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Is the Dyatlov Pass mystery finally solved?

In 1959 the Cold War approached its climax, Fidel Castro overthrew Cuban dictator Batista and started his tenure as Cuba’s prime minister and Hawaii and Alaska were admitted to the union. Over in the Soviet Union, that year a group of ten explorers decided to set out on a challenging hiking expedition in a freezing and mountainous area of Russia. When the expedition group failed to touch base after several weeks, a rescue mission was set up to try and find them. When the mission finally discovered what happened to the explorers, it horrified them. Although the weather reached sub-zero degrees, the members of the expedition were found, far apart in a secluded forest, near entirely unclothed, with severe internal fractures and one even had a bitten-off tongue. 

The investigators found no logical explanation for what happened to the explorers, as they were all experienced hikers and there’s no evidence anyone else was around during their deaths. It didn’t help the Soviet Union classified and sealed the official case files within weeks of conducting an ‘investigation’. The Dyatlov pass incident remains one of the most haunting unsolved mysteries in history, sparking over 75 conspiracy theories ranging from a KGB-testing gone wrong to UFOs. But earlier this year, in July, a prosecutor’s office finally published an official statement after a thorough investigation, in an attempt to explain what happened to the group of explorers that fateful day, over 60 years ago.

Igor Dyatlov

The Expedition

In January 1959, the Sverdlovsk Region tourist route commission approved a plan for a group of ten people, eight men and two women to embark on a hiking-expedition. Most of the members of the group were students or graduates of the Ural State Technical University. All of the expedition’s participants were in their 20s, except for their 38-year-old instructor Semyon Zolotarev. The 23-year-old Igor Alekseyevich Dyatlov led the expedition. He was a 5th-year radio-engineering student, well trained in these sort of expeditions just like his peers.

The goal of Dyatlov’s expedition was to reach the Ortoten, a mountain about ten kilometres north of the Холатчахль mountain. Now, this mountain’s name translates to as much as ‘dead mountain’. That name should give you an idea of the area the expedition was taking place in. The path towards their mountain was classified as a ‘category-3’ which was the official Soviet classification for the most challenging territory to traverse. In a little over two weeks, the group wanted to cover 300 kilometres on skis and climb their mountain. All of the participants were experienced skiers and hikers, had the necessary equipment and upon their return would receive the highest ski-certificate for their skill. In short, every member knew the do’s-and-don’ts better than the vast majority of people. 

On the 25th of January 1959, the group embarked on their journey. They took the train to И́вдель, a town in the northern province of Oblast Sverdlovsk. From there a truck brought them to Вижа́й. This last town was the most northern located populated settlement. From there on out the group was on their own, and they started the climb of the remote path that would lead them to the Ortoten. The climb would take well over two weeks, but after the third day one of the members of the group, Yuri Yudin, had to return because he got ill. As such, 9 members of the group continued their climb.

Because of diary entries and camera rolls that were discovered in the tent of the group we’re able to trace their final movements. On the 31st of January, 6 days after the start of the expedition, they reached the foot of their first mountain and prepared their climb to pass it. In a wooded valley they built a small storage hut to preserve food, water and gear they would need on their return. The next day, February 1st, they crossed the mountain pass. Because of worsening weather conditions and the lack of sight, the group somewhere along the route travelled the wrong direction resulting in them reaching the western side of the Холатчахль mountain. Once members of the group realised they were on the wrong side of the mountain, they decided to set up camp at the mountain pass they were at, about 300 metres from its peak. From then on there is no documentation of the group anymore. And for good reason, as a rescue mission would soon find out.

The Rescue Mission

At the homefront, only after a while did people start to realise the group hadn’t returned. Initially, Dyatlov let his sports association know that once the group returned to Вижа́й, they would send a telegram to confirm their safe return. Considering the expedition should take two weeks, the telegram was expected at latest at around February 12th. But because Yuri returned due to his illness and relayed a message from Dyatlov that there may be some delay, nobody was too worried when no message arrived by the 12th. After all, an expedition such as this often suffered from setbacks. 

Yet when the days went by, and nobody heard anything from the group, family members started to worry. It wasn’t until eight days later, on the 20th of February that the head of the Polytechnical institute assembled a rescue team consisting of voluntary students and teachers. Due to the harsh weather conditions they encountered, the police and even the army was involved in the search, which rapidly spiralled into a massive rescue mission. The realisation dawned on all those involved that the nine members of the expeditions probably were in grave danger. If they were alive, that is.

Over a month after Dyatlov’s group departed, on the 26th of February, part of the rescue mission discovered a heavily damaged tent at a mountain pass of the Холатчахль mountain. The tent was slashed open from the inside, and in it lied personal belongings such as documents, diaries, food and warm clothes. The rescuers discovered a trail of footprints leading towards the edge of a nearby forest. After 500-odd metres, the trail was covered with snow, yet upon closer inspection, they discovered the remainders of a fire and the bodies of two members of the mission – Krivosyenko and Dorosyenko. Both men lied beneath a large pine tree, wearing just their underwear and without any footwear. Now it goes without saying this was surprising in the least because it could get as cold as -40 degrees in the area. But the morbid surprises didn’t end there. Between the camp and the pine tree the bodies of 3 more members were discovered: that of Dyatlov, Kolmogorova and Slobodin. All 3 were barefoot as well and scarcely clothed. Because of the way the bodies were positioned it was assumed they were on their way back to the camp, but they were at a considerable distance from the tent, and far apart from each other.

It was apparent an incredible tragedy had happened to these explorers, and a criminal investigation into the fate of the group was launched. What puzzled the investigators and members of the rescue team for a long while though, was that there were four other members of the expedition. And they were nowhere to be found. In the background, the army and police searched for the other four missing members while the criminal investigation focused itself on the first five members of the group: how did they die and why were all of them scarcely clothed, considering the freezing weather? The post-mortem examination revealed none of the bodies had suffered mortal bodily harm and the coroner concluded they died of hypothermia and frostbite. The fact Slobodin had a small fracture in his skull which he suffered right before he died wasn’t necessarily something that was paid much attention to.

That was until the four additional members of the expedition were found, well over two months after the initial discovery of the abandoned camp and the first bodies. On the 4th of May, the remaining bodies were discovered under a 4-metre layer of snow in a ravine in the woods, about 75 metres away from the pine tree the first bodies were found. Now, this discovery and the post-mortem examination was not just unusual, but outright shocking. 

3 of the bodies showed signs of grievous bodily harm. The body of Thibeaux-Brignolle sustained severe skull fractures and the bodies of Dubinina and Solotarev showed signs of severe internal chest damage. One of the doctors performing the autopsy could only conclude that the injury sustained must have been caused by an extreme force, comparable to that of a severe car crash. In addition, Dubinina’s tongue was missing, seemingly bitten off. It was a bizarre discovery that put the case of missing students in a whole different light.

What perplexed the coroners was the fact there was no superficial damage to these bodies, though, just like the other 5 that were discovered. Not to mention the temperatures in the area reached -30 degrees and a strong wind only amplified that cold. The tents were cut open from the inside, so the group had left their tents voluntarily, perhaps because of something that made them. But why not put on any clothing? Those that wore clothing didn’t wear their own, but random pieces of clothes from their peers. And it made even less sense that one of the bodies was found wearing just one shoe. They were all experienced in the harsh weather conditions, the outskirts of the Soviet Union offered, so if anything that made the case even more bizarre.

(Conspiracy) theories

Following the retrieval of the bodies and thorough examination, no clear-cut explanation of what had happened was found. Understandably, several theories ranging from aliens to secret cold-war weaponry weren’t just thought up by conspiracy theorists, but considering the circumstances actually seemed like a reasonable explanation for what had happened.

Initially, it was thought the native population of the area, the Mansi-tribe, had perhaps attacked the group and killed them. The investigation did not find any evidence to support this, initially likely, theory. There were no footprints found except those from the explorers themselves and no superficial signs of violence were found on any of the bodies. The lack of other movements in the area also crossed off the theory that wild animals chased them. Forensics discovered large quantities of radioactive material on the clothes of several victims. An investigator on the case later claimed the area surrounding the mountain had higher-than-usual radiation levels, but the source was never found. Much later it was determined that the old faulty Soviet radiation detection equipment showed higher levels than there actually were.

It didn’t ease the minds of family and those investigating the case that in the aftermath of the event there were some serious abnormalities. To begin with, attendants of the funerals of the deceased stated the skin of them was rather orange and their hair completely turned grey. And the closest thing investigators had to eyewitness accounts, namely a group mountain climbers 50 kilometres south, claimed that on the night of the incident they saw curious orange spheres in the sky above the area the hikers died in. Residents of Ivdel, separate from each other, talked about orange spheres as well, and even meteorologists and soldiers reported seeing these unexplainable spheres. Other reports said there were large quantities of scrap in the area. It led to speculations about KGB- or army experiments, or even a Cold War incident people weren’t informed about.

The explanation for the near-total undressing of the explorers was accredited to so-called paradoxical undressing. There are multiple academic papers written about it, and this phenomenon occurs in around a quarter of all fatalities of hypothermia. When a person is disoriented and confused in an extremely cold environment, he might perceive the cold as extreme heat, leading them to undress, which only accelerates the setting in of hypothermia. 

Yet only 6 of the member’s deaths could conclusively be ascribed to hypothermia. Three others died of fatal wounds, not to mention that some of them weren’t fully undressed but actually wore different pieces of clothing from other members of the group. So they were conscious enough to dress up in the cold. According to one of the coroners, the fatal injuries were not inflicted by other humans because the impact that caused them was too strong.

And with that unsatisfying outcome, it was concluded all members of the group died by “a compelling, spontaneous natural force” and because there were no suspect parties to link the incident to, the case was closed soon after the post-mortem examinations were finished. You’re not wrong to think that the fact the case was closed in such haste with such a vague conclusion didn’t raise some eyebrows, but yeah, it was the Soviet Union after all and public criticism of the way state affairs were conducted wasn’t exactly encouraged. The case files were subsequently classified and weren’t released to the public until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Again, a development that can only be described as very suspicious.

The group

Case closed (?)

It is such a strange and bewildering case without a satisfying explanation that it is hardly surprising it appealed to the imagination. For over 60 years the Dyatlov Pass Incident has been fruitful ground for conspiracy theories and hypothesis about the incident alike. When the case gained notoriourity in the 1990s after its files were declassified, numerous books were written and documentaries and films were made about it. In addition, over 75 theories arose, trying to explain what may have happened to the group. The most popular included a failed missile test, a nuclear explosion, UFOs or even a skirmish with foreign saboteurs. But no conclusive explanation was ever reached.

That is, until July 2020. Just a few months ago. The deputy head of the Urals Federal District directorate of the Prosecutor-General’s Office, Andrey Kuryakov, announced that Russian officials have concluded an avalanche caused the chaos leading up to the deaths of the explorers.

A sudden change in the weather caused this avalanche. In the official statement, Kuryakov explained the group initially wasn’t panicked, but left their tents and moved away from the avalanche. They reached a stone ridge that served as a natural avalanche breaker. They did everything right. But following the avalanche, the danger wasn’t over yet. Because of the blizzard that accompanied the avalanche, and the darkness of night, they were unable to see anything. It explains the burned up fire camp discovered by the rescue team. The group, unable to find their tents, went into a forest to hide from the wind and used a cedar tree to light a fire that kept them alive for 30-odd minutes. Two men of the group, the bodies that the rescue mission found first, were the first to die from frostbite and hypothermia.

Because time was running out the remainder of the group decided to split up into two. One of the groups, led by Dyatlov, tried to crawl to their tents in their own tracks. But outside of the forest away from the fire they rapidly froze to death in temperatures of 40 below zero. The second group tried to make a walk path but accidentally triggered a movement of snow which threw them into a ravine and buried them under several metres of snow. That’s how they suffered their internal fractures and bruising, it was caused by the fall and the weight of the snow on them. The explanation seems somewhat logical, but the families of the victims and the official Dyatlov group memorial fund refuse to accept this explanation. They think there’s more to it and certain details don’t add up. As such, this mysterious case, to some, remains open. Suppose we go with the theory of the avalanche and the unfortunate combination of circumstances. In that case, it is simply a very, very tragic event and a case of being at the wrong, remote place, at the wrong time.

As for Yuri, he was the only one to survive thanks to his illness and early return. He died in 2013, over 50 years after the Dyatlov pass incident, not sure of what had happened to his friends that fateful expedition.

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