The snow was six feet deep, and the temperatures 22 degrees below zero when the nine young but highly experienced Russian hikers set up camp. They pitched a single tent on the north slope of Kholat Syakhl, a remote mountain pass in Russia. Although the name of this area simply means ‘lack of game’ to the indiginous Siberian hunters, on February 2, 1959 the name took on its more sinister translation -- Mountain of the Dead; because in the middle of the night, the group was confronted by something so sudden, so shocking, so life-threatening that they ripped their way out of their tent with a knife and fled into the night in sub zero temperatures. Most were wearing only what they had worn to bed. All but two were either barefoot or wearing just socks as they walked nearly a mile downhill in a snowstorm to a forest. None would live to tell what happened that night.
On the surface, the cause of death of all nine hikers seems fairly obvious. When they wandered off into the snow barely dressed in savagely cold temperatures, they surely died from exposure. But there’s far more to the mystery of what really happened that night. Because as you’ll see, tales of strange lights in the sky; the presence of high-level radioactivity; rumors of Russian weapons testing; and brutal, unexplainable injuries to the hikers’ bodies all add up to the Dyatlov Pass incident as being one of the most baffling unexplained mysteries of all time.
The team was led by twenty-three year old Igor Dyatlov, an experienced, physically fit guide who was passionate about climbing expeditions. He was highly respected by the ski-hiking community, and at the time of his last journey he was at the peak of his physical and athletic ability. The other members of the team were:
Yuri Doroshenko (21 years old)
Lyudmila Dubinina(20 years old)
Aleksander Kolevatov (24 years old)
Zinaida Kolmogorova (22 years old)
Yuri Krivonischenko (23 years old)
Rustem Slobodin (23 years old)
Nikolay Thibeaux-Brignolle (23 years old)
Semyon Zolotaryov (38 years old)
Another hiker, 22-year-old Yuri Yudi, was also on the expedition, but he left a day after the hike began due to illness.
The group made their way to their hiking destination, and on January 31 they attempted to ascend Ural mountain by the shortest route, but bad weather forced them to go back to their camp. The following day they got off to a late start ascending the mountain, and once again bad weather got in the way of their climb and they ended up about 550 yards off course. Because of the bad weather, the team was only able to cover about a mile, so they decided to pitched their tent and spend the night on the north-eastern ridge of Kholat Syakhl. They probably chose this spot because it offered them some protection from the wind.
Recovered photos and journal entries show that up to this point, everything about the trip was fine. But some catastrophic event occurred that night that caused the nine to abandon their tent and to flee the campsite barely dressed in total darkness. Exactly what happened that night has been hotly debated for the past sixty years.
To get a better understanding of how odd it is that the group left the tent, it’s important to know what they left behind. When the search team found the tent there were 9 backpacks laying on the floor, 9 blankets, and 9 jackets. To the left of the entrance were piled 7 felt boots and 6 pairs of hiking boots plus 2 pairs of shoes. To the right of the entrance were 3 axes, and various cooking items. There was also a 6 pound piece of pork loin.
Investigators said that everything in the tent seemed orderly except for the pile of shoes at the entrance. They described the shoes as being ‘chaotic’. It’s possible that even though they were frantic to get out of the tent, they attempted to grab shoes before leaving. But either there was no time, or there was not enough light in the tent to see where they were. As a result, some of the team fled wearing just socks, others were barefoot.
There’s another point of interest about the tent. In addition to the large cut that the group used to exit the tent, there were two small horizontal slits cut from the inside. It seems that something caught the hikers’ attention in the middle of the night that they wanted to see without leaving the safety of the tent. But what was it? And what could they possibly see in total darkness during a snowstorm?
Strange lights were reported by other hikers in the area which lead some to believe that the hikers encountered a UFO. Reports of glowing spheres were also observed almost continuously in a nearby village from February to March 1959. Some of the witnesses to these mysterious lights came from the Soviet military and the Russian meteorology service.
If there were bright lights in the sky that night, one can imagine a scenario where the area around the tent lit up so brightly that the hikers wanted to see what it was, so they cut the holes in the tent to have a look. The hikers had at least three cameras with them at the time, and some of the photos that were later developed show strange lights. One photo in particular seems to show the tops of three of the hikers’ heads looking up at a very large, intensely bright object in the night sky. Later, an investigator would come come forward with information that had been purposely taken out of the Soviet report of the investigation. The tops of the trees around the area were found to be burned. In addition, as we will discuss later, radiation plays a big part of the mystery of what happened at Dyatlov Pass.
Those who dismiss the UFO theories may want to consider the Soviet weapons testing theory. There are records of parachute mines being tested by the Russian military in the area around the time the hikers were there. This type of weapon falls slowly from the sky, then explodes just over the ground. If the group heard an explosion in the middle of the night, they may have mistook the sound for an avalanche. But apparently, there were no traces of an explosion or metallic debris anywhere near the campsite. Then again, the investigation was led by the Soviet military, so it’s possible that any such discovery would have been quickly covered up. But even if the group thought they were about to be covered by an avalanche, why would they cut their way out of the tent rather than leave through the entrance? And what was it they perceived as being so dangerous that they would walk nearly a mile in bare feet in the snow.
Some claim that a Russian Bigfoot attacked the tent forcing the group to flee. However, no such footprints were found around the tent. In fact, the only footprints around the tent were the hikers’, which also squelches the theory that the group might have been attacked by a bear or a person. Whatever it was that caused the group to flee the tent in a state of sheer panic remains a mystery to this day.
Everything that happens after the hikers left the tent, we can only speculate about based on the evidence discovered by the search party. Nine pairs of footprints led to a cedar tree nearly a mile away from the tent. Here, the group made a fire out of branches from the cedar they took shelter under.
If we imagine the nine hikers staying together that night rather than scattering as they fled the tent, and based on the way the bodies were ultimately discovered, the following scenario is plausible.
Seeing that the group was in dire straits, group leader Igor Dyatlov may have decided to head back to the tent with Slobodin and Kolmogorova. He probably intended to ski back to the group at the cedar with clothing and supplies from the tent. The three tried to follow their tracks in the snow back to the tent, but soon after they left they must have been nearly blinded by the storm. Having already walked in socks or bare feet nearly a mile through the snow to the cedar, by this time their feet would have been severely frostbitten and would have had no feeling at all. Although some made it closer to the tent than the others, all three died in the attempt.
Back at the cedar tree, the fire begins to burn out. One of the remaining hikers probably suggests that they seek shelter from the wind by making a den in the side of a ravine 50 meters (164 feet) away. Zolotaryov, Dubinina, and Thibeaux-Brignolle leave the cedar tree to make the den while Aleksander Kolevatov stays behind to watch over the fire with Yuri Doroshenko and Yuri Krivonischenko who are poorly dressed, slowly freezing to death, and no longer strong enough to travel. Kolevatov is also waiting for the team who went back to the tent to return with supplies.
Knowing that falling asleep means certain death, Doroshenko and Krivonischenko desperately try to stay awake. One of the men actually bites off a piece of his knuckle in an attempt to remain conscious, but it's no use. The two begin drifting in and out of consciousness from hypothermia and soon after, they die. Kolevatov lies the two men side-by-side. He removes some of their clothing to help keep the remaining hikers warm. Seeing that no one has returned with supplies from the tent, Kolevatov leaves to join Zolotaryov, Dubinina, and Thibeaux-Brignolle who have successfully built a den eight feet under the snow.
But in spite of the warmth of the den, the four die from hypothermia after leaving it and sustaining unexplainable, deadly internal injuries outside. Their bodies were found just a few feet from the den’s entrance. Those who conducted the autopsies said that the injuries were similar to those that a person would sustain by being hit by a car at high speed, or by standing right next to an explosive device. Adding to the mystery is the fact that there were no external injuries corresponding to the fractures, broken bones, and internal bleeding.
As the last hiker takes his last breath and the storm rages on, the mountain becomes eerily quiet. The only sounds are the howling of the wind and the hiss of fast-falling snow. If this was a movie, we could imagine the camera panning away from the two dead men under the cedar tree and traveling several hundred feet up the mountain. There at various distances from the tent we would see the wind driven snow beginning to cover the bodies of the three who attempted to make it back. Panning slowly back down the mountain, our camera would now pick out the den built out of fir tree branches and hard-packed snow. Just a few feet outside of the entrance to the den we see the blowing, drifting snow slowly beginning to cover the four bodies lying there--just a few feet from the warmth and safety of the only place they could have survived.
Back at home, the hikers’ family members begin to worry. Although it is not uncommon for hiking expeditions to run over by several days, too much time had gone by without a word from the team. On February 21 several search parties were sent to the area. These included parties made up of the hikers’ friends. Planes searched the area from the air, and the following day more parties joined the search. Moscow also sent several specialists, and they ultimately ended up running the investigation.
There are many unanswered questions about the incident at Dyatlov Pass, but the most compelling comes from examining the condition of the hikers’ bodies and clothing. Injuries include blunt-force trauma, wounds that look as if some of the hikers were fighting off someone or something, and more than one hiker suffered a skull fracture. But most mysterious of all was the presence of radioactivity on some of the hikers’ clothing.
On February 27, a search party discovered the abandoned tent on the slope of Kholat Syakhl in what is now known as the Dyatlov Pass. They followed the tracks from the tent 1500 yards (4921 feet/0.93 miles) down to the cedar tree and it was here that the search team made their first grisly discovery--the bodies of Yuri Doroshenko and Yuri Krivonischenko.
Doroshenko was found wearing a sleeveless cotton undershirt, a short sleeve shirt with all six buttons fastened, shorts and swimming trunks, and cotton underwear. He was wearing a different set of wool socks on both feet, and these were covered by a pair of lighter socks. He was shoeless. Krivonischenko was wearing an undershirt, a long sleeved shirt, swimming trunks, long underpants, and a torn sock on his left foot. His right foot was bare. The two men were wearing more than this when they first arrived at the cedar, but it was discovered that the other hikers took their clothing after they died in an attempt to stay alive.
The next bodies that were found were those of the three hikers who attempted to go back to the tent--Yuri Dyatlov, Rustem Slobodin, and Zinaida Kolmogorova.
Three hundred meters (984 feet) from the cedar tree, Dyatlov’s body was found lying face up wearing a sleeveless undershirt, long sleeved cotton shirt, and an unbuttoned fur sleeveless vest. He was wearing ski pants over his pants. On his feet he had one cotton sock on one foot, and one woolen sock on the other, but he was shoeless. It was noted in the final report that it was highly unusual for someone who was freezing to death to leave a fur vest unbuttoned.
Rustem Slobodin’s body was found 480 meters (1574 feet) from the cedar tree. He was found face down with his head towards the tent. He was wearing two pairs of pants, four pairs of socks, and he had one felt boot on his right foot. He had on a long sleeved undershirt, a shirt and a sweater.
During the autopsy, something strange was discovered--Slobodin had a fractured skull and severe hemorrhages on both sides of his head. These injuries would not be consistent with Slobodin simply falling on the snow as he tried to make his way back to the tent. The doctor who conducted the autopsy suggested that the fracture could only have been the result of Slobodin being struck with a blunt object. The autopsy further concluded that he probably suffered loss of coordination due to the initial shock right after the blow. This would have surely sped up his death from hypothermia. Who, or what, had inflicted the blow that ultimately lead to Slobodin’s death? And why were there hemorrhages on both sides of his head. It was as if someone or something had come up from behind him and struck him repeatedly with both fists before dealing the final blow with a blunt object.
Zinaida Kolmogorova was found 630 meters (2067 feet) from the cedar tree. She was lying face down with her head towards the tent. She wore two hats, long sleeved undershirt, a sweater, a shirt, and another sweater. She had on two pairs of pants, ski pants, and three pairs of socks. She wore no shoes. Her autopsy revealed a number of injuries to her face and hands, but these were most likely the= result of her struggle to make her way back to the tent. The cause of death was determined to be hypothermia.
The bodies of the hikers who left the cedar tree to make the den were found four months later. In May, the snow started to melt and a Mansi native noticed some cut branches that were forming a rough trail. He followed this trail 50 meters (164 feet) from the cedar and found a pair of black cotton sweatpants, the right leg of which had been cut off with a knife. He also found cedar branches, a young fir tree missing its top, and the left half of a women's wool sweater. The Mansi native had inadvertently discovered the location of the den.
The den is one of the biggest puzzles of the entire Dyatlov Pass incident. The fact that the four hikers were able to build it indicates that they were determined to do anything and everything to survive. And yet, it is still unclear why their attempts didn’t work. The den would have been warm enough to keep the hikers alive for some time, and their bodies were found OUTSIDE of the den, not in it. Autopsies determined that the four hikers who made the den sustained significant, unexplainable internal injuries.
When the search party arrived, they discovered the den under eleven feet of snow. It was made up of a bed of 14 fir tree branches and one birch branch. On top of the branches were some of the hikers’ clothing and other belongings. These included one leg of a pair of ski pants, a thick woolen sweater, a woolen jumper, and a pair of brown pants. Some of the clothing belonged to Krivonischenko and Doroshenko, the two men who died at the cedar tree.
When the search team found the bodies of Kolevatov and Zolotaryov, they were outside of the den, and they were embraced as if Kolevatov was behind Zolotaryov, trying to protect him, or trying to warm him up. Oddly, both men were fairly well dressed. Zolotaryov wore two hats, a scarf, short and long sleeve shirts, a sweater, and a coat. On the lower part of his body he wore underwear, two pairs of pants plus a pair of ski pants, a pair of socks, and a pair of warm leather burka shoes. The den should have been more than sufficiently warm to keep him alive for days.
Kolevatov was without a hat or shoes, but the rest of his body was fairly well insulated. He wore an undershirt, long sleeved shirt, two sweaters and a ski jacket. The jacket was found unbuttoned and unzipped--strange for someone trying to stay warm! On his lower body were shorts, and three pairs of pants. On his feet were three pairs of socks, but no shoes.
When Nikolay Thibeaux-Brignolle’s body was found, it was discovered that he too was well protected from the cold. He wore a fur hat, a woolen hat, a shirt, a sweater, and a fur jacket. Woolen gloves were found in his pocket. Why there weren’t on his hands is a mystery. On the lower part of his body he wore underwear, sweatpants, cotton pants, and ski pants. His feet were protected by woolen socks and a pair of felt boots.
Lyudmila’s body was found wearing long underwear, two pairs of pants, a small hat and three pairs of warm socks, but she was shoeless. She also had on two shirts and two sweaters. One of the two sweaters belonged to Krivonischenko, one of the two men who died under the cedar tree. One of the most baffling things about the sweater she was wearing is that it was found to be highly radioactive. But that was not the only piece of clothing found to be radioactive. Aleksander Kolevatov’s sweater and pants were also found to be radioactive.
The presence of radioactivity on the the two hikers’ clothing is one of the most interesting, and most puzzling parts of the Dyatlov Pass mystery. The radiation levels on the clothing was very high, but the levels had certainly been MUCH higher when the hikers were first contaminated. Why? The bodies of the hikers in the den were found a full four months after they died, and their clothing had essentially been washed by the snow and running water from the time they died until the time the bodies were recovered.
Vladimir Levashov, a professional radiologist who conducted the examination of the clothing found that by rinsing the clothing in cold running water for three hours, the radioactive contamination decreased up to sixty percent. That means that the radioactivity on the clothing had been FAR higher before the bodies were found.
Mr. Levashov concluded that the clothes had either been contaminated by radioactive dust which fell down from the atmosphere, or by direct contact with a radioactive object or substance.
But here’s a question to ask yourself--Why did the Soviet investigators test the bodies for radiation in the first place? To me, this seems like a BIG red flag. It hints that the Soviets knew that some sort of an explosive device had been detonated over the hikers’ tent. This may be what spooked the hikers in the first place, and what caused the group to flee the tent.
But there’s another possible explanation for testing the hikers’ bodies for radiation. Since strange lights were spotted in the area by the Soviets, then they may have tested for radiation in an attempt to find out if the hikers had come in contact with a spacecraft, or if they had been abducted by aliens.
One fascinating aspect of the UFO theory pertains to the camera found on Semyon Zolotaryov’s body. Though the film was water damaged, the images that were processed showed what some believe were lights in the sky. These may have been the mysterious lights reported by others in the area. The man in charge of the Soviet investigation, Lev Ivanov, claimed that during the search, they noticed that the tops of many trees had been burned. He said that he was forced by the KGB to remove any mention of lights in the sky from his report.
The hikers found at the den had suffered tremendous internal injuries. All four had multiple fractures of the ribs. Thibeaux-Brignolle had an extensive, depressed, multi-splintered fractured skull. Such injuries are similar to those caused by the impact of an automobile moving at high speed.
There was hemorrhaging of the heart muscle, some of which was found to have leaked into the pleural cavity. This means that the hikers were alive when they sustained their injuries which doctors said was the result of some strong external force striking the hikers’ bodies. A forensic expert who was interviewed during the investigation said that, “the internal injuries appearing without any damage to the soft tissue of the chest are very similar to the type of trauma that results from the shock wave of a bomb.”
Dubinina died around 20 minutes after the trauma, Zolotaryov probably lived longer. Thibeaux-Brignolle would have been unconscious from his concussion, but he could have lived as long as 3 hours after the initial impact of the still unknown force.
Some theorize that the four hikers at the den were simply crushed by an avalanche which would explain their internal injuries without the presence of tissue damage. But we know that the hikers died a significant time after they received their internal injuries. Two were found embracing one another in an effort to keep warm. Had they been crushed by a significant weight of snow, they would surely have died almost instantly. Furthermore, the autopsy did not indicate that asphyxiation was a factor in any of their deaths. They received significant internal injuries followed by death by hypothermia.
Doctors and forensic experts agree that had the hikers not received the mysterious internal injuries, they most likely would not have died of hypothermia. Their internal injuries were what ultimately lead to their deaths.
After sixty years, the incident at Dyatlov pass remains one of the most baffling mysteries of all time. After all these years, theories continue to crop up about what happened to the nine hikers. These include, but are not limited to: Murder by local natives; Murder by the Soviets; Fighting within the group itself; Infrasound--ultra low frequency sound created by the compacted snow which may have cause the team to panic; The Soviets mistaking the hikers as escaped convicts; Katabalic winds which caused the group to evacuate the tent; An attack in the middle of the night by a vicious wolverine who blocked the tent’s entrance forcing the group to cut their way out; Methanol poisoning, where the hikers accidentally ingested methanol rather than alcohol causing them to flee the tent; An attack by an interdimentional being who left no footprints in the snow; Beings from UFOs who hunted the team down and essentially willed them to died from hypothermia.
Interest in the incident at Dyatlov Pass remains so strong that this year Russia announced that it is reopening the investigation. But like so many unsolved mysteries, you can be sure that the findings will be disputed by many, and that even more theories will emerge based on any new information that is revealed.
What do you think happened at Dyatlov Pass? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.
Excerpt from the book, “The Mystery of the Dyaltov Group”