One of the most bizarre, not to mention flat out terrifying, mysteries of the modern age concerns the enigmatic deaths of nine Russian mountaineers whose cross-country skiing trip ended in a tragedy so ghastly and perplexing that it has mystified experts for over half a century.
Excursions into nature can be serene for some and exhilarating for others, but for an unfortunate few these sojourns into the untouched wilds of our world can be tragic. Still other such journeys into the unknown end in such unfathomably frightening circumstances that they become the stuff of legend. Such is the destiny that befell nine ill-fated skiing enthusiasts in the late 1950s.
Unlike so many of the most intriguing mysteries of the 20th Century — including the fate of the crew of the Ourang Medan or the whereabouts of the missing Anjikuni Villagers of Canada — What makes the so-called “Dyatlov Pass Incident” so fascinating is the fact that there is absolutely no doubt that these events actually occurred… and dreadfully little doubt that one of the last sensations experienced by these poor souls was one of abject terror.
The proof of this tragedy exists not only in the plethora of photographs that have been preserved, but also in the extensive records (many of which are still allegedly classified) of the Soviet military who investigated the odd case and were manifestly unable to reach any definitive conclusions despite an overwhelming amount of physical evidence. In fact, the investigators tasked with solving this case were eventually forced to attribute the whole peculiar affair to: “a compelling unknown force.”
But, before we go any further; like any good mystery we must begin at the beginning…
TEN LITTLE SKIERS
On January 25, 1959, one ski instructor, three engineers and seven students from the former Soviet Union’s Ural Polytechnic Institute, located in the city then known as Sverdlovsk, boarded a train and embarked on a journey to the nearby Otorten Mountain range, which is nestled in the northern Urals, for a strenuous cross-country skiing expedition.
The leader of the excursion was an enthusiastic 23 year-old by the name of Igor Dyatlov — for whom the notorious Pass would eventually be named — who had assembled a crack team of male and female skiers with the intention that this arduous trip would serve as a training exercise for a future expedition to the more difficult and treacherous Arctic regions.
As the group of seasoned skiers left the train station and hopped a truck headed toward their very own “Alpine in the Urals,” one of the team members, Yury Yudin, fell ill and was forced to remain behind at the settlement of Vizhai, which was the last outpost before the Otorten range.
Yudin hugged his comrades goodbye and with envy watched them leave… scarcely could he imagine at the time that he would the lucky one.
Later in life Yudin would claim that the one thing that had haunted him the most over the years was not being able to discover what kind of diabolical force stole the lives of his friends; a fate he would have shared were it not for his unexpected illness. According to Yudin:
“If I had a chance to ask God just one question, it would be, ‘What really happened to my friends that night?’”
Two day after embarking on their adventure, the nine remaining athletes — including engineers Rustem Slobodin, Georgyi Krivonischenko and Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel, as well as students Yuri Doroshenko, Zinaida Kolmogorova, Lyudmila Dubinina and ski instructor and guide, Alexander Zolotarev — all followed Dyatlov toward the first stop on their long and grueling journey, the Gora Otorten mountain.
The date was January 28, 1959. The team would never make it to their destination… and none of them would ever be seen alive again.
THE SEARCH BEGINS
On February 11, 1959, The Dyatlov Ski Team was supposed to arrive in Vizhai. Among their first orders of business, following a hot meal and a stiff drink, were to send their loved ones telegrams announcing the success of their mission.
When no telegrams were received, most of the team’s family members were not concerned, realizing that journeys like this rarely end on schedule, but when over a week went by with no word from the skiers, their relatives began to demand that the Ural Polytechnic Institute organize a search and rescue operation, which they did posthaste.
Within days it became clear that the institute’s ground based initiative would not be able to produce any results on their own and that was when both military and civilian authorities got involved in the search. Military planes and helicopters were swiftly dispatched to the area and it was on February 25, that a pilot first spotted something curious on a mountainside below.
A MYSTERY IS BORN:
The next day the search party — including fellow Polytechnic student Mikhail Sharavin — made their way up to an abandoned encampment on the eastern slope of a mountain listed as “1079.”
The foreboding peak is better known to the indigenous Mansi tribesmen as “Kholat Syakhl,” which (prophetically perhaps) translates from their native tongue as the “Mountain of the Dead.”
The would-be rescuers discovered a badly damaged tent and a plethora of footprints made by what appeared to be at least eight different people radiating out from the devastated tent. Sharavin then described the state of the large tent that the skiers all shared:
“We discovered that the tent was half torn down and covered with snow. It was empty, and all the group’s belongings and shoes had been left behind.”
The search party members quickly realized that the tracks consisted of either bare or sock clad feet and, in one case, a single shoe. Two sets of prints led down a slope toward a densely forested area, but the tracks were covered by snow roughly 1,500 feet away from the tent.
Sharavin followed the trail and found the remains of a fire beneath a looming, ancient pine… and with it something much worse.
Near the long dead fire were the frozen remains of team members Doroshenko and Krivonischenko. The searchers noted with utter bewilderment that even though the men were well within range of the now ravaged tent both men were naked and shoeless, save for their underwear. The investigators also saw that the branches of the old pine had been snapped off up to a height of almost 15-feet.
Forensic tests later confirmed that traces of skin were found embedded in the bark, indicating that the pair had frantically attempted to climb the tree, snapping off branches until their hands were mass of pulpy flesh.
At this point the searchers no doubt began to wonder what manner of “beast” could scare these men so much that they abandoned their clothes, despite the freezing cold, and tore the skin from their palms in a desperate attempt to get to safety. The fact that there were no evident animal tracks and that they had the time to try and start a fire, combined with the fact that the bodies of the men remained untouched only heighted the searchers puzzlement.
Not long after the party found the bodies of Doroshenko and Krivonischenko, they stumbled across the corpse of team leader Dyatlov nearly 900-feet away from the other cadavers, but somewhat closer to the tent. Dyatlov was on his back; one hand was clinging to an undersized birch tree branch while his other hand, locked in ice and rigor mortis, appeared to be protecting his head from some unknown assailant.
Half buried in the snow not far from the tent was the body of Rustem Slobodin, which rescuers found lying face down in the snow. Slobodin’s skull bore a deep fracture nearly 7-inches long; nevertheless medical experts later determined that the most likely cause death was hypothermia, which only compounded the befuddlement of the volunteer and military search party participants.
The carcass of Zinaida Kolmogorov was turned up the furthest away from the group. Traces of blood were found near her corpse, yet it was not revealed if she was its source, although that conclusion would seem likely. The rescuers could not understand why there was no evidence of a struggle.
The party continued their efforts to locate the rest of the team, but a lengthy search for the remaining members turned up nothing. The men on the site could not comprehend why a group of experienced skiers would dash half-naked into the bitter cold of the forest in the black of night. Nor could they fathom the kind of terror that must have inspired these young people to act so recklessly.
Even more perplexing was the fact that the searchers, after inspecting the severely damaged tent, came to the conclusion that the material had been torn from the inside, as if its occupants had been frantic to escape from something that was already sealed in the tent with them or were in such a rush that unclasping the tent from the inside was not an option!
Amidst the broken wood, shredded canvas and debris of the ravaged tent, investigators discovered rolls of undeveloped film and the journals of a few of the expedition members, but rather than helping to illuminate the truth, these finds would only add more layers to this already dense mystery.
MAY 4, 1959:
After two months of fruitless searching, the spring thaw finally set in and the weather let up enough to reveal the corpses of the missing team members in a ravine situated some 225-feet from the pine that served as an arboreal memorial to Doroshenko and Krivonischenko.
The four lost skiers — instructor Alexander Zolotaryov, engineer Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel and students Alexander Kolevatov and Ludmila Dubinina — were discovered buried beneath 12-feet of snow and ice. All had apparently succumbed to brutal internal injuries. Unlike their friends who had perished above, these victims were all fully dressed.
As in the case of Slobodin, Thibeaux -Brignollel’s skull showed evidence of having been struck by a heavy object. Zolotarev and Dubunina’s chests had been crushed inward, shattering several ribs and causing massive internal damage. Strangely there were no indications of what may have caused this severe trauma and, even more bizarrely, the corpses showed no signs of bruising or soft tissue damage.
Doctor Boris Vozrozhdenny, who inspected the bodies, stated that the force with which these corpses were hit exceeded that capable by man and went on to claim that the damage: “…was equal to the effect of a car crash.”
The searchers were startled to observe that Dubinina’s head was tilted back; her stretched mouth wide as if emitting a silent scream. Upon closer inspection the rescuers realized that her tongue had been ripped out by the root.
They also noted that at some point these poor individuals had either exchanged or stolen the clothing off their comrades as Dubinina’s foot was swaddled in a tattered piece of Krivonishenko’s wool pants and Zolotaryov was found wearing Dubinina’s faux fur hat and coat. The searchers were unsure if this was the result of dressing too swiftly in a dark tent or a case of scavenging articles of clothing from deceased teammates.
At the funerals that soon followed the discovery of the bodies, many family members claimed that the skin of the deceased bore an unnatural orange color and, even more disturbingly, most reports insisted that their hair had lost its pigmentation and was a dull shade of grey. Skeptics claim that the orange skin was caused by exposure and that the hair had not lost its color, but it’s interesting that so many of the bereaved relatives took the time to notice these strange features.
As if all of this were not odd enough, some of the articles of clothing found on the bodies were measured as emitting higher than normal levels of radiation.