58 years ago, the northern part of the Urals played host to one of the most fascinating unsolved mysteries in the modern age.
This photo developed from a found roll of film shows the group setting out before their final camp on February 2, 1959.
This article originally appeared on Motherboard.
On the surface, what's become known as the Dyatlov Pass incident seems fairly explicable: Of a party of ten skiiers, nine perished in the middle of a high-difficulty trek in conditions that reached -30 degrees Celsius. But the details, which are mostly based on diaries of those involved as well as records from Soviet investigators, are chilling: On the night of February 2, 1959, members of the party apparently ripped their tent open from the inside, and wandered into the tundra wearing nothing but what they wore to bed.
Three weeks later, five bodies were found, some hundreds of meters down a slope from the original camp. It took two more months for investigators to find the other four bodies, which, curiously, were partially clothed in articles belonging to the earlier-discovered dead. Tests of those clothes found high levels of radiation. Despite that, and heavy internal trauma, including fractured skulls and broken ribs, suffered by some members of the party, Russian investigators reported they could not find evidence of foul play, and quickly shut the case.
The group was made up of students and graduates of the Ural State Technical University, all of whom were experienced in backcountry expeditions. The trip, organized by 23 year old Igor Dyatlov, was meant to explore the slopes Otorten mountain in the nothern part of the Ural range, and started on January 28, 1959. Yury Yudin, the only member of the expedition to survive, got sick before the crew made it fully into the backcountry, and stayed behind at a village. The other nine trekked on, and according to photographs developed from rolls recovered by investigators, Dyatlov's crew set up camp in the early evening of February 2 on the slopes of a mountain next to Ortoten.
That mountain is known to the local, indigenous Mansi tribe as Kholat Syakhl, which supposedly translates to "mountain of the dead," although with a tale like this, I'd take something so perfectly creepy with a grain of salt. Still, the decision to camp on the mountain's slope makes little sense. The group was reportedly only about a mile from the treeline, where they could have found at least a bit more shelter in the subzero conditions. They didn't appear to be strapped for time, and setting up camp on the face of a mountain rather than within a nearby forest is questionable, although not indefensible.
"Dyatlov probably did not want to lose the distance they had covered, or he decided to practice camping on the mountain slope," Yudin told the St. Petersburg Times in 2008.
That camp would be the group's last. Dyatlov had previously said that the team expected to be back in contact on February 12 of that year, but also said that the group might take longer than expected. It wasn't until around the 20th that the alarm was raised, and by the 26th the camp had been found by volunteer search and rescue teams.
When official investigators arrived, they noted that the tents appeared cut apart from within, and found footprints from eight or nine people leaving the tents and heading off downslope in the direction of the treeline. According to investigators, the group's shoes and gear were left behind, and the footprints suggested some people were barefoot or wearing nothing but socks. In other words, they all shredded their way out of their tent and ran off through waist-deep snow in a huge hurry, despite there being no evidence of other people or foul play within the group.
The first two bodies were found at the treeline, under a giant pine tree. Remember that the treeline was about a mile away; investigators wrote that footprints disappeared about a third of a way there, although that could have been due to weather in the three weeks it took for investigators to arrive. The two bodies found were both wearing only their underwear, and both were barefoot. According to reports, branches were broken high up the tree in question, which suggested someone had tried to climb it. The remains of a fire lay nearby.
Three more bodies, including Dyatlov's, were found at points in between the camp and the big tree, and apparently lay as if they were headed back to the camp. One of them, Rustem Slobodin, had a fractured skull, although doctors declared it non-fatal, and the criminal investigation was closed after doctors ruled the five had died of hypothermia.
Two months passed until the remaining four bodies were found buried under a dozen feet of snow in a gully a few hundred feet downslope from the big tree. The inexplicable behavior of the prior five members of the party aside, it was the discovery of this quartet that was most horrific. All four suffered traumatic deaths, despite there being no outward appearance of trauma. One, Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel, also had a fractured skull. Alexander Zolotariov was found with crushed ribs. Ludmila Dubinina also had broken ribs, and was also missing her tongue.
It is possible that the group was searching for help–despite being in, essentially, the middle of nowhere, while missing gear in sub-zero temperatures–before they fell into a ravine. But that doesn't explain Dubinina's missing tongue. And while some at the time posited that the group had been attacked by Mansi tribesmen, coroners at the time stated that the trauma found required more force than humans could inflict, especially considering there wasn't accompanying outward trauma.
"It was equal to the effect of a car crash," said Boris Vozrozhdenny, one of the doctors on the case, according to unsealed documents looked at by the Times.
It gets weirder. The final four were better outfitted than the other five, and apparently had taken clothes off the dead as they continued their aimless trek. Zolotariov, for example, was found wearing Dubinina's coat and hat, while she in turn had wrapped around her foot a piece of the wool pants that one of the two found at the pine tree had been wearing. To add to the mystery, the clothes found on the final group were tested and found to be radioactive.
The radioactivity is hard to explain, but the rest of the case does have an explanation that's more plausible than the aliens and nuke experiments people many like to tie into the story. "Paradoxical undressing" is a reported phenomenon in those suffering from hypothermia, as is delirium. The most likely explanation for the disaster is that the team's camp was buried in an avalanche, which would explain the cut-out tent and quite possibly some of the trauma. Should the team have been buried for any amount of time, hypothermia was likely to set in, which would go a long way towards explaining why they set off in search of help without any gear at all. Again, with five members of the team listed as having died of exposure, this scenario is most plausible.
But the radioactivity found is truly odd, as is the treatment of the investigation itself. Documents related to the case were sealed after it was closed, and weren't opened until sometime in the 1990s. I've been interested in the case for a while now and have tried to dig up new info, but my FOIA requests to the various US intelligence agencies have all turned up bupkis. The cause of the incident is still speculative, but interviews given by the lead investigator, Lev Ivanov, around the time the records were unsealed shine light on just how strange the case is.
Ivanov was the one who first noticed that the bodies and gear found were all radioactive, and said that a Geiger counter he'd brought with him went nuts all around the campsite. He also has said that Soviet officials told him at the time to clamp the case shut, despite reports that "bright flying spheres" had been reported in the area in February and March of 1959.
"I suspected at the time and am almost sure now that these bright flying spheres had a direct connection to the group's death," Ivanov told Kazakh newspaper Leninsky Put in an interview dug up by the Times.
Another group of students camped out around 30 miles from the other group reported similar sightings at that time. In written testimony, one said that he saw"a shining circular body fly over the village from the south-west to the north-east. The shining disc was practically the size of a full moon, a blue-white light surrounded by a blue halo. The halo brightly flashed like the flashes of distant lightning. When the body disappeared behind the horizon, the sky lit up in that place for a few more minutes."
The leading theory, considering the secrecy, radioactivity, and the appearance of some of the bodies, which were reported as being "deeply tanned" by a young boy attending some of their funerals, is that the group somehow came across a Soviet military testing ground. But, assuming reports are true, what caused the trauma to some members of the group is unknown.
It's possible that one of the members saw some crazy light in the sky and everyone freaked out, running for their lives, but there has never been evidence of an explosion in the area, ruling out some sort of nuclear test or something of the like. But even so, that doesn't explain the skull fractures. Some could be explained by a fall into the ravine, but remember, Slobodin had a fractured skull and was found on his return to the camp.
The fact that remains of a fire were found suggests some members of the group had control of their mental faculties, and psychosis isn't a reported effect of acute exposure to radiation, but that doesn't explain why the group appeared to have run for their lives without bringing any of their gear. So was it an accident or a cover-up? The simple story is probably best: The team was buried in an avalanche, and in a state of hypothermia-induced delirium, rushed off in search of help. Avalanches are incredibly powerful, and being caught in one could likely result in the types of blunt trauma some of the group received.
Still, the lack of closure from the original investigation has left the incident as a favorite target of conspiracy theorists and alien hunters, and really, it's a pretty weird tale. Ivanov, the investigator, has since passed away, and unless more military records are discovered and unsealed–which some advocates still call for–the records on hand aren't enough to prove otherwise, and the mystery of what's now known as the Dyatlov Pass is likely to endure.