The accident at the Dyatlov pass: the most disturbing alpine mystery of the 20th century
The Dyatlov Pass accident is one of the most disturbing and mysterious death cases in the history of world alpinism, and its history has developed countless debates and hypotheses, first on paper and then on the web.
It all started in February of ’59, when nine Russian hikers started climbing to Mount Otorten…
The boys, aged between 21 and 25 years old (besides Zolotarëv, the only out-of-quota with 38 years), were all experienced hikers, certainly accustomed to life in harsh climates, graduates (or undergraduates) at the Polytechnic Institute of the Urals. The departure date was January 25, when the train journey began, which took them to Ivdel, in the northern province of Sverdlovsk. From there they left for Vizhai aboard a truck where they reached the beginning of the walk towards Mount Otorten on January 27th. The group consisted of the ski instructor Aleksandr Aleksandrovič Zolotarëv, three engineers (Rustem Vladimirovič Slobodin, Jurij Alekseevič Krivoniščenko, Nikolai Vasil’evič Thibeaux-Brignolles), five students (Jurij Nikolaevič Dorošenko, Zinaida Alekseevna Kolmogorova, Ljudmila Aleksandrovna Dubinina, Aleksandr Sergeevič Kolevatov , Jurij Efimovič Judin), and the leader of the expedition Igor Alekseevič Djatlov, who will give his name to the mountain pass. Judin was the only member of the expedition to abandon the group prematurely, due to a sudden illness that stopped him shortly before the climb to the Estorten.
All the members were expert skiers, and the excursion was partly planned for walking routes and partly for cross-country trails. After crossing frozen lakes and a snow desert, the group began to move towards the mountain pass on February 1st. Although they had planned to camp on the southern side of the Oortorten, a storm drove them to the west slope called “Khola Syakhi” on Mount Cholatčachl, which also means Death Mountain in the Mansi language. Realizing immediately the mistake in the choice of the place of the camp, they established a field on a frozen slope and not in a forest area, which would certainly have offered them a greater shelter.
Judi, the downstream member, later commented on the choice, claiming that Dyatlov did not want to lose the ground he conquered when climbing to the summit. The films found later show a happy and euphoric group, and a breathtaking landscape that enveloped them. Several evidences show the times in which they camped, 5 pm, and where they dined, around 7 pm, before settling down for the night with temperatures that would reach -30 ° C.
The story told so far lists a series of facts verified by the investigators. What happened later is not clear, but the police who conducted the investigations hypothesized that the events that followed began to take place between 9.30pm and 11.30pm. It is important, before dealing with a disquisition on the hypotheses, to accurately list the facts we know to be certain, or how the boys were found by the researchers.
Dyatlov, leader of the expedition, agreed with the acquaintances and family members of the group that he would telegraph his position once he returned to Vižaj, in a period between February 10th and 14th. Excursions of this kind, especially in an era of Alpine pioneering like the 50s of the 20th Century, provided a certain margin of tolerance for the days of walking and for the actual stay in the mountains.
The parents of the 9 boys, alarmed by the lack of news, contacted the authorities, who moved on February 20 in search of the group. The police, the army but also students and teachers of the Ural Polytechnic departed for the Oraorten, hoping to find survivors among the 9 missing. The authorities arranged the use of means such as helicopters and airplanes for the search for hikers, and on February 26th the tent, now empty and destroyed, was finally found on the Cholatčachl’.
From the tent set off a series of footprints leading to a nearby grove, which stood on the opposite side of the pass. The footprints were interrupted abruptly after about 500 meters from the tent, in the snow. At the edge of the forest, the rescue team found traces of a fire under a large cedar tree, along with the bodies of the first two hikers: Jurij Dorošenko and Jurii Krivoniščenko. The two were naked, except for their underwear…
In the path that separated the tree from the base camp, the researchers found Djatlov, Zina Kolmogorova and Rustem Slobodin, all three stretched out as if to reach the empty tent. The corpses were very distant from each other, precisely at 300, 480 and 630 meters away from the Cedar. Slobodin was the body found closer to the base camp. The first five bodies were found relatively early, but of the four remaining hikers, vanished into thin air, there was no news for over two months.
On May 4, 1959 the corpses of Thibeaux-Brignolle, Dubinina, Zolotarëv and Kolevatov were found, buried under about two meters of snow in a ravine dug by a small river inside the forest where the boys had entered as soon as they left the tent. About half a kilometer away was the cedar tree with the other corpses.
The first five corpses, found in the woods, showed evidence of a death from hypothermia, except for Slobodin who had a cranial fracture, anyway considered too small to have caused his end. The four corpses found in the gorge greatly complicated the develoment of the investigation. Dubinina and Zolotarev had a severely damaged body, with several ribs fractured by a force that doctors called “like that of a violent traffic accident”. Thibeaux-Brignolle showed signs of a potentially deadly cranial fracture. The woman was also found without tongue, with a part of jaw and both eyes missing. All three corpses were free of external abrasions, as if the force that had wounded them had been “supported” and not a shock. All the clothes found showed high / very high levels of radioactivity. Mysterious fragments of unidentified scrap metal were found at the site of the accident. Later another group that was in the area testified to having seen strange objects like “orange spheres” passing in the sky, like those that were sighted in Ivdel in the following months by several people, including members of the army and the meteorological service Soviet. The authorities later claimed to be R-7 missiles.
What happened to the boys is not clear, but some clear evidence led the investigators to hypothesize the movements of the hikers. The first event, an unknown danger but which the 9 thought evidently mortal, made the boys leave the tent between 9.30 and 11.30 pm and had them leave behind them coats, shoes and provisions. It is good to remember that the boys, despite their young age, were all expert hikers, accustomed to harsh climates and well aware of the consequences of getting out of a tent at -30°C completely naked or poorly equipped. Their footprints in the snow show that initially they headed down a slope towards the great Cedar at the edge of the wood, under which they tried to cover themselves as best they could before lighting a fire. There occurred a controversial episode: the evidence showed that Doroshenko and Krivonischenko climbed the tree to see beyond the snowstorm, but the climb caused their exposure to the cold that the investigators judged the cause of their death, before that of others. Dyatlov, Slobodin and Kolmogorova then attempted to return to the tent, but died on the way to hypothermia. The remaining four members stripped their dead companions to try to cover themselves from the cold, but they found their end in the crevice carved by the stream. Zolotariov was the last member of the company to die for a combination of trauma and hypothermia.
The investigation was closed years later, but death was immediately classified as “caused by a mysterious and unknown force”. The area was completely closed to excursions for 3 years after the accident, even if the reason was not explained. The investigations were carried out noqt exactly in a workmanlike manner, as was common at the time, and several details remain unknown or unclear. One of the most relevant aspects of the findings was the absence of signs of collusion in the corpses, which could explain their death.
The hypotheses that were made include:
– The “paradoxical undress” is a phenomenon that could explain why 6 of the 9 skiers died of hypothermia, and is a circumstance that is found in 25% of the victims of hypothermia, who undress by feeling a false sense of heat.
– An attack by the locals, the Mansi, who would have pushed the boys out of the tent (which was however torn from within). The doctor who examined the corpses with trauma said that it could not be injuries caused by any “human” force. In addition, the Mansi would have to cancel their tracks on the snow, while those of the boys were clearly evident.
– Judin, miraculously escaping the tragedy, argued at a 2008 conference that his friends entered a field of land-based military testing, and the weapons surprised them and wounded them during the night.
– Many mountaineers claim that the group’s death could be linked to a “Paranoia for the Avalanche”. The 9 would have heard a roar like an avalanche of snow and would have escaped through the trees looking for shelter, and later getting lost in the darkness of the night.
– Donnie Eichar has hypothesized a series of natural events that would have contributed to creating a “perfect storm”, with numerous micro tornadoes of devastating force that would have forced the 9 out of the tent to find shelter in the trees. The event would have also caused the generation of infrasound, frequencies unearthable by the human ear but which would have made all walkers fall into a confused state. Without sleep, breathlessness and panic attacks, the boys of the Dyatlov pass would fall prey to a mad and confusing state, which would lead them to death.
The journalist Anatoly Guschin hypothesized that the deaths were due to the experimentation of a Soviet Secret Weapon, and speak about it in his 1990 book “The price of state secrets is nine lives”.
Some Soviet investigators claimed that the group was the object of an alien attack, and that the orange spheres were UFOs passing through the area.
The main difficulty in supporting one or the other hypothesis is the absence of signs of scuffling, of traces of animals or men, or any real hypothesis that may have prompted 9 expert hikers to get out of the tent and to find the certain death among the distant trees. Any hypothesis, having no direct testimony of events, remains as plausible as that of an attack by a Siberian Yeti.
The 2014 film “Devil’s Pass”, starts from the story of the crash at the Dyatlov Pass: