suffering from hypothermia, as is delirium. The most likely explanation for the disaster is that the team's camp was buried in an avalanche, which would explain the cut-out tent and quite possibly some of the trauma. Should the team have been buried for any amount of time, hypothermia was likely to set in, which would go a long way towards explaining why they set off in search of help without any gear at all. Again, with five members of the team listed as having died of exposure, this scenario is most plausible.

But the radioactivity found is truly odd, as is the treatment of the investigation itself. Documents related to the case were sealed after it was closed, and weren't opened until sometime in the 1990s. I've been interested in the case for a while now and have tried to dig up new info, but my FOIA requests to the various US intelligence agencies have all turned up bupkis. The cause of the incident is still speculative, but interviews given by the lead investigator, Lev Ivanov, around the time the records were unsealed shine light on just how strange the case is.

Ivanov was the one who first noticed that the bodies and gear found were all radioactive, and said that a Geiger counter he'd brought with him went nuts all around the campsite. He also has said that Soviet officials told him at the time to clamp the case shut, despite reports that "bright flying spheres" had been reported in the area in February and March of 1959.

“I suspected at the time and am almost sure now that these bright flying spheres had a direct connection to the group’s death,” Ivanov told Kazakh newspaper Leninsky Put in an interview dug up by the Times.
Another group of students camped out around 30 miles from the other group reported similar sightings at that time. In written testimony, one said that he saw “a shining circular body fly over the village from the south-west to the north-east. The shining disc was practically the size of a full moon, a blue-white light surrounded by a blue halo. The halo brightly flashed like the flashes of distant lightning. When the body disappeared behind the horizon, the sky lit up in that place for a few more minutes.” 
The leading theory, considering the secrecy, radioactivity, and the appearance of some of the bodies, which were reported as being "deeply tanned" by a young boy attending some of their funerals, is that the group somehow came across a Soviet military testing ground. But, assuming reports are true, what caused the trauma to some members of the group is unknown.
It's possible that one of the members saw some crazy light in the sky and everyone freaked out, running for their lives, but there has never been evidence of an explosion in the area, ruling out some sort of nuclear test or something of the like. But even so, that doesn't explain the skull fractures. Some could be explained by a fall into the ravine, but remember, Slobodin had a fractured skull and was found on his return to the camp.
The fact that remains of a fire were found suggests some members of the group had control of their mental faculties, and psychosis isn't a reported effect of acute exposure to radiation, but that doesn't explain why the group appeared to have run for their lives without bringing any of their gear. So was it an accident or a cover-up? The simple story is probably best: The team was buried in an avalanche, and in a state of hypothermia-induced delirium, rushed off in search of help. Avalanches are incredibly powerful, and being caught in one could likely result in the types of blunt trauma some of the group received.
Still, the lack of closure from the original investigation has left the incident as a favorite target of conspiracy theorists and alien hunters, and really, it's a pretty weird tale. Ivanov, the investigator, has since passed away, and unless more military records are discovered and unsealed–which some advocates still call for–the records on hand aren't enough to prove otherwise, and the mystery of what's now known as the Dyatlov Pass is likely to endure.




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