Dyatlov Pass Explained: How Science Could Solve Russia's Most Terrifying Unsolved Mystery

By Anthony Smith on August 1, 2012 5:48 PM EDT

Dyatlov
Yuri Yudin, the only survivor of the Dyatlov's Pass Incident, is hugged farewell by his companion. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Just as the bitter Russian winter of 1959 was about to break, ten hikers adventuring through the northern Ural Mountains began their journey into the eastern shoulder of Kholat Syakhl, or Mountain of the Dead. One member of the expedition, Yuri Yefimovich Yudin, suddenly became ill and was forced to head back for some well-needed rest and relaxation. He would be the only member of his expedition to make it out of those mountains alive.

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Upon Yudin's sudden and unexpected departure from the group, the leader of his group, a young man named Igor Dyatlov, made an arrangement with his sick friend: Dyatlov would send missive to their sports club as soon as the group had returned from its journey. Dyatlov estimated that such a return would happen by February 12, 1959 at the absolute latest. However, since considerable delays were common in such expeditions, Yudin didn't see fit to worry when that date came and his friends were nowhere to be found. It was the relatives of the nine missing hikers that demanded a rescue operation. But even then, they were already too late.

It would take Soviet investigators months and months to dig up the nine bodies of the hikers who perished in the Dyatlov Pass Incident. The mysterious circumstances under which the perished adventurers were found lead those officials to rule that the deaths of the nine hikers, most of them students or alumni of Ural Polytechnical Institute, had been caused by "a compelling unknown force." They would rope the area off from other hikers for up to three more years in order to prevent said force from claiming more Russian lives. 

What could have lead Soviet officials to throw their hands up in the air and rule the adventurers' tragic deaths to be outside the confines of the modern world? Though the chronology of the Dyatlov Pass Incident is hard to parse, this much is certain: something compelled the hikers to tear their tent open from within and run into the Russian blizzard, thirty degrees below zero, completely barefoot.

If the idea of something causing individuals to tear their tent open from the inside in sub-zero weather isn't bone-chilling enough for you, two of the hikers were found with major skull damage, and another two were found with major rib fractures. Dr. Boris Vozrozhdenny, in charge of examining the bodies, had ruled that the force necessary to cause such damage to their bones had to be extremely high, comparing it to the intense impact of a car crash. At first it was suspected that some of the indigenous Mansi people might have attacked the group for encroaching onto their lands, but there was no evidence of any kind of struggle. None of the bodies had any external signs of trauma. The closest that came to a visible wound was the case of Ludmila Dubinina, who was found without her tongue.

As if this weren't mystery enough, it was reported that all of the hikers' clothing, once found and tested, was concluded to be highly radioactive. On top of that, another group of hikers who were adventuring around 50 kilometers south of Dyatlov's journey, reportedly saw "strange orange spheres" in the night sky coming from Kholat Syakhl. The Soviet inquest into the disappearance and circumstances surrounding the deaths of the hikers came to its official close in May of 1959, its files locked away in a secret archive. Photocopies of the case files only became available as recently as the 1990s, and even then, many of the parts of the investigation are missing.

The question, here, is an obvious one: what the heck happened to nine Russian hikers in February of 1959?

Before you point to crazy Russian supernatural weapons testing, or aliens, or monsters, let's use an Occam's Razor on the strange facts to do a bit of scientific speculation. The missing tongue terrifies me the most, and it's one of the more simple of the occurrences to explain: scavenging. There were, ostensibly, months between the hikers' deaths and the investigation that found them. A hungry animal probably came and tore the tongue right out of the dead hiker's mouth, especially since tongues tend to smell like the food that was just on them. That may turn your stomach, but it's not an uncommon occurance.

As far as the trauma and the destroyed tent goes, well, that points to an avalanche. It's the only thing in the mountains that could deliver the impact necessary to sustain the injuries which the hikers received while still showing no signs of a struggle. In other words, an avalanche is nature's car crash.

I know what you're thinking: that doesn't explain the fact that they were undressed, barefoot, and had torn their tent open from the inside. Sure, an avalanche may not provide an immediate explanation, but hypothermia would. In fact, twenty to fifty percent of hypothermia deaths are caused by something known as paradoxical undressing, a phenomenon which occurs in cases of moderate to severe hypothermia. As the body becomes afflicted, the hypothalamus starts to malfunction from the cold, and the person becomes disoriented and takes off hir clothes. It's called paradoxical because, naturally, nakedness in sub-zero temperatures increases the rate of heat loss.

Lastly, we have the orange lights in the sky, and the radioactivity on the hikers' clothes. Unfortunately for the spook-chaser in all of us, those details weren't in the initial inquest. They're just the trappings of how a tragic accident became a tall tale.

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