The strange and gruesome deaths of nine skiers in the Ural Mountains in 1959 have been blamed on abominable snowmen, aliens, government agents and ‘Artic dwarves’ at one time or another.
Known as the Dyatlov Pass incident, it is probably Russia’s biggest unsolved mystery, continuing to incite rampant speculation to this day. We will probably never know the truth of what happened that night on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl, meaning ‘Dead Mountain’. All we know is that whatever did happen was damn weird.
At the height of the Cold War, in the dead of winter, ten experienced skiers from the Ural Polytechnical Institute set off on a trip into the Ural Mountain range that divides Europe and Asia. One of them complained of joint pain and turned back; the rest pressed on.
On 1st February 1959, this team of seven men and two women pitched a large tent on the snowy slopes of Kholat Syakhl in an area now known as Dyatlov Pass, named after the group’s leader, Igor Dyatlov.
Including Dyatlov, these nine men and women were never heard from again.
Guess what’s coming to dinner
A search party found the group’s tracks along a frozen river and eventually came upon a half-collapsed tent, most of the canvas covered in snow.
They uncovered the entrance and, inside, found the teams’ rucksacks lined up neatly, a row of boots, maps, a flask of alcohol, and a plateful of sliced-up salo. Salo is white pork fat, a Slavic delicacy and the sort of high-calorie food that hikers might take with them into the mountains.
It looked like the campers were about to sit down to dinner.
The investigators continued inspecting the abandoned tent and found, ominously, that the tent had been slashed open with a knife—from within. It seemed that they had been in a desperate hurry to get out. But why?
The search party came upon something even more bizarre just outside the tent: frozen footprints made by eight or nine people, but who were barefoot, or in socks, or were wearing only one boot—despite the thick snow and sub-zero temperatures. These tracks continued for five to ten metres before they disappeared.
Chest and head trauma, missing eyes and a missing tongue
In the forest below, the investigators found two bodies under a cedar tree, next to the remains of a fire. Both were barefoot and in their underwear only. Three others, also without shoes and coats, were found several hundred feet away. It wasn’t until the snow melted two months later that the rest of the corpses were found.
Although it seemed that the majority of the group had died from hypothermia, some had sustained horrific and inexplicable injuries. One had a smashed skull, two had severe chest trauma, others had eyes or eyebrows missing, and one woman was missing both her eyes and her tongue.
Though each body was a piece of a macabre puzzle, none of those pieces seemed to fit together. The deaths were blamed on an “unknown natural force” by a criminal investigation at the time, and the Soviet bureaucracy kept the incident hush-hush. A fairly normal practice at the time, but it helped fuel dozens of wild theories about what happened. People have speculated that the team was killed by a UFO, poisoned alcohol, radiation from a military test, and various fantastical monsters and weapons, such as Yetis and ‘vacuum bombs’.
Some Soviet investigators were convinced that the indigenous Mansi people attacked and murdered the skiers. However, it was later deduced that some of the traumatic injuries were caused by something stronger than a human.
In 2020, Russia reopened the case and announced that they believed that an avalanche had led to the deaths. They said that because of it, the group had been forced to leave the camp quickly and inadequately dressed. A study published in 2021 suggested that a specific kind of avalanche, a slab avalanche, could explain some of the injuries.
But there are problems with the avalanche theory. For one, there were no obvious signs that an avalanche—which would have left certain patterns and debris over a large area—had actually taken place. In addition, Dyatlov and one of the other members, Zolotaryov, were particularly experienced skiers and neither of them would’ve made camp anywhere near the path of a potential avalanche.
Even more compelling are the footprint patterns leading away from the tent. They’re not consistent with nine people running in panic. They’re consistent with them walking at a normal pace.
Did they go mad?
Despite the attempts to explain what happened, even the experts acknowledge that the mystery will never be solved, largely because there are countless questions and curiosities that still remain. As I said earlier, they’re pieces of a puzzle that don’t quite all fit.
Photographs of the tent allegedly show that it was erected incorrectly, which didn’t make sense with such experienced trekkers.
Among the already bizarre blunt-force injuries sustained by the group are some even bigger headscratchers. One of the women had a long, bright red bruise on the right side of her torso, which looked like it had been made by a baton. And one of the men was found to have bitten off a piece of his own knuckle.
It’s been theorised that scavenging animals got at the bodies and are responsible for the missing eyeballs and tongue. However, the woman with the missing tongue was found to have a large amount of blood in her stomach, suggesting that the tongue had been removed while she was alive, or at least very soon after death.
International Science Times suggested that the hikers’ hypothermia may have induced a behaviour known as ‘paradoxical undressing’: where you perceive feelings of burning warmth and remove your clothes as a result. However, some of the group then put on more clothing later; they acquired additional layers from those who had died. That suggests they were of sound mind—at least in relation to adding layers.
And there’s still the question of why they cut themselves out of their tent instead of going out the entrance. Was something blocking it? What? And if they were leaving in a panic, why did they walk instead of run?
I’m starting to wonder if something made them lose their minds. Maybe that’s why they didn’t erect the tent properly, subsequently slashed it, got half-naked, and one of them engaged in a spot of cannibalism. And perhaps they also attacked each other, leading to some nasty head-smashing, eye-gouging and tongue-slicing.
The problem with that explanation is the experts saying that some of the traumatic injuries were from something stronger than a human. So perhaps there was a monster on the mountain that night.
Interestingly, one of the other lingering unanswered questions in this case lies among the photographs taken by the group. Most of the photos showed the hikers looking happy and working earnestly. But the last photo they took was of an unidentifiable blurry shape…
Next month: the Baltic Sea anomaly