Today's mystery comes to us all the way from Siberia in the super classy nation of Russia. Actually, if we want to be super accurate, this mystery actually took place in the Soviet Union, because the year was 1959. Just a side note here: the phrase the "Soviet Union" gives me chills...I mean, it was a pretty terrible regime, but the dudes really knew how to name a country.
Like I said, we are going to be in Siberia today, which is the last place on earth I ever want to visit because, as far as I can understand it Siberia is only ever cold and miserable. Seriously, I spent a ton of time researching today's case, and I'm pretty sure I shivered the entire time I was reading about it.
However, the unfortunate victims of today's story did not have the same sensibilities that I do. The people we are going to talk about today are people who made hiking in the Siberian wilderness their hobby, which I think is part of the reason that they are the subject of a mysteriYES episode and I am not.
The name of today's story is the Dyatlov Pass Incident and is named after a 23-year-old college student named Igor Dyatlov. Along with most of the victims of the incident, Igor was a student at Ural Polytechnic University in Sverdlovsk, Russia’s fourth largest city, which is now known as Yekaterinburg. A descendant of a family of engineers, Igor was described as having a scientific mind and was a radio engineering student at the university. In addition to his technical acumen, Igor was also considered an expert hiker and cross country skier at the university, and would often lead groups on expeditions through Siberia. However, not just any old hiker could join a Dyatlov Expedition; only those skilled hikers who had earned their spot were invited along with him. Igor was also described as a totalitarian commander, and would have stringent rules such as no smoking and no drinking (which is very un-Russian), as well as requiring his comrades to regularly wash their feet, even when there was no heater or hot water.
In January of 1959, Igor and eight other UPI students, who were all experienced hikers and skiers, planned to complete what was known as a Grade III expedition, which was the highest level that a hiker could attain in Soviet Russia. The parameters for what qualified as a Grade III expedition were as follows: at least 186 miles of hiking with a third of this being done on rough terrain, and must last at least sixteen days with at least 8 days spent in uninhabited regions, and at least six nights sleeping in a tent. In order to prove that their expedition was, in fact, worthy of a Grade III certification, the hikers had to thoroughly document their trip through journal entries and photographs. Because of this stipulation, we have quite a bit of information from the hikers about how their trip went leading up to the fateful night of their demise.
The hikers planned to hike to Otorten Mountain in the Northern Ural Mountains. Because they would be making their hike in the heart of winter, the Dyatlov group could expect subzero temperatures and multiple feet of snow—which sounds like hell itself to me, but is apparently a somewhat desirable environment for these fine, upstanding Communists.
The original group was made of seven men and two women in their early twenties. The men were Igor Dyatlov, Yuri Doroshenko, Alexander Kolevatov, Rustik Slobodin, Georgy Krivonishchenko, Koyla Thibault-Brignoles, and Yuri Yudin. The women were Lyuda Dubinina and Zina Kolmogorova. Just before the group got on the train out of Sverdlovsk, a thirty-seven-year-old acquaintance of Igor’s joined the group. His name was Sasha Zolotaryov, and even though he was quite a bit older, heavily tattooed, and a World War II veteran, he seemed to fit in with the rest of the group well.
The group left Sverdlovsk on January 23, and had to make stops at several staging points before actually taking off into the Siberian wilderness. At the very last stop in human civilization, on January 28th, Yuri Yudin—who had been plagued by many chronic health problems throughout his life—decided to turn back due to intense pain in his back and legs after a rough night of sleeping on the floor. The group of ten became nine.
The hikers would follow two rivers on their journey—first the Lozva River and then the Auspiya River. They would hike when possible and then use skis when the snow was too high. I read that they had to deal with as much as four feet of snow the closer they got to their destination of Otorten Mountain. At the end of each day, they would find a place to set up camp, eat dinner, and then sing and make music. They had a portable stove that they’d set up in the tent that would apparently heat up the tent so much that the ideal sleeping place was as far away from the stove as possible. This made it possible for the hikers to sleep in various states of undress—which will become important later.
February 1st was the last day of all of the hikers’ lives. Judging from the pictures that were taken that morning, everyone’s spirits were high. The later pictures taken that day revealed a difficult trek in the direction of Holatchahl Mountain—which means “dead mountain” in the area’s indigenous language of Mansi. One of these pictures is particularly eerie to me. It is taken from behind the group as they ski in a single file line, and the weather is such that you can’t tell the ground from the sky. On either side of the group are black shadows that make it seem like the group is skiing into some hopeless abyss. And, I guess, in a way they were.
The group would stop to set up camp around 3 pm on February 1st, about 3540 feet high on the eastern slope of Holatchahl Mountain, in the shadow of Otorten Mountain, their intended destination. This spot would be the last place the hikers set up their tent, and would someday come to be known as Dyatlov Pass. It took them several hours to set up camp, such that they weren’t situated in their tent until 9:00 pm. The hikers undressed for the night and went to sleep, thinking that in the morning they would begin the climb to the summit of Otorten Mountain. Unfortunately for them, they would never make it there, because by the time the sun rose on February 2nd, they would all be dead.
Back in civilization, it wasn’t until February 15th that people began to express concern for the hikers’ wellbeing. Their plan was to have returned to Vizhay by February 12th, but as of yet, none of their families had heard anything. The next day, February 16th, Igor’s sister, Rufina approached the administration of UPI with her concerns about the hikers’ whereabouts. The administrators stated that they believed that the group was merely running behind. It was a fair enough assumption, because delays were very common. The only way to communicate with civilization was via telegram from an outpost, but these apparently didn’t happen very often. Something like a twisted ankle or a case of diarrhea could set a hiking group back a few days or more—and if they didn’t have an opportunity to dispatch a telegram, then no one would know.
By February 17th though, the pressure from the families forced the UPI administration to send a telegram to Vizhay, inquiring after the group of hikers. The Vizhay response was ominous: “The Dyatlov group did not return.”
On February 20th, the official search for the hikers began, in the air and on the ground. Also on that day, the prosecutor’s office in the city of Ivdel opened a criminal investigation into the missing hikers.
On February 26th, two UPI students named Boris Slobtsov and Michael Sharavin found the Dyatlov group’s campsite. The tent poles were still standing vertically out of the ground and the south-facing entrance was still intact, but most of the tarpaulin had collapsed and was covered in snow. Outside of the tent, they found an ice axe near the entrance, and a partially buried flashlight that is turned on, but has dead batteries. The searchers called out for the hikers, but there was no response.
Using an axe to tear open the tents, the searchers went inside. The tent was about 80 square feet, and almost all of that was covered by empty backpacks, coats, and blankets to form a layer of insulation against the cold. At the south end of the tent were several pairs of ski boots, and a few personal items such as a camera, money, and a diary are sitting out in the open. There were no bodies in the tent, and it was very tidy, as if the hikers would be coming back any moment.
The searchers believed that the hikers were alive somewhere, perhaps hiding out in a tent somewhere. However, before they could begin to search the area surrounding the tent, the weather began to get bad and the searchers were forced to return to their camp. From there, a radio operator dispatches a message to Ivdel, stating that the hikers had been found.
The next day, more searchers begin scouring the area around the tent, while investigators determined that the tent had been cut open from the inside. Searchers found eight or nine footprints made by bare feet leading down the mountain toward a nearby forest. They followed these footsteps for about 1500 feet before they disappeared in the snow.
However, at the edge of the forest, some of the searchers happen upon the remains of a slipshod fire pit beneath a cedar tree, and just north of the fire pit, they see a human knee sticking out of the snow. The searchers uncover the bodies of Yuri Doroshenko and Georgy Krivonishchenko, lying next to each other on the ground, in shredded, weather-inappropriate clothing.
Yuri Doroshenko is found face down in the snow with his arms folded under his head like a pillow, with broken cedar branches underneath his body. He is dressed in a checkered shirt, swim trunks underneath long underwear that only covers his right leg, and bare feet, with snow in between his toes.
Georgy Krivonishchenko is found lying on his back, face up, with his eyes and mouth pecked at by a bird. Georgy is dressed in an undershirt, and checkered shirt, long underwear, briefs, and socks.
The cedar tree under which the fire pit had been found had broken branches as far as fifteen feet up the trunk, as if one of the hikers—probably Yuri—had climbed up the tree, as if looking for something.
A few hours later, in a valley about a mile away from the camp and a few hundred yards from the cedar tree, two more bodies, one male, one female, are found. The male body is partially buried in snow with the arms held across the chest in a defensive posture. The body is dressed in a sweater over a checkered shirt, a fur vest, ski trousers, and mismatched socks pulled over painfully curled feet. The watch on the wrist is stopped at 5:31. The body is determined to be that of Igor Dyatlov.
About a thousand feet away, the female body is lying on its right side and buried face down in the snow, with the arms twisted underneath the body, the face stained with dried blood, and the right leg bent. From the way the body is oriented, investigators believed that this hiker was headed back up the mountain toward the tent when she collapsed and died. The body is dressed in a hat, ski jacket, ski pants, and socks. This body is determined to be that of Zina Kolmogorova.
On March 5th, the body of Rustik Slobodin is found about 3,000 feet from the tent, between Zina and Igor. He is face down with his right leg bent beneath him and his right fist pulled to his chest. He is dressed in a checkered shirt, a sweater, ski trousers, several pairs of socks on his feet, a ski cap, and a single shoe. Like Zina, the orientation of his body suggested that he was making his way back up the slope. However, unlike Zina, Rustik showed signs of blunt force trauma to the head.
After these five bodies were found, they were returned to the city of Ivdel, where autopsies were performed. The autopsies determined that all five had died of hypothermia. But, while the cause of death had been determined, the circumstances that led to them getting hypothermia in the first place were still a mystery, as were the locations of the four other hikers.
On May 4th, the bodies of the four remaining hikers were finally found in a ravine about 250 feet deeper into the woods than the cedar tree where the first bodies were found. Because the weather has warmed in the three months since their deaths, and because the bodies were found in a creek bed of melting snow, decomposition had set in such that Lyuda’s body is the only one that is recognizable. She was wearing a cap, a yellow undershirt, two sweaters, brown ski trousers, and two socks on one foot, while the other foot is wrapped in a sweater.
The first body to go under autopsy was Alexander Kolevatov. As expected, the examiner determined that Alexander had died of hypothermia, just like the five previous hikers. But things got weird with the next three. Next up was the 37-year-old Sasha Zolotaryov. He was dressed warmly, but he was barefoot and his skin showed the discoloration of hypothermia. But the examiner noticed that the right side of Sasha’s chest had five broken that caused severe hemorrhaging and was the cause of Sasha’s dead.
Kolya Thibault-Brignoles had similar injuries as Sasha, only to the head. The examiner stated that Kolya died of “impressed fracture of skull dome and base with abundant hemorrhage.”
Lyuda’s midsection had sustained massive damage complete with internal hemorrhaging near hear heart and nine broken ribs. Disturbingly, her tongue was missing.
With very little physical evidence to shed light on what happened that night, the case was officially closed on May 28, 1959 due to pressure from regional supervisors. The lead investigator on the case, a man named Lev Ivanov, ended the case file by stating that the deaths had been caused by “an unknown compelling force.”
So the first six hikers had died of hypothermia, but the last three had died due to violent injuries they had sustained. This caused wild speculation among the public—even more wild than the speculation had been before. The question on everyone’s mind—and the question that we’re still trying to answer—is what could have possibly driven these experienced hikers to flee their tent into a -40 degree wind chill, only partially dressed and in bare feet? And how on earth were they able to make it a mile away from their tent in heavy snow and strong winds?
To try to answer the question of what caused the hikers to leave the tent, let’s look at some of the most popular theories used in explanation of the incident.
The first theory was very popular in the initial investigation of the incident, and that is that an avalanche had driven them away from their campsite in search of cover. Based upon the way the hikers were dressed, it’s pretty well accepted that they were probably asleep right before they fled the tent. According to the avalanche theory, the hikers must have realized that an avalanche was imminent and cut their way out of the tent to get to the forest down slope. However, they had gotten separated from each other, and in the darkness of the night, could not find their way back to the tent. Three tried, but died of hypothermia before they could make it there. Two tried to build a fire to stay warm, but ultimately succumbed to the cold. The other four fell into a ravine—one died of hypothermia, and the other three died of the blunt force trauma caused by such a dramatic fall. Many of these bodies were then covered by the snow dispelled by the avalanche.
There are some issues that make the avalanche theory unlikely. First off, the fact that the avalanche hadn’t completely destroyed the tent and the fact that the hikers had managed to outrun the avalanche in bare feet and through thick snow made this seem unlikely. Second, there was no evidence found to support there being an avalanche in the area, either on the surrounding landmarks or on the bodies. Third, the slope of Holatchahl was not particularly steep, and this apparently makes the possibility of an avalanche rather unlikely.
Another theory is that the hikers had witnessed some sort of weapons testing or UFO phenomenon that caused them to panic and flee their tents. In mid-February of 1959, a few weeks after the deaths of the hikers, a few other hikers in the area reported seeing strange orbs of light in the sky. While he was pressured by the government not to say anything about this until much, much later, the lead investigator Lev Ivanov stated that he believed that the orb-sightings had something to do with the deaths of the hikers. He has never stated whether he believes that the orbs are weapons, UFOs, or rocket launches; he only states that—being the expert on the case—he thinks there is a direction connection between the orbs and the mysterious deaths.
An interesting piece of evidence that lends some support to this theory is the last photo found on the Dyatlov Group’s camera. The picture is mostly dark, with a bright circle near the center, with another brighter streak in the upper right hand corner. Some people believe that this is a picture of one of the orbs in the sky, but I don’t think there’s much reason to believe this. Very easily, it could have been an accidental picture, taken either by the hikers or by one of the search crews. Plus, if the orbs in the sky caused them to panic and flee their tent in bare feet, why would they spend the time to snap a picture instead of putting on appropriate clothing and footwear? The picture is interesting to look at and speculate about, but frankly, I think it’s just an accidental shot of nothing in particular.
There’s no real reason to believe this theory, but there are a few reasons to disbelieve it. There were no known orb sightings during the first week of February. The only reported sighting is from February 17th, more than two weeks after the hikers died. Plus, there were no documented weapons tests in the Soviet Union during that time, so it’s unlikely the hikers witnessed anything.
And, as far as UFOs go, I don’t believe this at all. The only reason aliens are even suggested is because the case is unexplained and two weeks after the incident some people said they saw a light in the sky. That’s it. In my mind, there’s no reason whatsoever to make the logical leap that aliens must have been involved.
Another theory that is somewhat related to the weapons test theory is that the hikers were exposed to unnatural amounts of radiation. Some of the hikers clothing was shown to have somewhat high levels of radiation, and the hikers skin was dark, which suggested some sort of effect of radiation. However, it has been determined that the amount of radiation was not at a dangerous level. Plus, the darkness of the skin is probably due to exposure to the sun. You can get a sunburn in the winter, and even on a cloudy day.
Perhaps the most unlikely theory—but also perhaps the most interesting—is the cryptozoological explanation. Apparently in Russian mythology, there is some sort of yeti that eats tongues. If you’ll remember, Lyuda’s tongue was missing from her mouth. Also, the statement in the autopsies that the injuries that the three non-hypothermic skiers had sustained could not have been caused by a human lends itself to this theory. However, there is no physical evidence of a horrible monster chasing the skiers—and also, there’s no such thing as Russian yetis.
Another theory, which is popular in Russia, particularly those with a distrust of the Soviet government, is that the answer to the mystery has been covered up in classified government documents. One piece of evidence in support of this would be the fact that Lev Ivanov was pressured by Moscow to suppress any explanation that involved murder. Also, the way that government officials dealt with the families of the victims was reportedly suspicious, as was the heavy presence of police and KGB agents at the funerals. However, none of these things necessarily point to a government cover-up, and also the fact that the case file still exists—even though it could have been destroyed after 25 years—suggests that the government doesn’t have much interest in completely covering up whatever information they have.
The last theory I’m going to talk about is that posited by Donnie Eichar, the author of the book Dead Mountain, which I read in preparation for today’s episode. Along with physicists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Eichar postulated that a natural phenomenon known as infrasound had caused the hikers to flee from their tent. Infrasound is the opposite of ultrasound, meaning that it occurs below the threshold of human hearing. Apparently infrasound can have a strong psychotropic effect on the human body, causing people to feel intense fear and panic as a result, and has been suggested as an explanation for why people have realistic paranormal experience.
While infrasound is typically caused by things like earthquakes, explosions, diesel engines, and wind turbines, Eichar and his team believe that a combination of the intense wind on the night of February 1st and the symmetrical dome shape of Holatchahl would have created the perfect conditions for what’s known as a Karman vortex street, which are basically miniature tornadoes created when a horizontal vortex of wind collides with a mountain and splits the horizontal vortex into two vertical vortices. These vortices—which produce infrasound—would have passed on either side of the tent and continued down the slope before dissipating.
So basically, Eichar’s hypothesis is that the infrasound caused the hikers to experience a temporary panicked psychosis, where they became convinced that the only logical solution was to flee their tent in bare feet and clothing that was inappropriate for the frigid temperatures. Then, upon coming back to reality, they realized that they had made a grave mistake and were very far away from their tent, which they couldn’t even see because, at the point when it is believed the hikers left their tent, the moon had not yet risen. They were now hopelessly lost in the life-threatening cold and the unrelenting dark.
I’m not sure what to think of Eichar’s hypothesis. It makes sense to me, but I’m by no means a physicist, so I don’t know of any way to figure out any problems with it. Near as I can tell, it is a perfectly plausible explanation—but it does seem like it was grasped out of thin air. However, there don’t seem to be as many issues with it as the other theories, although admittedly I haven’t been able to find any rebuttals to the theory.
When it comes to what happened to the hikers, I think it’s pretty clear. They were scared out of their tent by something and made a mad dash down the slope, but became separated into three groups. One group of two hikers, realizing they were in trouble, decided to stop and make a fire, and perhaps climb a cedar tree to look for the tent. The two died of hypothermia. Another group of three decided they would try to climb back up the slope to the tent, even though they weren’t sure exactly where it was. They each died of hypothermia on their way up the slope. The final group of four skiers ran so far into the forest that they fell into a ravine, where one died of hypothermia, and the other three died from the wounds caused by landing in the ravine.
However, what’s not clear is what drove them out. That’s the real mystery here. Was it one of the popular—if flawed—theories, or is it the new theory of infrasound put forth by Eichar? Or was it something that we have no idea about? At this point, almost sixty years removed from the incident, it may be impossible for us to know for sure.