April 6, 2012

Dyatlov Incident

Igor Dyatlov, Lyudmila Dublinina and Yuri Yudin.
The Dyatlov Incident is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of modern times. Numerous theories have been proposed by forensics experts and armchair investigators alike, but nobody has been able to put forward a satisfying explanation for what happened in the northern Urals 50 years ago.

On 23 January 1959, a group of ten people, most of them students or graduates of the Ural Polytechic Institute, set out on a skiing expedition to the northern Ural mountains. The eight men and two women arrived by train at the town of Ivdel on January 25 and continued by truck to the far northern settlement of Vizhai. From there the group began a trek through the snowy wilderness between them and their destination, the Otorten mountain.

The route was classed as Category III at that time of the year, which meant the highest level of difficulty. However, all members of the party were experienced in cross-country skiing and mountaineering, especially their leader, Igor Dyatlov. There was nothing unusual in their group undertaking such an expedition. The plan was for the skiers to return to Vizhai by 12 February and send a telegram to the Instutute, confirming their safe arrival.

Everything went as planned until 28 January, when Yuri Yudin suddenly became ill and had to turn back, leaving the other nine to go on without him. That was the last time he saw his friends alive.

The skiers setting up their last camp.
The remaining group continued on through the uninhabited lands of the native Mansi people for the following four days. On 1 February, they began climbing the pass to Otorten after setting up a base in a woody valley near the river Auspia. Most likely they intended to make camp for the night on the other side of the pass. However, worsening weather conditions and decreasing visibility caused them to deviate west, and they eventually pitched their tent on the slopes of the mountain Kholat Syakhl.

It is not clear why they chose this spot when they could have found shelter from the harsh elements in a forest just 1.5 kilometers down the mountain. “Dyatlov probably did not want to lose the distance they had covered, or he decided to practice camping on the mountain slope,” speculated Yudin later.

The last diary entries show that the group was in high spirits. They had even produced their own newspaper, a common Soviet way of bonding.

When the telegram failed to arrive on 12 February, no one was overly worried. After all, a few days’ delay was not unusual on such an expedition. But when there was still no word from the students several days later, concerned relatives raised the alarm. On 20 February, the Institute sent out a search party consisting of teachers and students, followed by the planes and helicopters of the police and the army.

The hikers' damaged tent at Dyatlov's Pass.
Rescuers found the abandoned tent on 26 February. It had been cut open from the inside with slashes large enough for a person to fit through, and the group’s belongings were found inside. A set of footprints belonging to nine or eight people was discovered in the meter-deep snow, leading away from the tent. The prints had been left by people who had been wearing only socks, a single shoe, or who were barefoot. No evidence of struggle or the presence of outsiders was found.

The footprints led 500 meters down the slope toward a nearby forest, where they disappeared. At the edge of the woods, under a large pine tree, searchers found two bodies - Yuri Krivonischenko and Yuri Doroshenko, shoeless and dressed only in their underwear - along with the remains of a fire. The branches of the tree were broken up to the height of five meters, suggesting someone had climbed it.

300 meters toward the tent, Dyatlov’s body was found lying on his back, looking in the direction of the camp and clutching a branch. 180 meters further was the body of Rustem Slobodin, and 150 meters from him lay Zina Kolmogorova. All three seemed to have been trying to return to the camp.

A criminal investigation was opened, but authorities failed to find any evidence of foul play. All five were determined to have died of hypothermia, and while Slobodin had a small fracture in his skull, it was not considered fatal.

It was two months later that the remaining four skiers were found.

The bodies of Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel, Ludmila Dubinina, Alexander Zolotaryov and Alexander Kolevatov were found in a ravine 75 meters from the pine tree in the opposite direction from the camp, covered in four meters of snow. Three of them had suffered traumatic deaths - Thibeaux-Brignollel’s skull was crushed and Dubunina and Zolotarev had several broken ribs. Dubunina was also missing her tongue.

Despite the severe injuries, there were no external wounds, and the doctor who examined the bodies said they couldn’t have been caused by another human. Besides, there was no evidence of hand-to-hand struggle. Some of the corpses were wrapped in strips of ripped clothes, apparently taken from the bodies of the first to die.

Initially, the investigators explored the possibility that the Mansi people had killed the skiers in retaliation for trespassing on their lands. Such a thing was not unheard of; in the 1930s, Mansi shamans drowned a female geologist who had climbed a mountain considered forbidden by the tribe. However, the theory fell flat due to a complete lack of evidence. The suggestions that the group might have run into a gang of criminals were also rejected for the same reason.

No explanation for the deaths was ever found. Soviet officials determined that the skiers had died due to an “unknown compelling force”, the investigation was closed and the files were sent to a secret archive. Access to the area was restricted for three years.

The area where the group of nine set up their last camp was officially named Dyatlov’s Pass and the incident became known as the Dyatlov Incident (or the Dyatlov Pass Incident).

For over 30 years, there were no new insights into the incident. The case files were finally declassified in the 1990s. What was found only deepened the mystery.

Tests done on the bodies and the clothes had revealed a high level of radioactivity, as if the group had been in contact with radioactive materials or been in a radioactive area.

Even more strangely, the files contained reports of “bright flying spheres” in the area from multiple eyewitnesses, including the weather service and the military. “I suspected at the time and am almost sure now that these bright flying spheres had a direct connection to the group’s death,” said the chief investigator, Lev Ivanov.

Yury Kuntsevich, who was 12 years old at the time and would later become the head of the Dyatlov Foundation, an organization based in Yekaterinburg attempting to solve the mystery, attended five of the skiers’ funerals. Later he recalled: “I attended the funerals of the first five victims and remember that their faces looked like they had a deep brown tan.”

One of the metal fragments Kuntsevich discovered.
Yuri Yudin believed that his friends had stumbled across a secret military testing site and had either been killed by an experiment gone awry, or been silenced in a cover-up. Kuntsevich agreed. He led an expedition to the area in 2007 and discovered a number of metal fragments, which led him to believe the Soviet military had conducted experiments there at some point. “We can’t say what kind of military technology was tested, but the catastrophe of 1959 was man-made,” he said.

What could have driven nine experienced mountaineers half-dressed to the Siberian winter and the cold death they must have known would await them? It is likely there will never be a definitive answer for what really happened to the group in that remote mountain pass 50 years ago.

There is a Dyatlov Pass movie in the works in which American students return to investigate the incident decades later.

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