Death on the Mountain of the Dead – The Dyatlov Pass Incident


Russia, 1959, deep in the Ural Mountains, in a place now known at the Dyatlov Pass, a group of healthy young college students went on an extended skiing expedition.  Except for one that turned back due to illness, nine never returned.  That young man was the last person to see the other  seven men and two women alive.  Three months later an all-out search was going on in earnest. Despite wintery conditions, the early part of the search revealed five of the hikers frozen bodies.  Some were found nearly a mile from their campsite and their bodies were found in curious positions.

Forensic evidence and reports from the investigation detail some things, which to this day still remains unexplained. Despite the frigid temperatures, the bodies were found outside of their tents, with some wearing very few clothes. What’s even stranger is the evidence shows they cut themselves out of the tent probably during the night, as if to escape from something.  Leaving all of their heavy clothes, equipment, skis, and provisions, the nine fled in extreme haste.  The level of terror experienced by these hikers must have been incredibly high to venture into temperatures over twenty below zero.

Young Igor Dyatlov, leader of the fatal expedition.
Young Igor Dyatlov, leader of the fatal expedition.

The Team and the Journey Across Dyatlov Pass

In January of 1959, 23-year-old Igor Dyatlov, led a group of ten experienced mountaineers, comprising eight men and two women into the Ural Mountain.  The group was heading to Otorten (Отортен), a mountain 6.2 miles north of the site of the incident.  During the winter, the route they took would be the equivalent of what modern mountaineers call a Category III, which is extremely difficult.  One of the hikers, Yuri Yefimovich Yudin, became ill and was forced to return to embarkation point soon after trip started, leaving nine others to continue.

The forensic evidence found in cameras and written in the diaries of the young hikers reflected good morale.  In fact, the group even produced a group newsletter along the way.  It was comedic and lighthearted.   Over this journey,  group had successfully traveled across difficult terrain and fought severe winter weather.  The fact that they were all still happy rules out one of them as a suspect.

A view of the tent as the rescuers found it on Feb. 26, 1959. The tent had been cut open from inside, and most of the skiers had fled in socks or barefoot. Photo taken by soviet authorities at the camp of the Dyatlov Pass incident and anexed to the legal inquest that investigated the deaths.
A view of the tent as the rescuers found it on Feb. 26, 1959. The tent had been cut open from inside, and most of the skiers had fled in socks or barefoot. Photo taken by soviet authorities at the camp of the Dyatlov Pass incident and anexed to the legal inquest that investigated the deaths.

The Last Campsite

On February 1st, the group was camped at 3,600 feet above sea-level, on a wide open slope of Kholat Syakhl [Dead Mountain.]   This camp site was not by choice.  It’s appears in hindsight that worsening winter weather forced the party off their timetable.  It appears that they had planned to be completely over the pass before making camp but lost visibility and hiked in another direction.  By the time they realized their mistake it seems, it was either too late in the day or deemed too far.   They were over one mile away from the protection of the valley but simply could not make it.  They set up camp below the Dyatlov Pass to wait out the storm.

The Investigation

The group failed to check in at their destination as scheduled and by  few weeks it was clear something was wrong.  On February 20th, after demands from the families, search parties set out to find the group.  Within days, local militia troops with air support joined the rescue efforts.  On the 26th, the groups camp site was discovered by Mikhail Sharavin, a student volunteer searcher.  The hikers tent was nearly buried in the snow, torn down and in terrible shape.  Yet, all the hikers equipment seemed present.  Oddly, the tent was cut open from the inside. Of the nine sets of footprints heading from it, down the mountain, some of the dead were barefoot and others in  socks.

The side of the tent which was cut apart by the hikers from the inside.
The side of the tent which was cut apart by the hikers from the inside.

The soldiers followed the prints for almost a mile before coming to the edge a wooded area.  There, under a large cedar tree, the searchers found the remains of a small fire, along with two bodies dressed only in their underwear with burned hands.   Also at this place, searchers found broken branches on the tree 15 feet off the ground.  Investigators theorized that one of the mountaineers had climbed up the tree to look at the camp; maybe to see if it was safe to return.  Turning back up the hill, investigators found three more frozen corpses in a line. They were found in three different spots and appeared to have perished crawling back up the hill to the camp site.   Team leader Igor Dyatlov was one of these three; his frozen body was found closest to the camp.

The branches from the broken cedar tree and the remains of the small fire. The first two bodies were found here.
The branches from the broken cedar tree and the remains of the small fire. The first two bodies were found here.

Unexplained Injuries

The official recorded cause of death for the first five victims was hypothermia.  Their lack of clothing was originally explained as part of the freezing process; something that can happen in certain cases.  As the body shuts down, the brain malfunctions and people might think they are overheating and undress.  One of the first group did have a minor skull fracture but at the time it wasn’t deemed significant.

The search for the remaining four took several months.  Finally on May 4th the last four bodies were found together in a deep ravine near the Dyatlov Pass.  They were only  250 feet away from the fire, in the remains of a snow cave, but buried under more than fifteen feet of snow. These discovery of these bodies cleared up the missing clothing question as it appears they removed the clothes from the corpses by the fire to keep warm themselves.

A medical examination of the four hikers raised questions as they showed signs of trauma.  Three had severe life-ending injuries.  One had a severe skull fracture and two had chest fractures equivalent to those seen in car accidents.  The three had no exterior wounds or bleeding, almost as if they were crushed somehow.  One of the women whose chest was crushed also was missing her tongue, eyes, part of the lips, as well as facial tissue and a fragment of skullbone.   She also had extensive skin macerations on her hands, but they appeared to be post mortem.

Group 2

Group 2

An investigation by a Russian government inspector was quietly dropped after concluding nobody was to blame.  In May, only a few short weeks after the last bodies were found the case was closed.  Lev Ivanov, the inspector, concluded only that all nine deaths had been caused by what he described as ‘an unknown elemental force which they were unable to overcome.’  The medical records and other related files were archived and classified; meaning no one could review them.  When they finally became accessible in the 1990s, post-Soviet era, parts of them were conspicuously missing.

Unanswered Questions

Immediately after the initial investigation, the Dyatlov Pass case was quickly closed.  Any and all records were difficult to access, which gave rise to a steady stream of questions and of course conspiracy theories.  Many of the  sensationalist pieces written after the fact make a point to say that the Russian government sealed all documents related to the investigation.  What likely happened was that they simply were filed in an antiquated Soviet system and became a lost non-issue for decades.  Since at the time, all were deceased, identified, and summarily buried, no reason was needed to keep these files secret.  More than likely,the  fact that the lead investigators simply could not figure out the causes of all deaths led them to not talk about he incident for fear they would be deemed incompetent.

Some of the Leading Dyatlov Pass Theories and Observations – Strange and Stranger

– The party drank bad water, the snow was contaminated and after being melted and consumed causing the hikers to go insane.

– Yury Kuntsevich, who as a young man attended the funerals of five of the victims.  He claims they all had darkened skin, like an extremely heavy tan.  Some did have high radiation levels, but why?

– An avalanche forced the group to hastily leave the tent and run for safety, but they became lost

– A Yeti attacked and the party ran away until it left.  Some were later found by the Yeti still alive and were crushed.

– The high velocity mountain wind created an ultrasound event which created a mass panic.

– Clandestine military activities testing secret weaponry.  This theory was furthered by the fact that for three years after the incident, between 1959-62, access to the area was forbidden.

– Alien intervention.

– An attack by the indigenous Mansi people.

Reviewing the Facts and Challenging the Theories

The facts surrounding this unfortunate event have been exaggerated, dramatized, and simply blown way out of proportion.  Without a clear route to a credible answer for the hiker’s deaths, many armchair researchers and the media have developed their own theories to explain things as mentioned above.  In order to help sift through the list it seems relevant to look at the bigger picture as a way of setting the stage leading up to those last moments.  We know that the hikers were in their tent, presumably since they cut their way out of it.  Based on the fact that many were only scarcely clothed, we can assume that it was evening, and some could have already been retired for the night when the “event” occurred.  Since the party all fled in the same direction, based on footprints, we can assume they were acting in cohesion.  This rules out any single member of the party attacking of otherwise driving the rest of the group away.  As mentioned earlier by the media they carried, everyone appeared to be in good spirits and healthy.

It has been mentioned several times that the deceased were examined by medical personnel, which led to the early hypothermia causality of the first group, and the identification of injuries in the second group.  Dr. Boris Vozrozhdenny stated that none of the injuries on the bodies could have been caused by a human, “because the force of the blows had been too strong and no soft tissue had been damaged.”  It’s not been identified if there were toxicology tests done on the group, but they were autopsied.  We can only assume that the tests, if they were performed, showed nothing significant.    Poison or heavy levels of drugs in the system would have been an easy explanation for investigators to apply to the deaths and close the case with reasonable surety as to the causes of death.  Three hikers bodies were found in positions that indicate they were crawling up the hill, back to the campsite.  This would seem to indicate that whatever initially drove the hikers to hastily abandon camp was either gone or no longer a threat.

The fact that the party was split into two groups is worthy of further discussion.  The second group clearly survived longer than the first group.  They were discovered wearing more clothes and had some things which belonged to presumably already-dead hikers in the first group.  They were found in a stream valley further from the cedar tree and lying together, presumably to keep warm.  It’s uncertain when they became covered in snow, why they were separated from the other five hikers, and how they ended up further away from the site.  We know that they did forage clothing from the others but instead of trying to return to camp, headed away.  There could have been a difference of opinion on whether it was safe to return to camp and the group split up or it may have been something else.

Military personnel and volunteers removing the bodies from the ravine at Dyatlov Pass.
Military personnel and volunteers removing the bodies from the ravine at Dyatlov Pass.

The Avalanche Theory

The possibility of an avalanche causing the party to immediately leave the safety of their tent is highly credible and possible, at least on the surface.  Experienced mountaineers have been trained to identify and react to avalanches.  The fact that many avalanches start at very high elevations and often take time to fully develop gives anyone below time to react.  Usually a very loud “whumph” sound will be heard, as if someone just dropped a very dense and heavy object from very high in a huge pile of snow.  The weird thing is that immediately after the loud sound, no other signs will be visible or heard.  The destabilized snow pack will eventually break free and come hurtling down the mountain, but how much and at what speed that snow moves is unpredictable.

The campsite was in a pass, and seemingly positioned to be in the pathway of an avalanche should one occur.  Photos of the tent taken immediately after it’s discovery show it to be almost buried in snow.  The fact that the tent was cut from the inside does indicate that the inhabitants were trying to get out very fast.  So far, these details seem to support the theory of an avalanche being a possible catalyst for the later deaths.  Notes from investigators that were on scene are contradictory, with some in agreement with the theory and others skeptical.  Even though the party was behind schedule, they most likely wouldn’t set up camp in an area that appeared dangerous.  The supporters of this theory use the fact that several of the hikers had internal injuries which could be, in their opinion, contracted by being crushed under a huge pile of snow and ice.

Some things that were observed then and afterwards make this theory somewhat cloudier.  The second group, which were found buried in the ravine were in a hollowed out space some say they apparently dug for survival.  With the injuries three of these four had, it seems impossible that they could have exerted that much effort.  Others deviate from the theory somewhat and make the assumption that the four fell into this ravine while trying to escape from the avalanche and were too injured to move when the snow covered them.  They might have tried to compress the snow around them, giving the illusion of a snow cave when searchers later discovered the bodies.  The injuries could have been caused by a fall since the ravine was about 17 feet lower than the general area around the fire.

A second theory emerged also utilizing an avalanche as the focal point.  Instead of the entire party rapidly evacuating, this scenario has them leaving in two groups; one ill-dressed and in a full panic and the second taking time to dress and prepare somewhat.  The poor visibility was blamed for the two groups losing sight of one another and by the time the better prepared hikers found the first group, it was too late.  They then scavenged what they could from the bodies and set off down the mountain, presumably toward the cache of supplies they had earlier placed.  The actual avalanche took place while they were moving, driving them off the path and into the ravine to be covered and injured by snow and ice.  Because footprints were still visible near the tent but were covered further down the mountain, the avalanche must have come from a different angle than above the camp.

The theories are compelling, expect for a few glaring details.  First, there was no sign of an avalanche, such as a debris path or “carved out” trail where the snow travelled.  No evidence higher up was found where snow could have broken free.  Based on the positioning of the second group, an avalanche would have swept away the tent and bodies of everyone above them and we would expect them to be found in distorted positions with more injuries and blood.  There was no evidence of an avalanche in the tree line; the only damage was the few broken limbs by the campfire site.  An analysis of the terrain indicated that even if there was an avalanche, its trajectory would have bypassed the tent.   Plus the tent had collapsed laterally but not horizontally, against the direction of the oncoming snow in this scenario.  Records indicated over one hundred expeditions into this same area and there were no avalanches ever reported in Dyatlov Pass.

An Attack, by Natives or Something Else

There were suggestions that the group was attacked by either the native Mansi people for encroaching on tribal lands.  This was suggested as a possibility because of an event in the 1930s.  Mansi Shamans drowned a female geologist who had climbed a mountain considered forbidden by the tribe.  Other theorists claim the party was surprised by a Yeti, an ape-like creature rumored to live in subzero temperatures  Both of these theories are easily disproven.  If the hikers were attacked by anything, the bodies would show physical injuries and there would most likely be blood spread all over the area.  Secondly, there would be tracks of some sort, other than those of the hikers either leading to the camp or away from it.  Additionally, when an attack occurs, we could expect to see people scatter in all directions.  There was no evidence of that type of behavior; the entire group seemed to move together down the  mountain.  The tent was cut from the inside; if the hikers were ambushed, the opposite would probably have happened.

Aliens, UFO’s, or Other Extraterrestrial Influences

On the night of the incident, another group of hikers who were about thirty miles away reported that they witness strange orange flying spheres that night.  The spheres were to their north, in the direction of Dyatlov’s group.  The official report validated the claims of “bright flying spheres” in the area from multiple eyewitnesses, including the weather service and the military.  Similar reports of such spheres were also observed in Ivdel, a nearby village, and adjacent areas almost continuously from February to March 1959.  Chief investigator Lev Ivanov was quoted as saying, “I suspected at the time and am almost sure now that these bright flying spheres had a direct connection to the group’s death.”  In addition to this information, outside researchers made claims that after the funerals, relatives of the deceased indicated the skin of the victims had a strange brown cast.  Others indicated the bodies hair had turned white, presumable from fear.  One of the former investigators was later interviewed and said that he measured high radiation levels in the area but that the exact source could not be found.  Forensic radiation tests done at the time revealed high doses of radioactive contamination on the clothing of a few of the victims.

Other than the reports of airborne objects, there is no physical evidence of any spacecraft landing in Dyatlov Pass or other terrain disruptions indicating an intrusion.  The bodies with a strange brown cast can easily be explained by medical science.  They had been exposed to the harsh climate and the color change was naturally occurring.  The pictures do not show anyone with white hair.  The radiation measurements have been exaggerated enough to create significance or doubt.  The facts revealed that the measured radiation was very low level beta-radiation, very weak and insignificant.  These were students and could have easily been exposed in any of a number of laboratory settings.  The fact that one hiker had parts of her face missing has been exploited as part of the alien theory, but poorly.  She was found in a ravine and could have easily been a target for a scavenger.  It could also have degraded by natural causes from exposure to the elements.

Military or Government Testing

Yuri Yudin, the hiker who had turned back after the first day of hiking due to illness was a proponent of the government cover-up theory.  He believed that his friends had hiked into a secret military testing site while travelling in low visibility due to the weather.  This accidental encroachment led to their deaths either by an experiment gone awry, or they were eliminated to cover-up whatever they seen.  An expedition to the area in 2007 revealed a number of metal fragments, which were strange enough looking to support the theory.

A strange metal fragment (one of many) that was discovered in 2007 near the site where 9 hikers mysteriously perished.
A strange metal fragment (one of many) that was discovered in 2007 near the site where 9 hikers mysteriously perished.

Another theory combines the objects witnessed in the sky with a military conspiracy.  They claim the Soviets were testing some secret aircraft models in the area.  These seemed to emerge long after the incident and relied on current Russian airbase geography.  At the time of the incident, few planes ever flew over the Ural mountains.

Other government/military cover-up theories are centered on special weapon testing.  One focused on parachute mines being tested and the other on a sound-based weapon.  Parachute mines were capable of producing a concussion strong enough to kill people.  They were presumably dropped from low flying aircraft and detonated several meters above the surface of the mountain, releasing a killing shock wave.  The orange glowing in the sky fits into this theory nicely as does the condition of some of the bodies.  What doesn’t fit is the lack of any physical evidence of an explosive device, any remains of a parachute or other delivery device, or and terrain disruptions from the concussions.

The sound-based weapons theory hasn’t been given much credibility simply due to the fact that no real viable sonic weapons exist today.  There are sound based devices used for crowd control but not to kill or crush people.  If such a technology existed in 1959, and was being tested on this group, we would expect all the bodies to be injured.  When only a few were found severely damaged and others very close dead by the weather, it makes this theory very weak.

Facts which still Raise Questions

The major theories surrounding this mysterious event have been debunked with enough certainty to rule them as non-issues.   Yet, the facts remain that these young people did indeed die on that mountain and they were found in strange circumstances by the searchers.  There were many witnesses and many photographs taken of the discoveries and as a body of work all conclude the inconclusive.  Yet a few nagging facts remain that prompt additional questions.  Two bodies were found next to a campfire.  The party obviously had the means to start a fire, so why not build it up to keep warm until the “crisis” passed before attempting to return to the campsite?  Someone obviously took matches with them when they bugged out, but why?  Why would they “cut” their tent, when the exit was just a few feet away and could easily accommodate a hasty exit?  The tent was their only source of  shelter and cutting it to ribbons seems like the action of an insane person, not someone panicking.  The cut tent is only used as part of the larger narrative, but would seem to have a greater, although unknown, meaning, especially since it appears some were attempting to get back to it.

We are left with little evidence to explain what really happened to those hikers that night, other than the fact that whatever it was led to their deaths.  Even now, there are still people researching this event, desperately trying to piece together a plausible explanation, but with little success.  We can only speculate that whatever caused nine people to destroy their only shelter and run down a frozen mountain in subzero conditions must have caused a level of fear and panic most of us will never encounter.  Whatever caused the exodus remains a mystery today and will likely never be determined.

A Memorial to the Nine Hikers Who Perished on the Mountain of the Dead
A Memorial to the Nine Hikers Who Perished on the Mountain of the Dead

Additional Reading

Death in London – the Killer Fog of 1952

Cattle Mutilations – Still No Explanation

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