On or not long after the night of February 2, 1959, nine people on a ski expedition in the Ural Mountains died under mysterious circumstances that have yet to be explained. Some authorities, including a 2008 unofficial panel of 6 former rescuers and 31 other experts, believe these trekkers unwittingly fell victim to secret Soviet military testing; others offer somewhat less macabre explanations. To date, no satisfactory official account of what happened to these young people has been established. The place where they perished is now called Dyatlov Pass, in honor of Igor Dyatlov, the party’s 23 year-old leader.
Dyatlov and his companions were students and affiliates of what was then the Ural Polytechnic Institute in the city of Sverdlovsk. Today the institution is named Ural State Technical University, and the city Yekaterinburg. The party were ten when they arrived by train at the city of Ivdel north of Sverdlovsk on January 25. They traveled by truck to the remote town of Vizhai, from which they set out on foot for the mountain Otorten on January 27. The expedition originally included 8 males and 2 females, but one of the guys, Yuri Yudin, turned back for health reasons shortly after departure from Vizhai and so became the expedition’s only survivor. The other nine were:
- Igor Dyatlov, the trek leader, 23
- Zinaida Kolmogorova, 22
- Ludmilla Dubinina, 21
- Alexander Kolevatov, 25
- Rustem Slobodin, 23
- Yuri Krivonischenko, 24
- Yuri Doroschenko, 21
- Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolle, 24
- Alexander Zolotarev, 37
When the party had not reported back by February 12, family and friends began to raise concerns. A search organized by the Institute began on February 20, and the remains of the group’s base camp, last campsite, and five of the nine bodies of the missing were found on February 26. Their tent was badly damaged and had been cut from the inside by a knife, suggesting a panic or sudden need to escape.
A diary and undeveloped film found in the tent indicated that the group had bedded down for the night of February 2 there on the shoulder of Kholyat Syakhl, “Death Mountain” in the language of the indigenous Mansi people, about 10 km south of Otorten, their goal. The day before, they had built a labaz, a base camp storage area for gear and supplies they wouldn’t need above the forest, in the valley of the nearby river Auspii. Then they proceeded up into the pass, hoping to cross it before camping for the night. They were traveling light and probably expected to return to their base camp within a couple of days. But they soon mistakenly deviated from their planned course because of worsening weather conditions, and seemed to be behind schedule.
Their chosen campsite on the east side of the mountain was open to the elements and was less than 2 km uphill from the treeline—the forest would have offered them considerable protection from the worsening winds. It is thought the party camped where they did, in an open, steep, and relatively dangerous location, either because it was near dark and they were in a great hurry, because they did not want to lose altitude they had gained, or because Dyatlov simply wanted to practice camping on an incline of 15 to 20 degrees. The trekkers were concerned about the weather, but in the records they left, there are no indications of anything vastly out of the ordinary happening up until the unknown events which caused them to flee their tent. Whatever happened on the night of February 2, it claimed the lives of all involved and left behind a gruesome scene.
The first two bodies to be discovered were those of Yuri K. and Yuri D. They were found near a small campfire the better part of a mile downhill and northeast of the tent, under a large tree at the forest’s edge. This was in the direction of a trail of several sets of footprints leading from the tent which became obscured by new snows after a few hundred yards. Both men were almost nude and were not wearing shoes. It appeared that a nearby tree had been climbed, and broken branches, some of them very thick, littered the area.
Probing between this site and the tent soon produced three more bodies, those of Dyatlov, Zinaida K., and Rustem S. Spread out over a few hundred yards, the dead were oriented in such a way as to suggest they were trying to return from the campfire site to their tent. They had been somewhat better dressed than the two Yuris. The official inquest found that all five of these skiers died from hypothermia due to exposure; the temperatures in the mountains that night were as low as -30 C, and, based on the diary and photographs, conditions included unusually strong winds and heavy snow.
It was only two months later, on May 4, that the bodies of the remaining four people were discovered about 50 yards into the forest from the campfire location, under many feet of snow in the valley of a small stream. None of the bodies showed external injuries, but three had suffered fatal internal injuries: there was a circular depression in the fractured skull of Nicolai T., and Ludmilla D. and Alexander Z. had suffered massive chest fractures. Alexander K. had a minor skull fracture and is thought to have died from the cold. Some of the ribs of Ludmilla D. and Alexander Z. were broken. Bizarrely enough, Ludmilla was missing her tongue. These people had been wearing what appeared to be whole articles and even some cut pieces of clothing from throughout the group, suggesting that the living may have taken or been given clothes from those who died. One doctor involved in the investigation said that, in his opinion, the bone injuries could not have been caused by another person and were similar in scope to fatal injuries found in the victims of violent car crashes. The victims were laid out on primitive fir beds, which may explain the broken branches near the campfire—they may have been used to transport the dead or injured.
The government investigation into the incident was closed shortly after these last discoveries. It had chiefly pursued a theory that indigenous Mansi people may have murdered the trekkers for encroaching upon their territory. But there was no evidence of any foul play or of any other parties having been on the scene, and the Mansi in that area had been identified as Russian-friendly and were not known to hunt or worship at Kholyat Syakhl. The members of the group who had not died from exposure had simply been killed by some “compelling unknown force,” the report stated. These files were reopened in 1990, and portions of them were found to be missing.
In the aftermath of these events, leading nearly up to the present day, odd circumstances related to the deaths and the investigation have been reported. They include the following:
- In February and March 1959, there were reports from Ivdel and elsewhere in the region of strange orange “‘spheres of light” seen above and around the Urals. One such report included in the case files was made by a group hiking about 50 km south of Dyatlov Pass. Speaking forty years later in a private interview, the chief government investigator of the incident, who has since died, is supposed to have revealed that higher regional authorities ordered the case closed and enforced a policy of silence regarding such sightings.
- Sometime after the original investigation, it was reported that the victims’ clothing showed evidence of exposure to radiation.
- According to some accounts, the government closed off the Dyatlov Pass area for some time after the incident.
- Family and friends of the victims complained at their funerals that the faces of the deceased were very deeply tanned and their hair had grayed.
- In 2007 Yuri Kuntsevich, head of the Yekaterinburg-based Dyatlov Foundation, led an expedition to the area in which he claims a “cemetery” of scrap metal was found, possibly suggesting military activity.
For these reasons many people, including Yuri Yudin, believe that some sort of ordinance blasts or other results of weaponry related to the orange lights were responsible for the panic and probably several of the deaths on Kholyat Syakhl. However, no concrete evidence of any large explosions in the pass has ever been found. One skeptical commentator has opined that any traces of radiation on the victims’ clothing could be due to exposure to thorium, which was at the time a common material used in the mantles of camping lanterns and stoves. The unnatural appearance of the victims’ bodies was likely due to prolonged exposure to sun and wintry elements. There are no records of any Soviet missile tests conducted during February, and even covert testing of large-scale armaments was usually done in certain zones nowhere near the Dyatlov Pass.
While it is possible that the cause of the incident was man-made, and although the case files do contain some disturbing testimony and references to alarming phenomena, it is at this point unlikely that any further evidence to support such a theory will ever come to light; and the dangers of extreme mountain treks are plentiful enough courtesy of Mother Nature alone.
The most convincing naturalistic explanation is that the group’s tent was caught in an avalanche, a common problem on the leeward slopes of the Urals, particularly on steep mountainsides in high winds. Moses Abramovitz, a friend and former trekking companion of Dyatlov’s and one of the members of the search party that found the group’s remains, shared his views concerning this explanation with author Nicholas Rundquist for inclusion in a book he was writing on the history of the Urals. My translation from the Russian source material, made to the best of my ability with the help of Google’s language tools, is as follows:
I have thought about this story [accounts involving secret weapons, madness among the group, etc.] and I have a different account of what happened. Igor Dyatlov organized the building of the labaz in the valley of the Auspii, planning to return after their circuit around Ortorten. They carefully stowed unnecessary items there, and set out on a leisurely ski to the pass on the east side of Kholyat Syakhl. Towards the evening the weather began to deteriorate, and this is confirmed by meteorological data from that day. They got off course to the left. This can happen easily during a storm. Convinced they were off course, they decided to camp for the night. They calmly handled their position on the mountain slope, packed down the snow, and put up their tent with their skis underneath. Not much later, they ate dinner; they talked for a while, made plans for the next leg, and went to bed.
The stronger and more experienced Dyatlov and Zolotarev fell asleep, as usual, at the edges of the tent, in the coldest and most uncomfortable places. Dyatlov was at the far [?] end of the tent, Zolotarev at the entrance . . . Who was in the center I do not know . . . but all eventually fell asleep.
And, at night [?] . . . something happened. There was a rumble, a noise, and suddenly most of the tent was covered with snow. The group was in shock. The round depression in Thibeaux-Brignolle’s skull came from the camera lens, which is sometimes used as a makeshift pillow for want of a better one. The differences in fractures between Dubinina and Zolotarev is explained by their sleeping in different positions, one on the back and one on the side.
It was dark, and the injured comrades were moaning. A normal exit was not possible. Someone took out a knife, cut open the tent, and helped everyone out. Igor decided immediately to make for their labaz to gather warm clothes, more supplies, perhaps first aid, and to find shelter in the forest. So they went. But the storm was horrible, they could not see where they were going, and they made it to the woods, but in the wrong direction. Igor understood they had gone the wrong way. They put their wounded friends in the ravine for shelter, gave them clothes, and built a fire. Thibeaux-Brignolle died. Igor, Zinaida, and Rustem tried to get back to the tent for some reason, to get some things or try again for the labaz. They may have made it to the tent, or could have died on the way up.
. . . Their tent remained in place and was not swept away by the snow because it was light and tight. It took a stroke but remained in place. The campers left barefoot because their ski boots would have been too slippery on the steep slope in the darkness, and they were planning to make for the labaz . . .
Perhaps Abramovitz’ explanation of why most of the campers were barefoot is a little lacking, and maybe he does not have all the details right. But subsequent commentators have noted that camping on a high slope on the east side of the Urals during strong winds was definitely dangerous because of the risk of avalanche, and, given the absence of evidence of any explosions or related destruction in the area, an avalanche is at least as likely a cause as any other.
I think that the following explanation is at least plausible: a relatively small, local avalanche or snowdrift of some kind, which could have been exacerbated or even caused by the way the snow was packed around the tent on the slope, covered the tent with snow at some point during the night, severely injuring and possibly immediately killing several of the people inside. The tent was cut open and may have filled with fine snow, which would help explain why no clothing or belongings were taken from inside at that time. At any rate, the fact that the tent was cut wide open indicates an extremely dire predicament, since it meant that it could not easily be used again. Those who could not get out were pulled out, and possibly had to be excavated from beneath several feet of snow.
The group went downhill, either in an attempt to make for their labaz, as Abramovitz suggests, or just to seek a relatively sheltered place in the woods to camp, knowing their tent was not salvageable. Some may have gone barefoot because of their hurry; it also strikes me that going without skis might have been the only way to ensure strong footholds down the mountain in the event that some of the victims had to be carried. A campfire was started on the edge of the wood, and an undetermined amount of time passed, during which some or all of the injured may have died from their severe wounds. It was probably during this time that the clothes were redistributed, and some of the people who gave up clothing, particularly the two Yuris, may not have been dead yet; I think this is likely because much of the clothing had been cut away in strips rather than simply removed whole. I do not think that the four bodies found last, in the ravine, would have been taken to their final location 50 yards away from the campfire until after they had died, or at least until hope of maintaining an adequate fire was given up. Since they appear to have been transported via the broken branches, they probably died much earlier than at least some of the first five victims to be found. And why was Ludmilla missing her tongue? The only feasible explanation is that she swallowed it, possibly in the throes of a violent death beneath the snow.
Especially if some of the party had given up their clothes, the better-dressed people found between the fire and the tent, including Dyatlov, would have tried to return to the tent to recover anything left inside. Because they were traveling back up the steep mountain in a blinding snowstorm, these three never made it back to the tent and were found where they fell en route.
Today, only plaques mark the place where this bizarre tragedy claimed the lives of nine young, strong adventurers. Probably no one hypothesis as to what happened is exactly right—the hidden truth, were it to be known, would likely incorporate parts of many of the given explanations. Unless some new and unexpected evidence comes to light, that truth will never be found. Each winter brings fresh snows to the slopes of Death Mountain, and new trekkers to the pass where Igor Dyatlov and his companions succumbed fifty years ago.
For Moses Abramovitz, it is difficult to imagine that his friends died in a panic, in madness. “They died with dignity,” he said.