The sinister account of the Dyatlov Pass resembles something out of a horror movie. The story of nine Soviet hikers who met their tragic end in the freezing cold of the Ural mountains has been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories, and it continues to inspire the imaginations of many, for it has not yet been fully revealed what happened on the night between the 1st and 2nd of February in 1959.
It all started out as an adventure among colleagues from the Urals Polytechnic Institute, based in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), who shared an enthusiasm for skiing and hiking in Russia’s Ural mountain range. On January 27, a group consisting of 10 people (eight men and two women), under the leadership of Igor Dyatlov, was preparing to conquer Mount Otorten, part of the Northern Ural.
The territory was mostly populated by a small ethnic minority called the Mansi people. Otorten, by the way, translates from Mansi as “Don’t go there.” But the warning didn’t deter the students who set out to cross the difficult terrain.
The group left the town of Ivdel by truck, which got them to the small village of Vizhai―the last inhabited settlement on the very edge of the wilderness.
It was here where the group of 10 heard an ancient, spooky story about the Mansi hunters who were mysteriously murdered while passing through what has since become known as the Dead Mountain.
On January 28th, Yuri Yud, a member of the hiking group (and the sole survivor of the incident that followed), became ill from dysentery and was forced to stay in Vizhai while the others decided to continue with the plan. The group of ten was now down to nine.
What makes this event so haunting is the fact that the Mansi legend featured nine hunters. This bad omen was once again ignored by the group, which rejected any notion of reality in such a superstition. The students were still determined to keep to their planned route toward the Otorten Peak, which led across the Dead Mountain.
On February 1st they were caught by a snowstorm and decided to set up camp, delaying their expedition. What happened during that night remains one of the most bizarre and inexplicable events in Soviet history.
The hikers were supposed to return around February 12th, and confirm to their sports club that they were safe, but due to bad weather, everyone probably assumed they would be running a bit off schedule, so their lateness did not raise an alarm. A few days later, Yuri Yudin, who had stayed in the village, started to become concerned. On February 20th, the families of the students started inquiring with the authorities, demanding a search party be organized.
At first, the Polytechnic Institute sent a team of volunteers to look for their missing colleagues. The situation became grave when the expedition wasn’t found.
The search party was joined by police and military personnel. Helicopters and light aircraft were also used, as it became obvious that the group had gone beyond the terrain approachable by normal transport.
On February 26th, the camp was discovered. The searchers first concluded that someone, presumably from the group, had cut the back of the tent from the inside, in order to get out. The camp was found as if it was left in a hurry, for all the equipment, which included skis, food, and warm clothing, was still in the tent. It was already half-covered in snow when it was spotted, and the search party prepared for the worst-case scenario.
A trail of footprints made by eight or nine people was found nearby, which indicated that the hikers were running away from the camp, most likely barefoot, or only wearing socks. The trail streched for about one-third of a mile from the camp. The Northern Ural is infamous for its extremely unforgiving weather conditions. The temperature at the time was -22 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia was the first thought. But there were still pieces not fitting the puzzle.
Soon after, the first two bodies were found. Two men, dressed in their underclothes, were found on the edge of the forest, where they had frozen to death. Apparently, they managed to light a small fire, but that didn’t help them survive the night.
Another three bodies, that of Dyatlov, one man, and one woman, were found somewhere between the first two bodies and the tent. They looked if they were trying to return to the camp, perhaps believing that the danger had passed. The accounts left a confusing impression, but the authorities determined that all five hikers had died of hypothermia.
What really baffled everyone was how did a group of relatively experienced mountain climbers manage to succumb to hypothermia and what was it that drove them out of the tent? What about the other four? Did they perhaps survive somehow?
The last question was answered two months later, in May, when the snow began to melt. The bodies of the remaining four hikers, which included three men and one woman, were found with heavy physical injuries, which turned out to be the cause of death. They were much better dressed than the bodies found earlier. The investigation concluded that they must have been outside when the mysterious attacker appeared.
The autopsy found traces of radiation on some clothes worn by the victims. The radiation level was twice the normal level, but the authorities refused to comment on this discovery.
Despite all the unanswered questions, the investigation was closed in May 1959. “A spontaneous force which the hikers were unable to overcome” was the official conclusion. The area was off limits for the next three years, and the Dyatlov case was labeled confidential.
The case was revisited in 1993, when an avalanche of conspiracy theories broke out, each claiming some supernatural or highly unorthodox scenario. Given that no one had really been able to provide a proper explanation of the event that included nine mysterious deaths, a top secret label, and an abnormal level of radioactivity, this came as no surprise.
Today there are numerous websites, articles, books, feature films, and documentaries about the Dyatlov Pass incident, but no substantial evidence for any of the claims. The theories revolve around secret government experiments, aliens landing on the Ural, U.S. secret service covering their tracks (not particularly well if that was the case!), etc. One theory even suggests that they fell victims to the Russian equivalent of a Yeti, called Menk.
The government suggested theories such as an attack by a wild bear, an avalanche, or that they were assaulted by local Mansi raiders, but they too failed to provide enough evidence to support their explanations. Perhaps we will never know what happened that night, but that doesn’t stop us from guessing.