The Dyatlov Pass Mystery

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In February 1959 a group of nine Russian hikers died in bizarre circumstances in a remote area of the Ural Mountains. Some of the group died of hypothermia while others were killed by massive injuries caused by unknown circumstances. The trip was well organised, well equipped and most of the members of the group were experienced hikers and members of a skiing and mountaineering club of the Ural Polytechnic Institute (UPI) in Sverdlosk (which has now reverted to its pre-Communist era name of Yekaterinburg). Despite all the planning and preparations, some unknown disaster overtook the group while they camped on the snowy slopes of a remote mountain.

There have been a number of theories about what happened to the group. These range from the fairly mundane (avalanche, mental confusion brought about by hypothermia) to the odd (accidentally killed during a Russian military secret weapon test, killed by Russian Special Forces after witnessing a secret military experiment, killed by escaped prisoners from a gulag) to the seemingly completely bonkers (alien attack, attack by an enraged Yeti). You will find a number of books and websites covering this mystery, but unfortunately most have a particular solution in mind and vehemently reject anything that doesn’t support their theory. Instead, I want to try to look dispassionately at this case and see if we can work out what may have happened. This is a complex case (as well as one of the strangest I have ever investigated) so this article is longer than most. Stick with it and I’ll think you’ll find it interesting.

Warning: In this article you will find photographs of the bodies of some of the hikers. I believe that showing these helps us to understand what happened but some people may find these distressing.

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Most of the photographs in this section are taken from reels of film discovered in the abandoned tent of the dead hikers and developed later by investigators.

Walking and skiing clubs were very popular in Communist Russia in the 1950s. The country was emerging from the effects war-time austerity and the new regime under Nikita Khrushchev which had come to power following Stalin’s death in 1953 provided ordinary people with more opportunities for leisure activities including what came to be called “sports-tourism”. Young people in particular seemed to relish the opportunity to escape into the freedom of the outdoors, far from parental and Party control.

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The Ural Polytechnic Institute in Sverdlosk, 1959. Photo taken by one of the hikers just before they left on their trip.

The students at the Ural Polytechnic Institute in Sverdlosk were no exception and the Skiing and Mountaineering Club there was very popular. In early January 1959 a group of ten undergraduate and post-graduate students planned an arduous three-week trip to the Ural Mountains to celebrate the 21st Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union which was due to take place from 27th January – 5th February. The group of young people, all aged from 21 – 24, comprised eight men and two women. The focus of the trek was to be an ascent of Mount Oroten (1,234 meters) which was more than one hundred kilometres of tough walking and skiing from the nearest road or habitation. The trip was classified as a Category III (the most difficult and challenging) and Igor Alekseievich Dyatlov, an engineering student and experienced walker and skier, was elected the leader of the group. In late January another man, 38 year old Semyon (Alexander) Alekseevich Zolotarev, an ex-soldier and student at the Minsk Institute of Physical Education who had experience of working as a hiking guide, was introduced to Dyatlov and it was agreed that he would also join the group.

The Group

Igor Dyatlov, 22, Group leader and engineering student

Zinaida Kolmogorova, 22, Radio Engineering Student

Rustem Slobodin, 23, graduated from UPI earlier in 1959 in engineering

Lyudmila Dubinina, 21, engineering and economics student

Aleksander Kolevatov, 25, physics student

Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolle, 25, graduated from UPI in 1958 in civil engineering

Yuri Doroshenko, 21, engineering student

Yuri Krivonishenko, 24, graduated from UPI earlier in 1959 in engineering

Yuri Yudin, 22, engineering student

Nicolai Popov, 22, engineering student

Semen Zolotarev, 38, ex-soldier, ex-student of Minsk Institute of Physical Education, ex-hiking guide

On the evening of January 23rd the group took an overnight train from Sverdlosk to the small town of Serov, 200 miles to the north. However, Nicolai Popov missed the train and so the group that arrived in Serov comprised just ten people and not the expected eleven. After spending the day in Serov, the group took another train to the even smaller town of Ivdel, the furthest north that it was possible to travel by train, arriving there just after midnight on 25th January. Later that day they took a bus to the village of Vizhay, arriving there at around 2:00pm.

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The group in Vizhay with local people and soldiers. Igor Dyatlov, the group leader, is second from the right.

They spent the night of the 25th at a rather run-down hotel in Vizhay before climbing into the back of an open truck on the 26th for a journey to the 41st kvartal, a temporary workcamp deep in the forest. It was a long, cold and probably miserable journey and by the time that they arrived at their private room in the local woodcutters hostel, Yuri Yudin had become unwell.

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In the truck for the trip to 41st kvartal.

On the 27th January the group hired a local man (and ex-convict) Stanislav Valyukyavichus to transport their equipment on his horse and cart to the second severny, an abandoned geologists’ camp around twenty kilometers away from 41st kvartal. When they arrived there in the late afternoon, only one of the twenty buildings was in good condition and so all of them (plus Stanislav Valyukyavichus) spent the night there. On the morning of the 28th they prepared to begin the long journey that would take them to Mount Oroten. However, Yuri Yudin’s condition had worsened and he decided that he would not be able to make the long hike to the mountain. Yudin returned to the 41st kvartal on Valyukyavichus’ cart and from there made his way back to Sverdlovsk, arriving there on 31st January.

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27th January. The group travel from 41st kvartal to second severny with Stanislav Valyukyavichus and his horse and cart. Yuri Yudin is lagging behind in the background.

The only information we have on what happened to the group between this point and their final camp site comes from their photographs and journals which were recovered later. Several members of the group had personal diaries and the group also kept the “Group Journal” a formal account of the trip which was presumably intended to be handed in to the hiking club when they returned to Sverdlovsk. The Group Journal contained mainly details of weather, route and brief details of each camp. Members took it in turn to complete this journal. The hikers also occasionally produced a handwritten magazine, the “Evening Oroten” which contained a humorous account of the trip. It appears that all writing was done during the long evenings in the tent (it was dark from 4:45pm to around 8:00am).

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Second severny. The group spent the night in the building on the right.

In addition to the various journals, four cameras were recovered from the tent along with several rolls of exposed film. The exposed rolls and the films in the cameras were developed after the death of the hikers and used by investigators to try and understand what had happened from the 28th January. A fifth camera was found round the neck of the body of Semen Zolotarev but this had been immersed in water for three months by the time it was found and no photographs were recovered. It’s worth noting that Yuri Yudin claims that there should have been several more cameras – he said that almost everyone in the group had their own camera. However these are not mentioned in the investigation report and no photographs from them have been found.

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Zinaida Kolmogorova says goodbye to Yuri Yudin at second severny, watched by Semen Zolotarev.

The final group of nine walked north from second severny, following the route of the River Lozva, and made camp at around 5:00pm on 28th January. The weather was cold (-8°C) but clear and they made good progress. That evening the group celebrated Yuri Doroshenko’s birthday by giving him a mandarin orange, which were rare in Russia at that time and usually given as New Year gifts. Doroshenko insisted on sharing the mandarin with seven of the group – for some reason Lyudmila Dubinina was sulking in the tent and refused to join in.

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Following the Lovsa River. 28th or 29th January. Yuri Doroshenko is in front, followed by Semen Zolotarev and Rustem Slobodin. Lyudmila Dubinina watches.

On the 29th January the weather was colder (-13°C) but still clear and the group walked from the River Lozva to the River Auspia, again making good progress and making camp around 5:00. While walking, they used a trail cut by the indigenous people, the Mansi, and they stopped several times on the way to examine and photograph the signs that the Mansi had cut into trees.

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Zinaida Kolmogorova writes in her diary during a pause in the trek. Semen Zolotarev is behind.

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The last entry in Zinaida Kolmogorova’s diary. This is dated 30.2.59, but this must be an error. By 30th February, Zinaida had been dead for one month. It is presumed that this should read 30.1.59. The entry reads:

30.2.59 Following Auspi River. Mansi trail ended. Coniferous Forest. Sun in the morning and now cloudy. The whole day went along Auspi River. Kohl’s not forced to be on duty and we all help. Burned mittens and 2nd Yurkino sweatshirt. He swears all the time. Today, perhaps, we will build a storage shed.

On 30th January the group continued to walk along the Auspia River, but the cold was increasing (the temperature was around -17°C during the day and -26°C at night) and the going was getting harder (they managed to cover only 17km that day). The wind was also increasing and snow was beginning to fall. They continued to follow a Mansi trail throughout the day and to see Mansi signs.

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Rustem Slobodin examines Mansi signs by the trail.

On the 31st January they continued to follow the Mansi trail in the morning, at one point believing that they were following close behind a Mansi deer hunter. The weather continued to worsen with heavy snow and poor visibility and in the afternoon they left the trail and began to walk and ski through forest and open country. After spending part of the day walking through deep (1.2m) snow they were too exhausted to even dig a fire pit when they made camp and they ate their provisions huddled in the tent.

The 31st of January was the last day that the group journal was completed, and so we have so surmise what the group did on 1st February. It appears that they built (or found) a raised wooden platform close to their camp on which they cached anything that they wouldn’t need for the remainder of the journey to Mount Oroten. The intention presumably was to lighten their load as much as possible for the journey to Mount Oroten and to retrieve these supplies when they passed this way on their return. Their route for the day should have taken them through a pass between two nearby mountains identified only as Elevation 1079 and Elevation 880 (this pass had no name in 1959 – afterwards it was named Dyatlov Pass in memory of the dead hikers). However, for reasons that are not clear they chose instead to move up, out of the forest and started climbing the slopes of Elevation 1079 (known to the Mansi as Kholat Syakhl). Sometime around 4:00 pm, having covered only around four kilometers that day, they set up their tent on the slopes of Elevation 1079 at about 700m (2,300 feet).

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One of the last known photographs of the group. They are above the tree line, in the open and in heavy snow. This picture was almost certainly taken as the group were climbing Elevation 1079 on their way to what would be their final camp site.

Before setting off, Dyatlov had agreed that he would send a telegram to the hiking club at Sverdlovsk as soon as the group arrived safely back in Vizhay. This was planned to be no later than 12th February, but Dyatlov had told Yuri Yudin before he left that he felt the trip would probably take longer, and not to be concerned if they were a few days later than this. However, by 20th February friends and relatives of the hikers were very concerned by the lack of contact and a search was started, initially with students and hikers and later involving army and police units using aircraft and helicopters.

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Searchers supported by a helicopter, 25th February

On 27th February the group’s tent was found on Kholat Syakhl. Searchers were concerned to note that the tent was partially collapsed and damaged by a number of cuts and slashes though the main entrance flap was still securely closed. One side of the tent was almost completely destroyed by six long vertical slashes and at least six smaller horizontal cuts made at around the eye-level of those inside. Most of the hiker’s gear including boots, jackets sleeping bags, axes and packs was still neatly stored inside the tent. Some food was still laid out, suggesting that the tent had been abandoned before the evening meal was finished. More worrying, eight or nine sets of footprints led from the tent down the slope of the mountain towards the forest in the valley below. Only one pair of footprints was wearing shoes. One other set had a single boot and the others were described as barefoot or wearing socks. The footprints could be followed for a distance of around 500 metres from the tent where they disappeared in fresh snow.

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Discovery of the partially collapsed tent. 27th February.

Later that day, at the edge of the forest below, under a large cedar tree and around 1,500 metres from the tent, searchers found the remains of a campfire and the bodies of Yuri Doroshenko and Yuri Krivonishenko. Both were dressed only in shirts, trousers and underwear and neither had shoes or boots. Both had been laid out carefully and on the adjacent tree a number of lower branches had been broken off and there was human tissue and blood on the bark of the tree some distance above the ground.

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The bodies of Doroshenko and Krivonishenko after loose snow had been cleared away.

On the following day the bodies of Igor Dyatlov and Zinaida Kolmogorova were discovered roughly on a line between the cedar tree and the tent. Dyatlov was 300 metres from the tree, Kolmogorova 600 metres. Both were wearing more clothes than the first two bodies (Dyatlov was wearing a fur coat over a shirt and sweater and ski pants over trousers, Kolmogorova was wearing two hats, two sweaters, two shirts, trousers, ski-pants and three pairs of socks) but neither had boots or shoes. On 5th March the body of Rustem Slobodin was discovered, also between the cedar tree and the tent and approximately midway between the bodies of Dyatlov and Kolmogorova. Slobodin was wearing two shirts, a sweater and two pairs of trousers but only one boot.

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Searchers discover the body of Rustem Slobodin.

The search for the four remaining hikers continued until 5th May, when a Mansi with a dog located their bodies under 4 metres of snow in a small ravine in the forest and around 75 metres from the cedar tree. There were signs that they had built a fire and attempted to build a small shelter with sticks a short distance from where the bodies were found. Of the four, only Semen Zolotarev was wearing shoes – the others were wearing socks. This group were wearing their own clothing and additional clothing that seemed to have come from Doroshenko and Krivonishenko. Semen Zolotarev was also wearing a camera round his neck.

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The bodies of Kolevatov and Thibeaux-Brignolle as discovered – partially submerged in a small stream under the snow. The body of Semen Zolotarev was found a little further down the same stream.

Things certainly appeared very strange – what could possibly cause nine experienced hikers to flee their tent and then run out into the darkness and cold (the temperature was around -25°C -30°C on that night) without stopping to dress properly or even to put on their boots? Even more puzzling, why would they seemingly stay out long enough to start fires and attempt to build shelters when they were only 1,500m from the clothes, sleeping bags and boots which were still in the tent? Then autopsies were carried out and things got even stranger.

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Contemporary map produced by searchers for the investigation report and showing location of all bodies. All annotation in red added by me.

The investigation into the deaths was led by former police officer Lev Ivanov. The autopsies of the first four bodies were performed on March 4th by the regional bureau forensic pathologist Dr Boris Alekseevich Vozrojdenniy (whose last name ironically means “reborn” in Russian) and the city medical examiner of Sverdlovsk, Ivan Ivanovich Laptev.

The autopsy of Yuri Doroshenko found a number of abrasions and bruises on his face (his ears, nose and mouth were covered with blood), shoulders, hands, shins and feet and two cuts on his right shoulder. The hair on the right side of his head was burned. A grey liquid was found in his mouth which was thought to be consistent with pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), possibly caused by a chest injury during a fall. There were also signs of Livor Mortis spots on the back of the neck, torso and extremities suggesting that the body (which was found face-down) was moved sometime after death. All fingers and toes showed signs of very severe frostbite – had Doroshenko survived, it is very likely that all his finger and toes would have been amputated. None of the abrasions or injuries were considered to be life-threatening and death was presumed to be due to hypothermia and to have occurred 6 – 8 hours after eating the last meal.

Yuri Krivonishenko’s body displayed a very similar pattern of injury with abrasions to the head and legs with severe lacerations on both hands. It was assumed that the lacerations to the hands were caused when Krivonishenko climbed the cedar tree where human tissue was discovered. A 2cm piece of skin was found missing from the back of the left hand. The missing piece of skin was found in the mouth, gripped between the teeth. There was also extensive burning of the outer part of the left leg and foot. As with Doroshenko , none of the abrasions or injuries were considered to be life-threatening and death was presumed to be due to hypothermia and to have occurred 6 – 8 hours after eating the last meal. Several cuts were noticed on the clothes of both men and this, along with evidence that at least one of them had been moved after death, led the authorities to believe that other members of the group had removed clothing from these two bodies.

The next autopsies were carried out on two of the bodies found between the cedar tree and the tent. Igor Dyatlov was found closest to the tree and had abrasions and bruises on his face, hands and ankles, a small cut on his right shin and a number of scratches on his right hand and arm. None of the injuries were considered to be life-threatening and death was presumed to be due to hypothermia. Dyatlov was wearing a shirt which had belonged to Yuri Yudin. Yudin testified that he had given the shirt to Yuri Doroshenko when he left the group. The assumption was that Dyatlov took the shirt from Doroshenko after he was dead.

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The body of Igor Dyatlov

Zinaida Kolmogorova’s body was found 600m from the cedar tree and was found to have numerous abrasions and bruises to the face and hands including missing skin on the back of the right hand. She also had a single, long, bright-red bruise approximately over her right kidney which looked as if she had been struck by a heavy stick or baton. The cause of death was given as “hypothermia due to violent accident”. It was noted that the presence of Livor Mortis marks on the upper surfaces of the body suggested that it had been turned over after death.

The next autopsy was carried out on Rustem Slobodin on 8th March by pathologist Boris Alekseevich Vozrojdenniy after the body was found mid-way between Dyatlov and Kolmogorova on 5th March. Like the others he displayed numerous abrasions and bruises on his face, head and hands. He was also found to have a large skull fracture on the left side of his head, haemorrhages on either side of his head and skin missing from his right forearm. Despite these injuries, the cause of death was determined to be hypothermia. It was also noted that the presence of Livor Mortis marks on the upper surfaces of the body suggested that it had also been turned over after death.

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Injuries to Rustem Slobodin’s skull. Thick line on the left side is a fracture, shaded areas on both sides are haemorrhages.

After the first autopsies, searchers continued to look for the four remaining members of the group but their bodies weren’t discovered until May 5th, more than three months after their deaths, and decomposition was much more marked. All four bodies were found at the bottom of a small ravine. Autopsies were carried out on May 9th.

Lyudmila Dubinina was the first to be autopsied and her injuries were much more severe. In addition to bruises to her face and legs and a broken nose, she was found to have ten broken ribs and internal injuries including a massive haemorrhage in the right atrium of the heart (which was determined to be the cause of death). Her eyes and soft tissue from her face were missing as was her tongue. It was initially assumed that this was due to predators attacking her decomposing body, but her stomach also contained about 100 g of coagulated blood which led to speculation that she had been alive when her tongue was removed.

The autopsy of Semyon Zolotaryov showed a very similar set of injuries including an open wound to the right side of the skull and flail injuries to the chest which caused ten broken ribs. His eyes and soft tissue from his face were missing. Dr Vozrojdenniy commented after the autopsies that the injuries seen on Dubinina and Zolotaryov were so severe that they resembled those seen in a serious car accident and that it was not possible that these could have been caused by a fall into the small ravine where both were found. It was also noted as odd that the severe flail injuries that both had suffered to the chest had not caused any surface skin damage.

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Extensive skull fractures noted during the autopsy of Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolle

The autopsy of Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolle noted a broken nose, a large bruise to the right arm and a massive group of fractures on the right side of the skull. Dr Vozrojdenniy commented that the skull fracture was so severe that it could not have been caused by a fall in to the small ravine, even on to rocks. The examination also noted that the body of Thibeaux-Brignolle was wearing two watches, one of which had stopped at 8:14, the other at 8:39. The autopsy results for the final victim, Aleksander Kolevatov gave relatively little information about injuries or cause of death, possibly due to decomposition of the body. It was only noted that the body had a broken nose, an open wound on the skull and a “deformed neck”, though there is no explanation of this last term. Tissue was also missing from the face. The report also noted that trace levels of radiation were found on some of Kolevatov’s clothing (one sweater and two pairs of trousers). However, Kolevatov was a physics student who had been working on projects that included radioactive materials (he had also worked at the Moscow Research Institute for Inorganic Materials which was engaged in producing materials for the growing nuclear industry before coming to Sverdlovsk) and it was assumed that these traces of radioactivity were attributable to this.

The autopsy results did not help to establish what had happened. The first four male bodies to be found all displayed injuries to their hands and knuckles that were consistent with fighting. The last three male bodies did not (or at least, the autopsy reports do not mention this) but two of them displayed massive internal injuries with few external signs. The injuries to Lyudmila Dubinina were the most severe of all and the missing tongue (the autopsy does not give any clue if the tongue was cut or torn out or showed signs of removal by a predator, it only notes that it was “missing”) is very odd indeed. One further finding of the forensic examination was that all cuts to the tent had been made from inside other than for one small tear which it was later established was made by the ice axe of one of the searchers who discovered the tent and used his ice axe to make a hole in an effort to better see inside.

The head of the investigation, Lev Ivanov, said later that he was under pressure to issue the investigation report as quickly as possible. The report was issued on 28th May, less than three weeks after the final autopsy. The report suggested that all nine hikers went from the tent to the area under the cedar tree where they built a fire. They stayed there until the deaths of Krivonishenko and Doroshenko and the survivors took some of the dead men’s clothes before splitting into two groups. One group (Dyatlov, Kolmogorova and Slobodin) attempted to return to the tent but all three died of hypothermia en-route. The remaining four then retreated deeper into the forest, built another fire and small den before meeting with some form of accident and themselves dying later. The report stated that it was not possible to establish with certainty the final course of events which had led to the deaths of the hikers and concluded only that these were due to a “compelling unknown force”.

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Funeral procession for Yuri Doroshenko, Yuri Krivonishenko, Igor Dyatlov and Zinaida Kolmogorova, March 9th, Sverdlovsk.

The death of the nine hikers attracted huge attention within the Soviet Union. Their funerals in Sverdlosk were attended by hundreds of mourners and reportedly Nikita Khrushchev requested a copy of the final report of the investigation. In 1963 a memorial plaque was placed close to the final location of their tent. The pass between Elevation 1079 and Elevation 880 through which the group intended to travel was subsequently re-named the Dyatlov Pass and a large memorial with pictures of all nine victims was installed there.

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The Dyatlov Pass memorial

All papers relating to the inquest and investigation were filed and classified and did not become available until the 1990s following the break-up of the Soviet Union. When researchers were allowed to see the files, it was obvious that some papers had been lost including at least one of the personal journals, the last edition of the Evening Oroten, sketches given by the Mansi to investigators and some individual papers recovered from the tent.

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The broad sequence of events proposed by the investigation report doesn’t really make sense. This suggested that all the hikers went first to the cedar tree and stayed there for 5 – 6 hours until the deaths from hypothermia of Krivonishenko and Doroshenko. Then Dyatlov, Kolmogorova and Slobodin set off back towards the tent, but all three died of hypothermia on the way. This takes no account of injuries (for example, Slobodin had a serious skull fracture and it seems very unlikely that he would have been able to walk almost 500 metres back towards the tent before collapsing and dying) nor does it tell us why members of the group would have tried to climb the cedar tree even though this evidently caused them serious injury or why the group would have waited so long before trying to get back to the tent. It is also silent on the cause of the very serious injuries suffered by the last group of four. The report also fails to propose a reason for the hikers fleeing their tent in the first place. Because of this, a whole host of theories seeking to explain what may have happened have surfaced since 1959. Let’s start with looking at some of the most rational theories first.

The most often quoted is that the group feared that an avalanche was about to engulf the tent and fled to avoid this. We know that there wasn’t actually an avalanche because there would have been clear signs of this when the tent was discovered. The fear of an avalanche is certainly a possible motive to run away in the first place (though the slopes of Kholat Syakhl above the tent are relatively shallow and don’t seem to present an obvious avalanche risk). However, we know from the autopsies that Krivonishenko and Doroshenko died 6 – 8 hours after eating their last meal. Given that there was evidence within the tent that the meal was not yet finished when the group left, this means that these two cannot have died before around midnight on the 1st February. We also know that other members of the group took clothes from their bodies. Which means that some members of the group must have been alive at least up to 01:00 on 2nd February, seven hours after the initial incident which drove them from the tent. Is it really credible that they would not return to the tent for warm clothing and other gear when it was clear that there hadn’t been an avalanche and when it would have taken a maximum of 20 – 25 minutes to reach it? I don’t think so. Also, the various cuts in the tent suggest that a number of smaller cuts at eye level were made first, before the large cuts through which the group fled. If the threat of an avalanche seemed so imminent that it was necessary to leave the tent without opening the flaps and without stopping to don boots and coats, would you take the time to make small cuts first to peer outside? Again, I don’t think so. An avalanche (or at least, the fear of an avalanche) sounds like a nice, rational idea at first, but it isn’t supported by the evidence when you look at it so I think we can forget about this.

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The tent after it had been recovered to Vizhay and re-erected. There are at least six long, vertical slashes and six smaller horizontal cuts at around eye-level. Forensic examination concluded that all cuts were made from inside apart from one made by one of the searchers who discovered the tent.

Next is the idea that some sort of violence erupted within the tent which was so savage that members of the group not directly involved slashed the tent open and ran outside to get away. Leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence to point to any member or members of the group as violent or unbalanced, there are problems with this. Again, why the small preliminary cuts in the tent? And if one or more of the group suddenly became murderously violent and pursued the others down the hill, why did they leave the most obvious weapons, the axes, behind in the tent? If there is a scenario where one or more members of the group are subsequently hunting the others down, why doesn’t the hunter or hunters return later to the tent to acquire weapons, warm clothing and boots? Why do none of the bodies exhibit the kind of injuries associated with a lethal attack by another person? And most significantly, why do two of the groups start fires? If you are hiding in a darkened forest from a potentially murderous person, a fire will simply reveal your presence. Taken together, I think these factors rule out a violent attack from within the group.

Next is the theory that these people were murdered by other people from outside the group. First of all, who were these other people? The local Mansi have been suggested, as have escaped convicts from a gulag around 10km from Vizhay, Russian Special forces and even CIA spies! Leaving aside the absence of any obvious motive for such an attack (simple robbery doesn’t seem logical given that food, money, rail tickets, tools, packs, cameras and clothing were all ignored in the tent), this just doesn’t make sense. When people kill other fit, healthy people who are capable of defending themselves, they do it in fairly well-defined ways. They use guns, knives or blunt instruments. They stab, bludgeon, strangle or shoot. None of the injuries exhibited by the dead are consistent with a murderous attack by another person or people. And, as mentioned above, if you are frightened for your life and hiding from a person or people in a darkened forest, lighting a fire will simply reveal your presence. For all these reasons, I don’t believe that the campers were killed by a person or people from outside the group.

Next, I’m afraid I have to mention aliens and UFOs. The Ural Mountains were and continue to be a hotspot for UFO activity. During the investigation into the deaths of the hikers, another group of students who were camping less than 30km from Kholat Syakhl on 1st February were interviewed. One of the group said of that evening:

“A shining circular body flew over the village from the south-west to the north-east. The shining disc was practically the size of a full moon, a blue-white light surrounded by a blue halo. The halo brightly flashed like the flashes of distant lightning. When the body disappeared behind the horizon, the sky lit up in that place for a few more minutes.”

Additionally several geologists 70 km from the site of the tragedy reported seeing glowing and pulsating orbs flying in the direction of Kholat Syakhl on the evening of 1st February. A group of soldiers at a local base reported seeing orbs that were moving from South to North in a strange cloud of dust or fog on 17th February. A variety of other pulsating orbs were seen in the skies over the Urals in January, February and March by students, geologists, Mansi and military and police officers involved in searching for the missing hikers. Lev Ivanov, leader of the investigation, said much later in an interview printed in the Kazakh newspaper Leninsky Put:

“I suspected at the time and am almost sure now that these bright flying spheres had a direct connection to the group’s death.”  

Ivanov went on the claim that he was specifically ordered to remove all mention of UFOs from the final version of the report into the deaths of the hikers. Now, I don’t deny that lots of people saw strange things in the sky over the Urals in early 1959. They still do and I have no idea what these lights are (I guess that’s for another investigation). But what I can’t see is any correlation between these mysterious lights in the sky and what happened to the hikers. Unless you believe that the lights were alien craft and that these landed and the occupants attacked the group in their tent. My problem is that there is no evidence to support this at all. None. Zip. Nada. To me this idea makes even less sense than the idea that the group were attacked by other people and if the group were hiding in the forest from aliens, wouldn’t lighting a fire just attract their attention? The UFO sightings are interesting, but I just don’t see a direct and logical link between these and the death of the hikers.

Another theory is that they were killed during the test of a Russian air-dropped mine (which does indeed cause internal injuries with few external signs). Russian jets certainly flew over the Urals in the 1950s and if all of the group had been found dead in the tent, this might seem like a good possibility. But only two (or perhaps three) had the sort of injuries associated with a mine and something frightened them out of the tent some hours before they died which seems to rule out the mine theory. Another idea is that freak wind and weather conditions caused infra-sound waves which affected the group. These waves certainly exist and are below the minimum human hearing range of 20 hertz. A 2003 study in the UK found that a fifth of people exposed to infra-sound reported feeling anxious, scared or unable to breathe properly. OK, so it’s a stretch from anxiety to the sort of blind panic that would cause all members of the group (not just 20% as quoted in the study) to run out of the tent, but I suppose it’s not impossible. The problem is, while the infra-sound theory might perhaps account for what caused the hikers to panic and leave the tent, it doesn’t account in any way for their odd injuries.

dy20

The cedar tree as searchers found it. The top of the area where the branches have been broken off is around 15 feet from the ground.

The other common theory is some sort of attack by a wild animal or animals. This actually fits more of the available evidence. If the group became aware of some animal outside the tent, they might have cut small holes to try to see what it was. If the animal then tried to force its way into the tent, they might well have fled, perhaps pursued by the animal as they ran down the hill. Lighting fires also makes more sense in this scenario – while a fire would simply attract the attention of a human pursuer it might deter an animal. The fact that some of the group survived for up to seven hours after the initial incident without returning to the tent also ties-in with them being in fear of a dangerous animal in the vicinity. Finally, the actions of some of the group in apparently climbing the cedar tree would be consistent with trying to escape from an animal. The problem is – what kind of animal? There are certainly Brown Bears in some parts of the Urals, though these have not been reported in the area of Kholat Syakhl. Bears generally hibernate for anything up to 100 days at a time during winter, but it isn’t impossible that a bear was present at the camp on the night of 1st February. And a fully grown Brown Bear is a terrifying thing which can reach over 8ft tall and weigh over 600kg and bears have been known to attack humans. The main problem is, none of the rescuers saw any sign of bear tracks and none of the victims showed the sort of injury associated with a bear attack. The same thing goes for lynx, wolverines and wolves, which are the only other large predators present in the Urals. The initial panicked flight from the tent and the subsequent behavior of the group seems to fit better with a response to a threat from an animal than with any other theory. Unfortunately, the injuries which killed them simply don’t fit with any of the known large predators in the area and none of the bodies showed signs of having been partially devoured after death, which we would expect to see in the case of attack by any of the known animals in the region.

rwthoughts

If it wasn’t a bear or a wolf or any of the other large predators known to live in the Urals, what other type of animal could possibly have been frightening enough to cause the group to flee from their tent and cause their injuries? Warning: Things are about to get seriously weird now. Believe me, when I started researching the Dyatlov Pass tragedy I didn’t think I’d end up here. But, as they say, you have to follow where the evidence takes you. So, here we go…

The mountain on whose slopes the final camp was made is called Kholat Syakhl in the local Mansi language. This would not have been marked on the maps the group were using (where the mountain was identified simply and rather unromantically as Elevation 1079) and this name probably wouldn’t have been known to them.

Kholat Syakhl means Mountain of Corpses or Mountain of the Dead. The area in which the group were travelling is shunned by the Mansi (Mount Oroten, the mountain the group intended to climb, translates as “Mount Don’t Go There” in Mansi). There are Mansi stories that a group of nine hunters died on Kholat Syakhl in mysterious circumstances at some point in the past. The Mansi didn’t use calendars in 1959 and took a fairly relaxed attitude to marking the passing of time, so there was no way of knowing if they were referring to an event that happened five or fifty years in the past. Or even if this referred to a real event at all. But the Mansi took it seriously enough that this area was off-limits to their hunters, a significant issue for a society that relied entirely on these hunters to provide food during the winter months.

The reason that the Mansi avoided this area was that they claimed it was the home to a dangerous creature they called the Menk or Menkvi. Descriptions of the Menk vary, but they seem to describe a large, powerful, hairy, ape-like creature that walks on two legs. The Mansi describe the Menk as aggressive, violent, territorial and particularly active after dark. Although the Mansi ascribe supernatural origins to the Menk (they believe that the violence and aggression shown by the Menk towards humans prompted the Gods to unleash the great flood), they also regard it as a real creature – a Mansi herder claimed to have lost several caribou to a Menk just a few weeks before the death of the hikers. When the bodies of the last group of hikers were found, some of the Mansi who were in the search party reportedly became very distressed, claiming that these people had clearly been killed by a Menk. The Mansi also believed that nine was an unlucky number for a group passing through Menk territory. If Mansi were forced to cross this area, they would do it as quickly as possible, in daylight and never in groups of nine.

Reports of large, ape-like creatures living in remote areas of Russia were and are very common, though the name Menk seems unique to the Mansi (these creatures are more commonly referred to as “Almas” in other parts of Russia). Though many local people regard these creatures as no less real than any other animal with which they share the environment, there is no widely accepted proof of their existence. They are regarded by most zoologists as mythical creatures, just like the Yeti of the Himalayas and the Sasquatch of North America. Set against that, there are a large number of seemingly reliable eye-witness reports of these creatures and a number of footprints have been photographed and studied, leading some people to believe that these may actually be real but unknown animals.

In the Group Journal for 31st January (written by Dyatlov) there is a cryptic note that the group appeared to be following a Mansi deer hunter who had passed “not long before”. We don’t know what this refers to. Did the group see footprints? Did they even glimpse a figure up ahead in the trees?

This is the translation of the final complete edition of the Evening Oroten, probably produced on 31st January:

21st Party Congress increases fertility of tourists!
A philosophical seminar on the theme of love and tourism takes place every day in the tent areas. Main lecture by Dr. Thibault and candidate of sciences Dubininová.
Armenian riddle
Can nine tourists be heated under one blanket and by one stove?
Science
Recently in scientific circles there has been debate about the existence of the yeti. According to reports, yeti occur in the northern Urals near Otorten.
Technical News
A sledge is useful in a car, train and on horseback, but is not recommended in snow. Consult chief designer Kolevatovem.
Sport
Posse composed of Doroshenko-Kolmogorov created a world record in erecting the folding portable stoves with a time of 1hour, 2minutes, 27.4 seconds.

The text under the “Science” heading suggests that the group had been discussing the existence of a yeti-like creature. What had prompted this? Had they seen something? Was this related to the reference to a Mansi deer hunter in the Group Journal or is it simply coincidence? It should be noted that this edition of the Evening Oroten, though listed in the items reviewed by the investigation, was missing when the papers were released in the mid-1990s and that this text was discovered later by a Russian researcher, so it is not possible to say with certainty that it is genuine though the content and light-hearted tone certainly fits with other writings from the group.

Another of the missing papers was a single page torn from a diary on which appeared the hand-written beginning of another Evening Oroten which was probably being composed on the evening of the 1st February before the group fled the tent. Again, this was recovered later and the headline (almost the only thing which had been completed) read: “Now we know that the snowmen exist!”. Apparently this was discussed during the investigation and it was assumed to be an ironic reference to the snow-covered appearance of the hikers following their trek through open country in heavy snow. Which may well be correct, but we might also want to wonder why the party decided to deviate from their planned route on 1st February? Instead of walking through the forest to the pass and camping somewhere beyond, they elected instead to leave the forest, to climb Kholat Syakhl and to camp on its snow-covered, wind-swept slopes, the first time they had camped outside the forest. Had they seen something in the forest on morning of the 1st that made them believe it was safer to stay in the open? Was this what the headline for the last Evening Oroten actually referred to?

In the report of the searchers who found the tent, it was noted that the footprints leading down the hill were of one person wearing shoes, people wearing socks, a person wearing one boot and bare footprints. But none of the bodies were barefoot, so where did the bare footprints come from? Did someone leave the tent in bare feet, carrying their socks which they later put on? Did someone leave the tent without socks and later borrow some from another member of the group (possible as several people were wearing more than one pair of socks)? Or were the “bare footprints” seen by searchers not the footprints of a person at all, but something that frightened the group so much that they fled the tent and which then pursued them as they ran down the hill?

dy23

This is one of the few photographs of footprints close to the tent taken by the searchers. It shows a clear heel print left by a shoe. However, overlaid diagonally across where we would expect to see the sole print of the shoe seems to be a footprint left by a bare foot with clear toe marks on the left. It’s very difficult to judge size from a single photograph, but the bare foot print does look fairly broad compared to the toe of a military boot visible on the left.

Finally we come to one of the rolls of film recovered by searchers from the tent. The roll had been removed from the camera and sealed in a box with other exposed films sometime before the evening of the 1st February. Seventeen photographs had been exposed and all were later developed. The photographs seem to have been taken by Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolle and the first sixteen showed the group at various stages in their journey since the 27th January. The shots on the roll were generally fairly well focused but the seventeenth and last shot is very blurred, as though it was taken in a hurry. We have no way of being certain when this picture was taken, but looking at the pictures which precede it on the roll, it is likely to have been on 31st January or in the morning of 1st February, before the group left the forest to climb Kholat Syakhl.

dy21

The 17th and final photograph taken by Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolle

What does this photograph show? At the time, it was assumed to be an out of focus picture of a member of the group wearing a ski-jacket and returning down a narrow snow-trail. It certainly could be. And yet there is something about the proportions of the figure which don’t quite fit with a person wearing a bulky ski jacket and several pairs of trousers. Compare it with the photograph below of Rustem Slobodin which comes from earlier on the same roll of film.

dy22

The clothing Slobodin is wearing is typical of that worn by the members of the group. Dark coloured waterproof ski trousers are worn over one or two pairs of ordinary trousers. A lighter coloured, bulky ski jacket is worn over several sweaters and shirts. The effect is to make the figure seem bulky at the hips where there are several layers of clothing. The blurred figure seems different. Not only is it difficult to distinguish the lighter coloured ski jacket from darker waterproof trousers, the figure seems broader at the chest and tapers towards the waist. Even though it is difficult to distinguish detail, it just doesn’t look like the other photographs of members of the group. And finally there is the question of why Thibeaux-Brignolle removed the film from the camera? Unused film remained on the roll, but the film had been removed from the camera. Why? Did Thibeaux-Brignolle believe that this last photograph was somehow significant and he wanted to be certain that it was safe?

Does all this mean that I believe a Yeti killed these nine people? I can’t quite bring myself to that point. And yet their behaviour in fleeing the tent and afterwards is certainly consistent with people who believed they were in grave danger from some external threat. Their subsequent actions seem to rule out the fear of an avalanche or other people and we can rule out an attack by wolves, bears or any other known large predators because of the lack of distinctive injuries. What does that leave? The injuries suffered by some of the group are certainly very strange and accord with the claims of the Mansi on how the Menk kills. Menk are said not to use weapons or to have significant claws or large teeth. They are immensely strong and aggressive towards humans and kill by blunt force trauma using fists and feet. The kind of attack in fact which might lead to severe head and internal injuries without breaking the skin. And that final photograph by Thibeaux-Brignolle is very peculiar indeed. The more I look at it, the less it looks like a photo of a member of the group and the more uneasy it makes me. I certainly can’t say with confidence that these hikers were chased from their tent and subsequently killed by some Russian cousin of the Yeti. But on the available evidence, I can’t completely rule out the fact that they were attacked and killed by some unknown large, ape-like creature either.

This is certainly one of the strangest cases I have ever looked at. I like rational solutions and when I started out, I assumed that it would probably be possible to deduce that the hikers were either killed by an avalanche (or fear of an avalanche), by a person or people from outside the group or one or more members of the group who subsequently succumbed to hypothermia. But the evidence just does not seem to support any of these hypothesis. The circumstances of the deaths of these people and the injuries they suffered were very unusual. When you throw reports of UFOs and Yeti into the equation, things become outright bizarre. We only need to have the Loch Ness Monster involved to have covered every possible branch of cryptozooology. And yet, something strange killed these nine people back in 1959. It’s not very satisfactory but in the end I can do no more than echo the findings of the original investigation. These nine hikers were killed by some “compelling unknown force” and, given that more than fifty years have passed since they died, I’m not sure that we will ever be able to say more than that with certainty.

This area continued to be the site of tragedy after 1959. In 1960/61 there were three separate air crashes which claimed the lives of nine pilots and geologists. In 1961 nine tourists from Lenningrad died while climbing another mountain in the area. In 2008 an Mi-8 helicopter had engine failure close to Kholat Syakhl and was forced to make an emergency landing though fortunately none of the nine people on-board were injured. As recently as January 2016, Russian newspapers reported that a party of nine (are you seeing a pattern here?) walkers close to Kholat Syakhl discovered the body of a man who had reportedly set out to research the Dyatlov Pass mystery.

What do you think?

Notes

Since 2012 a number of images began circulating on Russian social network sites which claim to be previously unpublished images taken by members of the Dyatlov group. Many of these are attributed to the daughter of Lev Ivanov, leader of the Dyatlov investigation, who claims that these were photographs which her father received as part of the investigation but did not use in the final report. Some of these images are truly startling, seeming to show large flying objects over Kholat Syakhl. However, there seem to be genuine doubts about the authenticity of these photographs and I have included here only photographs from the group and searchers which have recognised provenance.

Some of the searchers who found the bodies of the group and some relatives who subsequently saw the bodies claimed that the skin was strangely discoloured. Accounts of this vary from something that looked like sun burn/sun tan to skin that was virtually black. Other accounts suggest that the skin of the bodies (and their hair) had lost all pigmentation. However, I cannot find any mention of anything other than normal skin changes due to decomposition in the autopsy reports and in other papers from the original investigation, so I have not mentioned this here.

rwmore

Dyatlov-Pass.com. Probably the best and most comprehensive website in English on the Dyatlov Pass mystery.

http://dyatlov-pass.com/page.php?language_id=1&id=12786#beginning

ZAJIMAVOSTI.info Web-site which includes a number of articles on the Dyaltov Pass mystery. Invaluable resource which includes links to scans of many source documents from the original investigation. Latest article discusses alleged “new” Dyatlov photographs. It’s in Czech, so you may need Google Translate to make sense of it.

http://zajimavosti.info/kdo-zavrazdil-a-zohavil-ucastniky-djatlovovy-expedice-2/

Mountain of the Dead: The Dyatlov Pass Incident, 2010, Keith McCloskey. Fairly balanced book covering most of the best-known theories.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mountain-Dead-Dyatlov-Pass-Incident/dp/0752491482

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, 2014, Donnie Eichar. Detailed and balanced look at the mystery including interviews with some of the people involved and an attempt to re-trace the route taken by the group.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1452140030

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