Dyatlov Pass: a chilling mystery solved?
Science may hold the key to unlocking a tragedy that has fascinated since 1959.
It starts out like a horror movie. Deep in the mid-winter of 1958/59, a low-ranking army officer in a remote region of the USSR receives a phone call informing him that a group of hikers has failed to return from an expedition. He is asked to lead a search. His team arrives by helicopter on the exposed slopes of Otorten Mountain (Dead Mountain) and eventually discover a tent partially covered in snow. It is empty. Apart from a rip in the side of the tent, nothing looks disturbed or unusual. Most of the group’s clothing and all of its outdoor gear is there. In that barren environment, with the nearest dwelling miles away, what reason could the hikers have had to leave the protection and warmth of their shelter? The searchers discern tracks of nine people going away from the tent and none returning. They follow the tracks and soon find the first bodies.
The missing group of hikers were university students from Sverdlovsk, central Russia. Hiking and skiing was a popular recreation in mid-century USSR, enjoyed by members of all professions and both sexes on an equal basis. In January 1959, a team of seven men and two women, all aged between 20 and 24, set out on an ambitious trek in the sparsely populated Ural Mountains. They were led by an experienced hiker and skier, Igor Dyatlov. All had experience of climbing, hiking and snow travel. The team members knew each other well and had previously undertaken expeditions together. They were well equipped and planned their route in advance.
When they arrived in the region, they met an older hiker who asked to tag along. He was an army veteran who had planned to ski in the area and had found he could not coordinate with his own group. The students agreed to let him join them. Just before the final leg of the expedition, Yuri Yudin had to withdraw due to a painful attack of rheumatism. He decided to return and said goodbye to his nine companions. Yudin was the only member of the party to survive.
The party entered the wilderness and never returned.
As searchers discovered bodies, each find deepened the mystery. The bodies of the hikers were widely dispersed and all were poorly dressed. Only one had a hat and all were missing shoes. Two students were found at the treeline, frozen beside the remains of a camp fire made of cedar branches pulled from a tree. They had died of hypothermia yet there were unburnt branches next to them. Some of their clothes had been cut. Other hikers seemed to have been attempting to return to the tent when they died. Five bodies were found but deep snow and absence of tracks hampered the search for the remaining four hikers. There was no hope of finding them alive.
Investigators studied the hikers’ diaries and photographic film in their cameras. It seems the expedition was a model of its kind. Dyatlov was a stickler for discipline and the expedition had followed guidelines to the letter, keeping meticulous records. On their last day the hikers had experienced bad weather and camped early near a ridge on the flanks of Dead Mountain. It was calculated that whatever had happened to the group must have taken place after dark, between the pitching of the tent and the evening meal.
Had the camp been attacked? There were local Mansi tribesmen who herded reindeer and hunted in the local forests. Perhaps an animal had attacked. Forensic analysis of the tent showed that it had not been ripped but cut – from the inside. What had so alarmed the students that they had slashed their way out of the tent in order to run out – half-clothed – into a moonless night of strong winds and drifting snow? It seemed incomprehensible to investigators that the group had considered it safer to run away from the camp rather than remain there.
When the May thaw came, the remaining four bodies were discovered, compounding the mystery further. In a snow-choked ravine four bodies were gathered on and near a bed of matted branches and with loose items of clothing nearby. They were marginally more warmly clothed than the others, but all lacked shoes. Autopsy revealed that three of them had sustained life-threatening, blunt-force trauma injuries. Some of the clothing was radioactive. Relatives later described the bodies as having orange skin and grey hair. The authorities closed the investigation as unsolved and made efforts to ensure that the incident did not get wide publicity. By this time there were eye-witness reports circulating of bright, unexplained lights seen in the night sky.
The mystery of Dyatlov Pass (as the mountain pass came to be named, in honour of the group) has lasted decades, lately gaining worldwide attention online. The suppression of files by authorities has been interpreted as evidence of a cover-up. That is hardly a persuasive line, as the USSR was a secretive police state where the concealment of problematic (and even mundane) information was standard procedure. It seems that all of the Dyatlov files have been released through official and unofficial channels since the late 1980s.
American documentary filmmaker Donnie Eichar investigated the mystery, travelling to the site in search of new evidence, as well as examining investigation reports and interviewing people, including Yudin. In Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, Eichar gives us a glimpse of the Khrushchev thaw, when paranoia and the fear of arbitrary arrest of the Stalin era lessened and an atmosphere of hope and the promise of broadened horizons inspired youngsters such as the Dyatlov group. Eichar presents the last days of the group through diaries and photographs. The last journey was a happy one, it seems: photos showed students smiling and mugging for the camera, at other times working earnestly. We get a feeling for the characters involved: the tough and responsible Igor Dyatlov, the vivacious romantic Zina, the argumentative Party-faithful Lyuda, and the others. It makes their gruesome and puzzling deaths all the more troubling.
Eichar applies logic and evidence when evaluating and then disposing of competing theories.
Attack by Mansi tribesmen or others: The Mansi were peaceful and hospitable, had no history of attacking visitors and had no reason to threaten the group. Plus there was no track evidence of anyone approaching the tent.
Animal attack: There were no tracks. Why would the group abandon the relative security of the tent to run away?
High winds: Was a member outside and blown into the darkness by strong wind, which led the others to attempt to rescue that person? It is improbable such a large and experienced group would have behaved like that. Strong winds would have been enough to blow away the tent, too.
Avalanche: It is atypical terrain for avalanches and an avalanche would have untethered the tent.
Secret weapons testing: None in the area, apparently. Radioactive dispersal would have affected all of the party members and their equipment, not just a few items of clothing. (Eichar fails to mention that lamp wicks at the time were commonly made of ceramic gauze treated with radioactive thorium. They were very fragile and liable to crumble to dust if damaged.) Discoloured skin and hair of the ravine group could be attributable to partial mummification over a period of three months exposed to the elements.
The idea that a romantic intrigue led to a violent dispute is very implausible. By all indications, the group was largely harmonious and sexual tension was confined to platonic flirtation and crushes. There were no drugs present and the only alcohol was a small flask of medicinal alcohol, found intact at the scene. The group had even sworn off cigarettes for the expedition. While conspiracy theorists might have a worldview shaped by Hollywood teen-slasher movies, the Dyatlov group acted as a conscientious team in a hostile environment. The group was experienced enough to realise that they were in dangerous conditions and that anything that threatened group cohesion would endanger all of them. The coroner described the massive injuries sustained by one as equivalent ‘to being hit by a car’ – hardly consistent with a fist fight.
What Eichar deduces is that it is the decision to cut the tent and flee that is the crux of the mystery; everything before and after that event is explicable and logical. It was that act of apparent near madness to abandon their only shelter that was critical.
Eichar supports the theory recently proposed by Yuri Kuntsevich, head of the Dyatlov Foundation, a Russian organisation dedicated to the memory of the party and to resolving the mystery. Scientists have identified a naturally occurring phenomenon called infrasound. Just as wind moving over sand dunes can produce perceptible humming, wind colliding with topographic features can produce low-frequency waves ranging from audible to sub-audible. Tests of infrasound on subjects have induced powerful feelings of nausea, panic, dread, chills, nervousness, raised heartbeat rate and breathing difficulties. Scientists believe the ridge below which the tent was located might have generated vortices producing audible and sub-audible infrasound on a windy night such as that of 1-2 February 1959.
Eichar sets out in a final chapter what sudden panic and a confrontation with an unknown weather phenomenon might have led to, tying together a compelling narrative that explains almost all of the facts. It is hard to read the last chapter without feeling both satisfaction at watching a criminal case being resolved and deep sympathy for the hikers in their terrible final hours. There are a few loose ends: does the final photograph taken by the group (an indecipherable blur) have any significance? Although there seems no connection between the group’s fate and the lights, the nature of the lights goes unaddressed. Could it be that wind rumble was mistaken by Dyatlov for an approaching avalanche and that he ordered them out? That said, Eichar’s engrossing and disturbing narrative is the most persuasive theory so far and offers a rational solution to a mystery that has troubled people for decades.
Alexander Adams is a writer and art critic. He writes for Apollo, the Art Newspaper and the Jackdaw. His book The Crows of Berlin is published by Pig Ear Press. (Order this book from Pig Ear Press bookshop.)
Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, by Donnie Eichar, is published by Chronicle Books. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)
Picture by: Wikimedia Commons.