It was January 1959: still the heart of the cruel Siberian winter when nine students ventured into the snow-clad wilds towards Kholat Syakhl, the Mountain of Death. They would never return alive. The mystery surrounding their deaths has never been satisfactorily explained to this day.
Preparing for the Trip: The Team and the Plan
The original team of eight men and two women, students and graduates from the Ural Polytechnical Institute (now known as Ural Federal University) in Yekaterinburg were all young, fit and well equipped for their expedition: a long distance ski trip through the northern Urals.
The planned route was to climb Gora Otorten and then travel 100 km southwards along the main ridge of the Urals to Ojkachahl Peak. Fom here the plan was to follow the northern Toshemka River passing 100 km east of Vishay. In 1959, lacking today’s state of the art technology, this was a challenging and ambitious skiing route to undertake.
The intrepid team was as follows:
- Igor Dyatlov (23), of the Radio faculty and a highly experienced outdoorsman;
- Yuri Doroshenko (21) Power Economics student;
- Lyudmila Dubinina (20) Economics student;
- Georgiy Krivonischenko (23) Engineering student;
- Alexander Kolevatov (24) of the Geo-Technical Faculty;
- Zinaida Kolmogorova (22) of the Radio faculty;
- Rustem Slobodin (23) Engineering student;
- Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolles (23) Engineering student;
- Semyon (Alexander) Zolotarev (37) – the oldest member of the group. He was a tour guide and ski instructor / professional travel guide. He was trying to obtain his Master’s Certificate in ski instruction and mountain hiking. The tragic incident occurred the night before his 38th birthday;
- Yuri Yudin (21) – Economics student, the only survivor, as he was suffering from lumbago and had to turn back three days before the incident. He passed away in 2013.
(Left to right) Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolle, Luda Dubinina, Semyon Zolotarev and Zina Kolmogorova
Timeline of Events
25 January: they arrive by train at the town of Ivdel in Sverdlovsk Oblast, where they spend the night.
26 January: they catch a lift with a truck which takes them northwards to Vizhay, the last inhabited settlement in the area, where they sleep over.
27 January: they begin their cross country skiing trek which is expected to take at least two weeks.
28 January: Yuri Yudin is reluctantly forced to withdraw due to pain and illness (lumbago). Little does he know how lucky he is or that this would be the last time he would see any of his fellow adventurers alive.
31 January: The group arrives at the highland zone where they plan to leave the river and head upwards. They cache spare supplies and equipment for their return trip, in a sheltered wooded valley.
1 February: Although they only cover about 2.5 miles today, a steep incline through the forest combined with snow and weather conditions make it a tough challenge. They deviate slightly west of their intended route through the pass and reach Kholat-Syakhl (= Mountain of the Dead in Mansi) where they set up camp. They decide to camp on the mountain slope instead of heading downhill for 1.5 km to a forested area offering better shelter, probably not wanting to lose the altitude they’ve already gained.
They take some photographs and all seem in a happy, optimistic frame of mind. After all, they are young, healthy and enjoying the bracing outdoors. They are now above the tree line and skiing should become easier the next day. They are ten kilometres from their next objective: the mountain of Gora Otorten (= Don’t go There in Mansi).
At least some of them retire for the night, relaxed enough to sleep in their underwear despite outside temperatures as low as -18 to -25 C. (I’ve slept in tents in Drakensberg conditions where I was cold enough to wear all my thermal clothes and it was nowhere near that!)
1 February, sometime between 9.30 and 11.30 pm: Something they see or hear scares the group so much that some of them panic and instead of exiting the tent by unzipping the flaps in the regular way, they cut through the sides using a knife and flee into the night, downhill towards the trees and ending up a whole mile away. They don’t even grab a flashlight or two with them in their headlong flight, which would have made it easier to relocate their camp in the darkness.
What did they see or hear which made them panic so and leave the tent for almost certain death?
They couldn’t have seen anything from within the tent unless there was some form of light produced by whatever it was. What can be seen from within a tent and is able to produce light?
- People with flashlights
- Military activities
- Lightning (unlikely in the conditions)
What could they have heard rather than seen, which produced panic in these experienced outdoorsmen?
- People’s voices
- Wolves howling or bears snuffling about (but bears hibernate in winter)
- Alien or Yeti voices or activity
- Military activity
- Plane crash or similar (no evidence of such)
- Ultrasonic sounds (described further on in more detail)
At the edge of the woods they make a fire, knowing this won’t help them much in the sub-Arctic temperatures.
Georgiy Krivonischenko and Yuri Doroshenko die from hypothermia in the extreme cold.
Igor Dyatlev, Zina Kolmogorova and Rustem Slobodin attempt to return to the tent but don’t make it. They freeze to death and their bodies are later found 400m, 480m and 630m from the large tree.
The remaining members of the party take clothes from their fallen comrades and instead of moving towards the tent they move away from it, towards a ravine. Once again we wonder what frightening phenomenon was preventing them returning to their warm tent. Three sustain several injuries and these, combined with hypothermia, cause their deaths.
12 February: The initial time they were to return to Vizhay, but Igor Dyatlov told Yuri Yudin it would more likely be around the 14th. Thus no alarm is raised at this time.
It was only on 20 February that concerned relatives of the skiers managed to get a group from the Polytechnic Institute to begin a search. There was no mountain search and rescue unit available at the time. Volunteers from the Institute search but don’t find anything at first.
21 February: finally military and civilian officials are brought into the search. Planes and helicopters are dispatched. The pilot of a plane spots the camp. Now that they have an idea where to look foot searches can now begin.
26 February: They find the tent with everything inside intact but no sign of life. Warm clothes, cooking utensils, cameras… all abandoned. Student Mikhail Sharavin said the tent was half torn down and covered with snow (though not enough to suggest an avalanche).
The tracks discovered near the tent show that they were made by people wearing only socks, barefoot or only one shoe – strange indeed for the extreme weather conditions. In addition to the sub zero temperature the wind of 10-15 km would have dramatically increased the wind chill factor.
The bodies of Krivonischenko and Doroshenko, clad only in their underwear, are found at the forest edge where there was evidence that they made a fire. They were lying under a cedar with branches broken off it to a height of 5m. Forensic evidence led to the belief that they first climbed the tree and then proceeded to break off branches until their hands were raw. We are forced to ask Why did they do this? Stripping the branches off a tree would hardly make it any easier to climb.
300m from the fire, the body of Igor Dyatlov is found, one hand clutching a small birch branch and the other shielding his face as though from a blow.
180m further towards the tent the body of Rustem Slobodin is found. He is lying face down in the snow and has a minor skull fracture about 17cm in length, but this isn’t considered a major injury.
150m further towards the tent, the body of Zina Kolmorogorov is found. She appears to have got the furthest before succumbing to the cold.
4 May 1959: Only now, after three months are the rest of the group found, in a ravine under four metres of snow. These bodies are better clad than the first group, and indicate that they made use of extra clothes from the bodies of their dead comrades.
Lyudmila Dubinina’s body has a number of broken ribs, one of which may have pierced her heart. Her tongue and (eyes too, according to some reports) are missing. (could this have been from a predator scavenging on the body after her death?)
The body of Semyon Zolotarev has broken ribs on the right side. Thibeaux-Brignolles’ body has major skull trauma. So the group found in the ravine has visible and serious internal injuries, but not the group which was making its way back to the tent and whose bodies were found on 26 February. It is concluded that six died from hypothermia and three (Dubinina, Zolotarev and Thibeaux-Brignolle) from fatal injuries.
None of the bodies had signs of external trauma or injuries.
The clothes on two of the bodies had traces of radiation. There is a theory that even changing the mantle on their camping lantern could have caused this if it was manufactured using thorium. This served as the wick in lanterns manufactured at the time and they emit alpha particle radiation to the extent that warnings were put on the packaging. These wicks literally turn to dust fragments when handled and could account for low level radiation on clothes of a few members of the group.
Other explanations for the presence of radiation include military tests and the UFO angle.
The Official Investigation: Cover-Ups?
The chief investigator, Lev Ivanov, was baffled by the events and could find no definitive answers. His hastily compiled report describes “an unknown elemental force which they were unable to overcome”. He told people in his private capacity that he believed they encountered aliens in a UFO. An unusual claim for a sober former police officer to make!
He hadn’t changed his opinion thirty-one years later in 1990, when he published an article reiterating that his team had found no rational explanation. His team had reported seeing flying spheres in the area but he received direct orders from high ranking local officials to dismiss this claim and not include it in his report.
Possible Scenarios / Solutions to the Mystery:
Wolves or Bears: No animal tracks were found, although these would likely have been obscured by subsequent snow. They certainly weren’t attacked by such although they may have been scared enough to flee. Not regarded as likely.
Avalanche: Quite a number of people believe this to be plausible, although they are uncommon in the area where the events happened. The tent wasn’t buried by tons of snow and there was no evidence of one. However, according to writer Benjamin Radford, it is a very likely explanation. Maybe the entrance to the tent was covered and they had to dig their way out, or believed an avalanche was imminent and they needed to find shelter from it. He believes they got separated in the snow and darkness and that the four who were found in the ravine, were caught in an avalanche and swept into it, which would explain their terrible internal injuries.
Since the incident, over a hundred expeditions have taken place in the area and none of these reported avalanche conditions. They mostly occur on steeper slopes and during April or May when snows are melting.
The tent collapsed laterally rather than horizontally, as it should have had it been caught in an avalanche.
Experienced hikers would never have camped in an area where there was an avalanche risk.
Yet a modern tourism brochure for the area warns of the possibility of avalanches on any slopes steeper than 15 degrees. The area where they camped was on a slope of 22-23 degrees.
So the jury is still out on an avalanche being the culprit.
“Karman Vortex Street”: This highly unusual and original theory, initiated by filmmaker Donnie Eichar states that under rare conditions a low frequency infrasound caused by wind could induce panic and make them flee. Certain weather phenomena can also cause infrasound, including storms and seismic activity. But I have serious doubts such a phenomenon could have affected the entire party. But Donnie Eichar travelled to the area and held extensive interviews with interested parties including Yuri Yudin, so we can’t discount his theory as being too far- fetched. This theory, and examples of it, need further research!
Military Activities or Accident: No evidence exists of such activities within a large radius of the camp. Some people believe a misfiring missile or low flying jet could have scared the group.
Evidence however exists that parachute mines were being tested in the general area. These could also have been observed from afar as orbs. Parachute mines detonate a metre or two before hitting the ground and could have caused internal injuries such as the ravine party showed.
In those days accidents were routinely erased from all records. Twenty years after the Dyatlov incident, there was a fatal release of anthrax from a germ warfare research institute in the Urals. The KGB seized all hospital records so they could pretend such a mishap never happened.
Paradoxical Undressing: This is a symptom of hypothermia in which victims remove their clothes due to a perceived feeling of excessive warmth. But this is inconsistent with the facts. Six died from hypothermia later, but conditions inside the tent would not have been cold enough to induce hypothermia.
Attack by Mansi: This was part of their sacred lands and they may have been unhappy with people venturing onto it. But no other footprints were found apart from those of the campers. Unlikely they would have wanted to venture out at night in sub zero temperatures, just in order to kill, or scare off, intruders.
Attack by escaped prisoners: There were gulags in the area, but desperate people would have taken food and other stuff necessary for survival from the tent and there would have been footprints of extra people at the campsite. Nothing significant was missing from the tent.
One of the group went mad and attacked the others: No evidence for this. Although such a danger would come from inside the tent, there were six other men to overpower him had this happened. I’ve seen this unlikely theory proposed in a comment on one website, but it doesn’t accord with the established facts.
Attack by Yeti or aliens: Unlikely without further evidence. Other campers about 50km to the south reported observing strange spheres to the north. Such spheres or orbs were also reported in the Ivdel area at the time by various independent sources as well as the meteorology service and the military.
But we don’t have a link between these sightings and what happened. Maybe they did have such an encounter and run off into the night to freeze to death, as many people are frightened of the “X” factor.
Another writer postulates that only five of the party ran away in a panic and got split up. Rustem Slobodin fell and injured his head. The other three made a fire in the shelter of the woods. Lost and disoriented, unable to find the camp they all died from hypothermia. The remaining four began a search for them as soon as conditions allowed, but after a lengthy search got caught in an avalanche and swept down the ravine.
My problem with that scenario is that the other five would immediately have mounted a search to help their friends once they had put on enough warm clothes and collected flashlights and other emergency equipment. They would have been perfectly aware their friends wouldn’t survive wearing just their underwear.
Plus this would imply that Dyatlov, the leader, was one of the five who panicked when a leader is usually the one to stay calm in a crisis.
Why did at least one of them climb a tree? To look for the campsite, or to observe activities by the tent such as snuffling Yetis, curious prying aliens or guards from a gulag searching for escaped prisoners? Were they waiting for whatever it was to leave so they could return?
Similarities to the Mary Celeste (link)
Nine people (plus one infant) leave the safety of their seaworthy ship and, in apparent panic, quickly board a flimsy rowboat which is much more likely to swamp in the open sea;
Nine young but experienced people hastily and inexplicably abandon the warmth and shelter of their tent at night for the mercy of the elements at temperatures well below zero which would kill them in hours.
The place where they camped is now known as Dyatlov Pass in honour of the young leader whose trip ended in such tragedy and mystery.
For safety and security reasons access to the region by casual travellers was forbidden for the next three to four years.
Yuri Yarovoi, a writer from Sverdlovsk, who assisted with the search and took photos, wrote a fictionalized account of the events. After his death in a motor accident in 1980 all his records relating to the incident went astray. This was of course a number of years before the fall of the old regime.
As Russia gradually became more open following the collapse of the communist system, the files relating to the incident were made public, but some data had gone missing.
Boris Yeltsin attended the same college as the unfortunate students. He suspected a cover-up had prevented the truth from coming out. Even if no sinister military or other activities were involved, concealing the truth was second nature to Communist-era officials. When Yeltsin became president he made every effort to find out what really happened that fateful night. Even his determined investigations failed to find definitive answers to the sad events of 1959.
Early in the 21st century a Yekaterinburg writer, Anna Matveyeva, published a book named The Mystery of Dyatlov Pass. Although fictionalized, she used a great deal of the official documentation to research her book and is considered extremely authoritative.
The Dyatlov Foundation based in Yekaterinburg and led by Yuri Kuntsevitch has been established as well as the Dyatlov Museum. The aim of the Foundation is to convince current Russian officials to reopen the case and also retain the memories of the nine victims of the strange events.
Fast forward to 2016: New Mystery
January 2016: Russia Today reports a hiker found dead in his tent in the same area where the infamous events of 1959 unfolded. This recent event is also shrouded in mystery. The body was discovered by a group of nine tourist hikers on 1 January. Due to poor weather, contact with the group was lost for some days. The area remains extremely remote and somewhat sinister to this day.
It was speculated that the body was that of a 46 year old man called Oleg who lived in a small shepherd’s cottage, yet other reports state the body was found in a tent!
So we are left to speculate on what event led to the deaths of those nine young people and whether there is indeed any reason why the Mansi people gave the two remote peaks such ominous names.