The Dyatlov Pass Incident

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Podcast Transcript

On January 25, 1959, a group of 10 hikers set out in the middle of the Russian Winter on what was to be a two-week excursion into the wilderness. 
One of the hikers returned early. The other nine were never heard from again. 
Week’s later their bodies were found, and it spawned a mystery that researchers are still trying to solve. 
Learn more about the Dyatlov Pass Incident on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

The event which became known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident started innocently enough.

A group from the Ural Polytechnical Institute had planned to go out on an expedition across the northern Ural Mountains in January of 1959. 
The group was made up of students who had extensive outdoor and hiking experience. The leader of the group was a 23-year old radio engineering student named Igor Dyatlov. 
The group consisted of 8 men and 2 women, and all of them had received a grade II climbing certification in the Soviet Union, and on their return, they would have received their grade III certification. Grade III was the highest certification possible at the time in the Soviet Union and it required an excursion of at least 300 kilometers or 190 miles. 
Their goal was to reach a peak known as Gora Otorten Mountain. Making this trip in late January and early February was the absolute hardest time of the year.  Temperatures recorded while they were out dipped down to -13 F or -25 C. 
The group had a planned route on a known trail and filed information about their trip on January 23, the day they town. The group arrived by train on January 25 at the town of Ivdel and on January 27, they began their trek. 
One day later, one of the group members, Yuri Yudin, turned back due to problems with his knees that prevented him from continuing.
The other 9 hikers were never seen alive again. 
Dyatlov told his sports club at the university that he would send a telegram once the group was back to civilization, and that he didn’t expect to be back any later than February 12. 
When February 12th had come and gone, there wasn’t any immediate worry. A delay of a few days wasn’t uncommon with an expedition like this. 
By February 20th, the families of the lost hikers began to demand a search and rescue operation take place. 
A group sponsored by the university set out on the same route, and later rescue teams using helicopters and airplanes joined in the search. 
On February 26th, the bodies of the group were found on the slope of a mountain known as Kholat Syakhl, which in the native Mansi language means, Dead Mountain. 
What the search party found was shocking. 
The tent that the group was staying in was found. The student who found the tent said, “the tent was half torn down and covered with snow. It was empty, and all the group’s belongings and shoes had been left behind.”
The tent had been cut open from the inside. 
From the tent, they found nine sets of footprints in the snow. However, the footprints weren’t those of people wearing shoes or boots. These were footprints of people who were barefoot or had socks on. 
The footprints went for 500 meters before they were covered up with snow. About 1.5 kilometers away, they found the remains of a fire and the first two bodies. They were only dressed in their underwear.
On the trail back to the tent, they found three more bodies. Based on the positions they were found, it is estimated that they were trying to return to the tent. 
The final four bodies weren’t found until May when the snow started to thaw. They were found under 4 meters or 13 feet of snow about 75 meters further into the woods and away from the tent from where the first bodies were found.  They were better dressed than the other victims, and they appeared to have taken the clothes off of them as they were wearing a mishmash of clothing items.
When the first five victims were found, the cause of death was initially listed as hypothermia. 
However, it was when the other four bodies were found over 2 months later that the mystery really began.
One victim had serious head fractures, and one had a massive chest fracture. The sort of force that would be required to cause such trauma would be along the lines of a car crash. 
Moreover, all four of the bodies had tissue damage to their head, including one that had both eyes and their tongue removed, one that had their eyes missing, and another that had lost his eyebrows. 

The strange circumstances surrounding the deaths of these hikers began decades of speculation as to what might have happened. The case was officially closed by the Soviets in May 1959, soon after the last bodies were found, and the cause of death listed for three of the last four was “a compelling natural force”. The other was hypothermia.
The puzzle was trying to come up with a theory that fit all of the facts for all nine hikers. The fact that this occurred in the Soviet Union during the middle of the Cold War didn’t help matters any, as the files were sent to a secret archive, and the government was notoriously tight-lipped. 
One of the theories was that the group was murdered by local Mansi in an ambush. The problem was, there was no evidence of any other people. There were no footprints other than of the nine hikers, which were still clearly visible when they were discovered. Moreover, the Mansi had no history of this sort of behavior. 
Another theory is that the hikers killed each other. They might have had some sort of fight, perhaps due to romantic entanglements. However, they found diaries and cameras of some of the victims and there was nothing to indicate there were any problems within the group. Moreover, there was no evidence of a struggle, only of an evacuation. 
Another theory was that they were the victims of an avalanche. However, there was no evidence that was normally associated with an avalanche. There were no trees knocked down or debris which would have been carried by the snow. Moreover, the locals in the area were very familiar with avalanches and the signs they left behind. 
There have been over 100 expeditions to the location in the 60 years since the incident, and there has never been a single reported case of avalanche conditions in that area. The winds in the location they were discovered tends to blow snow away from the top of the mountain, so it doesn’t accumulate. 
Also, most people who are killed in avalanches die of asphyxiation, not blunt force trauma. 
With none of the standard explanations making any sense, theories became more elaborate. 
One theory was that they were the victim of a military exercise gone wrong. The evening they supposedly died, February 1, others in the region reported seeing orange lights in the sky. 
One theory holds that the military was testing parachute mines which would have been dropped from planes into the area. This would explain the sighting of orange lights, and supposedly there were some military exercises doing exactly that around the same time. 
The theory is they heard an explosion and ran out through the side of the tent in a panic without any clothes on. 
Yet another theory is that they fell victim to some sort of radiological experiment. Their clothes were found to have some very low-level radiation on them, and the skin of some of the victims was an orange color. However, this can just be explained by the time the corpses spent in the dry cold. The radiation may have come from the mantle of a lantern, which contains small amounts of the element thorium. Also, if there was some sort of radiological event, why was the radiation only found on their close and not everywhere else? 
Another theory was that many of them suffered from what is known as ??Paradoxical undressing. This happened when you suffer from hypothermia and you paradoxically take off your clothes because you feel like you are burning up. But if this was the case, why did they then make a fire? Why not just walk out of the tent instead of cutting it open?

Another theory is that they suffered from a rare katabatic wind episode. This is when dense air comes down the slope of a mountain at very high speeds. A similar event happened in 1978 which killed eight hikers in Sweden. There was one survivor which told the tale of the high winds. 
If there was a sudden onset of hurricane-force winds that threatened to tear down their tent, it might have been a reason for them to escape without getting dressed. This is supported by one of the last diary entries which reported they were experiencing high winds. 
Of course, after listing all of these theories, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that yetis and aliens have also been given as explanations as well….because, aliens. 
This mystery has never died and to this day people are still trying to unravel it.
The latest theory came out in 2021 and it was based on computer modeling of the area where the incident took place. 
According to this theory, the hikers fell victim to a rare, localized slab avalanche. A slab avalanche where a hard, stiff segment of snow breaks off and slides downhill. It isn’t as large as a regular avalanche where an entire mountainside of snow might come down as a powder. 
Because the slab is stiff, it could cause blunt force trauma like a car accident. Because they tend to be small and very localized, you wouldn’t see the normal evidence of an avalanche that you usually would. 
This theory, however, still doesn’t answer everything or explain how the bodies got to their final resting place, or why the bodies with the trauma traveled the farthest. 
The fact is, Dyatlov Pass Incident still remains a mystery. 
Personally, the thing that makes sense to me is that they were caught in some sort of rare event like a katabatic wind or a slab avalanche, and then panicked, and engaged in odd behavior which resulted in them being caught outside without clothing, and running away from the tent. 
The Dyatlov Pass Incident has captured the imagination of those attracted to mysteries for over 60 years, and it probably will continue to do so for decades to come.