In 1959 a group of Russian cross-country skiers went on a trek through the Ural Mountains, but they never return. Eventually, their bodies are discovered. The lack of eyewitnesses and subsequent investigations into the hikers’ deaths have inspired much speculation. Investigators at the time determined that the hikers tore open their tent from within, departing barefoot in heavy snow. Though the corpses showed no signs of struggle, two victims had fractured skulls, two had broken ribs, and one was missing her tongue. According to sources, four of the victims’ clothing contained high levels of radiation.
It happened on the east shoulder of the mountain Kholat Syakhl (a Mansi name, meaning Mountain of the Dead). The mountain pass where the incident occurred has since been named Dyatlov Pass after the group’s leader, Igor Dyatlov. The group, consisted of eight men and two women. Most were students or graduates of Ural Polytechnical Institute, now Ural State Technical University: Igor Dyatlov (the group’s leader) (23); Zinaida Kolmogorova (22); Lyudmila Dubinina (21); Alexander Kolevatov (25); Rustem Slobodin (23); Georgy Krivonischenko (24); Yuri Doroshenko (24); Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolle (24); Alexander Zolotarev (37); Yuri Yudin (sole survivor).
On Jan. 28, 1959 they set off on a skiing expedition to Otorten Mountain in the northern Urals. Their route to Otorten, which would see them reaching heights of 1,100m (3,600ft) above sea level, was classed as ‘Category III’ – the most dangerous for the time of year – but the combined experience of the students meant that there was nothing unusual in their undertaking such an expedition. Yury Yudin (the only surviving member), fell ill at the last stop before their destination and left the group. Little did he know it would be the last time he saw his friends alive.
On 31 January, they reached the river Auspia, where they set up a base at the edge of the highland area, leaving equipment and food there for the return journey. From here, they began climbing the pass toward Otorten on 1 February. For whatever reason – most likely bad weather conditions causing them to become lost – they found themselves on the slopes of the mountain Kholat Syakhl at a height of just below 1,100m (3,600ft). Here, at around 5pm, they pitched their tent for the night, although by going just 1.5km (almost a mile) down the mountain they could have found shelter from the harsh elements in a forest.
Their last diary entries show that the students were in good spirits; they even produced their own newspaper – the Evening Otorten – a typically Soviet way of group bonding. The next day, they planned to continue on to the mountain, just 10km (six miles) to the north, before returning to their base camp. Dyatlov was supposed to send a telegram back to the Ural Polytechnic Institute, where the skiers set off from, on February the 12th. This was the time the group had expected to be back from their expedition, and sent from Ural town, Vizhai.
According to Yudin, Dyatlov told him (as he was left behind), to expect the group to be a day or two late, just in case. No telegram ever came, and on February the 20th, the relatives of the skiers raised the alarm to the army and the police, who in turn launched a search and rescue team.
On February 26, the searchers found the abandoned camp on Kholat Syakhl. The tent was badly damaged. A chain of footprints could be followed, leading down towards the edge of nearby woods (on the opposite side of the pass, 1.5km north-east), but after 500 meters they were covered with snow. At the forest edge, under a large old pine, the searchers found the remains of a fire, along with the first two dead bodies, those of Krivonischenko and Doroshenko, shoeless and dressed only in their underwear. Between the pine and the camp the searchers found three more corpses—Dyatlov, Kolmogorova and Slobodin—who seemed to have died in poses suggesting that they were attempting to return to the camp. They were found separately at distances of 300, 480 and 630 meters from the pine tree.
Searching for the remaining four travelers took more than two months. They were finally found on May 4, under four meters of snow, in a ravine in a stream valley further into the wood from the pine tree. All, it seems, had fled in sudden terror from their camp in the middle of the night. Casting aside skis, food and warm coats, they dashed headlong down a snowy slope toward a thick forest, where they stood no chance of surviving bitter temperatures of around –30º C (–22º F). At the time, seemingly baffled investigators offered the non-explanation that the group had died as a result of “a compelling unknown force” – and then simply closed the case and filed it as ‘Top Secret’.
After half a century, the mystery remains. What was the nature of the deadly “unknown force”? Were the Soviet authorities hiding something? And, if so, exactly what were they were attempting to cover up? In the intervening years, a number of solutions have been put forward, involving everything from hostile tribes and abominable snowmen to aliens and secret military technology.
Doctors said all five had died of hypothermia. Only Slobodin bore any injuries other than burnt hands: his skull was fractured, although this was not considered to be the cause of his death. An examination of the the other four bodies which were found in May changed the picture. Three of them had fatal injuries: the body of Thibeaux-Brignolle had major skull damage, and both Dubunina and Zolotarev had major chest fractures. The force required to cause such damage would have been extremely high, with one expert comparing it to the force of a car crash. Notably, the bodies had no external wounds, as if they were crippled by a high level of pressure. One woman was found to be missing her tongue.
There had initially been some speculation that the indigenous Mansi people might have attacked and murdered the group for encroaching upon their lands, but investigation indicated that the nature of their deaths did not support this thesis; the hikers’ footprints alone were visible, and they showed no sign of hand-to-hand struggle.
Tests of the few scraps of clothing revealed very high levels of radiation. The original chief investigator, Lev Ivanov, described how he took a Geiger counter with him to the campsite on the mountain slope; as he approached, the device started to click rapidly and loudly. Ivanov also revealed that he had been ordered by senior regional officials to close the case and classify the findings as secret.
Evidence found at the campsite indicates the trekkers might’ve been blinded. Eyewitnesses around the area report seeing “bright orange spheres” in the sky during the same months. And, relatives at the funeral swear the skin of their dead loved ones was tanned, tinted dark orange or brown. And their hair had all turned completely gray.
Some reports suggested that much scrap metal was located in the area, leading to speculation that the military had utilized the area secretly and might be engaged in a cover-up.
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