The Dyatlov Pass Incident generally refers to the mysterious deaths of nine ski hikers in the northern Ural mountains on the night of February 2, 1959. The incident happened on the east shoulder of the mountain Kholat Syakhl (Холат-Сяхыл) (a Mansi name, meaning Dead Mountain due to lack of game, not “Mountain of the Dead” as some suggest). The mountain pass where the incident occurred has since been named Dyatlov Pass (Перевал Дятлова) after the group’s leader, Igor Dyatlov (Игорь Дятлов).
The lack of eyewitnesses has inspired much speculation. Soviet investigators simply determined that “a compelling natural force” had caused the deaths. Access to the area was barred for skiers and other adventurers for three years after the incident. The chronology of the incident remains unclear because of the lack of survivors.
Investigators at the time determined that the hikers tore open their tent from within, departing barefoot into heavy snow and a temperature of −30 °C (−22 °F). Although the corpses showed no signs of struggle, two victims had fractured skulls, two had broken ribs, and one was missing her tongue.
A group was formed for a ski trek across the northern Urals in Sverdlovsk Oblast. The group, led by Igor Dyatlov, consisted of eight men and two women. Most were students or graduates of Ural Polytechnical Institute (Уральский Политехнический Институт, УПИ), now Ural State Technical University:
- Igor Alekseievich Dyatlov (Игорь Алексеевич Дятлов), the group’s leader, born January 13, 1936
- Zinaida Alekseevna Kolmogorova (Зинаида Алексеевна Колмогорова), born January 12, 1937
- Ludmila Alexandrovna Dubinina (Людмила Александровна Дубинина), born May 12, 1938
- Alexander Sergeievich Kolevatov (Александр Сергеевич Колеватов), born November 16, 1934
- Rustem Vladimirovich Slobodin (Рустем Владимирович Слободин), born January 11, 1936
- Yuri (Georgiy) Alexeievich Krivonischenko (Юрий (Георгий) Алексеевич Кривонищенко), born February 7, 1935
- Yuri Nikolaievich Doroshenko (Юрий Николаевич Дорошенко), born January 29, 1938
- Nicolai Vladimirovich Thibeaux-Brignolles (Николай Владимирович Тибо-Бриньоль), born July 5, 1935
- Semyon (Alexander) Alexandrovich Zolotariov (Семен (Александр) Александрович Золотарёв), born February 2, 1921
- Yuri Yefimovich Yudin (Юрий Ефимович Юдин), born July 19, 1937, died April 27, 2013
The goal of the expedition was to reach Otorten (Отортен), a mountain 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) north of the site of the incident. This route, at that season, was estimated as “Category III”, the most difficult. All members were experienced in long ski tours and mountain expeditions.
The group arrived by train at Ivdel (Ивдель), a city at the center of the northern province of Sverdlovsk Oblast on January 25. They then took a truck to Vizhai (Вижай) – the last inhabited settlement so far north. They started their march toward Otorten from Vizhai on January 27. The next day, one of the members (Yuri Yudin) was forced to go back because of illness. The group now consisted of nine people.
Diaries and cameras found around their last camp made it possible to track the group’s route up to the day preceding the incident. On January 31, the group arrived at the edge of a highland area and began to prepare for climbing. In a wooded valley they cached surplus food and equipment that would be used for the trip back. The following day (February 1), the hikers started to move through the pass. It seems they planned to get over the pass and make camp for the next night on the opposite side, but because of worsening weather conditions, snowstorms and decreasing visibility, they lost their direction and deviated west, upward towards the top of Kholat Syakhyl. When they realized their mistake, the group decided to stop and set up camp there on the slope of the mountain rather than moving 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi) downhill to a forested area which would have offered some shelter from the elements. Yuri Yudin, the lone survivor, postulates that “Dyatlov probably did not want to lose the altitude they had gained, or he decided to practice camping on the mountain slope. ”
Search and discovery
It had been agreed beforehand that Dyatlov would send a telegram to their sports club as soon as the group returned to Vizhai (Вижай). It was expected that this would happen no later than February 12, but Dyatlov had told Yudin that he expected to be longer, and so when this date passed and no messages had been received, there was no reaction – delays of a few days were common in such expeditions. Only after the relatives of the travelers demanded a rescue operation did the head of the institute send the first rescue groups, consisting of volunteer students and teachers, on February 20. Later, the army and police forces became involved, with planes and helicopters being ordered to join the rescue operation.
On February 26, the searchers found the abandoned and badly damaged tent on Kholat Syakhl. Mikhail Sharavin, 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. ” Investigators said the tent had been cut open from inside. A chain of eight or nine sets of footprints, left by several people who were wearing socks, a single shoe and barefoot, could be followed and led down toward the edge of nearby woods (on the opposite side of the pass, 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi) north-east), but after 500 metres (1,600 ft) they were covered with snow. At the forest edge, under a large old cedar, the searchers found the remains of a fire, along with the first two bodies, those of Yuri Krivonischenko and Yuri Doroshenko, shoeless and dressed only in their underwear. The branches on the tree were broken up to five meters high, suggesting that a skier had climbed up to look for something, perhaps the camp. Between the cedar and the camp the searchers found three more corpses, Dyatlov, Zina Kolmogorova and Rustem Slobodin, who seemed to have died in poses suggesting that they were attempting to return to the tent. They were found separately at distances of 300, 480 and 630 meters from the 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 75 meters farther into the woods from the cedar tree. These four were better dressed than the others, and there were signs that those who had died first had apparently relinquished their clothes to the others. Zolotaryov was wearing Dubinina’s faux fur coat and hat, while Dubinina’s foot was wrapped in a piece of Krivonishenko’s wool pants.
A legal inquest started immediately after finding the first five bodies. A medical examination found no injuries which might have led to their deaths, and it was concluded that they had all died of hypothermia. Slobodin had a small crack in his skull, but it was not thought to be a fatal wound.
An examination of the four bodies which were found in May changed the picture. Three of them had fatal injuries: the body of Thibeaux-Brignolles had major skull damage, and both Dubinina and Zolotarev had major chest fractures. According to Dr. Boris Vozrozhdenny, the force required to cause such damage would have been extremely high. He compared 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. Dubinina 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.
Although the temperature was very low, around -25 to -30 °C (-13 to -22 °F) with a storm blowing, the dead were only partially dressed. Some of them had only one shoe, while others had no shoes or wore only socks. Some were found wrapped in snips of ripped clothes that seemed to have been cut from those who were already dead. However, up to 25 percent of hypothermia deaths are associated with so-called “Paradoxical undressing”. This typically occurs during moderate to severe hypothermia, as the person becomes disoriented, confused, and combative. They may begin discarding their clothing, which, in turn, increases the rate of heat loss.
Many theories have arisen about the event, from paranormal activity to secret weapons tests (see below), but an avalanche damage is considered one of the more plausible explanations for this incident. One scenario under this theory is that moving snow knocked down the tent, ruining the campsite in the night. The party then cut themselves free and mobilized. The snow would likely have contacted them and possibly ruined their boots and extra clothing. Being covered in wet snow in the sub-freezing temperatures created a serious hazard to survival, with possible exhaustion or unconsciousness from hypothermia possible in under 15 minutes. Thibeaux-Brignolles, Dubinina, Zolotariov, and Kolevatov were moving farther from the site to find help despite their remote location when they fell in the ravine they were found in – three of these bodies had major fractures. Being the only bodies with major injuries and lying 13 feet deep in a ravine could be considered evidence that they fell.
Supporting factors for this theory are that avalanches are not uncommon on any slope that can accumulate snow. Despite claims that the area is not prone to avalanches, slab avalanches do typically occur in new snow and where people are disrupting the snowpack. On the night of the incident, snow was falling, the campsite was situated on a slope, and the campers were disrupting the stability of the snowpack. The tent was also halfway torn down and partially covered with snow – all of which could support the theory of a small avalanche pushing snow into the tent.
Possibly negating the avalanche scenario would be that the investigators saw footprints leading from the campsite, and no obvious avalanche damage was noted. However, the footprints could have been preserved if there was no precipitation in the 25 days before the site was discovered and the supposed avalanche happened after most of the snow fell.
Journalists reporting on the available parts of the inquest files claim that it states:
- Six of the group members died of hypothermia and three of fatal injuries.
- There were no indications of other people nearby apart from the nine travelers on Kholat Syakhl, nor anyone in the surrounding areas.
- The tent had been ripped open from within.
- The victims had died 6 to 8 hours after their last meal.
- Traces from the camp showed that all group members left the camp of their own accord, on foot.
- To dispel the theory of an attack by the indigenous Mansi people, Dr. Boris Vozrozhdenny stated that the fatal injuries of the three bodies could not have been caused by another human being, “because the force of the blows had been too strong and no soft tissue had been damaged”.
- Forensic radiation tests had shown high doses of radioactive contamination on the clothes of a few victims.
- Released documents contained no information about the condition of the skiers’ internal organs.
The final verdict was that the group members all died because of a “compelling natural force“. The inquest ceased officially in May 1959 as a result of the “absence of a guilty party”. The files were sent to a secret archive, and the photocopies of the case became available only in the 1990s, with some parts missing.
Controversy surrounding investigation
Some researchers claim some facts were missed, perhaps ignored, by officials:
- 12-year-old Yury Kuntsevich, who would later become head of the Yekaterinburg-based Dyatlov Foundation (see below), attended five of the hikers’ funerals and recalls their skin had a “deep brown tan“.
- Some of the hikers’ clothing (2 pants and sweater) were found to be highly radioactive.
- Another group of hikers (about 50 kilometers south of the incident) reported that they saw strange orange spheres in the night sky to the north (likely in the direction of Kholat Syakhl) on the night of the incident. Similar “spheres” were observed in Ivdel and adjacent areas continually during the period of February to March 1959, by various independent witnesses (including the meteorology service and the military). These were later proven to be launches of R-7 intercontinental missiles by Eugene Buyanov.
- Some reports suggest that there was a great deal of scrap metal in the area, leading to speculation that the military had utilized the area secretly and might have been engaged in a cover-up.
- The last camp of Dyatlov group was located on direct way from Baikonur Cosmodrome (from where some test launches of intercontinental missile R-7 were executed) to Chyornaya Guba, Novaya Zemlya archipelago (which was a major nuclear testing ground of the Soviet Union).
In 1967, Sverdlovsk writer and journalist Yuri Yarovoi (Юрий Яровой) published the novel Of the highest rank of complexity (Высшей категории трудности) which was inspired by this incident. Yarovoi had been involved in the search for Dyatlov’s group and at the inquest, including acting as an official photographer for the search campaign and in the initial stage of the investigation, and so had insight into the events. The book was written in the Soviet era when the details of the accident were kept secret, and Yarovoi avoided revealing anything beyond the official position and well-known facts. The book romanticized the accident and had a much more optimistic end than the real events – only the group leader was found deceased. Yarovoi’s colleagues say that he had alternative versions of the novel, but both were declined because of censorship. Since Yarovoi’s death in 1980 all his archives, including photos, diaries and manuscripts, have been lost.
Some details of the tragedy became publicly available in 1990 following publications and discussions in Sverdlovsk’s regional press. One of the first authors was Sverdlovsk journalist Anatoly Guschin (Анатолий Гущин). Guschin reported that police officials gave him special permission to study the original files of the inquest and use these materials in his publications. He noticed that a number of pages were excluded from the files, as was a mysterious “envelope” mentioned in the case materials list. At the same time photocopies of some of the case files started to circulate among other unofficial researchers.
Guschin summarized his research in the book The Price of State Secrets Is Nine Lives (Цена гостайны – девять жизней). Some researchers criticized it due to its concentration on the speculative theory of a “Soviet secret weapon experiment”, but the publication aroused the public discussion, stimulated by interest in the paranormal. Indeed, many of those who remained silent for 30 years reported new facts about the accident. One of them was the former police officer Lev Ivanov (Лев Иванов), who led the official inquest in 1959. In 1990 he published an article along with his admission that the investigation team had no rational explanation of the accident. He also reported that he received direct orders from high-ranking regional officials to dismiss the inquest and keep its materials secret after reporting that the team had seen “flying spheres”. Ivanov personally believes in a paranormal explanation – specifically, UFOs.
In 2000, a regional TV company produced the documentary film The Mystery of Dyatlov Pass (Тайна Перевала Дятлова). With the help of the film crew, a Yekaterinburg writer, Anna Matveyeva (Анна Матвеева), published the fiction/documentary novella of the same name. A large part of the book includes broad quotations from the official case, diaries of victims, interviews with searchers and other documentaries collected by the film-makers. The narrative line of the book details the everyday life and thoughts of a modern woman (an alter ego of the author herself) who attempts to resolve the case.
Despite its fictional narrative, Matveyeva’s book remains the largest source of documentary materials ever made available to the public regarding the incident. In addition, the pages of the case files and other documentaries (in photocopies and transcripts) are gradually published on a web forum for enthusiastic researchers.
The Dyatlov Foundation has been founded in Yekaterinburg, with the help of Ural State Technical University, led by Yuri Kuntsevitch (Юрий Кунцевич). The foundation’s aim is to convince current Russian officials to reopen the investigation of the case, and to maintain the “Dyatlov Museum” to perpetuate the memory of the dead hikers.