originally published April 16, 2013
Some winter activities demand no justification – downhill skiing and snowboarding are thrill-rides, skating on ice is invigorating, and ice fishing is… well, it’s sitting outside in the cold, holding a stick. I’d avoid that one. But perhaps the most outlandish of all winter pastimes is the act of ski-hiking beyond the fringes of civilization.
I don’t know if people still do this, but if they do, I hope they have more luck than the unfortunate folks involved in the Dyatlov Pass Incident.
In January, 1959, ten Russians ventured deep into the Ural Mountains in search of a mountain they could ski around. I don’t know if Soviet legal policies had led to a moratorium on cross-country skiing in and around more sane parts of the country, or if these ten snow-enthusiasts just wanted something a little more edgy. But the outcome was not good. Nor was it ever fully released to the public.
Kholat Syakhl is also known as the “Mountain Of The Dead” among the Mansi people of Russia. This was the destination of Igor Dyatlov and his team of seven other men and two women. They arrived at the most northern settlement in the area, a clump of log cabins and Yukon-Gold-Rush-looking hell known as Vizhai. They spent two fun-filled days seeing the sights of Vizhai (mostly snow), then took off on January 27.
The next day, Yuri Yudin turned back because of illness. Maybe it was because there were already two other Yuris on the trip, and conversations were getting too confusing. Either way, Yuri’s decision to keep the Mountain Of The Dead on his bucket-list meant that he could add the title of ‘Lone Survivor’ to his business card.
The group carried on. In a small wooded valley they stashed some of their extra weight – food and supplies they’d need for the trip back. On February 1, they began to move through the pass. Conditions were the opposite of perfect; snow, wind and horrible visibility made venturing forward a dangerous prospect. But group leader Igor Dyatlov was no stranger to this game, and his eight companions were all experienced ski-trekkers.
The low visibility nudged them off course, up toward the summit of Kholat Syakhl. Rather than double back or try to correct their trajectory, Igor elected to set up camp along the side of the mountain. There was a forested area that could have protected them from the harsh weather about a mile downhill from where they were, but they opted not to make that trip.
Seriously though, a mile downhill when you have skis on your feet? That seems like the common-sense solution. But what the hell do I know? My only winter sport of choice is watching football from the cozy safety of my couch.
When the group never reported in, a search party was sent out on February 20. The first thing they found was the torn-down tent, left abandoned by the entire group. All the group’s supplies, including their shoes, were still inside and it looked like the tent had been slashed open from the inside. Everyone’s footprints could still be seen in the snow – some wearing only socks, some barefoot – all headed toward that clump of forest. Under a large cedar they found the first two bodies – the other two Yuris, lying around what used to be a campfire, clad only in their underwear.
The broken branches on the tree suggested someone had climbed up, maybe looking for their abandoned camp. Three more hikers, including Igor Dyatlov, were found between the tree and the camp, all apparently trying to make their way back to their tattered tent.
An investigation determined that all five hikers had died of hypothermia. Not surprising, given that temperatures were colder than -30 and they weren’t wearing proper footwear. On May 4, they found the other four bodies, deeper in the woods and buried under four meters of snow.
Three of the four died from something else – one had major skull damage and two others suffered from trauma to their ribcages that fractured bones. Car-crash-level fractures, according to the investigating doctor. Also, one of the ladies was missing her tongue.
So what happened?
An attack by the local indigenous Mansi people was ruled out. There was no soft-tissue damage (except for that tongue), and no signs of struggle. An avalanche might have knocked the tent, sending the hikers out in a scramble, leaving their shoes behind in a panic. But what about all the footprints visible leaving the tent?
But wait, it gets even stranger.
(the group setting up camp, not knowing just how strange it was going to get)
The hikers’ clothing was found to have incredibly high levels of radioactivity. Not only that, but another group of nearby hikers reported seeing strange orange spheres in the sky on the night the Igor’s team perished. In February and March of 1959, these spheres were a common sight in the area, later being attributed to Soviet launches of R-7 intercontinental ballistic missiles. Also, five of the dead bodies were found to possess an unusual tan, not common among northerner Russians in winter months.
In 1967, journalist Yuri Yarovoi (wow, a lot of Russians were named Yuri) looked into the disaster, eight years after he had been part of the search team. He published a novel, but the facts were twisted and contorted – even romanticized – not revealing any info other than the most common knowledge. In Yuri’s novel, only one member of the party dies.
Friends and associates claim his ‘other’ versions of the story were censored by the government. When Yuri died in 1980, all his research disappeared.
In 1990, when the Soviet government was too busy packing its bags for its trip into history to worry about censorship, more facts leaked out. No answers though – some believe it was a secret government weapon test, others think it was a UFO.
Also – and this is the part that will give you creep-out chills when you remember it later tonight – the spot where the nine hikers died is close to where Mansi legend tells of a group of nine people dying in ancient times, thus giving the local name ‘Mountain Of The Dead’. Also, a plane crashed just a few short miles away in 1991. The death toll? Nine people.
Chalk this up as another mystery that will probably never be solved. Nor will the mystery of why people venture out into the frozen north to wander around. Come on people! We have cable now!