ChristianRonzoni, Editorials Editor
In 1959, a group of Russian hikers mysteriously died while traversing the snowy mountains of Siberia. Their deaths remain unexplained to this day. Cold, harsh, silence, you and the open wilderness. These nine experienced men and women were greatly familiar with the Siberian wilderness, yet, this adventure would prove to be their final expedition. Despite a criminal investigation, photographs and journal entries, this case remains unsolved after more than half a century. This is the case of Dyatlov Pass.
In the early morning of Jan. 23, 1959, a ski and hiking team of ten departed on a train for the Ural Mountains in the middle of the Soviet Union. The group was made up of eight men and two women with lgor Dyatolv as the group’s Leader. As the train slowly advanced deep into the mountainous Siberian taiga, the group diary received a final entry: “I wonder what awaits us on this hike? Will anything new happen?” Zinaida Kolmogorova. Over the next few days, the group continues to alternate between modes of transportation to reach the checkpoint. First a bus, then a truck, then horse and sleigh and eventually, they proceed on foot and skis. On Jan. 28, one of the hikers, named Yuri Yudin, begins to feel ill and eventually decides to head back while the rest of the group of nine continue on as planned. This would be the last time he would see his friends alive.
The group resumed their expedition across the snow-covered outback and documented everything noteworthy, using diaries as well as multiple cameras. Recovered photos and journal entries suggest that the trek progressed as one would expect with no unforeseen complications. On Feb. 1, they reached the foot of a mountain, known to the indigenous Mansi population as Dead Mountain. The group spent the better part of the day progressing up the slope and eventually decided to set up camp only a few hundred meters from the peak of the mountain. The last sentence from the final entry reads, “It is difficult to imagine such a comfort on the ridge, with shrill howling wind, hundreds of kilometers away from human settlements.”
A few weeks later, friends and relatives began to worry. Nobody had heard from Igor or any of the other members of the group. After much debate, a team of volunteers eventually head out to find them. On Feb. 26, the search party is finally able to locate the camp on the slope. It’s obvious to the first at the scene that something has gone horribly wrong. The tent is in shambles, covered by a thin coat of snow. The hikers’ belongings and equipment was found placed inside the tent in an orderly fashion, but the tent itself had been slashed open with a knife from the inside. The next day, nice pairs of footprints led the search volunteers down the slope towards the nearby woods. Given that the footprints left rather mild indentations in the snow, it suggests that they descended the slope in a rather calm and orderly fashion, as opposed to running away in panic. The footprints could be tracked for about half a kilometer from the tent until the trail was completely covered by snow. They continued in the direction of the trail and under a large cedar tree at the edge of the forest, next to the remains of an improvised campfire, they found the frozen bodies of Yuri Doroshenko and Yuri Krivonischenko.
It would take over two months for the bodies of all nine hikers to be recovered. The first two were found severely underdressed and lacked any essential gear one might expect given the frigid climate with only light shirts, underpants and socks. At the time of their death it would have been around -30 degrees C (-22 degrees F). The cedar tree had signs of damage, as if someone had climbed it, with branches broken up to five meters high. Perhaps they were attempting to locate the tent in the pitch-black darkness or maybe they were trying to hide from someone or something.
The next three hikers were found at varying distances between the tent and the tree, only covered by a few centimeters of snow. They were better dressed than the previous two but not by much, as they still lacked essential items such as boots, hats and gloves. They were all found facing the direction of the tent as if they were struggling to return at the moment of death. While some of them had sustained minor injuries, all five had died of hypothermia. It should be noted that four of them had died while intoxicated.
The last four hikers were found at the bottom of a small hill, covered by 3 meters of snow, 75 meters from the tree, in the opposite direction of the tent. Three of them had sustained fatal injuries. One had a fractured skull and two had fractured multiple ribs and suffered massive internal bleeding. The medical examiner believed the injuries had been sustained from a fall and compared it to a car crash. The injuries had been sustained antemortem (while they were alive), and could not have been inflicted by another person. Two had also been found with gaping eye sockets and one of the women had a missing tongue. The last of the four had a broken nose and a deformed neck but died of hypothermia. And most mysterious of all, three articles of clothing were later found to be abnormally radioactive.
On May 28, the criminal case was discontinued with a cryptic and incredibly vague conclusion. The lead investigator, Lev Ivanov, writes in the final report, “The cause of death was an unknown compelling force which the hikers were unable to overcome.” Not exactly the most satisfying answer and barely a conclusion at all.
The fact that Dubinina was missing her tongue has been a mysterious fact that isn’t as mysterious as it sounds. Some say that it was cut off or ripped out while she was still alive, others say it was eaten by scavengers after death, while some even claim the tongue was later found somewhere else. But in reading the medical report, the answer is as helpful as the lead investigator’s conclusion. It reads, “The diaphragm of the mouth and the tongue is missing.” That’s it. There’s nothing about cutting or ripping or anything like that. It is unclear where or how it began but there seems to be an exaggerated importance placed on the missing tongue while in reality it’s a rather minor detail. At least the medical examiner believed it to be a minor detail, otherwise he would likely have elaborated further. For example, the same section of the same report states: “Gaping orbits, the eyeballs are absent.” Equally mysterious, right? Well, not entirely because the medical examiner, B.A. Vozrozhdyonny, does provide an explanation for both. “Soft tissue injuries to the head […] are postmortem changes (putrefaction and decomposition), to Dubinina’s corpse, which was recently exposed to water prior to detection.” He even adds “(putrefaction and decomposition)” in parentheses to clarify exactly what he means. And this was not even exclusive to Dubinina, as the four last bodies were all damaged due to the melting snow. Although, some who claim that her tongue must have been removed while she was still alive have pointed to the fact that she had about 100 grams of blood in her stomach. But this isn’t exactly true either. The relevant portion of the forensic examination reads: “The stomach contained up to 100 cm3 of a dark red slimy mass.” That’s about 10 cl of something (most likely food), mixed with something red (most likely blood). So, we don’t know how much blood was in her stomach, just that there was blood in her stomach. This isn’t exactly that strange given that she was suffering from massive internal bleeding.
One of the most mysterious aspects of this case is that three separate articles of clothing, discovered on two of the bodies, were found to be radioactive. This does indeed sound a bit mysterious, but it should be noted that almost everything is slightly radioactive. The radiological studies claim that under normal circumstances an area of 150 cm2 should not exceed 5000 disintegrations per minute (dpm). Only three articles of clothing exceeded or equaled that limit at 5000 dpm, and 9900 dpm. The only explanation given in the report is that: “…the clothes were contaminated as radioactive dust fell from the atmosphere, or the clothes were susceptible to contamination when in contact with radioactive substances.” In other words, they were unable to determine exactly how the clothes were contaminated, but it’s not unrealistic to believe it to be a result of natural processes. But just in case it wasn’t due to the elements, there may be an alternative explanation. Kolevatov had previously worked at a facility developing nuclear materials and Krivonischenko had previously worked at a top-secret plutonium production plant for nuclear weapons. And the three articles of radioactive clothing belonged to Kolevatov and Krivonischenko.
Around the time of the hikers’ disappearance, numerous sources claimed to have seen UFOs in the form of orbs of light moving across the night sky for a few seconds up to several minutes. These include three soldiers and two different hiking groups. Some witnesses also claimed that the indigenous Mansi population, as well as a group of geologists, had told them that they had observed fireballs in the sky around the time of the incident. The problem with UFO sightings is that they are, simply, unidentified and often unverifiable as a result. Only one of the hiking groups reported to have seen a UFO during the night of the incident while the other sightings occurred before or after. Then there’s the picture. This photo is the very last photo taken with one of the hiker’s cameras. It appears to be a photo of some type of light source taken in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, the photo is about as undescriptive as the UFO it claimed to depict. It could, no doubt, be a photo of a UFO and it could, no doubt, be a photo of a candle, flashlight, fire, stove or anything else. But assuming that this photo is a photo of something in the night sky, what could it potentially be depicting? There are a few possibilities: A rocket, a piece of a rocket, a man-made space debris during reentry, a crashing aircraft or perhaps a meteor. None of which would be too surprising given that this is the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War as well as the Space Race. So, there would have been a lot of aerial activity. At a time when space exploration was about as fresh as a prince living in an affluent LA neighborhood, it’s not surprising that people were unable to identify the mysterious lights. Regardless it couldn’t have landed close to the hikers as it would’ve been found by the search teams. And if the object had already been recovered, there should have been evidence in the form of a crash site, footprints and other activity on the ground. So, given that the fact that there is no obvious connection between a UFO and the hikers disappearance, it would be hard to connect the two without physically being there that night.
So, what actually happened? Why did they leave the tent? Why was it slashed open from the inside? How did some of them of them sustain such major injuries while the others simply succumbed to the cold? Why were so many underdressed? The biggest mystery is how the case remains unsolved given the abundance of information.
First of all, why would they leave the tent? That seems to be the most important missing piece of the puzzle. It can be argued that the only thing that could make them leave would have had to be an immediate threat inside the tent. If something were outside, such as an animal or a UFO, then there would be no reason to cut the tent open. There were no signs of an avalanche, but some suggest they could have escaped believing an avalanche was tumbling towards them. The problem with that theory is that the footprints showed them walking in a calm and orderly manner down the slope as opposed to running away in panic. So, something caused them to panic inside the tent but once outside they calmed down and made a conscious decision to walk down the slope.
There was a pipe sticking out of their tent entrance in a recovered photo. The pipe is the exhaust pipe of the internal stove. This was completely unique and homemade design as the leader of the group had built the stove himself. The investigator knew they had used the stove on the night of the incident before the incident took place as partially eaten pieces of fried ham and bacon were found inside the tent. The theory of what actually happened is that after disassembling the stove and removing the exhaust pipe, the embers inside the stove were accidentally reignited. As the exhaust pipe had been removed, the smoke would have filled the tent in seconds. As they attempted to get control of the flame, they cut a few holes at the top of the tent to vent the smoke out. When that didn’t work and it became increasingly difficult to breathe, the side of the tent was slashed open and they all escaped in a state of panic. There’s even more evidence to support this theory. Several members of the group were found with burn marks on both their bodies and clothing, which could definitely have been a result of the improvised fire under the tree or perhaps a scalding hot metal stove. Some of them were also found with blood around their mouths, and coughing up blood could be a symptom of smoke inhalation. There was a photo a day before the incident. The jacket on the hiker has obviously been burned but the question is how? It’s possible that sparks from the stove had accidentally set the jacket aflame. So, they make it outside and quickly realize what a terrible situation they’re in — sub-zero temps, no shelter, underdressed, in the middle of a snowstorm, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere.
At this point, one or more of them probably made the decision to head for the nearest shelter, which they would know to be the woods. The reason for this decision is likely multifaceted. The smoke from the tent could’ve made it impossible to stay within its proximity and/or the smoke may have caused them to believe that the tent was on fire. Some were intoxicated, which could’ve affected their judgment as well as their sensibility to the cold. This could’ve led them to believe they were closer to the woods than they actually were. So they finally reached the woods and immediately set out to make a fire. Some climb the tree and scavenge the surrounding area while those who are more properly dressed head a bit deeper into the woods. About 75 meters from the tree, four of them trigger a minor avalanche taking them over the edge of a ravine with a drop of about 3-4 meters. As the bottom is filled with rocks and ice they sustained fatal injuries. Three of the other five hikers decide to head back for the tent, while the remaining two slowly freeze to death around a fading flame.