Hypothermia seems the most likely killer. Or perhaps an avalanche. Some have suggested local tribespeople murdered the hikers. A bloodthirsty yeti has been suggested. My favorite theory is that a strange wind whipping around the mountains created a maddening infrasound, a low-frequency noise that can cause people to lose their minds. Whatever it was, something killed nine ski hikers in at Dyatlov Pass in the Soviet Union’s northern Ural Mountains one night in early February 1959. Referred to ever since as the Dyatlov Pass Incident (the pass is named for Igor Dyatlov, leader of the expedition), the events of that night have remained a mystery for the past 60 years. But now the Russian government is reopening the case.
Researching the case is to dive down a rabbit hole of bizarre theories, from the paranormal to the extra-terrestrial.
At a quick read, it seems like a perfectly normal, though tragic expedition gone wrong. 10 college-aged skiers set out for a trek through the Sverdlovsk Oblast region of the Urals in late January 1959. All of the skiers were experienced in long-distance ski touring and were participating on this trip in part to earn certification for advanced ski touring and mountaineering. After a few days of trekking through the snow, they arrived at the pass and prepared for their climb. One of the skiers turned back after suffering health issues; the rest pressed on.
On February 1, the group began ascending toward the pass but became disoriented in a driving snowstorm and soon headed in the wrong direction. Realizing their mistake after a time, Dyatlov decided the group should make camp for the night where they were, though they were quite exposed. At some point that night, all nine hikers perished. To die at altitude in the winter is not particularly uncommon. But when the hikers failed to return, their relatives organized a rescue mission. What the search party found has baffled experts to this day.
Six days after setting out, the search team found the group’s tent. It was a bizarre site. The tent had been abandoned, and, strangely, was cut open from the inside with the inhabitants’ clothing and shoes left behind. As many as nine sets of footprints, some barefoot, some only in socks, one with only one shoe, led away from the tent as if the group had suddenly fled. A mile from the camp, at the edge of the forest beneath a tree, searchers found the bodies of Yuri Doroshenko and Yuri Krivonischenko wearing only underwear, next to the remains of a small campfire. Broken branches suggested the tree had been climbed by one of the hikers, maybe in an effort to spot something far away.
Soon after, investigators found the bodies of Rustem Slobodin, Zinaida Kolmogorova, and Dyatlov half buried under snow. It appeared that these hikers had been with the other two at the forest’s edge and died on their way back to the camp, and similarly, weren’t dressed for the weather.
It took another two months to find the bodies of the last four. These hikers died in a ravine even further into the forest. Once winter snows began to melt they were revealed at the bottom of the ravine. Unlike the rest of the group, these four were wearing winter clothing, though not necessarily their own. Even more strange, they had been killed apparently not by exposure to cold, but by extreme blunt force trauma that one investigator likened to the violence of a car crash. Lyudmila Dubinina was missing an eye and her tongue. Nikolai Thibeaux-Brignolles had massive skull trauma, the rest had suffered severe chest fractures, but they had no external injuries. It was as if they’d been crushed by severe pressure that left no marks on their skin.
It’s of no doubt that six of the group—those found with no clothing—died of hypothermia. But there’s little obvious explanation for why’d they flee a tent after cutting it open, then run a mile through the snow with no shoes. Paradoxical undressing, when hypothermia victims start to feel a burning sensation causing them to peel off their clothes would seem to be a possible explanation, but then the hikers were of a sound enough mind to start a small fire nearby to warm themselves. Not to mention climb high into a pine tree to get a better view of the camp.
Soviet authorities concluded the group had died from a “compelling natural force,” and, as was standard practice in the Soviet Union, the files were locked away, adding to an element of mystery.
In the years since theories about what happened to the group continue to multiply. The likelihood of an avalanche has mostly been ruled out, with the assumption that the group was far too experienced to camp in an avalanche zone, and that the mountain they slept under was unlikely to produce avalanche conditions anyway. Some suggested that the Mansi, indigenous people of the region, attacked the hikers, but there was no sign of struggle around the campsite, nor were there extra footprints. The Discovery Channel even sent a film crew to the area in 2014 for a special, Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives, in which the crew talked to locals who swore they’ve seen signs of the mythical beast in the area, and heard strange sounds the night of the killings.
Then there’s the conspiratorial.
Military weapons testing is a popular theory. There were reports of glowing orange spheres the night the group died, which some point to as evidence that the Soviet army was testing “parachute mines,” an explosive that detonates in the sky. Some suggest the hikers wandered into a testing ground and were shellshocked by the explosions, with some running from the tent, then freezing to death outside, with the rest tumbling to their deaths in the ravine. Low-intensity nuclear weapons testing has also been suggested. Some of the victims had unexplainable traces of radiation on their clothes.
For 60 years, speculation has run rampant. Dozens of theories have been floated, which, after a while, all start to seem plausible.
But finally, the Russian government is re-opening the case.
“Relatives, the media and the public still ask prosecutors to determine the truth and don’t hide their suspicions that something was hidden from them,” Alexander Kurennoi, Russia’s Prosecutor General said.
Authorities at the Sverdlovsk Oblast reportedly have a 400-page volume filled with materials related to the incident and will send investigators to the area in March. They plan to conduct forensic tests in an attempt to finally piece together what happened. So far, the only cause they’ve ruled out to explain the Dyatlov Pass incident is crime. Everything else related to a “compelling natural force” is on the table.
We covered the Dyatlov mystery in Adventure Journal 02. For a deeper dive and lots more pictures, pick it up here.