At the end of January 1959, eight men and two women set off on an expedition that would end in a way no one could have imagined.
The setting: the Ural Mountains, a natural border between Europe and Asia. Igor Dyatlov, only 23 years old, was the leader of a group of students from the Ural Polytechnic Institute in Yekaterinburg whose aim was to explore Mount Otorten in the north of the mountain range.
Although the weather was bad, they were experienced hikers. On 27 January, they arrived at Vizhai, the last town, before setting out on foot towards the mountains. For Yudi Yudin, who was 21, the adventure ended there. Dysentery stopped him from going any further.
On 2 February, after having taken the wrong route, the group of nine set up camp on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl (“Mountain of the Dead” in the local language). Dyatlov decided to camp here because it was getting dark and he did not want the group to lose its way descending the slope trying to find a safer place to set up camp.
From this point onwards, nothing has a rational explanation.
FLEEING BAREFOOT: THE FIRST BODIES
On 20 February, a search party was formed due the growing alarm at the lack of news from the group. The camp was found on 26 February. And with it, the first mystery.
The tents had been ripped open from the inside. And there were footprints from the tents going downhill. But they were the footprints of bare feet or feet wearing just socks if anything. All the group’s belongings were inside the tents.
The footprints led towards a nearby forest. The first two bodies were found at the foot of a pine try, in their underwear and lying face down, covered by snow and next to a camp fire. Their hands were raw. In vain, they had tried to climb the giant tree. Who or what were they trying to protect themselves from?
Another three bodies, one of them Dyatlov’s, were found nearby. They didn’t have any injuries but their positions showed that they were trying to return to the camp. What were they fleeing from?
And where were the other four?
MUTILATED AND BROKEN INSIDE: MORE BODIES
It took two months to find them. But their discovery only added to the unease. Completely covered by snow, they were dressed… in the clothes of the first bodies found.
They had fractured skulls, broken ribs and, one of the girls, Ludmila Dubinina, had had her tongue and eyes removed. Apart from this there were no external signs of violence.
The autopsies of the first bodies had suggested death from hypothermia at -30º. But what about the four new bodies? The pathologist compared their internal injuries to injuries caused by a high-speed car crash, therefore ruling out an attack by other humans.
Their clothes contained traces of radioactivity. The relatives reported that their skin was a strange brown colour. To add one final mystery to the case, a group of mountaineers just 50 km from the camp reported that they had seen strange lights in the sky on those days.
The finding of scrap metal in the area and the radioactivity of the victims’ clothes gave rise to the hypothesis that the Soviet Army was testing a nuclear weapon in the area. The case was closed and shrouded in secrecy under the premise that there was no motive or guilty party for the deaths.
FROM HYPOTHERMIA TO EXTRATERRESTRIAL THEORIES
The police official who led the investigation, Lev Ivanov, admitted decades later that he had no rational explanation for the incident that occurred at what has been known since then as Dyatlov’s Pass, in honour of the guide.
While the Dyatlov Foundation is pressuring the Russian government to reopen the investigations, numerous hypothesis have been put forward to explain what happened.
The explanation of death from hypothermia is based – don’t forget that the bodies were half-naked – on the phenomenon of paradoxical undressing.
When blood stops flowing to the muscles, the muscles relax. When the blood vessels dilate, warm blood flows to the extremities where it hasn’t been able to reach until this moment. As a result, the person with hypothermia experiences a sudden increase in temperature leading some to undress.
An avalanche hitting the mountainside camp has also been put forward as a cause. However, there was no meteorological evidence of an avalanche and even the first bodies were not buried under more than a thin covering of snow. Experts agree that the area was not at risk of an avalanche and that the experienced Dyatlov would not have set up a camp if there was such a danger.
On the other hand, the lights seen by witnesses and the severe internal injuries to the bodies have fuelled extraterrestrial theories. The radioactivity, as we have seen, forms the basis for the possibility of a secret army testing ground, but it would not explain why the victims were naked or the internal injuries.
Of course, there has not been a shortage of people wanting to attribute the events to the brutal action of a Soviet yeti or the devastating effects of panic generated by an infrasound created by the wind in this mountainous region.
The last photo found on Dyatlov’s camera does not help clarify matters.
As a shameful reminder, Dyatlov’s pass has had to relive its dark past with the discovery of a body by some tourists this weekend.
What happened there in the Urals? Almost 57 years later we still don’t know. There were no survivors. Just like the 9 young men and women were unable to escape death, the rest of the world has been unable to unlock the mystery of what happened to them.
Yuri Yudin, the young man who left the expedition due to dysentery that saved his life, died just three years ago without forgetting the incident.
Just before he passed away, he made his wishes clear: “If I could ask God one question, it would be ‘what really happened to my friends that night?’”
“A black and white mystery of death and horror”