What is the Dyatlov Pass incident? Well, as we’ll find out, it was when nine Russian hikers died in the northern Ural Mountains between February 1st & 2nd in 1959, under supposed uncertain circumstances. The experienced trekking group, who were all from the Ural Polytechnical Institute, had established a camp on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl, in an area now named in honour of the group's leader, Igor Dyatlov. During the night, something caused them to cut their way out of their tent and attempt to flee the campsite while not being dressed for the heavy ass snowfall and subzero temperatures. Subzero was one of my favorite Mortal Kombat characters… god I loved that game.
After the group's bodies were grusomly discovered, an investigation by Soviet authorities determined that six of them had died from hypothermia while the other three had been killed by physical trauma. One victim actually had major skull damage, two had severe chest trauma, and another had a small crack in the skull. Was all of this caused by an avalanche or from something nefarious? Four of the bodies were found lying in running water in a creek, and three of these had soft tissue damage of the head and face – two of the bodies were missing their eyes, one was missing its tongue, and one was missing its eyebrows. It’s eyebrows! The Soviet investigation concluded that a "compelling natural force" had caused the untimely deaths. Numerous theories have been brought forward to account for the unexplained deaths, including animal attacks, hypothermia, avalanche, katabatic winds, infrasound-induced panic, military involvement, or some combination of these. We’ll discuss all these in further detail later on.
Recently, Russia has opened a new investigation into the Dyatlov incident in 2019, and its conclusions were presented in July 2020: Simply put, they believe that an avalanche had led to the deaths of the hikers. Survivors of the avalanche had been forced to suddenly leave their camp in low visibility conditions with inadequate clothing, and had died of hypothermia. Andrey Kuryakov, deputy head of the regional prosecutor's office, said: "It was a heroic struggle. There was no panic. But they had no chance to save themselves under the circumstances." A study published in 2021 suggested that a type of avalanche known as a slab avalanche could explain some of the injuries. However, we’ll run through everything and you can come to your own conclusion.
Ok, let’s dive into the details of the event.
In 1959, the group was formed for a skiing expedition across the northern Urals in Sverdlovsk Oblast, Soviet Union. According to Prosecutor Tempalov, documents that were found in the tent of the expedition suggest that the expedition was named for the 21st Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and was possibly dispatched by the local Komsomol organisation.Which was a political youth organization in the Soviet Union, which was sometimes described as the youth division of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Igor Dyatlov, a 23-year-old radio engineering student at the Ural Polytechnical Institute; now Ural Federal University, was the leader who assembled a group of nine others for the trip, most of whom were fellow students and peers at the university.Ok, so they were mostly students. Each member of the group, which consisted of eight men and two women, was an experienced Grade II-hiker with ski tour experience, and would be receiving Grade III certification upon their return. So, this trekk was like a test. I hated tests. Especially ones that could KILL YOU! At the time, this was the highest certification available in the Soviet Union, and required candidates to traverse 190 mi. The route was designed by Igor Dyatlov's group in order to reach the far northern regions of Sverdlovsk Oblast and the upper-streams of the Lozva river. The route was approved by the Sverdlovsk city route commission, which was a division of the Sverdlovsk Committee of Physical Culture and Sport. They approved of and confirmed the group of 10 people on January 8th, 1959. The goal of the expedition was to reach Otorten, a mountain(6.2 mi north of the site where the incident took place. This path, taken in February, was estimated as a Category III, the most difficult time to traverse.
On January 23rd, 1959 the Dyatlov group was issued their route book which listed their course as following the No.5 trail. At that time, the Sverdlovsk City Committee of Physical Culture and Sport listed approval for 11 people. The 11th person was listed as Semyon Zolotaryov who was previously certified to go with another expedition of similar difficulty (that was the Sogrin expedition group). The Dyatlov group left the Sverdlovsk city (today called Yekaterinburg) on the same day they received the route book.
The members of the group were Igor Alekseyevich Dyatlov, Yuri Nikolayevich Doroshenko, Lyudmila Alexandrovna Dubinina, Georgiy (Yuri) Alexeyevich Krivonischenko, Alexander Sergeyevich Kolevatov, Zinaida Alekseevna Kolmogorova, Rustem Vladimirovich Slobodin, Nikolai Vladimirovich Thibeaux-Brignolles, Semyon (Alexander) Alekseevich Zolotaryov, and Yuri Yefimovich Yudin
The group arrived by train at Ivdel, a town at the centre of the northern province of Sverdlovsk Oblast in the early morning hours of January 25, 1959. They took a truck to Vizhai, a little village that is the last inhabited settlement to the north. As of 2010, only 207 really, really fucking cold people lived there. While spending the night in Vizhai, and probably freezing their baguettes off, the skiers purchased and ate loaves of bread to keep their energy levels up for the following day's hike.
On January 27, they began their trek toward Gora Otorten. On January 28, one member, Yuri Yudin, who suffered from several health ailments (including rheumatism and a congenital heart defect) turned back due to knee and joint pain that made him unable to continue the hike. The remaining nine hikers continued the trek. Ok, my first question with this is, why in the fuck was that guy there, to begin with??
Diaries and cameras found around their last campsite made it possible to track the group's route up to the day before the incident. On January 31st, the group arrived at the edge of a highland area and began to prepare for climbing. In a wooded valley, they rounded up surplus food and equipment that they would use for the trip back. The next day, the hikers started to move through the pass. It seems they planned to get over the pass and make camp for the next night on the opposite side, but because of worsening weather conditions—like snowstorms, decreasing visibility... large piles of yeti shit—they lost their direction and headed west, toward the top of Kholat Syakhl. When they realised their mistake, the group decided to set up camp there on the slope of the mountain, rather than move almost a mile downhill to a forested area that would have offered some shelter from the weather. Yudin, the debilitated goofball that shouldn’t have even been there speculated, "Dyatlov probably did not want to lose the altitude they had gained, or he decided to practice camping on the mountain slope."
Before leaving, Captain Dyatlov had agreed he would send a telegram to their sports club as soon as the group returned to teeny, tiny Vizhai. It was expected that this would happen no later than February 12th, but Dyatlov had told Yudin, before he departed from the group, that he expected it to actually be longer. When the 12th passed and no messages had been received, there was no immediate reaction because, ya know… fuck it. Just kidding, these types of delays were actually common with such expeditions. On February 20th, the travellers' worried relatives demanded a rescue operation and the head of the institute sent the first rescue groups, consisting of volunteer students and teachers. Later, the army and militsiya forces (aka the Soviet police) became involved, with planes and helicopters ordered to join in on the search party.
On February 26th, the searchers found the group's abandoned and super fucked up tent on Kholat Syakhl. The campsite undoubtedly baffled the search party. Mikhail Sharavin, the student who found the tent, said “HOLY SHIT! THIS PLACE IS FUCKED UP!”... No, that’s not true. He actually said, "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." Investigators said the tent had been cut open from inside. Which seems like a serious and quick escape route was needed. Nine sets of footprints, left by people wearing only socks or a single shoe or even barefoot, could actually be followed, leading down to the edge of a nearby wood, on the opposite side of the pass, about a mile to the north-east. After approximately 1,600 ft, these tracks were covered with snow. At the forest's edge, under a large Siberian pine, the searchers found the visible remains of a small fire. There were the first two bodies, those of Krivonischenko and Doroshenko, shoeless and dressed only in their tighty whiteys. The branches on the tree were broken up to five meters high, suggesting that one of the skiers had climbed up to look for something, maybe the camp. Between the pine and the camp, the searchers found three more corpses: Dyatlov, Kolmogorova, and Slobodin, who died in poses suggesting that they were attempting to return to the tent. They were found at distances of 980, 1,570, and 2,070 ft from the tree.
Finding the remaining four travellers took more than two frigging months. They were finally found on May 4th under 13 ft of snow in a ravine 246 ft further into the woods from the pine tree. Three of the four were better dressed than the others, and there were signs that some clothing of those who had died first had been taken off of their corpses for use by the others. Dubinina was wearing Krivonishenko's burned, torn trousers, and her left foot and shin were wrapped in a torn jacket.
Let’s get into the investigation. A legal inquest started immediately after the first five bodies were found. A medical examination found no injuries that might have led to their deaths, and it was concluded that they had all died of hypothermia.Which would make sense because it was colder than a polar bear’s butthole. Slobodin had a small crack in his skull, but it was not thought to be a fatal wound.
An examination of the four bodies found in May shifted the overall narrative of what they initially believed transpired. Three of the hikers had fatal injuries: Thibeaux-Brignolles had major skull damage, and Dubinina and Zolotaryov had major chest fractures. According to Boris Vozrozhdenny, the force required to cause such damage would have been extremely high, comparable to that of a car crash.Also, the bodies had no external wounds associated with the bone fractures, as if they had been subjected to a high level of pressure.
All four bodies found at the bottom of the creek in a running stream of water had soft tissue damage to their head and face. For example, Dubinina was missing her tongue, eyes, part of the lips, as well as facial tissue and a fragment of her skullbone, while Zolotaryov was missing his friggin eyeballs, and Aleksander Kolevatov his eyebrows. V. A. Vozrozhdenny, the forensic expert performing the post-mortem examination, judged that these injuries happened after they had died, due to the location of the bodies in a stream.
At first, there was speculation that the indigenous Mansi people, who were just simple reindeer herders local to the area, had attacked and murdered the group for making fun of Rudolph. Several Mansi were interrogated, but the investigation indicated that the nature of the deaths did not support this hypothesis: only the hikers' footprints were visible, and they showed no sign of hand-to-hand struggle. Oh, I was kidding about the Rudolph thing. They thought they attacked the hikers for being on their land.
Although the temperature was very low, around −13 to −22 °F with a storm blowing, the dead were only partially dressed, as I mentioned.
Journalists reporting on the available parts of the inquest files claim that it states:
Six of the group members died of hypothermia and three of fatal injuries.
There were no indications of other people nearby on Kholat Syakhl apart from the nine travellers.
The tent had been ripped open from within.
The victims had died six to eight hours after their last meal.
Traces from the camp showed that all group members left the campsite of their own accord, on foot.
Some levels of radiation were found on one victim's clothing.
To dispel the theory of an attack by the indigenous Mansi people, Vozrozhdenny stated that the fatal injuries of the three bodies could not have been caused by human beings, "because the force of the blows had been too strong and no soft tissue had been damaged".
Released documents contained no information about the condition of the skiers' internal organs.
And most obviously, There were no survivors.
At the time, the official conclusion was that the group members had died because of a compelling natural force.The inquest officially ceased in May 1959 as a result of the absence of a guilty party. The files were sent to a secret archive.
In 1997, it was revealed that the negatives from Krivonischenko's camera were kept in the private archive of one of the investigators, Lev Ivanov. The film material was donated by Ivanov's daughter to the Dyatlov Foundation. The diaries of the hiking party fell into Russia's public domain in 2009.
On April 12th, 2018, Zolotarev's remains were exhumed on the initiative of journalists of the Russian tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. Contradictory results were obtained: one of the experts said that the character of the injuries resembled a person knocked down by a car, and the DNA analysis did not reveal any similarity to the DNA of living relatives. In addition, it turned out that Zolotarev's name was not on the list of those buried at the Ivanovskoye cemetery. Nevertheless, the reconstruction of the face from the exhumed skull matched postwar photographs of Zolotarev, although journalists expressed suspicions that another person was hiding under Zolotarev's name after World War II.
In February 2019, Russian authorities reopened the investigation into the incident, yet again, although only three possible explanations were being considered: an avalanche, a slab avalanche, or a hurricane. The possibility of a crime had been discounted.
Other reports brought about a whole bunch of additional speculation.
Twelve-year-old Yury Kuntsevich, who later became the head of the Yekaterinburg-based Dyatlov Foundation, attended five of the hikers' funerals. He recalled that their skin had a "deep brown tan".
Another group of hikers 31 mi south of the incident reported that they saw strange orange spheres in the sky to the north on the night of the incident.Similar spheres were observed in Ivdel and other areas continually during the period from February to March of 1959, by various independent witnesses (including the meteorology service and the military). These sightings were not noted in the 1959 investigation, and the various witnesses came forward years later.
After the initial investigation,
Anatoly Gushchin summarized his research in the book The Price of State Secrets Is Nine Lives. Some researchers criticised the work for its concentration on the speculative theory of a Soviet secret weapon experiment, but its publication led to public discussion, stimulated by interest in the paranormal.It is true that many of those who had remained silent for thirty years reported new facts about the accident. One of them was the former police officer, Lev Ivanov, who led the official inquest in 1959. In 1990, he published an article that included his admission that the investigation team had no rational explanation for the incident. He also stated that, after his team reported that they had seen flying spheres, he then received direct orders from high-ranking regional officials to dismiss this claim.
In 2000, a regional television company produced the documentary film The Mystery of Dyatlov Pass. With the help of the film crew, a Yekaterinburg writer, Anna Matveyeva, published a docudrama of the same name. A large part of the book includes broad quotations from the official case, diaries of victims, interviews with searchers and other documentaries collected by the film-makers. The narrative line of the book details the everyday life and thoughts of a modern woman (an alter ego of the author herself, which is super weird) who attempts to resolve the case. Despite its fictional narrative, Matveyeva's book remains the largest source of documentary materials ever made available to the public regarding the incident. Also, the pages of the case files and other documentaries (in photocopies and transcripts) are gradually being published on a web forum for nerds just like you and i!.
The Dyatlov Foundation was founded in 1999 at Yekaterinburg, with the help of Ural State Technical University, led by Yuri Kuntsevitch. The foundation's stated aim is to continue investigation of the case and to maintain the Dyatlov Museum to preserve the memory of the dead hikers. On July 1st 2016, a memorial plaque was inaugurated in Solikamsk in Ural's Perm Region, dedicated to Yuri Yudin (the dude who pussed out and is the sole survivor of the expedition group), who died in 2013.
Now, let’s go over some of the theories of what actually took place at the pass.
On July 11 2020, Andrey Kuryakov, deputy head of the Urals Federal District directorate of the Prosecutor-General's Office, announced an avalanche to be the "official cause of death" for the Dyatlov group in 1959. Later independent computer simulation and analysis by Swiss researchers also suggest avalanche as the cause.
“that the group woke up in a panic (...) and cut their way out the tent either because an avalanche had covered the entrance to their tent or because they were scared that an avalanche was imminent (...) (better to have a potentially repairable slit in a tent than risk being buried alive in it under tons of snow). They were poorly clothed because they had been sleeping, and ran to the safety of the nearby woods where trees would help slow oncoming snow. In the darkness of night, they got separated into two or three groups; one group made a fire (hence the burned hands) while the others tried to return to the tent to recover their clothing since the danger had passed. But it was too cold, and they all froze to death before they could locate their tent in the darkness. At some point, some of the clothes may have been recovered or swapped from the dead, but at any rate, the group of four whose bodies was most severely damaged were caught in an avalanche and buried under 4 meters (13 ft) of snow (more than enough to account for the 'compelling natural force' the medical examiner described). Dubinina's tongue was likely removed by scavengers and ordinary predation.”
Evidence contradicting the avalanche theory includes:
The location of the incident did not have any obvious signs of an avalanche having taken place. An avalanche would have left certain patterns and debris distributed over a wide area. The bodies found within a month of the event were covered with a very shallow layer of snow and, had there been an avalanche of sufficient strength to sweep away the second party, these bodies would have been swept away as well; this would have caused more serious and different injuries in the process and would have damaged the tree line.
Over 100 expeditions to the region had been held since the incident, and none of them ever reported conditions that might create an avalanche. A study of the area using up-to-date terrain-related physics revealed that the location was entirely unlikely for such an avalanche to have occurred. The "dangerous conditions" found in another nearby area (which had significantly steeper slopes and cornices) were observed in April and May when the snowfalls of winter were melting. During February, when the incident occurred, there were no such conditions.
An analysis of the terrain and the slope showed that even if there could have been a very specific avalanche that found its way into the area, its path would have gone past the tent. The tent had collapsed from the side but not in a horizontal direction.
Dyatlov was an experienced skier and the much older Zolotaryov was studying for his Masters Certificate in ski instruction and mountain hiking. Neither of these two men would have been likely to camp anywhere in the path of a potential avalanche.
Footprint patterns leading away from the tent were inconsistent with someone, let alone a group of nine people, running in panic from either real or imagined danger. All the footprints leading away from the tent and towards the woods were consistent with individuals who were walking at a normal pace.
Repeated 2015 investigation
A review of the 1959 investigation's evidence completed in 2015–2019 by experienced investigators from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (ICRF) on request of the families confirmed the avalanche with several important details added. First of all, the ICRF investigators (one of them an experienced alpinist) confirmed that the weather on the night of the tragedy was very harsh, with wind speeds up to hurricane force,(45–67 mph, a snowstorm and temperatures reaching −40 °C. These factors weren't considered by the 1959 investigators who arrived at the scene of the accident three weeks later when the weather had much improved and any remains of the snow slide had settled and been covered with fresh snowfall. The harsh weather at the same time played a critical role in the events of the tragic night, which have been reconstructed as follows:
On 1 February the group arrives at the Kholat Syakhl mountain and erects a large, 9-person tent on an open slope, without any natural barriers such as forests. On the day and a few preceding days, a heavy snowfall continued, with strong wind and frost.
The group traversing the slope and digging a tent site into the snow weakens the snow base. During the night the snowfield above the tent starts to slide down slowly under the weight of the new snow, gradually pushing on the tent fabric, starting from the entrance. The group wakes up and starts evacuation in panic, with only some able to put on warm clothes. With the entrance blocked, the group escapes through a hole cut in the tent fabric and descends the slope to find a place perceived as safe from the avalanche only 1500 m down, at the forest border.
Because some of the members have only incomplete clothing, the group splits. Two of the group, only in their underwear and pajamas, were found at the Siberian pine tree, near a fire pit. Their bodies were found first and confirmed to have died from hypothermia.
Three hikers, including Dyatlov, attempted to climb back to the tent, possibly to get sleeping bags. They had better clothes than those at the fire pit, but still quite light and with inadequate footwear. Their bodies were found at various distances 300–600 m from the campfire, in poses suggesting that they had fallen exhausted while trying to climb in deep snow in extremely cold weather.
The remaining four, equipped with warm clothing and footwear, were trying to find or build a better camping place in the forest further down the slope. Their bodies were found 70 m from the fireplace, under several meters of snow and with traumas indicating that they had fallen into a snow hole formed above a stream. These bodies were found only after two months.
According to the ICRF investigators, the factors contributing to the tragedy were extremely bad weather and lack of experience of the group leader in such conditions, which led to the selection of a dangerous camping place. After the snow slide, another mistake of the group was to split up, rather than building a temporary camp down in the forest and trying to survive through the night. Negligence of the 1959 investigators contributed to their report creating more questions than answers and inspiring numerous conspiracy theories.
In 2021 a team of physicists and engineers led by Alexander Puzrin published a new model that demonstrated how even a relatively small slide of snow slab on the Kholat Syakhl slope could cause tent damage and injuries consistent with those suffered by Dyatlov team.
Ok, what about the Katabatic wind that I mentioned earlier?
In 2019, a Swedish-Russian expedition was made to the site, and after investigations, they proposed that a violent katabatic wind was a plausible explanation for the incident. Katabatic winds are a drainage wind, a wind that carries high-density air from a higher elevation down a slope under the force of gravity. They are somewhat rare events and can be extremely violent. They were implicated in a 1978 case at Anaris Mountain in Sweden, where eight hikers were killed and one was severely injured in the aftermath of katabatic wind. The topography of these locations were noted to be very similar according to the expedition.
A sudden katabatic wind would have made it impossible to remain in the tent, and the most rational course of action would have been for the hikers to cover the tent with snow and seek shelter behind the treeline. On top of the tent, there was also a torch left turned on, possibly left there intentionally so that the hikers could find their way back to the tent once the winds subsided. The expedition proposed that the group of hikers constructed two bivouac shelters, or just makeshift shelters, one of which collapsed, leaving four of the hikers buried with the severe injuries observed.
Another hypothesis popularised by Donnie Eichar's 2013 book Dead Mountain is that wind going around Kholat Syakal created a Kármán vortex street, a repeating pattern of swirling vortices, caused by a process known as vortex shedding, which is responsible for the unsteady separation of flow of a fluid around blunt bodies. which can produce infrasound capable of inducing panic attacks in humans. According to Eichar's theory, the infrasound generated by the wind as it passed over the top of the Holatchahl mountain was responsible for causing physical discomfort and mental distress in the hikers. Eichar claims that, because of their panic, the hikers were driven to leave the tent by whatever means necessary, and fled down the slope. By the time they were further down the hill, they would have been out of the infrasound's path and would have regained their composure, but in the darkness would have been unable to return to their shelter. The traumatic injuries suffered by three of the victims were the result of their stumbling over the edge of a ravine in the darkness and landing on the rocks at the bottom. Hmmm...plausible.