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Dyatlov Pass Incident: A Frightening Russian Mystery -- Solved?

Culture | February 1, 2021

A view of the tent as the rescuers found it on Feb. 26, 1959. The tent had been cut open from inside, and most of the campers had fled in socks or barefoot. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mass psychosis, ice slabs, nuclear fallout, UFOs and a Yeti, the Dyatlov Pass Incident, named for the 23-year-old leader of this failed camping trip, remains one of the 20th century's deepest mysteries. The mystery concerns nine friends who traveled into the Russian wilderness to reach Mount Ortorten in 1959 and never came back. Sleuths have obsessed over the details -- such as they were -- of the incident for decades, without ever reaching a consensus explanation, but in 2021 we may have our best one yet, thanks to Disney's Frozen and Ford crash test data.

In 2020, the Russian government released a report with substantial evidence pointing towards avalanche as the culprit in the deaths of these hikers, but an avalanche doesn't really explain all of the strange facts surrounding this story. And let's be honest -- Russian officials saying "We investigated it and this is what happened" isn't the most satisfying announcement. If sweeping inconvenient details under the rug were an Olympic event, the Russians (and their Soviet predecessors) would take the gold medal every time.

But then came Frozen, and the Ford crash test data.

A simple hiking trip became a nightmare

source: Teodora Hadjiyska

On January 23, 1959, Igor Dyatlov led nine friends on a trip through rough terrain of Kholat Syakhl in the Ural Mountains. Their destination was Mount Ortorten, simply known as "don't go there" to the Mansi, the indigenous people of the area. The group was made up of eight men and two women. Most of the members of the party were in their early 20s, but Semyon Zolotaryov was a 38-year-old sports instructor who fought in World War II.

For most of the journey the friends were in high spirits. None of their diary entries show any issues with the travel beyond mentioning the cold, but that's hiking through the mountains for you. The group was having such a good time that they even mocked up a faux newspaper about their travels that read: "According to the latest information, abominable snowmen live in the northern Urals."

What was lighthearted fun at the time has sense taken on an eerie tone. Conspiracy theorists have pointed to the newspaper as proof that the group had entered the realm of the supernatural on trip, a claim that seems ridiculous until the fates the members of Dyatlov's group are laid bare.

The group's final resting place doesn't make sense

source: Teodora Hadjiyska

Group member Yuri Yudin left the trip early on January 28 because of a flare up of sciatica, but otherwise everything was going swimmingly for the group. It turned out that Yudin's sciatica saved his life. On February 1, the group made their camp at the bottom of Kholat Syakhl, just 10 miles away from Mount Otorten.

No one knows why the group didn't camp at the tree line one mile below them. The spot that the group picked had less shelter from the elements than the area a mile away, so either the group didn't want to backtrack, they were lazy, or the weather was already too out of hand to continue hiking. 

Dyatlov had promised to send a telegram to the members of his sports club in Sverdlovsk as soon as the group returned to the town of Vizhai, which would have happened around around February 12. But when Dyatlov missed his deadline his club didn't think anything of it. As the days passed it became clear that something was wrong.

Bodies in the snow

source: Russian National Archives

A volunteer search party discovered the Dyatlov camp on February 20. The tents were cut open from the inside out. Diaries, cameras, and film was strewn about the area. Footprints made by bare feet led to the woods. Law enforcement was called in to help locate members of the group and on February 26 the first bodies were found.

Two members of the group were discovered beneath a cedar tree. There were burns on their heads and hands. Yuri Doroshenko's body had turned purple and a gray liquid was coming out of his mouth and cheek. Dyatlov and two more members of the group were found a short ways away. None of them were wearing clothing in spite of the below freezing temperatures.

It took months for the rest of the group to be discovered. The bodies of Nikolay Thibeaux-Brignolles, Lyudmila Dubinina, and Semyon Zolotaryov were found in a ravine following the thaw of the mountain. They were all wearing multiple pairs of clothing which led investigators to believe that they'd stripped their friend's bodies to stay warm, but their injuries created an even bigger question.

Thibeaux-Brignolles had a major skull fracture, while Dubinina and Zolotaryov both suffered fractured ribs that were compared to those belonging to victims of a car crash. There was no soft tissue on their bodies which makes it likely that they were crushed by pressure and not brute force. Even more upsetting is the knowledge that Dubinina was missing her tongue and her stomach was filled with blood, which means that her heart was still beating when her tongue was removed. Both Dubinina and Zolotarvov were missing their eyes.

Some investigators believe that Dubinina and Zolotarvov were set upon by wild animals after their deaths, but if that's the case why was no one else missing their organs? Each fact about this case only served to make the story less clear.

Russian authorities wanted to blame the Mansi

source: wikimedia commons

The Mansi people are indigenous to the Siberian region of central Russia, with many of them living along the Southern Urals. Russian authorities initially attempted to put the blame for the Dyatlov incident on a group of Mansi people. Valery Anyamov, a forest warden who lives in the settlement of Ushma and whose father helped search for the missing students told the BBC that some Mansi people claim that they were tortured early on in the investigation before all of the bodies were discovered. He claims:

Soviet investigators were convinced we Mansi must have killed them. So many people around here were arrested and a woman from another village, who is no longer with us, used to say that the secret police tortured them. I don’t know if that is true, but they were certainly interrogated for weeks.

Without any incriminating evidence, the Mansi were let off, and then turned around to help the authorities find the remaining skiers that May. The investigation was closed in May of 1959, shortly after the final bodies were found in a ravine. The sudden closing of the case and the legitimately cuckoo bananas details about the group's death has led conspiracy theorists to search for whatever answers they can grasp.

The Dyatlov incident is a grab bag of conspiracy theories

source: Russian National Archives

There are nearly a hundred different options for you to choose from when trying to answer the question posed by the Dyatlov incident. Alien abduction, Mansi folk high on mushrooms, and a military test have all been blamed for the sudden, mysterious deaths of the group. As wild as all of that may sound it's not totally unfounded.

The night that the Dyatlov incident occurred orange orbs were sighted in the sky about 50 miles away from where the deaths occurred. There are numerous explanations for this but it's believed that they were R-7 intercontinental missile launches, although some theorists (of course) believe that the spheres were alien spacecraft or possibly even a military test gone wrong that ended up claiming the lives of the hikers.

Another theory that attempts to solve the possible mass psychosis suffered by the hikers points to one of the group's previous campsites on their trip that was located on the path from Balikonur Cosmodrone to Chyornaya Guba, a nuclear testing ground. If the group drank water made from contaminated snow, that would explain the radiation found in their clothing and it could explain why their bodies looked extremely tan. 

Or maybe they were all pummeled by a yeti

Yuri Kuntsevich told the BBC:

There were rumors flying all over the city that these students had wandered into some kind of tests or experiments. The coffins were open and I could see that the skin on their faces was a weird color – the color of bricks. There was nothing in the newspapers, but everyone was talking about it. We thought it must be some kind of state secret.

A Russian official holds a document from the government's files relating to Dyatlov Pass. Source: CNN

In February 2019, Russian authorities reopened the case to prove that there was no foul play involved, but that an avalanche or another freak act of nature wiped out the Dyatlov group. In July 2020, the state-owned RIA news agency reported that snow slabs, or blocky chunks of ice, shocked the victims in their sleep and forced them to run for shelter through a snow storm. Without the ability to see more than 50 feet in front of them they froze to death.

While that certainly is an explanation it leaves so many unanswered questions. Not only is there a lack of physical evidence pointing towards an avalanche, but critics state that there was a nine hour break in between the hikers setting up camp and the flurry of action. If cutting into the mountain to form a wall against the wind caused a snow slab to fall on the group, critics believe that it would have happened immediately. Furthermore, the Russian report fails to explain some of the brutal injuries the hikers sustained.

Finding The Best Solution Yet Thanks To Disney's 'Frozen'

source: IMDB

Johan Gaume, head of the Snow and Avalanche Simulation Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and his fellow researcher Alexander M. Puzrin, a geotechnical engineer at ETH Zürich, felt that the official Russian report was perhaps not wrong, but incomplete. They recreated the environment of the mountain on the evening of the Dyatlov incident and have found that it's possible a small snow slide could have passed through the era without leaving much of a trace. Puzrin says:

[I]t was like somebody coming and shoveling the snow from one place and putting it on the slope above the tent. If they hadn’t made a cut in the slope, nothing would have happened [but] at a certain point, a crack could have formed and propagated, causing the snow slab to release.

As far as the hiker's punishing injuries. Gaume and Puzrin used the same animation code that Disney used in the 2013 film Frozen to theorize the force that could be exerted by a vicious snow slab. 

Igor Dyatlov. Source: Yahoo News

A final bit of ingenuity went into Puzrin and Gaume's investigation. Knowing the force of the snow slab, they needed to address whether it could have caused the violent injuries that had led prognosticators to consider bears or yetis. Essentially -- if a snow slab hit a body hard enough, would it create the wounds found in the Dyatlov Pass victims?

“We discovered that, in the 70s, General Motors (GM) took 100 cadavers and broke their ribs,” Puzrin told National Geographic, “hitting them with different weights at different velocities” to see how much damage they suffered.

A final detail contributes to Puzrin and Gaume's explanation. As the National Geographic report put it, the doomed skiers "had placed their bedding atop their skis. This meant that the avalanche, which hit them as they slept, struck an unusually rigid target—and that the GM cadaver experiments from the 1970s could be used to calibrate their impact models with remarkable precision. The researchers’ computer models demonstrated that a 16-foot-long block of hefty snow could, in this unique situation, handily break the ribs and skulls of people sleeping on a rigid bed."

Following the impact, the friends fled the tent, pulling the wounded with them, out into the blinding snow. Some died of their injuries, while the others died of hypothermia.

Perhaps we will never know what exactly happened on that frigid night in 1959. But the latest investigation is bolstered by the best scientific data yet, and may be as close as we'll come to proof.

Tags: Mysterious Deaths | Paranormal

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.