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Dyatlov Pass Incident: An Unexplained Mountain Mystery

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I write about things I find interesting, and although I am not an expert, I have fun learning as I research. I hope you like the results!

Dyatlov Pass doesn't look too dangerous when the weather is good, but throw in a snowstorm and temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius, and it may be a little more intimidating.

Dyatlov Pass doesn't look too dangerous when the weather is good, but throw in a snowstorm and temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius, and it may be a little more intimidating.

Dyatlov Pass Incident

Whilst not strictly a topic involving the paranormal, the Dyatlov Pass Incident has been a subject of much controversy and some outlandish theories ever since it occurred in 1959.

This case is a real Alice in Wonderland type rabbit hole, and you can easily fall in and not resurface for some time. The more you dig, the deeper the mystery becomes.

How did nine experienced hikers die in such mysterious circumstances with such conflicting evidence of possibilities?

Theories Regarding the Dyatlov Pass Incident

  • Some theorise that it could have been local indigenous tribesmen known as the Mansi, trying to keep the travellers away from a sacred area.
  • Others say it was a Russian Yeti type creature that attacked the group.
  • Aliens have also been blamed due to the fact that the team seem to have been photographing the skies over the Dyatlov Pass on the day they died.
  • Avalanches or the fear of an avalanche caused panic.
  • Secret military exercises and a consequent cover-up.
  • A KGB agent or agents had infiltrated the group who were trying to pass secret information to the West during the Cold War.

Officially the case has never been solved, but many people have put forward their suggestions as to what happened.

There are two theories that go a long way towards plausibility for me, but like any other views, there are holes in the details and they could be right or wrong.

Let’s start by looking at what we know happened and you can make your own mind up.

This is one of the photos taken by the group during their trek. (Photo from one of the cameras found at the scene.)

This is one of the photos taken by the group during their trek. (Photo from one of the cameras found at the scene.)

The Facts

  • Nine experienced ski-hikers lost their lives in mysterious circumstances in the Ural Mountains of Russia on February 2nd, 1959.
  • Alarmed relatives notified the authorities on February 20th, eight days after they were supposed to have returned to their starting point.
  • The resulting search party found their bodies in various states: hypothermia, fractured skull crushed chest and ribs, and one of the female team members were even found with their tongue and eyes missing.
  • It is possible to know what happened right up to the date of their deaths due to diaries and cameras found at their campsite.
  • Originally a ten-person team was assembled with the intention of reaching Otorten Mountain, which has a peak of 1,234 metres. Whilst classed as a difficult trek, with the experience they had, this should have been well within their capabilities.
  • The team was led by Igor Dyatlov, in whose memory the mountain pass was renamed. It comprised of eight men and two women.
  • They set off for Otorten on January 27th, but just one day later Yuri Yudin had to return to their base town of Vizhai, due to feeling unwell. He was fortunate because this illness made him the only survivor of the whole party.
  • From here on we are reliant on the evidence found by the search team: cameras, diaries, locations and the condition of the corpses.

The Fateful Evening

All seemed to go well until February 1st when they encountered a snowstorm and reduced visibility in the Dyatlov Pass.

During this period they found they had inadvertently gone off course and were high on the slopes of a nearby mountain, Kholat-Syakhl. Rather than travel the 1 km back down the slope to the relative shelter and safety of the wooded area below, Dyatlov made the decision to make camp where they were.

The only survivor of the expedition, Yuri Yemdin, later theorised in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times that “Dyatlov probably did not want to lose the distance they had covered, or he decided to practice camping on the mountain slope.”

Whatever the reasons for the decision, it proved fatal for them all. Not one member of the group survived the night.

The group sets up camp before tragedy strikes that same evening.

The group sets up camp before tragedy strikes that same evening.

Camp and Bodies Discovered

When the expedition camp was discovered on February 26th, the rescue party found it abandoned. The tent was cut open at the side and most of the group’s equipment was still inside, including the majority of their clothing. Evidence showed that the group had cut the tent from the inside and run down the slope towards the forested area below.

There were no signs of a struggle and no signs of other people or animals entering the camp.

The bodies were found as follows:

Yury Doroshenko, 21, and Georgy Krivonischenko, 24, were the first to be discovered near the edge of the forest, barefoot and still in their underwear. Nearby were found the remains of a fire and broken branches from a nearby cedar tree. It appeared the tree was climbed for some reason and the branches fell. Maybe they had been trying to see where the camp was? Their hands were burned from the fire.

The next three bodies to be found were Igor Dyatlov, 23, Zina Kolmogorova, 22, and Rustem Slobodin, 23. They were found between the treeline and the camp and their positioning indicated to investigators that they had been trying to get back to the camp up the slope.

The cause of death for these five were all recorded as hypothermia.

The remaining four bodies weren’t discovered until two months later, found buried under four metres of snow in a ravine approximately seventy-five metres away from the cedar tree where the first two bodies were found.

The four bodies recovered from the ravine were Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel, 24, Ludmila Dubinina, 21, Alexander Zolotaryov, 37, and Alexander Kolevatov, 25. They all showed signs of severe trauma injuries, including a fractured skull, numerous broken ribs and a crushed chest.

Amazingly, despite these injuries, no external wounds were evident. Dubunina was also found to be missing her tongue, lips and eyes and also part of her facial tissue and skull bone. These four were in a better state of dress than the others had been.

The mystery deepened yet further when higher than normal levels of radiation were discovered on some of their clothes.

The campsite the way it looked when discovered by the search team.

The campsite the way it looked when discovered by the search team.

Case Closed

The official investigation into the incident turned in an "unknown compelling force" verdict for the deaths. This is obviously not a very satisfactory explanation for the death of nine young people.

The case was closed two weeks after the discovery of the last four bodies and labelled ‘Top Secret’. The area was also subsequently closed to further expeditions from the public for three years.

This has led to many and various different claims about what happened to the unfortunate victims of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. They range from secret military training tests to the Russian Yeti or alien activity.

I am going to put forward two theories that make the most sense to me as explanations for this mystery.

Theory #1: Infrasound

To understand the first theory, we first need to take a look at the effect infrasound is said to have on certain people.

Here is a link that explains infrasound and its potential psychological effects on people in more depth. (Download the pdf file to read)

The basics of infrasound and its effect on some people are as follows:

  • It is a low-frequency sound just below the normal range of human hearing, somewhere below 20hz
  • It is believed—but not proven—to affect some people by making them hallucinate or get feelings of an ominous nature, like something bad is about to happen.

I believe what happened here could have been a bizarre combination of things.

At some point the infrasound caused by the wind whistling down the slope and snowy landscape in that specific location, had an effect on at least one of the hikers, making them believe they were in the path of an oncoming avalanche.

This, in turn, could have caused an instance of mass hysteria—especially if it was the leader, Dyaltov or the older Zolotaryov who experienced the paranoia or auditory hallucinations caused by the infrasound low-frequency noises.

They sliced a hole in the tent for one simple reason, they believed they needed to get out quickly. Tents from this era didn’t have zipped flaps but instead had the leather lace ties or rope ties. Therefore, it would have been much quicker to slice a hole in the canvas to get out.

The ensuing panic and mindset that an avalanche was descending on their camp, would explain their lack of clothing. They would have wanted to get out of their tent as quickly as humanly possible with no time to grab anything they weren’t already wearing.

Once outside in the wind, and pitch black of night, they would have run disorientated down the hillside, barefoot and scared of being buried alive in snow. After running some distance, they would have come to realise the danger of impending avalanche had been false, and their senses would have started to return.

It is reasonable to assume that at some point they were grouped together in the area where the first two bodies were found. We can ascertain this due to the fact that different people were wearing other people’s clothes, suggesting that as people died, others took the clothes from them to try and stay warm themselves.

At this point, they would have started to split up, as they all tried to survive the predicament in their own ways.

Three of them tried to head back towards the tent up the slope and died of hypothermia in the attempted return climb.

Igor Dyatlov, leader of the expedition, who died of hypothermia attempting to return to his tent.

Igor Dyatlov, leader of the expedition, who died of hypothermia attempting to return to his tent.

Paradoxical Undressing

Two of them died under the cedar tree at the edge of the woods. With branches from the tree, they made a fire. It seems someone climbed the tree to a height of four or five metres because rescuers found broken branches up to that mark. Despite the fire, they were in just their undergarments and hypothermia would have probably set in quickly in the icy cold temperature.

This link tells of the bizarre nature of hypothermia and how it can make people feel like they need to take off all their clothes. It is known as paradoxical undressing.

The other four died in a ravine which they probably fell into in the darkness, thus explaining the impact injuries they were found to have suffered as they fell on the rocks some metres below.

These four bodies discovered almost two months later did exhibit orange discolouration but this mummification effect is quite normal in people left exposed to freezing temperature and wind and is often experienced by rescue teams that have the unfortunate task of recovering such remains.

The grey hair described in some reports is actually complete nonsense. It was in the original report that the victims all had natural hair colour.

The lady whose tongue was said to be ripped out? Well, the reality is that her tongue was not ripped out but was degraded through the activity of microflora and fauna, due to the position her body lay in death. This was fully recognised and acknowledged at the time.

The other obvious possibility is that some small animal may have 'foraged' on her. Eyes are a particular favourite of birds such as crows. This was fully recognised and acknowledged at the time.

The radiation referred to has been identified as beta-radiation with the characteristics of isotope K-40. This is considered fairly weak contamination and certainly superficial.

According to various experts, the radiation was minor surface contamination and probably from Lyudmila Dubanina’s coat. It was probably from a laboratory environment (Radium, Radon and Potassium) and not from any recent weapons use.

It should be noted that a fair number of atomic detonations had been carried out in Russia and in other parts of the world at this time. Again, it was not uncommon that small amounts of “fall-out” might be spread far and wide.

Alexander Zolotarev the older member of the expedition, was a ski/tour instructor (a professional travel guide) and wanted to go with Igor’s team to Dyatlov Pass in order to add performance points to his degree and so achieve promotion to the rank of “Master” or Expert instructor.

Zolotarev did not know the other team members but was recommended by friends of the team from the sports club. He was accepted into the team and according to the diaries he co-operated and worked well with all of them.

This map shows where the bodies were found in relation to the campsite

This map shows where the bodies were found in relation to the campsite

Theory #2: Military Involvement

The other explanation that I lean towards is that of the military being involved, though in all probability in a completely inadvertent way.

It is a fact that the team seem to have been taking pictures of the sky that night, as evidenced by the rolls of film taken from their cameras.

We also know that another expeditionary team 50km to the south had reported seeing strange glowing lights in the sky towards the Dyatlov Pass area that night.

For many, this inevitably leads to discussions of UFO activity and many people believe alien interaction could have been involved that night.

More likely, is the involvement of the secretive Soviet Union's military and 'parachute' air-burst bombs.

There have been a lot of rumours about large amounts of metal being found in the area and if true, this all points to the expedition coming into contact with a Soviet army training exercise or weapons testing.

Air-burst bombs have been around since British Army general, Henry Shrapnel, first conceived of the idea in 1784.

Many improvements over the ensuing years led to the Mother Of All Bombs being dropped on Afghanistan in 2016.

It is quite possible that the Soviet Army was testing some version of an air-burst bomb in the remote Dyatlov Pass area of the Ural Mountains on that night, completely unaware of the team expedition.

There is no doubt that the pressure wave caused by the detonation of one of these ordnance explosions could certainly cause internal injuries similar to those suffered by the four team members found in the ravine.

Hearing the explosion of one of these bombs in the vicinity of the tent could also have been the cause of their initial panic.

Coverage of bad news is something that wasn't encouraged to be shared with the public in the Soviet Union at the time. Therefore, it is more than possible that the Dyatlov Pass Incident was covered up to hide the accidental deaths of nine comrades of Mother Russia

All the other details described in the first possible explanation still ring true for this theory, so there is no need for me to explain them again.

There is no suggestion of nuclear weapons being used here. If this was the case, then all of the bodies and the surrounding area would have had traces of radiation.

A memorial to the nine victims of the Dyatlov Pass Incident.

A memorial to the nine victims of the Dyatlov Pass Incident.


Theory #3: KGB Connection

There is one final theory that I can't quite shrug off for the events that occurred in the Dyatlov Pass that night.

The elder member of the travelling party, Semyon Zolotaryov, is rumoured by some to have been a KGB agent—and whilst it is less likely than the other two options presented here it cannot be ruled out.

The Soviet Union was a very secretive country and had a complex and vast series of agencies that kept the people in check, much like the Nazi Gestapo did in 1930s/40s Germany.

Some say that the footprints in the snow show that they were too orderly to have been a panicked run down the slope.

They also believe that two members were outside the tent at the time because traces of urine were found outside the tent.

The theory is that the group or certain members of the group were being monitored by the Russian secret service and were possibly planning to pass secrets to the West during their trip.

This falls down on a couple of levels for me. If they were outside the tent and ordered the others down the slope, why was the tent cut open from the inside? Also, both of these men died violently which makes no sense at all if they were the instigators? The urine patch could surely have come from any moment between them arriving at the campsite and leaving it. I fail to see why finding it proves two men were outside at the time.

The only reasoning for this is that Zolotaryov and Thibeaux-Brignollel were better dressed for the cold environment when their bodies were discovered.

This could just as easily be explained away by saying they felt the cold in the tent more so than the rest of the group and dressed accordingly for sleep.

That is why I mostly discount it, all but for a small nagging feeling...

In Conclusion

Whichever of these events, or any other theory you prefer, occurred in the Dyatlov Pass, it is pretty certain that nothing paranormal happened. Whilst alien encounters or a meeting with a Yeti are more romantic to imagine, the reality is that these situations are both very, very unlikely.

Just a set of strange happenings with logical explanations that nonetheless make this case intriguing and fascinating all these years later.

Dedicated Dyatlov Pass Incident Website

Dead Mountain - By Donnie Eichar

© 2018 Ian