The Dyatlov Pass Incident, a mysterious event that claimed the lives of nine Russian hikers in 1959 that remains unexplained to this day.
Using legit research materials from both English and Russian sources, in the first part, we tell the full story of the incident, from the events leading up to the fateful night on the slopes of the mountain of the dead to the autopsy reports months later.
Primary Russian source material – Really a one stop shop when you want to look deeply at the Dyatlov case.
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In 1959, a group of 9 experienced Russian ski hikers trekking through the Ural Mountains were the victims of an unexplained disaster that left no survivors. Eerily, the area of the incident was called Kolat-Syakhl, or in English, The mountain of the dead. To this day there is still no concrete explanation for what happened to the party, however, theories range from an avalanche to secret military testing, from UFOs to an animal attack and things stranger still. Though sensationalised over the years to bolster certain claims, the story at its core still remains a mystery. Here we tell the story, as it happened, of what has become known as the Dyatlov Pass incident. This is dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
In 1959, Soviet Russia was a vast, sprawling landscape, from the city of Moscow to the snow-capped mountains of Siberia. Many people were interested in exploring the wilderness, for sport and adventure. Known as ski tourism, trekking on skis through challenging terrain was a popular past time amongst many young people. A group of hikers, formed of students and graduates of Ural Polytechnical Institute, were planning one such trip in January of 1959. The groups’ main goal was to reach the mountain of Ortorten, amongst the Ural Mountains on the Siberian border. Although the mountains were a gentle climb, the weather would average -15 degrees C and the planned trail was described as category 3, the most difficult to traverse, demanding a very high level of fitness. All members of the group were well experienced and qualified to take on the route, however, and the atmosphere as they stepped onto the train that would take them North from Sverdlosk was relaxed and easy going, prepared for the adventure ahead.
The trekking group was 10 strong, 8 men and 2 women. All but one of them were students or graduates of Ural Polytechnical Institute.
Igor Dyatlov was the leader of the group, he was 23 years old, a radio enthusiast and studying engineering. A keen inventor, he had built a radio and portable stove for hikers and carried the stove on the trip. He was reportedly dating Zinaida Kolmogorova, another student on the expedition.
Alexander Kolevatov was 24 years old and a student of nuclear physics. He had transferred to Ural Polytechnical Institute in his second year from the All Union Polytechnical Insitute. Prior to joining Ural Polytechnical Institute, he had worked for a secret soviet institute whose purpose was to supervise the Soviet nuclear industry.
Alexander Zolotaryov was the only member not affiliated with the university. He was 38 years old, a hiking instructor and WW2 veteran. He joined the team in order to add points to his degree, allowing him to gain the rank of Master instructor.
Yuri Krivonishchenko was 23 years old. He was a construction and hydraulics student and the joker of the group. He played the mandolin and took it on many hikes, including this one.
Lyudmila Dubinina was 20 years old. She was the youngest of the group, a dedicated communist studying economics. On a previous hike, she had been accidentally shot by a fellow hiker who was cleaning his gun.
Nikolay Thibault-Brignoles was 23 years old. He was a graduate of Ural Polytechnical Institute, where he had studied civil construction. The son of a French communist, he was born in a concentration camp for political prisoners. He was often noted to be taking care of other hikers on previous trips and had promised his parents that this would be his last expedition.
Rustem Slobodin was 23 years old and another graduate, he was born in Moscow to an affluent family and had studied Mechanical Engineering.
Yuri Doroshenko was 21 years old. He was a radio engineering student. He had gained infamy around the university for having charged down a giant bear with nothing but a geologists hammer on a previous camping trip. He was previously in a relationship with Zinaida Kolmogorova, who was now dating Igor Dyatlov, though kept good relationships with both.
Zinaida Kolmogorova was 22 years old. She was a radio engineering student. She was outgoing and lively, well-liked around the school. On a previous trip, she had been bitten by a viper but continued regardless.
Yuri Yudin was 21 years old, he was an economics student and suffered from rheumatism. An infliction he would become thankful for, as we shall soon see.
23rd-31st January 1959 – Into the wild
On the 23rd January, the group left Sverdlosk and travelled some 200 miles North by train to the city of Ivdel, arriving at midnight on the 25th January. They stayed the night before then travelling by truck, further north, to the Northern frontier town of Vizhal, where they arrived at 4:30 pm and again stayed the night and prepared to begin their trek towards Ortorten the next day, the 27th January. Before leaving, Igor Dyatlov agreed with the sports club that the group would send a telegram confirming their safe return to Vizhal no later than February 12th. They borrowed horses for the first leg of the trek that would take them to an abandoned geologists village. They stayed the night in the abandoned village, however, Yuri Yudin fell ill and after collecting a few minerals for the university the next morning, he left the group and returned to Vizhal. This turn of events makes Yuri Yudin the only surviving member of the expedition. The group is now 9, 7 men and 2 women.
The group continued to travel along the river until the 31st January, the cold weather dropped to -24 degrees C at night and they estimated their travel time to be around 1 mile per hour. On the 31st of January, they left the river and made for the base of the Kolat-Syakhl mountain, the local indigenous tribe called Mansi named the mountain, its meaning in English can be translated as Mountain of the dead. In a diary that the group was collectively keeping, the final entry is written.
“Wind is not strong, snow cover is 1,22 m. Tired and exhausted we started the preparations for the night. Not enough firewood. Frail damp firs. We started fire with logs, too tired to dig a fire pit. We had supper right in the tent. It’s warm. It is hard to imagine such a comfort somewhere on the ridge, with a piercing wind, hundreds of kilometers away from human settlements.”
The group left the camp base late on the 1st February, leaving some of their gear behind on a raised platform that they could collect on their return trip. They walked just 2 and a half miles before setting up camp on the slopes of Kolat-Syakhl, just 10 miles from their destination of Ortorten. Around 6 or 7pm they ate dinner. Tired but in good spirits, they prepared to sleep for the night. They were not to be seen alive again.
As the days passed, the 12th of February came and went. Despite Igor Dyatlovs promise to telegram the school no later than the 12th, deadlines for returns were frequently missed on such trips and so no one had any reason for undue concern. There had been reports of heavy snowstorms around the area they were known to be trekking, and most assumed the group had taken shelter for several days, delaying their trip. Dyatlov himself had told Yuri Yudin before he left the group to return to Vizhal that he expected the return to be later than the 12th. And so it was that no one paid much mind to the groups silence until the 20th February, when members of the expeditions family insisted to the local head of the communist party that they needed to send out a search team. The first groups sent out were student and teacher volunteers lead by the head of the military department of the ural polytechincal institute, Colonel Georgy Semenovich Ortyukov. They had little luck on their own and the military became involved with the search a few days later. On the 25th February, a ski trail was finally found and presumed to be that of Dyatlovs group.
They followed up the ski trail and the next day, the 26th February, the search and rescue crews discovered the tents of Dyatlovs group on the slopes of Kolat-Syakhl. The tents were found ripped and torn, with gaping holes in their sides. Upon investigation, they concluded that the tents had been cut open from the inside. The tents contained all of the groups belongings, including money, clothing and boots. They found footprints leading away from the tents that seemed to show people walking barefoot in a calm and orderly manner. Outside of the tent they found a pair of skis sticking out of the snow, an ice pick and Igor Dyatlovs jacket. They also found Dyatlovs flashlight and upon turning it on, found that it was in working condition. The following day, the 27th February, search & rescue teams followed the barefoot trails leading down the mountainside towards the edge of a forested area and found the remains of a small fire below a large cedar tree. The trees branches were all torn off upwards of 15 feet from the ground. Later forensic investigation of the tree found traces of skin embedded in the tree bark. Near to the fire, they found the two bodies of Yuri Doroshenko and Yuri Krivonischenko. Both had no footwear, Doroshenko was wearing a short sleeved shirt and shorts, along with socks on both feet, whilst Krivonishenko was found wearing a long sleeved shirt, underwear and only one sock on his left foot. Soon after the search team discovered three more bodies between the cedar and the tent, those of Igor Dyatlov, Zinaida Kolmogorova and Rustem Slobodin. Dyatlov was found dressed, but without shoes, wearing one woolen sock and one cotton sock, his fists were clenched in front of his chest. Zinaida was better dressed, wearing several sweaters and three pairs of socks, though again, had no footwear and Rustem Slobodin, also better dressed wore several layers of clothing and one felt boot on his right foot. It was to be several months before the rest of the bodies were found, once the thaw had set in and the snow began to melt.
Once the snow had melted, the search and rescue team finally uncovered the lost 4 bodies from the Dyatlov expedition. They were found under four metres of snow, in a ravine 75 metres further into the woods from the cedar tree. Alexander Zolotaryov, Nikolay Thibeaux-Brignolles, Alexander Kolevatov and Ludmila Dubinina bodies were all well dressed and found in an improvised, man made shelter. Alexander Zolotaryov was found wearing a hat, scarf, several layers of clothing as well as leather hand made shoes. He had a pen in one hand and a notepad in the other. Curiously, he had a camera under his clothing. Though the film was water damaged, it was his second camera and Yuri Yedin later mentioned that no one seemed to have any knowledge of the cameras existence on the trip. Nikolai Thibeaux-Brignolles wore a hat,scarf, several layers of clothing and felt shoes. Alexander Kolevatov had no hat or shoes, however he had several pairs of socks and several layers of clothing. Lyudmila Dubinanas was wearing two sweaters, one of which belonged to Krivonischenko, one of the expedition members found dead by the cedar tree. She had apparently improvised footwear by cutting a sweater into halves and wrapped them around her feet, although only the half on her left foot remained.
The investigation into the deaths concluded that they had all died 6-8 hours after their last meal, around 11:30-1:30 am. Had all left the tents of their own accord and no other people had been around the site. There were no survivors, six of the members had died of hypothermia, whilst three had suffered fatal injuries, though they were not inflicted by another human being. Many of the injuries, including all on the hypothermia victims, were reportedly received during ‘agony of death’. The investigation’s conclusions however, did not tell even half of the story.
The autopsy reports of the nine bodies make grim reading. Not simple hypothermia victims, in contrast, many of the bodies had severe wounds and there were many strange details that were not sufficiently commented on during the autopsy reports.
Yuri Doroshenkos underwear was badly ripped. He had livor mortis spots on the back of his neck, which were not consistent with the way in which his body was found. This meant that his body had to have been moved after his death. The hair on the right side of his head was burnt and he had blood on his ears, nose and lips. He had upwards of 10 various bruises and abrasions throughout his body, including shoulders, armpit, arms and legs. His right cheek was covered in a grey foam coming from his open mouth, suggesting a force of some kind upon his chest. Cause of death was listed as Hypothermia.
Yuri Krivonishchenkos body had several bruises and abrasions, along with bruises on his head. He had apparently chewed off part of the back of his right hand. Cause of death was listed as hypothermia.
Igor Dyatlovs body had bruises and abrasions on his face, ankles and knees as well as bruises on the backs of his hand and knuckles. Cause of death was listed as hypothermia.
Zinaida Kologorovas body had several bruises and abrasions on her face, missing skin on the back of her right hand and a 29cm long, bright red bruise on the lumbar region of the right side of her torso.Cause of death was listed as hypothermia.
Rustem Slobodins body had bruises and abrasions on his face, haemorrhages of his temporal muscles on his head, blood from his nose, bruises on the backs of his hands and knuckles and a fracture of the frontal bone fo his skull. Cause of death was listed as hypothermia.
Alexander Zolotaryovs body was found with eyeballs missing, missing soft tissue around his left brow, with bone exposed, an open wound on the right side of his skull and ribs 2,3,4,5 and 6 on the right side were broken. Cause of death was listed as fatal injuries.
Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollels body had multiple skull fractures, centring around the temporal region but extending around his skull and a haemorrhage on his right forearm. Cause of death was listed as fatal injuries.
Alexander Kolevatovs body had a lack of soft tissue around his eyes, with his skull exposed, a broken nose, an open wound behind his left ear, and a deformed neck. Cause of death was listed as hypothermia.
Ludmila Dubininas body had missing soft tissue around the nose, eyes and cheeks, damaged tissue around the left temporal bone, missing eyeballs, broken and flattened nose, missing tongue. Her right side ribs 2,3,4 and 5 were broken and on the left, 2,3,4,5,6 and 7 ribs were all broken. She had a massive haemorrhage in the hearts right atrium. She also had blood in her stomach, suggesting that her tongue was removed whilst she was still alive, though there is evidence that this was also caused by natural phenomena. Cause of death was listed as fatal injuries.
Many of the injuries could be attributed to animals scavenging, however, the presence of blood shows that they would have happened prior to death, not after. The bruises on several of the members back of hands and knuckles are not consistent with falling, whereby you would expect the palms to be injured and the head and rib injuries are often extreme. The doctor who inspected the bodies said that the forces that caused the injuries exceeded that capable of another human and were equal to the effect of a car crash. Many of the doctors reports showed higher than normal levels of radiation on many of the items of clothing. Strange details, such as Dyatlovs jacket being taken off outside of the tent, his flashlight, in working order discarded and cameras that were there going missing, whilst other cameras not known to be there showing up raise questions, aside from the largest question of all, what made the group leave their tent, in the dead of night in such a hurry as to have them all in various states of dress, cutting themselves out through the side of their tents and then would cause all of the injuries? The biggest clues were the rolls of film and diary found at the camp site allowing us to piece together the events leading up to the fateful night, and perhaps, in the case of the rolls of film, giving us clues as to what may have happened to the expedition. The official investigations final conclusion was that “a compelling natural force” had caused the deaths, though for three years after the incident, the pass was closed to tourists. The inquest was wrapped up quietly and all files were sent to an archive, where they were only uncovered 31 years later, in 1990. So what did happen on the mountain of death that night?
One of the most obvious theories is that the pass suffered an avalanche, capturing the victims of the group in its wake. The avalanche caused injuries and panic amongst the victims and with the tents covered in Snow, explains why the tents were cut from the inside. It could also explain why the group retreated away from the tents, perhaps they moved in fear of a second avalanche. However, whilst almost the first logical step when considering the Dyatlov pass incident, an avalanche is not as likely as can be first assumed. The slope that the group camped on was not very steep, nor was it very tall. Modern analysis has shown that the location is not conducive to conditions that would lead to an avalanche. Furthermore, the footprints leading away from the tents suggest that the injuries suffered by the victims happened away from the camp, not in it. There are photos which show items of the group’s gear stuck into the snow which are still standing 4 weeks later when the camp was discovered by the search team, along with the front of the tents. The group was also experienced and would likely have known that fleeing the tents, leaving all their clothing would have been far more dangerous than the threat of a second avalanche. All of this evidence, plus the fact that no snow drifts were noted mean that an avalanche was quite an unlikely culprit.
The local indigenous Mansi tribes form the basis for one theory that was common at the time of the event. There was a Mansi encampment to the northeast of the pass and a Mansi trail led past the Dyatlovs groups camp, just 200 metres away. Many people suggested that the Mansi were well versed in the mountains and would have known how to hunt and then cover their tracks in the mountains. Some claimed that the Mansi would not have taken lightly to people encroaching on to their territory, whilst others claimed that the mountains were a spiritual ground and the group camping on the slope would have caused offence, leading to conflict. Much of this, however, has been put down to the misunderstanding of the Mansi people, the mountain, in fact, was not a spiritual ground at all and the Mansi religion did not hold ground like this sacred in the first place, nor did the Mansi have any problem with people trekking through the mountains. One Mansi testified during the investigation that
“Everyone goes to this mountain: Russian men and women and Mansi. There is no special prohibition to hike the mountain.”
There are other factors that go against this theory, the Mansi actually volunteered and helped in the search and rescue teams. There was a considerable sum of money found amongst the possessions as well as alcohol, which was often used as currency amongst the Mansi and was perhaps even more valuable than the money itself. If it was a Mansi attack, why would they have left such valuables? In fact, the Mansi did not even have any precedent of attacking people. There was one story of a Mansi attacking a Russian woman during the 1930s, but it was akin to that of urban legend and may well be attributed to suspicion of indigenous tribes people by some Russians of the time.
One of the longest standing and often touted theories is that the expedition fell victim to secret military testing of some sort, either rockets, chemical weapons or developmental weaponry that either exploded and caused the injuries from force or could have poisoned them or scared them sufficiently to induce panic. Yuri Yudin himself was commonly a proponent of this theory, who saw evidence amongst the recovered possessions that there were items of clothing that he didn’t think belonged to the group. Foremost were items used to wrap around the feet that were common military issue and he stated none of the team owned them. Many of the items of clothing found were noted to have been tested for radiation, an unusual test to have been made in the first place, however, it was found that they were in fact radiated, showing they had come into contact with some form of radiation. There were rumours that there was a secret military base nearby to the pass and the Soviets had tested rockets in the Northern Ural mountains before. Furthermore, there were reports from geologists staying in Ivdel that on the night of the incident, lights were observed in the sky over the direction of the pass. One fascinating aspect of this theory pertains to the camera found on Alexander Zolotaryovs body. Though the film was water damaged, the images were processed and seem to show what some speculate were lights in the sky. Possibly of planes and possibly of an explosion. Lev Ivanov, the man in charge of the investigation also claimed later on that during the search, they noticed that the tops of many trees had been burnt and that he was forced by the KGB to remove any mention of lights in the sky from the report given by various Mansi witnesses.
This theory, however, doesn’t explain why only some of the members had such forceful injuries. The radiation on the clothing, though present, was later found to be inconsequential and there were no positive results from toxicology testing on the bodies. Further, there is no evidence that shows testing of weapons over the pass, though naturally, this doesn’t discount secret tests that might have taken place.
Following on from the military testing theory, the logical leap for some is that UFOs or aliens could have been the cause. Much of the same evidence for the military testing is sighted as proof, the burnt trees, the reports of lights in the sky, Zolotaryovs photos etc. However, one other piece of information used to bolster the theory comes from testimony of Lev Ivanov, the leader of the investigation. As we heard in the previous theory, he was the man who testified that the tops of the trees had been burnt and that he was forced to remove mentions of light in the sky from the reports. Shortly after the incident, he became unusually fascinated by UFO phenomena. Throughout the 1960s, he made several requests to the KGB archives for information on UFO sightings. This is peculiar in itself, given that this man held a high legal position and at the time, UFO phenomena were regarded as a pseudo-religious interest in an ideologically atheist Soviet Russia. Was it all just one mans leap in curious logic, or was he onto something with this theory, did he know more than others, given his position in the investigation? The obvious flaw with this theory is that is is all speculation, there is, of course, no solid evidence that UFOs or aliens were to blame for the incident, but the testimonies from Ivanov are fascinating.
One of the more bizarre theories involves a Yeti coming across the groups camp and frightening them out of their tents, where it then savaged them. The severity of the injuries and the doctors claim that they could not have been caused by another human are used to bolster this theory. There is perhaps, one other piece of evidence and that is in Frame 17 of the photos taken from Nikolay Thibault-Brignoles camera. The image shows a figure in the background that many have claimed was a yeti stalking the group. In reality, it is likely that it was simply another member of the group. There is no other evidence that any animal attacked them, let alone a yeti, such as prints in the snow or any other animal tracks. This also doesn’t explain why only some of the members had such injuries whilst others closer to the camp were relatively unscathed in comparison.
Theorised by Alexei Ratikin, it is posited that one or more of the team could have been KGB agents looking to meet with CIA agents to deliver samples of radioactive clothing to the spies and take photos of them. This theory suggests that the expedition was cover for their mission, however, the meeting went wrong and fighting ensued. Evidence put forward to bolster the theory is mainly centred around the backgrounds of certain members who had worked in secret Soviet institutes prior to the trip. Alexander Zolotaryov is the main contender for KGB spy, being that he was considerably older than the rest of the group, unknown to them and had a military career as well as a secret Soviet posting prior to the trip. He also had a camera that was found on his body which Yuri Yedin stated was not known to the group. It’s also known that at least one camera that the group was using later went missing. Whilst this all sounds far-fetched, remember that this was the height of the cold war and certainly we now have evidence and concrete proof of much more bizarre events that happened between the KGB and CIA during this era. However, this theory has been roundly debunked by family and friends of members of the expedition, as well as many research groups who flatly deny any evidence to support it.
New research suggests that a rare weather phenomenon may have caused the Expedition members to flee in irrational fear. The general theory goes that in certain circumstances, wind can hit certain elements of terrain creating a series of vortices, known as a Karman Vortex Street. This would create infrasound, vibrations which produce sound below the range of human hearing that is known to create panic, anxiety, difficulties with breathing and nausea. Perhaps its feasible that this panic would have driven the expedition out of their tent and into the cold night. These phenomena are widely reported in similar conditions to those of Dyatlov pass, amongst many other peaks and it has been suggested that the peak of the mountain could have created such vortices, the sound then carrying down through the pass.
The main proponent of this theory was Donnie Eichar, who spent five years researching the incident and came to the conclusion of infrasound causing the event, stating that it is the only logical explanation for the events.
Despite all the theories, we are still left with something of an unexplained mystery. Much can be explained, but we are still left with many unanswered questions. No one theory can wrap up all events that took place and due to lack of any witnesses, it will likely stay that way, barring any great future revelations or undiscovered documents coming to light. Many of the ‘concrete’ theories have sensationalised certain aspects of the evidence that were simply not true and the reality is, that we are left with a genuine unsolved mystery, one which will probably unlikely ever be solved.
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