In January of 1959, ten hikers, all but one students at the Urals Polytechnic Institute in Sverdlovsk, began a hike into the Ural Mountains. They were led by Igor Dyatlov. All ten were experienced hikers. They planned a three week trip with a return planned for February 12th. One hiker, Yuri Yudin, left early in the trip, on January 28th, due to a flare up of sciatica. He had made it to the final leg of the trip getting out to the Ural mountains by sled, but had to ride back on the sled to return home. By this time, he’d already taken two train rides, a bus ride, and then the sled ride with the other hikers to get to the place where they would begin their treacherous journey through the mountains in the winter. He was disappointed to leave, but this decision would ultimately save his life.
There are records of the hikers up through February 1st. That day, the hike started late and only managed to cover 2.5 miles, which could have been the burden of excess gear carried after Yudin’s departure and low visibility due to the weather. At some point, the hikers dropped off excess gear at a camp base before continuing up Kholat Syakhi (Dead Mountain to the native Mansi people). They set up camp on the slope of the mountain, possibly because they did not want to lose the ground that they’d covered and because they were losing daylight. However, experienced hikers in the area have said it was an odd place to set up camp. They had dinner around 6-7pm and seemed to be in good spirits based on their personal and trip journals.
And then… nothing.
They did not arrive back by February 12th, though no one was immediately concerned. It was treacherous terrain. They could have been slowed down. Families, however, became worried when they had not heard anything by February 20th and a search party was sent the following day. Rescuers came across their tent a few days later, but the scene left everyone with more questions than answers.
What happened to the hikers?
Last week, the mysteries we covered were simple. Two were questions of authenticity, and one that focused on why. The Dyatlov Pass Incident, however, has all the earmarks of a true mystery.
The tent was the first thing to be found. It was facing north-south, with the entrance facing south and the north part covered with 15-20 cm of snow. The snow appeared to come from the blowing wind and not a sudden avalanche. The individual who found the tent claims he found a flashlight on the tent, but this was laying on top of 10 cm of snow. The tent had been cut from the inside and the entrance/exit was still fastened closed. The hikers had to have escaped the tent through the cuts made on the side. Most of the belongings of the hikers were found inside the tent.
Next, they found footprints leading downhill, though they were of people in socks or bare feet. There was the remains of a small fire under a cedar tree, with branches broken up to 5 meters up the tree.
The first body was found under the tree, close to the remains of the fire. Identified as Doroshenko, he had burns on his head and foot, minor cuts and bruises, dried blood on his face, and a gray foam substance on his cheeks, indicated a pulmonary edema. His cause of death was determined to be hypothermia. Just nearby was the body of Krivonishchenko, who had similar minor cuts and bruises and was missing the tip of his nose. He had burns on his hands and a chunk of his knuckle was missing. It was later found in his mouth. His cause of death was hypothermia. Igor Dyatlov, the leader of the group (for whom the pass would later be named), was found 300m up the slope back towards the tent. He had minor cuts and bruises, a missing tooth, and blood on his lips. His cause of death was hypothermia. His watch had stopped at 5:31 AM. Kolmogorova was found face down, 630m up the hill from the cedar tree, closest to the tent. She had minor cuts and bruises and a large blunt force bruise of unknown origin. Her cause of death was hypothermia.
Slobodin wasn’t found until March 5th, between Kolmogorova and Dyatlov on the hill. He was wearing one boot, had similar minor wounds, and a fractured the skull. The fractured skull, however, was not serious enough to cause death. His cause of death was determined to be hypothermia.
The last four hikers were not found until two months later, when the area began to thaw. They were found in a 6ft ravine. Kolevatov was found to have died of hypothermia, but had a broken nose and was missing his eyes and the soft tissue around them, likely from animal predation. His clothes were found at a later time to have traces of radioactivity. He and Zolotaryov, the one non-student member and the most experienced hiker of the group, were embraced, likely trying to preserve body heat. He died from a crushed chest and had pen and paper in hand, but was never able to write his message. Thibeaux-Brignolle was nearby died from an impact to his skull. And Dubinina died of a crushing injury to her chest and her eyes, tongue, and soft tissue was missing. She had blood in her stomach and radioactivity on her clothes (found later). The region itself was also said to have signs of radioactivity, though I could only find confirmation of the clothing. I wasn’t able to determine how they originally discovered there was radiation.
So, what happened? As you can imagine, the theories range from mundane to ludicrous. The sheer amount of theories cannot be truly managed here, but there are a few categories of theory.
One of the possibilities of a more mundane nature is that the camp was met with foul play. One theory posits some of the hikers were double agents, transporting radioactive samples and searching for CIA agents reportedly in the area. However, something went wrong and the CIA agents attacked. However, it seems very unlikely. If they were transporting radioactive samples, why were only their clothes radioactive? And the theory points the finger at Zolotaryov, Kolevatov, and Krivonishchenko as being the spies. But only Kolevatov of the group had radioactive clothes. The other was Dubinina. Why did they cut themselves out of their tent? Why did six of them die of hypothermia? It explains very little.
Another theory claims they were mistaken for fugitives from the gulags or witnesses to something they shouldn’t have seen. The primary piece of evidence for this is that the region had gulags and Yuri Yudin, the survivor, claimed a piece of clothing was here that did not belong to anyone in the group. The piece of clothing was widely used among soldiers in the 40s and later among gulag prisoners. It later disappeared from the evidence room. This theory explains very little and the fact that Zolotaryov, a WWII veteran, had joined the group last minute is an easy explanation for how this piece of clothing got there. It is unlikely Yudin had a photographic memory of his compatriot’s clothing items, especially if they were underclothes.
The indigenous people of the region, the Mansi, attacked the group, one theory says. However, they were an easy scapegoat and they would have no reason to. The area was not special to the Mansi. And all the belongings were left behind, so it wasn’t robbery.
Another was an altercation between the hikers, but that explains very little. Why would everyone have died? Why did most of them die of hypothermia? Why did all of them leave the tent? There is also no evidence they had ill will towards each other.
There are two things about the Dyatlov Pass Incident that really stoke the fires of those who believe in a supernatural explanation: the signs of radiation and an image from Thibeaux-Brignolles’s camera. The yeti attack theory is given weight by local legends among the Mansi people of such a creature, but doesn’t explain much of the other parts. Why did most die of hypothermia? Why was the most severe injuries crushing injuries, not slash marks or bite marks? Why did they cut out of their tent instead of the yeti ripping into it? There are many things wrong with this theory. Why did they stop to build a fire?
As far as UFOs, this one is extremely popular. A UFO scared them from their tent and is the cause for the radiation. I still don’t understand the explanation of the fire, the broken cedar branches, hypothermia, etc. Part of the intrigue comes from Lev Ivanov, the man in charge of the investigation at the time, making claims in the early 1990s about forest treetops being burned and being forced to take out the pictures Mansi hunters had given of flying spheres. Ivanov was paid for the interview where he gave this information. He was also a proponent of freak ball lightning in 1959. And the man that forced Ivanov to take out the mentions of the UFOs was obsessed with UFOs.
Nature is the most likely culprit here. An avalanche is unlikely, due to the slope of the mountain they were on, the small amount of snow found on the tent, and this not being an avalanche prone area. The footprints would have been wiped away, the group would not have been able to outrun an avalanche either. The most likely scenario: katabatic wind.
Katabatic means “descending” wind. It is also called gravity wind. It is a phenomenon occurs over ice sheets or cooled mountain areas, including the topography of the Dyatlov Pass area. This hurricane-force wind can reach up to 81 meters/second and happen suddenly, without warning like a storm. This phenomenon often occurs at night. One such wind killed skiers in Sweden in 1978, when a wind erupted out of a calm day at 20 meters/second. They abandoned their camp, most died of exposure, and their bodies were found with minor injuries. The bodies were found at intervals that led away from a hastily-constructed snow shelter. The difference here is that one person survived.
In 2019, Swedish adventurers and local guides followed the path of the hikers to replicate the exact trip of the hikers. They went out at the same time of year, followed the same path, with the same supplies. They experienced extreme and unpredictable changes in weather. The Swedish adventurers then came up with the katabatic wind theory. This is supported by situational evidence.
- After a tiring day of hiking, the tent was pitched hastily with standing skis and was not angled on the gradient as it should have been.
- A gale-force wind swept down the gradient of the mountain, threatening to rip apart their tent, and they cut their way out of the tent for speed and shoveled snow on top of the tent to hold it down in the strong winds, using what they had – their bare hands.
- They left a flashlight on top of their tent as they evacuated to act as a beacon to guide them back to camp.
- They went down the slope to seek shelter in the trees and lower elevation from the winds on the mountain. They were buffeted by debris lifted by the strong winds.
- The three found on the slope died where they fell as they descended the mountain without shoes in light clothing: Slobodin, Kolmogora, and Dyatlov.
- Doroshenko, a notoriously brave man, and Krivonishchenko took responsibility for constructing a fire, with Doroshenko climbing the cedar tree to break off branches for the fire. The other four were to build shelters in the ravine to shield them from the winds. The wicked winds would explain the burns or collapsing into the fire as they succumbed to hypothermia. Krivonishchenko’s knuckle injury was from biting it to stay conscious.
- The remaining four members went into the ravine and huddled together in a snow shelter. But the snow shelter collapsed onto them, crushing the last four members. Dubinina had been crawling into the shelter when it collapsed on all of them. Soft tissue decomposition happens naturally, particularly in water. The individuals in the ravine had been in water and refroze during melting and freezing periods.
What of the radioactivity? Kolevatov was a student of nuclear physics and he could have come into contact with radioactive materials. Dubinina was an engineering and ecnomics major. There was also the fact that it was 2 months later before the bodies with radioactive traces were found. And there were several possibilities for contamination. Only beta particles were found, and they are used in product testing to determine the thickness of an item and these particles can be transferred to said item. Perhaps this was done on the clothes or on the tarp the students were carried in. The radioactivity appears to be little more than a red herring, leading people away from the most logical conclusion.
As is usually the case with mysteries.