The Mystery of the Dyatlov Pass Incident

Nine dead, peculiar behavior and unexplained injuries, the 1959 Dyatlov Pass Incident remains a mystery to this day.

The Mystery of the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Source: Public Domain

On February 4, 2019, Russian prosecutors announced that they were reopening an the investigation into the Dyatlov Pass Incident. This is one of the most puzzling mysteries of the modern era.

In January 1959, Igor Dyatlov was a twenty-three-year-old radio engineering student at the Ural Polytechnical Institute, now known as the Ural Federal University. Dyatlov was an elite skier and hiker, and he assembled a group of nine fellow students to accompany him on a 16-day expedition that would cover 190 miles across the North Ural mountains of Otorten and Kholat Syakhl.

Igor Dyatlov
Igor Dyatlov, Source: Public Domain

The eight men and two women all had Grade II-hiker certification with ski tour experience, and after completing the upcoming expedition, they would receive what at the time was the Soviet Union's highest certification possible, Grade III.

The Trek Begins

In the early morning of January 25, 1959, the group arrived by train at the town of Ivdel, then took a truck to Vizhai, the last inhabited settlement before their trek. There, they purchased loaves of bread to add to their supplies.

Dubinina, Krivonischenko, Thibeaux-Brignolles, and Slobodin
Dubinina, Krivonischenko, Thibeaux-Brignolles, and Slobodin Source: Public Domain 

On January 27th, they began their trek, and the next day, one of the group, Yuri Yudin, complained of feeling unwell and returned to Vizhai.

Expedition team members
Expedition team members Source: Russian National Archives

The remaining nine continued on. They included Igor Dyatlov, 23, Yuri Doroshenko, 21, Lyudmila Dubinina, 20, Yuri Krivonischenko, 23, Alexander Kolevatov, 24, Zinaida Kolmogorova, 22, Rustem Slobodin, 23, Nikolai Thibeaux-Brignolles, 23, and Semyon Zolotaryov, 38.

Dyatlov expedition members
Dyatlov Expedition members, Source: LEMMiNO/Youtube

The Pass

On January 31st, the group arrived at a wooded valley, where they cached surplus food and equipment that they intended to use on the trip back. The next day, February 1st, they began to move through the pass that would come to be called the Dyatlov Pass. From what was recovered from expedition members' cameras and diaries, investigators were able to determine that the group hoped to make camp that night on the opposite side of the pass.


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During that day, however, snowstorms moved in and the group deviated to the west, ending up at the top of the mountain Kholat Syakhl. In the language of the indigenous people, Kholat Syakhl means "Dead Mountain".

Rather than making their way down the mountain to a forested area, they chose to make camp on the mountain's slope. Temperatures that night were very cold, -25 to -30 degrees C (-13 - -22 degrees F), and the group shared one large tent.

Photo from Dyatlov's camera showing the last camp
Photo from Dyatlov's camera showing the last camp, Source: Public Domain

An Overdue Telegram

Dylatlov had arranged with Yudin that he would send a telegram once the group returned to Vizhai, but when no telegram arrived on the agreed-upon date, or for a week thereafter, Yudin alerted the authorities. The head of the Ural Polytechnical Institute assembled a rescue team comprised of students and teachers. After what they found, the Soviet army got involved.

On February 26, 1959, the rescuers from the Ural Polytechnical Institute found the Dyatlov group's tent. It was cut in half, but from the inside. Within the tent were the group's belongings including their shoes. Outside the tent were nine sets of footprints made by people who were wearing only socks, a single shoe, or were barefoot.

Tent cut from the inside
Tent cut from the inside, Source: Soviet investigators/Wikimedia Commons

The rescuers followed the nine sets of footprints, some of which led down toward the edge of nearby woods 1.5 kilometers (.93 miles) to the north-east from the tent. At the edge of the forest, under a large pine tree, the rescuers found the remains of a small fire and the shoeless bodies of Krivonischenko and Doroshenko. They were dressed only in their underwear.

Bodies of Doroshenko and Krivonischenko
Bodies of Doroshenko and Krivonischenko, Source: Public Domain

Above the bodies, branches on the pine tree were broken to a height of five meters, indicating that one of the men had climbed up to look at something, perhaps the camp.

Between the tree and the camp lay three more bodies, Dyatlov, Kolomogorova and Slobodin. They each lay several hundred meters apart from one another.

Bodies of Dyatlov, Kolomogorova and Slobodin
Bodies of Dyatlov, Kolomogorova and Slobodin, Source: Soviet National Archives

Searchers didn't find the remaining four expedition members until May 4th, when they were located 75 meters further into the woods from the pine tree. Three of the four had been wearing more clothes than the others, and there were signs that as each died, their clothes were appropriated by those still alive.

Dubinina’s foot was wrapped in a piece of Krivonischenko’s wool pants, while Zolotaryov was found wearing Dubinina’s coat and hat.


Unexplained Injuries

It wasn't until autopsies were performed on all the expedition members that things took a turn toward the weird. Thibeaux-Brignolles had several fractures to his skull. Lyudmila Dubinina and Semyon Zolotaryov had major chest fractures, but none of the bodies showed signs of external injury.

The examining doctor described the force needed to cause the fractures as being comparable to that of a car crash. It was as if they had been subjected to a high level of pressure.

Bodies of Kolevatov, Zolotaryov and Thibeaux-Brignoles
Bodies of Kolevatov, Zolotaryov and Thibeaux-Brignoles, Source: Soviet National Archives

One body that showed external injuries was Dubinina. She was missing her eyes, tongue, part of her lips, part of her face, and a fragment of skull bone. The skin on her hands was macerated. Alexander Kolevatov's body showed no signs of injury.

Body of Dubinina
Body of Dubinina, Source: Soviet National Archives

An Attempt at an Explanation

Authorities initially suggested that the group had been attacked by indigenous people in the area, the Mansi, but only the hikers' footprints were visible in the snow, and none of the bodies showed signs of a struggle.

A troubling question was why were the expedition members only partially dressed, and why had they run into the snow in socks or barefoot?

The official inquest into the deaths found that:
* Six group members died from hypothermia (from the cold), while three had fatal injuries
* At the time of the incident, there were no other people on Kholat Syakhl other than the Dyatlov group
* All expedition members died between 6 and 8 hours after eating their last meal
* Three separate articles of clothing found on two of the bodies were radioactive.
The official inquest concluded that the hikers' deaths were as a result of "a compelling natural force." According to the AFP news agency, the results of the inquest remained classified until the 1970s.

When reopening an investigation into the incident in February 2019, CNN reported that only three possible explanations were being considered: an avalanche, a "snow slab" avalanche, or a hurricane.

Opposing an avalanche explanation are the fact that the area showed no signs of an avalanche having taken place, and the bodies that were found within ten days of the event were covered with only a very shallow layer of snow. Since the incident, over 100 expeditions to the area have taken place, and none has ever reported an avalanche. Alexander Zolotaryov was studying for his Masters Certificate in ski instruction and mountain hiking, and neither he nor Dyatlov would have been likely to camp anywhere in the path of a potential avalanche.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of the incident, the pass was named the Dyatlov Pass in honor of the group, and in the Mikhajlov Cemetery at Yekaterinburg, a monument was erected to the nine students.

Monument to the students
Monument to the students, Source: Artur Andrzej/Wikimedia Commons

In 1990, Russian Anatoly Gushchin published a book about the incident, The Price of State Secrets Is Nine Lives. In 2013, the movie The Dyatlov Pass Incident was released, and in 2015, the Russian band Kauan released the album Sorni Nai which attempts to reconstruct the events leading up to the incident.

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