The Dyatlov Pass Incident is widely considered to be one of the most bizarre and unsettling mysteries of the 20th century. For the uninitiated, the Dyatlov Pass Incident refers to the tragic, unexplainable deaths of nine young Russian mountaineers who braved a cross-country skiing expedition in the treacherous Ural Mountains located in the former Soviet Union. The account of the incident almost reads like a script from a horror movie: In the late 1950s, a team of nine cross-country skiing enthusiasts embarked on an excursion in the frigid Russian wilderness that would ultimately end in their gruesome demise. To this day, no concrete explanation has been given as to exactly how these ill-fated adventurers died, but one thing is for certain: The extensive amount of evidence recovered from the incident (much of which was allegedly classified by the Soviet military) overwhelmingly points to the fact that these young skiers encountered something terrifying–and far beyond anything normal–just moments before their death.
It all started in January of 1959 when an energetic young skier by the name of Igor Dyatlov (whose name the infamous Pass now bears due to the incident) assembled a team of ten experienced ski hikers (including himself) for the purpose of striking out on a trip through the rugged Otorten Mountain range, a section of the northern region of Russia’s Ural Mountains. In Dyatlov’s mind, this excursion would serve as somewhat of a “training exercise” to prepare for future hiking and skiing expeditions in the much more severe conditions of the Arctic.
The team was comprised of eight males and two females, as follows:
1. Igor Dyatlov
2. Alexander Kolevatov
3. Rustem Slobodin
4. Yuri (“Georgiy”) Krivonischenko
5. Yuri Doroshenko
6. Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolles
7. Semyon (“Alexander”) Zolotariov
8. Yuri Yudin
9. Zinaida Kolmogorova
10. Lyudmila Dubinina
The majority of the team members were either students or alumni of the Ural Polytechnical Institute (now known as the Ural Federal University), a university located in an area of the Urals known as Sverdlovsk Oblast. On January 25th, the group took a train to Ivdel, a small town located in the central region of Sverdlovsk Oblast, and then subsequently rode a truck to Vizhai, the last inhabited village that far north. It was from Vizhai that they planned to launch their excursion, with the goal of reaching Otorten, a mountain located roughly 6 miles north of the site of the fateful incident. At the time of their departure, the conditions of the route were ranked as a “Category III”–the most difficult–which was no doubt a formidable yet welcoming challenge for this team of experienced mountaineers.
On January 27th, one of the team members, Yuri Yudin, fell ill just as the expedition began and was forced to go back to Vizhai, leaving a team of nine skiers to brave the elements. Little did Yurin know at the time that he would be the only one of the team to survive.
There were a handful of diaries and cameras that were recovered from the team’s last known campsite, each of which helped investigators piece together a timeline of events that took place roughly 24 hours before the incident. The team arrived at a highland area on January 31st and began preparing for climbing. They also stashed food and provisions (to be used for their return trip) in a nearby wooded valley. As they began to make their way through the pass on February 1st, it seems as though harsh weather conditions may have hindered their travel, causing them to lose their direction and prompting them to alter their route westward so that they could set up camp on the slope of a mountain known as Kholat Syakhyl. There was a forested area that afforded better shelter slightly less than a mile downward from their campsite, but strangely they chose not to move to that location. Yuri Yudin, when interviewed about possible explanations as to why Dyatlov chose not to move the team downward for better shelter, surmised that Dyatlov may not have wanted to lose the altitude that they had already gained. Ironically, the name “Kholat Syakhyl” is a title given by the indigenous Mansi tribes for that particular location, and it means “Mountain of the Dead.”
Dyatlov and the team had set a deadline to send telegrams back to their loved ones no later than February 12th, as a sign that they had successfully completed their expedition and returned to Vizhai safe. Over a week went by without any telegrams being received, prompting the relatives of the team members to press the Ural Polytechnic Institute to assemble a search team comprised of teachers and volunteers to begin looking for the missing hikers. This rescue operation began on February 20th, but when it yielded no results, the Russian military was ordered to get involved, sending ground troops as well as helicopters and planes to canvas the area in search of the missing campers.
Finally, on February 26th, the Dyatlov team’s campsite was discovered, and rescue personnel were greeted with several disturbing and perplexing sights. The abandoned and badly damaged tent was empty and had been cut open from the inside in a seemingly frantic or haphazard fashion. All of the team’s belongings had been strewn about the campsite, including their clothes and shoes. Several different sets of footprints radiated from the tent, bearing evidence that some of the campers had fled the tent barefoot, while others showed signs of campers only wearing one shoe. At the edge of the forest downward from the tent, searchers found the bodies of Yuri Doroshenko and Yuri Krivonischenko, shoeless and clothed only in their underwear. Their bodies were located under a cedar tree where it appeared that they had attempted to make a fire. The branches of the cedar tree were broken up to 15 feet high on the trunk. The palms of both Doroshenko’s and Krivonischenko’s hands were badly damaged, and several pieces of skin were also found on the bark of the tree, indicating a possible frantic attempt to climb the tree by both men. Investigators were puzzled by what could have possibly drove these men to try and climb this tree, unclothed in the freezing cold, and shred the skin of their hands in an attempt to get to safety.
The searchers subsequently found the bodies of three other campers–Kolmogorova, Dyatlov, and Slobodim–between the cedar tree and the camp, all of which were discovered in poses indicating that they may have been attempting to return to the campsite. A legal inquest was made after the discovery of the first five bodies, and a closer medical examination concluded that they had all died of hypothermia. No severe injuries were discovered, and only Slobodin had a minor skull fracture, but nothing that could have proven to be fatal.
The investigation took an even stranger turn when the rest of the hikers’ bodies were found in May of the same year. The corpses of Thibeaux-Brignolles, Dubinina, Zolotarev, and Kolevatov were discovered under 12 feet of snow in a ravine roughly 250 feet from the cedar tree. The skull of Thibeaux-Brignolles was severely crushed, and both Zolotarev and Dubinina had extensive chest fractures. Oddly enough, there was no evidence of any external injuries (e.g., bruising or contusions) that could have caused the fractures. Dr. Boris Vozrozhdenny, the medical examiner, reported that the force required to produce such fractures would be equivalent to that of a car crash. Dubinina’s body suffered the most extensive damage, as her eyes had been removed, large sections of facial tissue were missing, and her tongue had been removed from the root.
Theories and speculation abound regarding how these nine campers may have met their tragic fate. Some have postulated that they may have been attacked by local Mansi warriors for encroaching upon their territory, but the physical evidence is inconsistent with this theory; none of the hikers’ bodies displayed any evidence of struggle. Others have claimed that the campers may have encountered the legendary Siberian Yeti, a savage half-human/half-ape creature akin to Sasquatch or Bigfoot. Unfortunately, no evidence of huge “Yeti tracks” have been discovered near any of the corpses or the campsite.
Another explanation was that the harsh winds whipping around the mountain may have created what’s known as a Karman vortex street, a physical phenomenon that produces infrasounds (i.e., high-pressure subsonic waves that are damaging to humans). The pressure caused by this infrasonic phenomenon (if it indeed did happen) may have been responsible for the extensive bone fractures suffered by some of the team members. One of the more paranormal explanations of the incident was that the campers were victimized by some type of sinister alien encounter. Lead Soviet investigator Lev Ivanov noted that on the same night of the incident, an entirely different group of campers some thirty miles away from Kholat Syakhyl reported seeing “strange orange spheres” in the sky over the area at night. Interestingly enough, forensic tests revealed abnormally high levels of radiation in the clothing of some of Dyatlov’s team members.
Perhaps one of the most plausible explanations is that the skiers inadvertently wandered onto a classified Soviet military testing site, and may have suffered from a concussive blast caused by some sort of top-secret weapon. To this day, the official explanation offered by the Soviet military investigators is vague at best; they attributed the campers’ deaths to some sort of “compelling unknown force.”
It may never be revealed what exactly prompted these nine experienced mountaineers to abandon their campsite (many of them unclothed in the freezing cold) in what seemed to be a sheer state of panic in order to flee from some obviously imminent threat. An organization known as the Dyatlov Foundation has been established in order to persuade the Russian government to reopen an investigation of the incident, but as of this writing, no progress has been made. Hopefully, one day the truth may be revealed in order to provide some sort of closure for the families of those who tragically lost their lives on that treacherous mountainside.