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Dyatlov Pass Expedition: Unexplained And Violent Deaths

Updated on August 20, 2014
Dyatlov's team establishes camp on February 1,1959.
Dyatlov's team establishes camp on February 1,1959. | Source

Soviet Russia in 1959; thoughts of foreboding and mystery prevail as to what goes on behind the “Iron Curtain.” As time has passed since some form of democracy was established in the Kremlin, more and more information has become available that pertains to people, inventions, and events that was hitherto forbidden to be released. Yet even with this renaissance of access to information within the former Soviet Union, one of the most baffling and disturbing of mysteries in modern history remains as inexplicable as ever: the fate of the nine hiker/skiers at Dyatlov Pass.

The ill-fated expedition set out on January 28, 1959. Its purpose was to explore the slopes of the Otorten Mountain located in the northern portion of the Ural mountain range. The expedition had been organized by twenty-three year old Igor Dyatlov who was a seasoned participant in such skiing/hiking adventures. Subsequently, the mountain pass where he and his team would meet their untimely end would be given his surname: Dyatlov Pass. The remaining nine individuals that Igor had enlisted to join him on this trek were veterans of such campaigns as well. Additionally, all of the people who set out on this back country expedition were acquainted with each other from their educational pursuits…all ten were students or graduates of Ural State Technical University.

Upon departure, Dyatlov announced that the group expected to be back in contact with civilization on February 12th of that year; but being experienced in such excursions, he conceded that there are often delays and unexpected obstacles which can protract such time estimates. The lone survivor of the group, Yury Yudin, would later state that Dyatlov fully expected to be possibly a week later in returning than the estimate he had shared.

Initial stages of the journey were uneventful. The group arrived by train at Ivdel, a city at the center of the northern province Sverdlovsk, on January 25th; then took a truck to Vizhai—the final inhabited settlement to the far north. After some time spent on preparations, the group set out from Vizhai on January 27th… this was the last time they were seen alive. Yudin received a reprieve from the fate of his nine fellow adventurers at the end of the first day. He fell ill and was forced to return to Vizhai to convalesce.

Subsequent discoveries by Russian investigators, consisting of diary entries and rolls of photographic film that were immediately developed, allowed authorities to piece together a few details of the expedition’s progress up until the incident. On January 31st, the group reached the edge of a highland area and prepared for the climbing portion of the journey. In a wooded valley, the team stowed food and equipment to be used on the return trip from that point. The next day, February 1st, the group began the ascent up the pass. According to written entries, the plan was to conquer the pass swiftly and make camp on the opposite side by the proceeding nightfall; however, worsening weather conditions (wind and heavy snowfall) accompanied by decreased visibility foiled the best laid plans of men.

The group lost its bearing and deviated to the west—journeying toward the top a mountain named Kholat Syakhyl. Eerily, this summit was named by the Mansi tribe which is indigenous to the region and translates to: “mountain of the dead.” Upon realizing their mistake, and probably due to ever-worsening conditions, the team decided to set up camp on the slope of the mountain—instead of retreating 1.5 kilometers back downhill to a forested area that would have provided shelter from the elements. Yuri Yudin would later speculate that expedition-leader Dyatlov “probably did not want to lose the altitude they had gained, or he decided to practice camping on the mountain slope.”

It had been determined that Dyatlov would telegraph the group’s sports club upon arrival back in Vizhai; but when no word came on February 12th or immediately thereafter, there was no concern (due to the expedition leader’s own prediction of a tardy return). Finally, on February 20th, and only then at the insistence of the adventurers’ relatives, the head of Ural State sent the initial search teams to find his missing students and alumni. These amateur teams consisted of students and teachers from the university. Soon thereafter, the army and police would join in the rescue effort, bringing the added search capabilities of planes and helicopters with them.

On February 26th, the rescue teams made the discovery that they chronically dreaded. It was not so much that the group had perished in the elements; expeditions have been lost from time to time in that way throughout history. The unsettling and baffling details of the discovery are what made this incident one of the most baffling mysteries of the 20th Century.

The initial discovery by one of the volunteer student rescue team members was the remnants of the tent on the slope of Kholat Syakhyl. Inexplicably, the tent had been cut open from the inside out. Moreover, the boots along with all the other possessions of expedition members were still inside the remains of the tent. Ostensibly, the hysterical members of the expedition had torn their way out of their shelter, and struck out on bare or socked feet into the forbidding elements. Nine sets of tracks led toward the tree line of the forest that the group had previously eschewed as a campsite.

Upon reaching the edge of the woods, the rescue team discovered the first two bodies. Underneath a large cedar were the bodies of two team members (shoeless and dressed only in their underwear) along with the remains of a fire. Immediately above the two cadavers, the limbs of the tree were broken to a height of five meters. This clue led investigators to postulate that one of the hikers had climbed the tree in order to gain a better vantage point to look for something…quite possibly the camp. Next, searchers backtracked and found the remains of three more deceased team members that were halfway between the giant cedar and the original camp. The positions in which the corpses were frozen when discovered suggested that the poor souls were attempting a return to the tent when they expired. Expedition leader Dyatlov’s remains were part of this morbid trio. No more bodies were recovered until spring of the same year.

On May 4th, the corpses of the four remaining travelers were discovered. The cadavers were located in a ravine 75 meters further into the forest past the cedar tree where the first two hikers were found. These four individuals were more warmly dressed than the first five; they were garbed in clothing items retrieved from their deceased associates along with their own. While the first five decedents showed no signs of injury at a medical inquest, the four located
months later were a different story.

Three of the four bodies had endured traumatic injuries that brought on death. One had extensive skull damage, while two more had major fractures of the chest. Mysteriously, despite these massive internal injuries, the exteriors of the corpses displayed no corresponding trauma. Moreover, in a macabre detail that deepens the mystifying circumstances surrounding the deaths of these particular individuals, one of the two people whose ribs had been crushed, Ludmila Dubinina, was missing her tongue. While the previous medical inquest cited hypothermia as the cause of death for the five bodies discovered in February, the determination of death for the four remaining team members discovered in May was more problematic.

Boris Vozrozhdenny, the doctor who conducted the post mortem on the second four victims, wrote that the injuries sustained were consistent with the kind produced by a car crash. At a loss to explain the cause of death, he simply concluded that the deaths were a result of “compelling natural force.” Secondly, according to Geiger counters recovery site, the clothes that the four cadavers were wearing when found were emanating startling amounts of radiation. Additionally, witnesses who came forward after attending the funerals of the final four victims attested that the decedents were “extremely tanned;” as if they had perished in a tropical climate, instead of an arctic one. Obviously, an enigma of this magnitude has generated a myriad of theories as to a solution.

An early postulation suggested that the group had been attacked by angry members of the Mansi tribe who did not want their territory encroached upon, and ran for their lives from the camp. The problem with this theory is that the bodies did not display the exterior damage that blunt blows would have created. Furthermore, the pressure that was required to generate the internal injuries that were discovered was beyond human capability according to the medical examiner.

As details of the incident began to spread, the ubiquitous extraterrestrial explanation surfaced. The belief was that the expedition was attacked by aggressive alien life forms. Credence was lent to this supposition from two sources. First, bright light spheres were reported in the area throughout February and March of 1959. As a matter of fact, on the same night as the Dyatlov Pass incident, a group of fellow campers located 30 miles away reported seeing “a flying circular body” which appeared to canvas a large area in the distance (purportedly including the area occupied by Dyatlov’s team). Secondly, Lev Ivanov, the lead government investigator on the case, subscribed to this paranormal explanation for the tragedy. Years later, in an interview for the Leninsky Put newspaper, Ivanov confessed: “I suspected at the time and am almost sure now that these bright flying spheres had a direct connection to the group’s death.”

Another line of reasoning cites an avalanche as the cause of the mania which initially drove the hikers from their tent, and into waist deep snow. The theory posits that a sudden avalanche threw and partially buried the tent; also contacting the team’s boots and gear—making them unusable due to soaking. The occupants of the tent then slashed their way out, to escape the pressure and moisture of the encroaching snow. Hypothermia claimed the first five victims; a fall into the 13 foot ravine caused the internal injuries that killed the latter four. The fallacies of this solution to the puzzle are numerous: 1) The tent was not immersed in snow when located by the rescue teams. 2) It cannot account for the bronzed skin of the victims. 3) It does not address the high levels of radiation detected on the clothes of the ravine victims. 4) It neglects the lack of external markings on the victims with internal injuries—if caused by such a fall. 5) It does not explain the missing tongue.

A particularly popular theory (probably amplified due to the USSR’s covert governmental policies of the era) asserts that the unfortunate expedition wandered into a top secret weapon testing location. Proponents of this school of thought believe that a secretive missile test was conducted in the area that night…thus the “bright circular lights” and excessive radiation. This “accident” was followed by a governmental cover up: citing the fact that no documents relating to the investigation were released, and the medical inquests were unusually rushed and hastily concluded. Critics of this theory cite the following inconsistencies to this theory: 1) Close-range exposure to a missile launch would burn flesh—not tan it. 2) One would think that a connected governmental lead investigator (Ivanov) would be a part of the cover- up, and would quietly fade into the background when the investigation was concluded instead of calling attention to the incident years later with alien speculation. 3) As with the preceding theory… no external markings…no tongue.

Recently, on June 1st, 2014, the Discovery Channel aired a documentary which proposed the most provocative explanation for the tragedy of all. Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives suggested that the legendary and mythical cousin of the American sasquatch was responsible for the violent deaths of the young adventurers.

Citing the fact that the Russian government suppressed autopsy results and all other investigative reports related to the incident, show creators imply that Soviet officials knew exactly what happened to the students, but did not want unrest to be created. Further, the broadcast charges that officials stored away crucial evidence proving the theory in the basement of a Moscow museum, within a restricted area. The largest bombshell among the newly-uncovered evidence is a photo of the yeti itself which was retrieved from the roll of film in a deceased student's camera. Attempting to add credence to the hypothesis, the documentary interviewed three original investigators who insist that large "bigfoot" type prints were found all over the area and, specifically, within the camp.

The program further points out that the indigenous Mansi do not venture to the area where the incident occurred due to the presence of the yeti. Additonally, in a brief interview, a Mansi elder states that the yeti loves to eat the tongue of its victims...explaining the gruesome discovery made on the corpse of Ludmila Dubinina.

The scenario presented by the broadcast is that the yeti had been following the hikers for several days...and the students knew it. As a result, the students were able to take the photograph in question, along with numerous sound recordings. The hole cut in the tent from the inside was to serve as a viewing portal to keep a wary eye on the treeline (and what was lurking within it) at night. Unfortunately, the docile and inqusitive creature panicked on the night in question. When the Soviet military began test-firing the missiles that evening, the beast went beserk, and attacked the nearby humans--thinking that they were the cause of the frightening irritant.

Naturally, the documentary crew concluded that this attack is why the tent was mangled and its inhabitants were forced to flee in all directions, without the benefit of proper attire. While this program will be considered sensationalist (and its premise far-fetched) by most viewers, it does account for some of the more inexplicable aspects of the mystery.

Even as the current Russian leadership continues to gradually de-classify documents relating to the legendary incident, the world will never definitively know what happened that night at Dyatlov Pass. Theories and suppositions will circulate for infinity as to the fate of a group of adventurers who met an untimely and mystifying demise on that snowy slope.

"Yeti" image retrieved from student's camera
"Yeti" image retrieved from student's camera | Source

What happened to the Dyatlov Pass expedition?

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The mangled tent at recovery
The mangled tent at recovery

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