'Dyatlov Pass Incident' involves strange deaths of nine hikers
Meeting their end at 'Mountain of the Dead'
The disturbing deaths of nine young hikers in the north Ural Mountains of Russia are engulfed in murky, unanswered questions.
Known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, the macabre episode of February 1959 has been called “one of the eeriest mysteries in Russian history” by the Daily Mail newspaper of the United Kingdom.
It took about three months to find all nine bodies, which were scattered in different groupings in the snow outside the remote camp that had been set up after more than a week of travel.
Investigators found a tent that seemed to have been frantically slashed open from the inside.
When their bodies were tracked down, it was clear the ill-fated university students were not dressed for the brutal temperatures, which were well below zero. Bodies were discovered shoeless, half-dressed, in sleepwear. The victims seemingly left warm provisions behind in their frenetic scramble.
It was as if the doomed adventurers had frantically fled the safety of their camp in a moment of madness and horrified desperation.
The image of frightened people in their 20s rushing down the deep snow of a slope in apparent darkness is a haunting one.
Most of them had reportedly died from hypothermia, but some bore evidence of blunt-force trauma, namely, severe skull damage and fractured ribs.
Eyeballs were missing.
Four of the bodies reportedly had substantial levels of radiation.
Lyudmila Dubinina -- one of the members of the doomed skiing expedition -- was discovered with her tongue missing.
The official Soviet-investigation report on the incident stated the hikers had succumbed to a “compelling unknown force,” or a “compelling natural force,” as it has sometimes been reported.
The leader of the group of trekkers was 23-year-old Igor Dyatlov, an engineering student from Ural Polytechnic Institute whose surname has become the name of the surreal incident. Almost all of the hikers hailed from the Ural institute.
Theories as to what happened 55 years ago are varied, and often wild.
UFO involvement has been cited, as has the yeti -- the hulking, mystical creature of the cold.
The latter speculation was fueled by a photo found among the skiers’ belongings of a dark, large human-like figure that was taken from afar.
“I am very open-minded on the whole case, but I would place the yeti theory some way down the list of possibilities,” said Keith McCloskey, author of 2013’s “Mountain of the Dead: The Dyatlov Pass Incident” (The History Press).
“Yes, some of the party had crush-type injuries, and, of course, there is a photo that may or may not be a yeti, but I think it needs a lot more evidence,” McCloskey -- a resident of Hungerford, England -- said in an interview by email.
The author has formed his own theory about what caused the nine deaths: “I am convinced that it is a Soviet military accident, but I cannot prove it.”
McCloskey believes all died from a “blast, and that the autopsies were made to look as if some died from hypothermia. It was a deliberate attempt to ‘muddy the water.’ ”
McCloskey points to a 1979 anthrax outbreak in a Russian city that he says was “a military accident which is still denied to this day.”
As for the absence of a tongue on Dubinina, there likewise is an array of conjecture.
“Some have said her missing tongue could have been bacteria eating away the soft flesh of the tongue,” McCloskey noted.
A different proposition is that a hungry animal ripped the tongue from her mouth.
McCloskey offers yet another, unpleasant, option: “The autopsy says the tongue was ‘missing,’ as opposed to ‘cut out’ or ‘torn out.’ If the autopsy is to be believed, then her tongue was removed when she was still alive, as a large quantity of blood was found in her stomach, and she would have had to have been alive to have swallowed it.”
It took about three months for investigators to recover all of the bodies, and -- although decades have passed -- uncertainty about how they died runs rampant.
Researchers such as McCloskey shed needed light on the case.
“McCloskey’s book was the first to make use of, and translate, many of the Russian archival papers,” said Mark Beynon, a commissioning editor for The History Press, publisher of the book. “He was also granted permission to use the pictures taken from the skiers’ cameras, so it was a hugely important book from a journalistic point of view.”
Soviet authorities -- for a lengthy period of time -- kept the tragic Ural area off limits, while the case was deemed classified.
The vagueness of the governmental finding of a “compelling unknown force” being responsible for the loss of life only added gasoline to the figurative inferno of conjecture that has burned for decades over how the young hikers met their grim fate.
Missile testing gone awry has been offered as a possibility.
Likewise put forth is the idea of tetanus infection.
Delirium from the ingestion of a certain type of mushroom is a theory that has come to McCloskey’s attention.
One author has Russian KGB personnel involved, and in the possession of radioactive materials -- with even America’s CIA playing a part.
And, of course, conspiracy on the part of the Kremlin has played into a number of solutions that have been put forward.
The puzzle of the Ural Mountains has smoldered, in large part, because it occurred in Russia, “where secrecy seems to be ingrained into the national psyche,“ according to McCloskey.
The term “openness” was not really in the vocabulary of authorities who held key details of the bizarre winter episode.
“Very little information ever came out of the old Soviet Union; what information did come out was what the authorities wanted the world to hear,” McCloskey said. “The Dyatlov deaths were not reported at the time even in the local Ekaterinburg News. It was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union that the Dyatlov story started to reach a worldwide audience.”
Explanations for the untimely end of the skiers have included propositions that leave themselves open to a cascade of skepticism.
One of those is an avalanche.
The other is frightful sound waves caused by unusual, mountainous tornadic winds that caused the young adventurers to panic and hastily flee the safe confines of their camp on the slope of Kholat Syakhl, a mountain close to their main target of their expedition -- Mount Otorten.
Kholat Syakhl translates into “Mountain of the Dead” in the language of the local Mansi people.
The indigenous Mansi have even been suspected in some quarters of attacking the hikers for encroachment on their land -- a theory not given much credence in most research.
Those who lost their lives after trekking to Kholat Syakhl were in an enthusiastic and conditioned expedition party that consisted of seven males and two females.
One of the men -- Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolle -- was born in a gulag under the regime of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, according to McCloskey, who also noted that Thibeaux-Brignolle’s father was imprisoned in that gulag and executed.
There are many layers to the Dyatlov Pass story which can even fit the category of paranormal lore.
The 1959 incident was the inspiration for the 2013 film “Devil’s Pass” -- directed by Renny Harlin, who also directed “Die Hard 2” (1990).
“I think the primary reason for the ongoing interest in the Dyatlov Pass Incident is because it remains an unsolved tragedy,” said Beynon of The History Press. “Much like the Jack the Ripper case, the public’s imagination is fired by the thought of the unknown.”
As fate would have it, Yury Yudin was originally a member of the Dyatlov expedition, but illness forced him to stay behind several days into the cross-country excursion.
The remaining nine explorers carried on without him.