A group of missing hikers, a journey gone wrong, and nine bodies mysteriously buried under the ice.
Welcome to season one, episode four of Nonfiction Fridays, the series where I share unbelievable things that really happened.
In this episode we’ll be talking about the Dyatlov Pass Incident that took place in Soviet era Russia in 1959 when nine university students went missing in the snowy wilderness of Dead Mountain. The complete story of what happened to them is still unknown.
Today I will be sharing what little we do know about how their bodies were found. You can come to your own conclusions and, if it peaks your interest, dive into this black hole conspiracy with so many others who find the mystery of Dyatlov Pass similarly captivating.
The Dyatlov Pass Incident
Two figures are trudging through ice and snow. It’s February in 1959 and these two men are on a mission. Whether or not that mission will be a rescue or a recovery remains to be seen. Nine hikers have gone missing and somewhere in this frozen landscape their rescuers hope they are still alive, waiting to be saved. The rescue crew has already spent 10 days searching with no results. It’s the end of the day and these two men are about to give up and go back to base camp when they spot something in the distance. It’s this sort of black/gray shape against the snow. As they get closer they realize it’s a tarpaulin set up between two ridge poles. A tent, half covered and buckled by the recent snowfall. It would have been so easy to miss. But, luckily, they didn’t miss it. This first discovery is about to set off a chain of events so mysterious and confusing it still baffles experts to this day.
The two searchers are desperate to try and save the people they fear could be still inside, so they do whatever they can to get in as quickly as possible. What they find in this tent is the first clue in a chain of clues that lead to no real conclusion.
Inside the Tent
As is typical while camping in this climate, there is a buffer created between the freezing weather (constant snow, wind and ice) and the inhabitants of a tent. A common strategy is to place your packs and your jackets in an insulative layer on the ground and against the walls. This strategy has been used by the hikers of the Dyatlov Pass Incident and the tent is composed practically. Things are tidy with rows of boots on one side, rows of boots on the other side, and most of the supplies packed away. However, there is some disturbing evidence of life, as if people should still be inside. It’s almost as if the entire group just got up and walked out. Buy why?
Amid the neatness of the structure is a camera laying out, a diary, a can they kept money in. There is a bag of bread and cereal sort of tucked away. There’s a camp stove in the middle of the structure. On it is a packet of hot cocoa which looks as if it was about to just be reheated and a napkin with neat little slices of ham. But there’s no one inside. No one at all.
At first, this discovery knowledge makes the two searchers feel relieved. Aftter all, at least their bodies were not discovered and there can be a hope that they are still alive amidst the rugged terrain. But as the news sets in they realize how strange this really is. Dead Mountain is in the absolute middle of nowhere. You have to hike very far to even begin to get into it. It’s a climate that is completely unforgiving: you will die if you are exposed in it. It’s snow, it’s ice, it’s freezing temperatures, it’s wind. It would make no sense for these missing hikers to simply get up and walk out. It’s not like a campground in California where there are other sites and other people to encounter. No, we’re talking about the wilds of Dead Mountain, a name which would become notorious. It’s no walk in a park, you have to know what you’re doing.
About the Hikers
Let’s back up a little bit and go to January 23rd when a group of university student hikers are getting prepared for a trop. They’re all excited; talking, checking lists, organizing the medical supplies, stuffing their packs, preparing the group diary (which they would all share), stowing away their personal diaries, loading film into the camera. In this snug room at their university a group of friends are gathered around with buzz of excitement in the air.
Soviet Era Russia encouraged science and exploration and its youth and that is exactly what this group was pursuing. They were considered Grade Two hikers. This trip was the test to get them to Grade Three—the highest available certification for hiking in the country at that time. It was a big deal. These are all experienced people—young people, but no less experienced. Already gaining notoriety, many of the group already had stories circulating of their skill and savvy. For example, one man among this crew once chased a bear with just a club to scare it away from camp. Another of their group, this one a young woman, was once shot accidentally in the leg. She had to be carried out of that trip by trek gurney by her trip partners, yet she kept her attitude calm and cavalier. These were tough people, they knew what they were doing, and they’re excited about this trip to Dyatlov Pass because they’re ready, ready for this test of their skills. They are as prepared as prepared can be.
This is not a case of inexperienced people doing something callous, thinking they’re ready for something when they’re not. These are people who have trained for exactly this experience and for a significant amount of time. Besides their own skill, they have the University behind them and even their plan for the trip has been thoroughly executed and submitted.
Just to give you an idea of how experienced they had to be for this Grade Three test, here are the requirements. They must:
- Cover 186 miles
- one third of this must be in challenging terrain
- Trek for at least sixteen days
- with eight nights spent in an uninhabited region
- and six nights in a tent
Once completed, the group would be considered “masters of sport” and they would be certified to teach their skill set to others.
In their university room at the end of January they find they are ready to depart. So, having finished all their last minute checks, they excitedly go to the train station to start their journey, having no idea that it would be their last.
The Search and What Was Found During the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Fast forward to February 16th.
It is three days after the group was supposed to have returned from their trip, yet they’re nowhere to be found. Even after the notification of the delay from family members, the university is not worried at all. It’s a winter hike and delays do happen. They’re so confident in this group of young people that they are certain any likelihood of something going wrong is absolutely minute. Worrying seems an overreaction. However, the families of these hikers start getting a more panicked as the days pass and eventually pressure the school into doing something.
Four days after this initial worry from the families, the University agrees to send a telegram to the closest village. This remote village would have been the last stopping point of civilization where the group would have reached the real start of the hike up Dead Mountain. The reply from the town is simple. The group did not return.
This is the first time there are any real red flags about the possible whereabouts of the group being amiss, but the university still is not convinced that anything needs to be done.
Another four days pass before the search begins. It is another few days after that before the tent is found.
Now we’ve found the tent, but there are no bodies inside. Where are the hikers?
The detailed search of the tent and all its materials begins, but it is done in a completely unprofessional, unstructured way and was later described as a “bit of a mess.” Searchers were so eager to get any clue they could about the whereabouts of the hikers that they were not willing to wait for proper channels, or even trained inspectors, to come and forensically analyze the scene in an appropriate way. They just dive in, looking for anything they can find.
Any tracks that would have been around the tent have been completely covered by the snow and ice that has fallen in the many days since the group vanished. There are no clues which direction they have gone. Rescuers are essentially searching in the dark in a massive expanse of snow, hoping against hope that they may see something or feel something with metal poles that spike through feet of snow.
It’s two men who aren’t even looking for the hikers who make the first discovery. They are part of the search party, but on this day they’ve been assigned the more mundane task of finding a camping spot for the rescue team that night. They’re close to a mile away from the tent site itself, so they’re not expecting to find anything. But, naturally, they do. They notice a cedar. Something about the boughs of the tree do not look quite right, like they have been charred. The two men think find this curious and move closer. They’re looking around earnestly when one of the men points northward. There, standing out against the snow, is a human knee.
Immediately they retrieve the rest of the search party and the rescuers begin to dig frantically. It turns out there’s not just one body under this patch of snow, but two. Both are men and they are lying side by side. Neither are wearing jackets nor pants and their remaining clothes are torn and shredded. It looks like something got at one of the boys faces, perhaps an animal. Neither of them are wearing shoes. They are almost a mile from the site of their abandoned tent.
It’s a search dog that finds the next body.
It is the body of the group leader. He is frozen in a curled position around a birch tree, where he had been buried in the snow. His wristwatch was stopped in time. He is shoeless and is wearing mismatched socks.
Then one of the girls is found. She’s laying in the snow, blood caked on her face, and she’s curled into herself. Her legs look as if she was taking a step and then collapsed unexpectedly. Imagine it as if she was mid-walk when she fell over into the snowdrift and was covered up. She, too, is shoeless.
Two months go by before another body is found. The searchers are getting tired, desperate, and starting to feel like the search will never end.
Then one day the crew stumbles across a pile of clothes under the snow. So, they start digging and digging and digging. They dig so much that the hole they created was a span of 100 feet wide and, at points, eight feet deep. It’s here that they found the remaining bodies, in a sort of creek bed under the snow.
One of is wearing two wristwatches. One is wearing two socks on one foot and none on the other. One is wrapped in a torn sweater and two of them are locked in a frozen embrace, probably trying to conserve the last of their warmth by huddling together.
The way the hiker’s deaths were handled is mysterious and itself. There was an argument about the bodies. The government didn’t want them brought back to their local town. However, the families did. They pushed until one of them was brought back, but even their retrieval was under suspicious circumstances. There have been rumors that perhaps the USSR government officials and soldiers may have been somehow involved in the hiker’s disappearance.
There is no easily understood reason why experienced hikers who are trained in this climate died, and especially under such strange circumstances. It’s freezing temperatures. They know the risks of death and how to avoid them. They know how to survive in this situation and yet they seemingly just got up and walked out of their tent? It doesn’t make sense.
Popular Theories and Explanations of the Dyatlov Pass Incident on Dead Mountain
The more people study this and the more tests that have been done, the weirder the theories seem to get. Further evidence of the tent later showed that a back corner had actually been cut out, and cut not from the outside in (as in the case of some sort of intruder), but cut as if they had to get out and get out quickly. Yet everything inside looks so neat and tidy? Much of the evidence seems contradictory.
There are many theories about the deaths of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Unfortunately, we’re likely never really going to know what happened. But there are theories: alien conspiracy theories, USSR government conspiracy theories, theories that there is some sort of testing out there and the group saw something they weren’t supposed to see. The author of the book I’m basing this video on has a different theory entirely, a more natural and scientific one. He thinks it’s a naturally occurring phenomena, though rare, dealing with sound waves that may have caused these hikers to lose their rationale and it may explain how they perished under such strange, strange circumstances.
Stranger still, some of the bodies did not have the cause of death listed as what would you expect: hypothermia. Several of the bodies had high impact blows that the coroner said could be classified and should be classified as a violent death. So, how did these violent blows happen?
No matter how outlandish the theories, the bottom line is we will likely never know what happened at the Dyatlov Pass Incident. We will probably never have concrete answers, but my question to you is: do you have any theories?
If you’re curious about this story and just Soviet era Russia in general, I would highly encourage you to read more by checking out this book by Donnie Eichar, Dead Mountain. It’s a fantastic book and is the story which first sparked my interest in Russian history. A lot of mystery, though it’s a bit of an adventure book at the same time, as well as a cultural book on 1950’s Russia. Really, really fantastic. I hope you’ll check it out.
If you liked this video, give it a thumbs up and tune in next week for Episode Five of Nonfiction Friday. The first season of Nonfiction Friday is experimental, so be sure to leave a thumbs up and drop a comment below letting me know if you enjoy this so I can decide if I want to make a season two. Thanks so much for watching. If you haven’t subscribed yet, go ahead, press that subscribe button and I will see you on the next one. Thanks for watching. Bye, guys.
Resources for Further Study:
- See photos from the hiker’s cameras at the Dyatlov Pass website here.
- Visit this web page at the same resource site to see a list of common theories.
- Watch the book trailer Donnie Eichar’s Dead Mountain which chronicles his investigation below:
Read Donnie Eichar’s fascinating book, Dead Mountain
The untold true story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident
What happened that night on Dead Mountain?The mystery of Dead Mountain: In February 1959, a group of nine experienced hikers in the Russian Ural Mountains died mysteriously on an elevation known as Dead Mountain. Eerie aspects of the mountain climbing incident-unexplained violent injuries, signs that they cut open and fled the tent without proper clothing or shoes, a strange final photograph taken by one of the hikers, and elevated levels of radiation found on some of their clothes-have led to decades of speculation over the true stories and what really happened.
The mystery of Dead Mountain: In February 1959, a group of nine experienced hikers in the Russian Ural Mountains died mysteriously on an elevation known as Dead Mountain. Eerie aspects of the incident—unexplained violent injuries, signs that they cut open and fled the tent without proper clothing or shoes, a strange final photograph taken by one of the hikers, and elevated levels of radiation found on some of their clothes—have led to decades of speculation over what really happened.
As gripping and bizarre as Hunt for the Skin Walker: This New York Times bestseller, Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, is a gripping work of literary nonfiction that delves into the mystery of Dead Mountain through unprecedented access to the hikers’ own journals and photographs, rarely seen government records, dozens of interviews, and the author’s retracing of the hikers’ fateful journey in the Russian winter.
You’ll love this real-life tale: Dead Mountain is a fascinating portrait of young adventurers in the Soviet era, and a skillful interweaving of the hikers’ narrative, the investigators’ efforts, and the author’s investigations. Here for the first time is the real story of what happened that night on Dead Mountain.