The Dyatlov Pass Incident

Dyatlov Pass 1959

On January 27th 1959, a group of nine skiers set off hiking in the northern Ural Mountains. The group was formed of graduate students from a nearby University for a ski trek across the Sverdlovsk Oblast.

The students were all experienced hikers and seasoned skiers, and the route was rated as a “Category III” – the most difficult. The trip began rather uneventful, but by February 2nd they would all be dead with no witnesses or explanation.

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Dyatlov Party

Igor Dyatlov
Igor Dyatlov

Igor Dyatlov, the group’s leader (pictured at left), realized on February 1st the group had lost their direction and deviated off course. Instead of heading up to the mountain of Otorten, they were on Kholat Syakhl. Deteriorating weather conditions forced the group to stop and set up camp for the night before turning back.

What they didn’t know was the group would never turn back. Friends and relatives expected the group to return on February 12th, but the Dyatlov party never returned. By February 20th search parties were organized that included the police and military. Finally after six days of searching, authorities found the Dyatlov camp.

The tent was torn from the inside and the campsite was abandoned. Searchers followed the recent footprints which led to the edge of the forest where they discovered the remains of a fire and two dead bodies. The bodies were found shoeless and only wearing their underwear.

Nearby the search party discovered three more bodies spaced about 150 meters apart; it appeared as if each had been trying to return to camp at the time of their respective deaths. It wasn’t until two months later authorities would find the remaining four bodies in a nearby ravine under four meters of snow; quite a bit further from the camp than the other bodies.

Initially investigators assumed the group perished from hypothermia and exposure to such extreme temperatures. Several factors didn’t seem to mesh well with this theory, however. For starters the deceased were found nearly naked, wearing only underwear and shoes in weather that was nearly 22 degrees below zero. Two of the hikers had skull damage, two had major chest fractures, and one woman was missing her tongue.

The medical examiner indicated the force required to cause such fractures to the skulls and chest would have been extremely high; he likened it to the force of a car crash. Yet the victims mysteriously had no visible external wounds or injuries. There were no foreign footprints and there was no sign of a struggle, although the medical examiner did report some of the victims might have been blinded prior to their death.

Possibly the most confusing piece of evidence was some of the victims were wearing each others’ clothes.

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A Compelling Unknown Force

What the medical examiner ultimately determined was six of the group members had died of hypothermia and three of fatal injuries. All perished about six to eight hours after their last meal. Authorities said there were no indications of other persons nearby and that the tent was ripped open from within. They also indicated that forensic radiation tests had shown high doses of radioactive contamination on the clothes of some of the victims.

The final determination from the medical examiner was the group members had each died due to “a compelling unknown force.”

A legal inquiry followed, along with quite a bit of controversy. Relatives of the deceased claimed the victims had a strange orange color to the skin and gray hair. One of the rescue workers acknowledged his radiation equipment had shown very high levels of radiation around Kholat Syakhl, however the source of this radiation was not disclosed.

A group of hikers 50 km south of the Dyatlov group reported they saw strange orange spheres in the night sky to the north. Similar spheres were reported in adjacent areas continually between February and March by various independent witnesses. There were also reports of large deposits of scrap metal in the area, leading to speculation of a secret military cover-up.

 

The Dyatlov group album

There are certainly a fair number of theories. Unfortunately most of the case files and notes from the investigation were limited both by Russian oversight of the media and poor record-keeping in Cold War-era Russia. The best known case notes belonged to Yuri Yarovoi, a photographer from the original search party. He died in 1980, and all his archives, diaries, and photos have been lost.  Yuri was known to have suspected government cover-up as his personal position, but he kept silent with authorities keen to manage oversight of details of the case.

Some have suggested an avalanche could have disturbed the campsite, but the terrain does not support the consideration of avalanche activity. It also does not explain why half of the group would leave the tent first, followed by the other half later. It does not explain the undisturbed footprints of the victims in the snow or the fact the tent was not buried.

Others have suggested a bear attack, or possibly a local tribe slaughtered the party due to trespassing on forbidden land. The absence of open wounds on any of the victims and lack of additional foot or paw prints (not to mention the lack of evidence of a struggle) would seem to throws some doubt on those theories.

Another suggestion was the hikers stumbled into a secret military testing area, a rumor certainly not quashed when the government engaged in secrecy and cover up.  Fans of this theory are quick to point out the military found the hikers’ tent long before the rescue party and they had every opportunity to remove and alter evidence.

Dyatlov memorial
Dyatlov memorial

In 1990 the Soviet government opened up what was left of the case files to journalists. Unfortunately this would only pose more questions than it would answer since numbers of pages were missing as were envelopes with field testing reports. Also missing from the evidence collected from the scene were the personal effects left by the Dyatlov party members. Those involved with the original search party seemed to believe the cause was a secret Soviet weapon being tested by the military, although few came out and publicly shared these beliefs until the 1990’s.

As of the date of this article, the case officially remains unsolved. Much of what we know and the pictures we have all came from the diaries and undeveloped rolls of film found at the site. Most of the original case files have long since been lost or destroyed. Those involved with the search party have passed away, leaving no chance for further eyewitness investigation.

Perhaps we’ll never know what happened that night on Khulat Syakhl.

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The area where the party was found has been renamed “Dyatlov Pass” in honor of the lost party. 

Satellite/Map of area: click here

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10 COMMENTS

  1. That is extremely insane and bizarre, wish there was a way to figure out what really happened.

  2. The others came out into the blizzard to see why they haven’t come back with wood.When they finally found them they were dead. So they took their clothes and wore them in an attempt to stay warm. The temperature was estimated to be -22 degrees,they couldn’t see in the blizzard, Some didn’t even make it back to the tent, the others fell off a ravine and froze to death down there. I even think some tried to dig a hole into the side of the ravine to get out of the screeching wind.

  3. I would like to suggest the following, that the group never separated from one another. There’s no reason for them to separate and frankly as an experienced long-distance outdoor hiker/backpacker myself I would never separate. I have been saying for years I believed a fire is what is the most likely reason for them fleeing the tent. I have now modified that with this new information regarding the smoke from the stove. That actually makes more sense than even my previous thoughts on the subject. Having been in a tent when fire broke out and I can tell you that people would literally rip through the side of the tent I get out because I’ve seen it. because I’ve seen it! Regardless of whether they thought the tent was on fire or it was just the smoke , either of those would be enough to force people out.

    The reason I want to suggest that they never separated is because they single file headed down to the woods. You will want to act collectively as a group because you can get things done much faster and safer with the more people you have involved. Also once separated in low visibility you are not likely to find each other again easily and it is much harder to render help if needed.

    Let me tell you what I would have done as an experienced hiker. I would have either gone to the woods as is it is suggested that they did. I also would be seriously explored heading for the ravine! The ravine offers. The ravine offers almost instant protection from wind in at least two directions and if there are boulders you can huddle in between them and almost protect yourself from wind in multiple directions beyond just the two. When you look at the injuries of all of the people involved they all suffer what appear to be fall injuries. The injuries on those making their way back to the tent and those found near the tree are only different in severity and not so much locations on their bodies as to those as the bottom of the ravine. I am suggesting as a group they went towards the ravine to take shelter and the snow caved in and multiple people fell in with three of them being killed right away. Others sustained injuries, crawled out and went back to the forest to make another safe place and where it is less likely to have the ground cave in underneath you. I will note though I saw a recent video where people went back and tried to recreate the incident. Even in the area where they had the fire someone fell in up to their chest! So even in area like that the bottom can fall out from underneath you with little or no notice.

    Honestly trying to start a fire in the open like that would be a matter of last resort. SHELTER is the priority, then fire.

    I also want to suggest something that has never been considered before which is why do we all say this happen that night? There’s absolutely no reason to believe that it happen at night versus in the morning . In fact there are some reasons to think it could have happened during the daylight. For one thing, they could see the forest well enough to walk to it. The could see the tent to start making their way back to it. They gathered wood and with matches got a fire started. This would not likely happened if people are loosing feeling in their hands and can’t feel their way around but must see what they are doing. To start a fire on the open ground like that with no wind shield is nearly impossible. This suggest they were able to see and monitor the fire and “work it” as well as there most likely not being a wind storm in the area.

    The ravine would provide the most protection and the woods the second most protection. I therefore suggest the group attempted the first and after the death of their comrades, not being able to recover them as they were further down the ravine, made their way back to the woods and then started to realize that they are not going to last, left the two weakest members there and headed back to the tent but died along the way. I can even hear the “we are going back to the tent for more cloths and gear and will come back for you speech”

    Truth be told, despite their best efforts they were dead once the tent was compromised and they left. I am sure it looked like a lost cause with what must have been smoke pouring out but they should have pulled the tent away and tried to recover as much of it and the gear as they could and tried to reset in the woods. But I was not there and don’t know what they saw or how they reasoned it.

    I get mad when I hear people talk about taking survival gear and packs on trips because everything you have is your survival gear! You have to fight for it like your life depends on it, because in situations like this it does.

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