Welcome aboard! Today we’re taking a look at the last days of nine Russian hikers, who were camping in the Ural mountains in Siberia. This truly bizarre case, generally referred to as the ‘Dyatlov Pass Incident’, is among the most talked-about and well-researched unexplained events of the last century. I’d like to introduce you to the case (particularly the hikers themselves) and provide some theories, but what I’ll be able to cover in this space is really just the tip of the iceberg. I encourage you to keep digging (once you’ve finished my thoughtful and enticing take on it, of course.)
In late January 1959, a group of ten friends, most of them physics and engineering students at the Ural Polytechnical Instutute (now Ural Federal University) set out on a long-awaited and well-orchestrated excursion toward Mt. Otorten, in the northern Urals. They were apparently in fine form. This is evidenced by a mock newspaper (or, as they called it, a “Group Combat Leaflet”) which they produced en route: the “Evening Otorten”. The original is lost, but there’s an English transcription, and there’s no part of it that’s not hilarious.
The section highlighted by the “Red Circle of Evidence” is a joke; the yetis were the Dyatlov party.
The Dyatlov group was not above poking fun at themselves, or at the casual absurdities of life in the USSR. Yet, they also embody Soviet ideals in a totally non-ironic manner that is quite charming; they emphasize the importance of hard work, friendliness, group cohesion, and relying on each others’ special talents for a successful trip. I’m going to warn you folks right now that you’re going to come to like these people, which is going to make it a little tough when you think about what happened to them.
Bunch of grade-A knuckleheads, these guys.
Mt. Otorten itself, as well as its environs, is practically uninhabited; the only regular visitors it receives are the semi-nomadic Mansi people, who cross the area while hunting. The Mansi name for Mt. Otorten is Kholat Syakhl, which translates to the rather metal “Dead Mountain” or “Mountain of Death.” Some have claimed that the Mansi have a deep-seated ancestral fear of the eldritch beings of the mountain, but (as it turns out) the name means ‘dead’ in the sense of ‘nothing lives on that mountain so don’t bother hunting there.’ It’s not hideous monsters and ghouls making the place ‘dead’, either; nature does a fine job of that on its own. Nothing lives on Mt. Otorten because it’s a fucking terrible, scary, and violently dangerous place to be. It’s a mountain in Siberia, you know.
Nonetheless, our heroes were up to the task. All were accomplished hikers, and they were well prepared for the excursion. Much of the journal they kept details long hours spent organizing and maintaining their equipment and planning their route. We’ll take a closer look at the journal in the next section. They also took along a number of cameras and the trip was well-documented in their photos, recovered after their death. Some of these photos will be the focus of the third section of this project.
Before they set out for the mountain, they suffered a setback. One of the group, Yuri Yudin, had to drop out of the trip. He had a health ailment of some sort; some sources describe it as a ‘painful rheumatism’ but others are more vague. In any event, Yuri departed sadly from the rest of the group, and the remaining nine set off for the mountain. Yuri didn’t know it, but he was to be the sole surviving member of the Dyatlov party.
Yuri lived to be 76, maintaining for the rest of his life that the government was somehow behind the demise of the rest of the group.
They seemed to make good progress once they got going, though there was a strong west wind which reduced their visibility, and their intended course, a river, was not quite frozen, requiring them to take a Mansi sled-path that went roughly the same direction, but cost them some time. The journal ends at this point; from here on out we have only reconstructions.
It appears they lost their way and went partway up the mountain before they expected to. Rather than lose the distance by hiking back to the foot of the mountain, they decided to make camp and move on the next day. They pitched their tent at the top of a narrow pass which slopes down on either side. This is the area now called Dyatlov Pass.
From here, reconstructions turn to speculation, because what happened next has no reasonable explanation. At some point during the night, the tent was violently cut open from the inside. Barely dressed, the nine hikers raced down the other side of the pass, into the teeth of a fierce snowstorm with temperatures reaching as low as -30C. The nine ‘yetis’ that had been reported in the Evening Otorten were soon no more.
When the hikers failed to return, search parties followed their route and soon found frozen bodies strewn about Dyatlov Pass. They found that there was something (many things, in fact) even weirder going on than the sudden flight from the tent.
(Before I go on, allow me to say that I am greatly indebted to the author of this website. While she doesn’t give her full name anywhere on the site, the hover-text of the one picture there is of her refers to her as “Teddy”. Her site is a richly informative resource for this incident, probably the best out there, and my retelling of this story borrows heavily from what she’s already provided. Also all, or very nearly all, of the pictures and text quotations in this project are sourced from her site. She’s also apparently the designer for HR Giger’s website and she knew one of my favourite artists, Zdzisław Beksiński, so that’s pretty cool too.)
Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way: Let me tell you how these people died.
The first group of five hikers was found by a search party on February 27. They seemed to be grouped loosely around a large cedar tree, at the base of which someone had managed to start a fire. The tree itself was stripped of branches for several feet; someone had climbed it, either to attain firewood, or to get a better vantage point from which to find the tent.
Zina Kolmogorova was a 22-year old student at UPI and an avid hiker. She was kind of the Marcia Brady of the group; she was very friendly and well-liked, with a magnetic personality. She was also tough; she was once bitten by a viper on a hike, and refused to turn around or even lighten her pack, not wanting to be a bother to the rest of the group. She was found face-down with her head toward the tent, dead from hypothermia. She was wearing two sweaters, pants, and three pairs of socks, but no shoes. She had a large, oblong contusion on her lower ribcage, which looked like a welt left by a police baton.
Yuri Doroshenko, a 21-year old geology student, was kind of a wildcard. He once won great renown and universal acclaim among Ural hikers when he recklessly charged at a gigantic bear, wielding a geologist’s hammer. He and Zina had dated for a while, but had since broken up by the time of the incident. He was found near the cedar, wearing only an undershirt, shorts, and mismatched socks. He had multiple bruises and contusions and all of the hair on the right side of his head was burned off. Pooled blood was found on the side of his body facing upward, indicating that his body had been turned over after he died, perhaps by other victims repurposing his clothing. He had grey foamy fluid on his face, which could indicate that his chest was pressed heavily, as was sometimes done by the NKVD and Soviet special forces as an ‘interrogation’ tactic.
Yuri Krivonischenko, a somewhat mysterious 24-year-old student, had once helped to clean up a massive radiation contamination caused by a catastrophic explosion at a secret Soviet nuclear site. He liked music and he played mandolin and sang songs throughout the first days of the expedition, as recorded in the group’s diary. He was found under the cedar, wearing underwear, a cotton shirt, and one torn sock. He also had bruises and contusions, and he had bitten off a 2cm piece of skin from his hand. After his death, pieces of his clothing had been repurposed by the other hikers.
Igor Dyatlov, the 23-year-old namesake of the group and later the pass itself, was a natural leader and a competent engineer who liked crafting his own tools; he had designed a radio and a stove which the group used during the trip. He was described as a thoughtful and cautious expedition leader, considering his options carefully and never making reckless decisions. He had for a while ‘courted’ Zina. He was found some distance from the cedar and apparently headed toward the tent. Though shoeless, he was wearing clothing from members of the group who had already died, and had bruises on his hands that seemed to suggest he had been in a fistfight.
Rustim Slobodim, also 23, was described as friendly, but quiet. He was from Moscow and was comparatively wealthier than the other group members. He liked to play the mandolin. His hands had bruises similar to Dyatlov’s, and he had suffered a massive skull fracture, possibly caused by a blunt object. His death was ruled hypothermia, though unlike the others found near the cedar, his body had a bed of ice under it, which possibly indicated that his body was still warm when he died.
The remaining members of the group weren’t found until the snow had started to melt, some three months later. They had dug a ‘den’ out of a snowbank about 50 meters from the cedar; snow had drifted in to completely fill the ‘den’ before the search teams arrived, preventing them from finding the bodies.
Lyudmilia Dubinina, at 20 years old, was the youngest of the group. One of the only two women in the group, she was an ardent and outspoken communist. Like Zina, she was tough; during one hike she’d been accidentally shot by a hunter cleaning his gun, and her only complaint about it was that she’d ruined the hike for her comrades. She liked to sing and take pictures. Her tongue and her eyes were both missing when she was found. She had blood in her stomach, which suggested she was still alive when her tongue was removed. Her nose was broken, as were ten of her ribs, and her body tested positive for radiation. Her death was attributed to a heart hemorrhage and massive internal bleeding caused by trauma to her chest. The coroner described the damage as akin to being hit by a car.
Alexander Kolevatov, a physics student at UPI, was a gifted metallurgist. At one point he had worked to produce rare metals for the Soviet nuclear industry. He was 24 years old and liked to smoke antique pipes. His jacket and socks were burned, he had a broken nose and had died from a broken neck, and, like Dubinina, his body was radioactive.
Nikolai Thibeaux-Brignolles was the 23-year-old son of a French communist who had moved to the USSR, but fell out of favour with the Stalinist government and was executed. Nikolai himself was born in a prison camp. He was described as a funny person who liked to help younger hikers prepare their packs, often taking much of their gear himself to make it easier on them. He was very well-read. He died from a single massive cranial fracture, apparently from a huge blunt object, which nearly pulverized one whole side of his skull.
Semyon Zolotaryov, who died on his 38th birthday, was the oldest of the group. He did not know the others well, and had asked to join the expedition in order to earn time toward a guide’s certification. He had served in the army during WWII; after the war he had studied physics, and he had moved across the country many times, for no clear reason. He had no wife or children. He went by the pseudonym of ‘Alexander’, for reasons that nobody can figure out. When he was found, his eyes were missing and he had five broken ribs, which were each broken in two places. At the time of his death, he was carrying a camera. Why he took the camera during the mad dash from the tent, instead of something more practical (like a flashlight), is unknown. Moreover, according to Yuri Yudin, the group had four cameras, and this was not one of them. Yudin had never seen it. Semyon had apparently kept it hidden from the group throughout the entire expedition, for some unknown reason. We’ll see some strange pictures from this camera in the third section of the project. He was found holding a pen and a pad of paper, but he died before he could write anything.
Theories abound as to what happened to the Dyatlov group; the official explanation, that all nine had “succumbed to a compelling natural force”, sounds great but, upon closer examination, doesn’t really tell us anything at all. We’ll discuss some theories at the end of the project, as usual, but before we do I’d like to examine some of the evidence left behind by the group and see where that takes us. Our first stop is the group’s diary.