Have you heard of the Dyatlov Pass incident of 1959? There was a group of nine skiers/hikers that mysteriously died in Russia’s Ural Mountains. Sure, an investigation was undertaken, but a full picture of their last moments was never fully pieced together. And, with such an ambiguous event, the theories and conspiracies started piling on.
Some believe that the group was attacked by an “unknown force.” Others chalk it up to animal attacks, hypothermia, avalanches, insanely strong winds, panic, or military involvement. So what’s the prevailing theory? And what’s this new evidence being discovered?
The “Dyatlov Pass incident,” named after Igor Dyatlov, one of the students on the trek, has become Russia’s biggest unsolved mystery. And, with mystery, comes endless conspiracy theories. Aliens, government agents, and “Arctic dwarves” are some of the more sensational theories.
Even abominable snowmen have been blamed for the deaths of the skiers. In fact, Russia has a state-owned TV show featuring self-appointed experts being put through a lie-detector test to check out their outlandish explanations of the notorious event.
Based on the diary of Dyatlov’s group, some information was salvaged, and it became essential in the case. But the diary cut off on February 1, 1959. The rest was up to authorities and conspiracy theorists to decipher.
Over 60 years ago, a band of skiers trekking through the Ural Mountains in Russia stashed food, skis, and a mandolin in a valley. They were planning to pick the items up on the way back from their snow expedition.
In a more lighthearted moment on their trip, one of the hikers came up with a fake newspaper headline about their trip: “According to the latest information, abominable snowmen live in the northern Urals.” The group laughed.
With their excess equipment stored away, the group started moving toward the slope of Peak 1079, which was known among the area’s indigenous people as “Dead Mountain.”
A popular photograph of the skiers showed them disappearing into a blizzard. But, later that night, for some reason, the nine experienced hikers left their tents half-dressed and trekked to their deaths in a snowstorm.
Ultimately, some of their bodies were found. One had broken bones; one was missing her tongue. For years, few people outside of the group’s friends and family were even aware of the event. Maybe because it was gruesome and downright frightening.
The incident only became known to the public in 1990, about 30 years after the event, when a retired official’s account fueled a curiosity that soon blew out of proportion.
As recently as a year ago, the Russian prosecutor general’s office announced that they were launching a new inquiry into the hikers’ deaths. Apparently, it was an effort to stop what they called the “growth of rumors” and to “establish the truth.”
Investigators went to the same area in the Ural Mountains to reenact parts of the incident. But the likelihood that the Dyatlov Pass incident will get any real closure is slim. Even a definitive judgment is unlikely to crush conspiracy theories, which, in Russia, are a part of daily life.
“It’s our Soviet mystery that we want to solve,” Natalya Barsegova said. She has been publishing articles on the case since 2012. “Every person who starts researching it thinks he’s the one who can solve it, but the deeper he goes, the more the swamp sucks him in.”
In Russia, conspiracy-mongering is mainstream. In fact, 57 percent of the population believes that the Apollo moon landings were a hoax. Many believe the government was, and still is, a culprit in a lot of events in their history.
Columnist Oleg Kashin argues that, to this day, people believe something “was hidden behind the black-and-white photographs” of the Dyatlov Pass incident. So here’s what we know…
So what do we know so far? Well, the nine skiers were all college students and consisted of both men and women. They had set out from Yekaterinburg in January 1959, singing songs on an overnight train.
Their plan was to ski about 200 miles over 16 days. They wanted to summit several peaks along the way, too, which would give them enough time to be back for the spring semester.
After hitching a ride with some lumberjacks and following a sleigh driver up north, the group skied their way out of an abandoned village on January 28. They eventually made their way to their final campsite on February 1 – the day their diaries stopped being written in.
Searchers later found the skiers’ tracks along a frozen river. When the search party reached “Dead Mountain,” they stumbled across a collapsed tent on a steep slope.
Inside the tent were food supplies and clothing that was laid out, as if the group was about to cook dinner. There were also nine pairs of boots sitting along one wall of the tent. Strangely, the tent looked like it had been slashed open… from within.
In the forest below the steep slope, investigators came across two bodies under a tree, lying next to what was a fire. Despite the temperature being below 40 degrees Fahrenheit on the night the group disappeared, the two bodies were found wearing nothing but underwear.
Fragments of human skin found on the tree revealed that the two people broke off branches. The bodies of Igor Dyatlov and two others were found several hundred feet away, also without shoes and coats.
Only when the snow started thawing two months later were the remaining four corpses found. Two of them had broken ribs, and one corpse’s skull was partially crushed. The search, carried out in the spring of 1959, left many unanswered questions, as you can imagine.
Why did they flee the tent in the harsh wind and snow? What caused their brutal injuries? And why did an analysis find higher levels of radioactivity on two of the victims’ clothing? The official investigators were baffled.
Despite the baffling questions, the authorities concluded that there was no foul play – that the students died from an “elemental force that the tourists were not able to overcome.” Yeah, pretty vague if you ask me.
The case was ultimately closed, and the findings were listed and archived as “secret.” This was, in fact, a routine procedure in the Soviet Union at the time. Local journalists were barred from filing a report on the incident.
And so, for decades, the only publication related to the mysterious event was a novel by one of the researchers (with an, albeit, happier ending involving a rescue). But then came the fall of the Soviet Union…
With the fall of the Soviet Union came the lifting of the Iron Curtain and its silence over such a traumatic past. Stalin’s repressions were finally revealed to the public. The people of Russia, impoverished by the financial collapse and shocked to discover that much of what they learned since childhood was a lie, were emotionally lost.
As a result, faith healing, cults, and pyramid schemes were on a major rise. It was perfect timing for the seed of the Dyatlov Pass mystery to be planted.
In January 1990, a former head of the Communist Party near the Dyatlov Pass wrote a response to a particular newspaper article about an alleged UFO sighting in the area. In his response, he described what he thought had happened to the skiers.
He claimed that the holes in their tent were from falling debris from a rocket test. The newspaper later published another story. In it, Lev Ivanov, the lead investigator in the 1959 Dyatlov inquiry, said the students were killed by a UFO.
The article repeated popular rumors that the group was killed by indigenous people or from radiation resulting from a nearby weapons test. Several months later, Ivanov wrote an article for another newspaper, attributing the students’ injuries to a “heat ray or a strong energy that is completely unknown to us.”
With UFOs, top-secret documents, and hints of a government cover-up, these articles were basically a conspiracy-theory starter kit. By the late 2000s, the term “Dyatlophrenia” made it to national headlines and TV.
A growing web of theories has since emerged, with even more wacky ideas, involving poisoned alcohol, descendants of ancient “Aryans,” and fantastical weapons like a “vacuum bomb.”
And the fact that the deputy engineer of Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant had the same last name as Igor Dyatlov raised more eyebrows. Some theories hold that the group of skiers included a KGB or CIA agent.
Even those who were closely involved in the tragedy blamed the deaths on some evil plot. A man named Yuri Yudin, a student who briefly joined the group before heading back due to an illness, had something to say about it all.
Yudin said, before his death, that he believed his comrades “saw something they shouldn’t have seen” and were essentially forced – at gunpoint – to make up a scene to confuse future investigators and were then left to die.
Another man named Yuri Kuntsevich went to the students’ funerals as a kid and became an oft-quoted researcher and also head of the Dyatlov Memorial Fund. Instead of providing any clarity, he argued that the students were asked by a Western agent called “the Mole” to take photos of a secret missile test.
After doing so, the group was then murdered by drunken convicts guarding the pass. “Then they moved the tent 1.5 kilometers to an impractical place. That was done by a mop-up team [of soldiers]; they had several helicopters,” Kuntsevich said bluntly.
Igor Dyatlov’s sister, Tatyana Perminova, said she had heard all kinds of theories but was only able to repeat what her parents told her at the time of her brother’s disappearance and death.
“They were sure,” she said, “that the military was somehow involved.” Aside from all the Russian theories, there was also an American researcher named Donnie Eichar, who found some new information.
Eichar, with the help of some Russian scientists, suggests that severe winds blowing over the mountain created a “Kármán vortex street” of whirlwinds. It produced a low-frequency sound that isn’t so audible but vibrates the tiny hair cells in the ear.
It causes nausea and intense psychological discomfort, not to mention they were also in pitch-black darkness. According to Eichar, the students might have been overwhelmed by feelings of fear and panic.
With the latest inquiry, the Russian prosecutor general ruled out any “criminal” explanations. He said the investigation was focusing on three natural causes: an avalanche, a snow slab, or a hurricane.
But this official announcement has done little to keep the rumors from pouring in. New theories, to this day, are emerging on websites and TV shows. The rumor machine just keeps on pushing.
Meanwhile, Kuntsevich and relatives of the Dyatlov group, are angry at the prosecutors’ refusal to consider non-natural causes. They filed a complaint, asking investigators to open a criminal case.
That’s the problem with conspiracy theories in Russia (and elsewhere): even if a valid explanation is found, many still don’t believe it. The mystery of the Dyatlov Pass may one day be solved, but will it ever truly be put to rest? Probably not.
For many, the “natural causes” explanation was far from satisfactory for anyone following the case. After all, it failed to explain why the hikers rushed out into the freezing cold, wearing nothing but underwear.
Not to mention that they weren’t even wearing shoes. It also didn’t address why several members of the group suffered broken bones and skulls. According to the prosecutor’s office, more than 75 theories have been put forward.
One theory suggests that the students were killed by members of the Mansi people, a group for whom the mountains are spiritually symbolic. But, for many followers, blaming the Mansi people was really just the authorities using them as a scapegoat.
In the end, the new inquiry only investigated three theories listed above, which were considered the “most likely ones.”
“All of them are somehow connected with natural phenomena,” Alexander Kurennoi, the official representative of Russia’s Prosecutor General, stated.
“Crime is out of the question… There is not a single proof, even an indirect one, to favor this (criminal) version. It was either an avalanche, a snow slab, or a hurricane.” Reportedly, investigators were relying on the help of “friends and family of the deceased” and modern technology that wasn’t available at the time.
Petr Bartolomey, a friend of Igor Dyatlov, said: “A year prior (to the incident), we went to the Subpolar Urals in an expedition, where the conditions were much more difficult than his last venture.”
“I have always characterized him as a wonderfully knowledgeable person, an athlete, always well-prepared… One could always rely on him,” Bartolomey said of his deceased friend.
Bartolomey said the same for the rest of the group, too. “I can say the same for the rest of the guys, although we did not go on as many expedition(s) as with Igor. I am glad that, after many years, a high-level investigation is being undertaken to understand what exactly happened.”
A company called Ruptly has reimagined the famous Dyatlov expedition, stitching together the exclusive footage of the area with interviews with the experts and materials from the case, such as archival documents and photographs.
Based on the diary of Dyatlov’s group, the digital experience weaves the interviews into a digestible narrative to highlight how the story took on a rather mythical status. It visits the travelers’ tent and the locations where the bodies were found.
The aim of Ruptly’s project is to draw attention to the investigation, to provide a little more clarity about the tragedy, and to attempt to write the closing chapter on this mystery.