On the night of February 2, 1959, nine experienced hikers cut open their own tent and fled for their lives, blindly, into a blizzard, half-dressed deep in the Ural Mountains. All nine of the hikers would never leave the mountain alive and their deaths have left an undeniable mark upon in the annuals of Russian history and remain to this day unexplained. What happened that night in February? No one knows and the official cause of death is even more mysterious: “a compelling unknown force.”
These horrific events, lodged so deeply into the paranormal, have a name. The Dyatlov Pass Incident. The hiking trip started innocently enough as a group from the Ural Polytechnic Institute (now known as the Ural State Technical University) and was composed of experienced members of the school’s tourism club. The group was headed by Igor Dyatlov, a 23 year-old who was held in high regard for his knowledge with cross-country skiing and mountain climbing. The group’s goal was to hike ten kilometers north of what would later become known as Dyatlov Pass to a mountain called Otorten. The route itself and specifically the season that they had chosen to make the trip in, made the climb to be labeled as a “Category III”, which is the most difficult. None of the members of the group was new and all had extensive experience.
The other members of the group included Yuri Yudin, Gregory Krivonischenko, 24, Yury Doroshenko, 24, Zina Kolmogorova, 22, Rustem Slobodin, 23, Nicholas Thisbeaux-Brignollel, 24, Ludmila Dubinina, 21, Alexander Kolevatov, 25 and lastly, Alexander Zolotaryov, 37. All of the group’s members were students at the university with the exception of Zolotaryov. Rumors were abounding that Zolotaryov was an odd figure, that Dyatlov was hesitant to take with the group but despite the rumors, based on high suggestions from his friends based upon Zolotaryov’s experience, Dyatlov agreed. On January 23, the ten-member group left on what was intended to be a three-week cross-country trek.
Traveling by train to Ivdel, they arrived on January 25 and moved on by truck to Vizhai, the last inhabited settlement before the ice and snow covered mountains forced civilization far behind. On January 27, they began their trip but on the 28th, Yuri Yudin became sick and had to turn back, leaving his friends to continue on the journey without him. Dyatlov told Yudin that the group would probably be back a few days later than planned. It was the last time Yudin would ever see his friends alive again.
What happened next can only be based on extensive reconstruction of events based on journal entries, photographs from the hiker’s cameras and the results of an extensive investigation spanning months. For the next four days, the group skied across frozen lakes and uninhabited areas following ancient trails of the local Mansi tribe. The Mansi are the indigenous people that called the Ural Mountains and the surrounding area home. The Mansi had several legends about the destination of the hiking group, which were more than evidence in how the name translated from the Mansi into English.
The name of the mountain for which the group was headed, Otorten, literally translated as “don’t go there.” From January 31 to February first, the hike went without incident and for some reason, most likely believed to be weather, the team found itself on the eastern shoulder at a height of just below 3,600 feet of the mountain named Kholat Syakhl, which was chillingly enough translated as “ Mountain of the Dead.” They camped at this site at around five in the afternoon. They would never see the next morning. The last diary entries illustrated that the hikers were in great moods, having a great time and even made their own mock newspaper.
The plan had been to return to Vizhai by February 12 and from there, Dyatlov would send a telegram to the university’s sport’s club letting them know they had arrived back safely. When the message never arrived, no one worried. After all, they had been warned that a delay was to be expected. It was not until February 20 that the families of the hikers called for action and the university sent out a search and rescue party made up of teachers, students, the police and the army. Helicopters and planes were also dispatched. Five days later, the camp was found. According to Mikhail Sharavin, a searcher, “…We discovered that the tent was half torn down and covered with snow. It was empty and all the groups’ belongings and shoes had been left behind.” Even more strangely, the tent had been violently slashed open, from the inside, as if the group were trying to escape and could not be bothered to untie the tent loops.
Footprints were discovered in the three-foot deep snow, left by people in sock feet, valenki (soft felt boots), a single shoe and even footprints that were totally barefoot. The temperatures had been around -25 to -30 degrees below zero Celsius. There was no evidence of a struggle, no sign of anyone else but the hikers themselves. The tracks led down a hill toward the forest and disappeared totally after about 550 yards. One and a half kilometers from the destroyed tent, the first two bodies were found, those of Gregory Krivonischenko and Yury Doroshenko.
Both were barefoot and dressed only in underclothes. They were found at the edge of the woods under a tree, their hands badly burned and the charred remains of a fire nearby. Branches on the tree were broken up to sixteen feet up, suggesting that one of them had climbed the tree to get a vantage point. One thousand feet beyond their remains was the body of Dyatlov, on his back, with his face looking in the direction of the camp with one hand clutching a branch. 180 meters towards the tent, Rusteem Slobodin was discovered and 150 meters from him lay Zina Kolmogorova. Both looked as if they had been desperately crawling for the tent and died in the attempt. All five of them had died of sudden and rapid hypothermia.
Only Slobodin had any injuries other than freezing to death, which was a fractured skull, although medically, he would not have died from his wound.
Two months later, the remaining skiers were found. The bodies were found buried under thirteen feet of snow in ravine, 250 feet away from the tree where their friends had been found. Nicholas Thibeaux, Ludimila Dubinina, Alex Kolevatov and Alex Zolotaryov had not died from hypothermia. They had died from massive injuries that to this day remain unexplained. Thibeaux’s skull had been utterly crushed and both Dubuninia and Zolotaryov had numerous broken ribs but neither showed any external wounds of any kind. Despite many unanswered questions, the investigation was closed by the end of the month and the case files locked in a secret archive. Skiers and other hikers were barred from the area for the next three years without explanation. Numerous theories abound as to what may have happened to the hikers.
Some blamed the Mansi tribes but the Mansi tribes had good relations with the Russians and do not approach Kholat-Syakhyl in winter. There was also no evidence to suggest that anyone was present except the nine hikers and this theory was soon discarded as well as all theories of external human intervention as there was simply no evidence to suggest that anyone was present at the site but the students themselves. After the classification was lifted on the files in the 1990s, Dr. Boris Vozrozhdenny, who was the doctor who examined the bodies, states that he believes no man could have inflicted the injuries because the force of the flow was so extreme that it was equal to a car crash at sixty miles per hour full on and yet no soft tissue had been damaged. Other theories suggest that perhaps the group had been attacked by a Yeti and that the damage to the bodies was caused by a Yeti squeezing the people to death. There was no evidence that this was the case as again, there were no tracks or other evidence of anyone but the students themselves.
With the lift on the classification of the files, other mysterious details of the deaths finally became public. Medical tests on the bodies had shown very high levels of radiation on the bodies and the clothes of the victims, as if they had been handling radioactive material or had been in a fall out zone for a prolonged period. Chief investigator Lev Ivanov described that he took a Geiger counter with him as he approached the site and the device began to sound an alarm rapidly. Ivanov also revealed that he had been ordered by senior officials in the government to close the case and classify the findings because of reports by eyewitnesses on neighboring mountains , including the weather service and the military that “bright flying spheres” had been seen in the area of Kholat Syakhl that night. Ivanov later commented that he felt that the spheres were connected, if not directly responsible, for the deaths of the hikers.
The files contained testimony from another group of hikers who had been camping about 30 miles south of the camp who reported the strange balls of light, described as “balls of fire”, floating in the direction of Kholat Syakhl on the night the students died. Other reports tell about a shining circular body flying south west and north-east that was practically the size of the full moon, described as a blue-white light surrounded by a blue halo. The halo brightly flashed like flashes of lightning and when the disk disappeared behind the horizon, the sky in that area lit up for a few minutes before fading away. Ivanov suspects that these spheres might have been seen by the students who woke the others and they had ran away in fright, trying to escape the UFO, which then exploded, causing the injuries reported.
Other theories suggest that the students had stumbled upon a secret military testing ground and in fact, later strange metal fragments were found with no discernable source. At the funerals of the victims, the first five were found to have a deep brown tan, while other family members remember that the bodies had a strange orange coloration to their skin and that their hair had turned totally grey, as if prematurely aged and Dubinina’s tongue was missing. Skeptics of the UFO and military cover-up/Yeti theories state that a simple avalanche caused the destruction of the camp and the deaths of the students. They say that the campers left the camp on foot and went more than a thousand yards in -30 degree Celsius weather, barefoot and barely clothed.
Thibeaux would have been unconscious due to his crushed skull but his friends, they state could have carried him as investigators could not determine whether there were eight or nine pairs of tracks in the snow. Dubinina and Zolotaryov could have probably walked with their broken ribs but Dubinina’s injuries were much more serious as one of her broken ribs had pierced her heart, causing her to bleed to death internally, leaving her only about ten to twenty minutes to live, meaning she would have died long before reaching the forest. The question that the skeptics cannot answer is how two of her male companions froze to death via hypothermia before she died? The official cause of death was “ a compelling unknown force.” What natural phenomenon can crush ribs and skulls, without damaging the external body?
What natural force coats bodies in high levels of lethal radiation and burns their skin orange-brown? What can prematurely age a person over night and cut out a person’s tongue? What drove nine experienced hikers to flee for their lives into the night of bone numbing temperatures by cutting open their own tent from the inside with no signs of an avalanche or attackers? Ever since the case files were opened in the 1990s, researchers have continued to try to solve the mystery.
In 2000, a regional broadcast company made a documentary film about the event and in 2011, the History Channel aired a special on their series Ancient Aliens about the event in an episode titled “Evil Places”. The Dyatlov Foundation, founded by Dyatlov’s friend Yuri Kuntsevich to honor the dead and continue the search for answers is located in Yekaterinburg.
In 2008, six members of the original search party and thirty one independent experts held a conference organized by Ural State Technical University and officially came to the conclusion that the Russian military was responsible for the deaths yet lacked documentation. “ If I had a chance to ask God just one question, it would be ‘What really happened to my friends that night?’” said Yuri Yudin, the only survivor and merely a survivor thanks to a stroke of ironic luck. Yuri is still waiting for answers and so is the world, about what happened that night in the mysterious Kholat Syakhl, now named Dyatlov Pass. Strangely, the Mansi have a legend about nine tribe members who once sought shelter during a flood in the same area that the hikers had died in. The tribe’s members too died under violent and mysterious conditions and it is from this incident that the mountain has gotten its name.
The Mountain of the Dead holds her secrets well… ….and probably always will.
— Anthony Justus, February 12, 2016.