Is there a movie of the Dyatlov Pass incident? There should be a movie.
In February 1959, a group of 10 ski hikers set out for a backcountry trip in the Soviet Union’s northern Ural Mountains. Only one of them returned. But the survivor turned back when the rest of the group was alive and well, and pushing over the pass that would later bear the expedition leader’s name: Igor Dyatlov. What happened to the rest of the group has baffled Russia since. But a new study presents evidence that points to the likely killer.
Here’s what we wrote in a piece about the expedition two years ago:
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 decades since, theories have blossomed about what happened to the hikers, some based on reason, many based on fantastical theories involving yetis (the snow creatures, not the cooler), aliens, alien yetis, and bizarre Russian weapons testing.
But now, it appears, we may have the answer.
An article published last week in the journal Communications Earth and Environment suggests that a small, localized avalanche killed the hikers.
This was a common theory, but the problem it presented was that there was no evidence of an avalanche when the rescue party arrived. Plus, the camp in which the hikers died was at a mild slope with little obvious avalanche danger, and it was clear hours had passed between when they’d dug into the slope to make camp and the destruction of the camp; it would seem if their activity triggered the avalanche, it would have happened much sooner.
That’s where the new study comes in.
And it gets weird too.
To sum it up: A small avalanche, about the size of an SUV, is likely what killed the hikers. It was so small, it filled in the area they’d dug their camp, and was immediately covered with fresh snow, masking its appearance. The delay between camp and avalanche was likely because snow had yet to amass upslope when they dug in, but after hours of katabatic winds, snow buildup was sufficient to cause a slide. Plus, the slope was likely steeper than it appeared, due to the particular rolling topography of the Kholat Saykhl mountain they were entombed on.
But what would explain the blunt force trauma when most avalanche victims die of suffocation?
The Dyatlov Pass researchers found data from old car crash testing in which GM stuffed cadavers in cars and rammed them into walls. The force of the crashes produced similar injuries to those suffered by some of the hikers, and the force was about the same as an SUV-sized block of ice breaking loose and sliding into their camp.
Of course, all of this is simply a theory. Just one based on actual evidence.
For more, check out Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident