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Dyatlov Pass: the truth is out there

by Anna Arutunyan at 18/02/2013 20:54

Irradiated corpses, rotating fireballs in the sky, a cursed Mountain of the Dead, military experiments and a Soviet coverup. Over half a century after nine ski hikers perished mysteriously in the Ural mountain passage now named Dyatlov Pass, nothing is adding up.

With a Russian-American horror movie to be released Feb. 28, and a book just out detailing a possible connection to the CIA, the Dyatlov Pass myth is witnessing a revival. Yet that hasn’t brought anyone closer to the truth behind what investigators cryptically described as “an elemental force [the hikers] were in no state to overcome.”

There are two stories of the Dyatlov Pass incident: the actual truth of what happened, which researchers admit we will never know, and the bigger myth that has blossomed around the narrative.

“It’s like a snowball, growing with new witnesses and circumstances,” Yury Kuntsevich, who heads the Dyatlov Group Memorial Foundation from Yekaterinburg, told The Moscow News.

Oleg Kashin, a journalist who wrote the foreword for the new book about the Dyatlov Pass incident by Alexei Rakitin, said the legend fills deep national yearnings for myth – and for a new perspective on Soviet history.

“How long can you argue about Stalin?” Kashin told The Moscow News. “Dyatlov Pass is still relatively fresh.”

The Mountain of the Dead

On Jan. 23, 1959, 10 students from the Urals Polytechnic Institute, based in what was then called Sverdlovsk (today’s Yekaterinburg) set out for a ski hike – aiming for Mt. Otorten in the northern Urals.

They were led by Igor Dyatlov, a senior at the institute’s radio technology faculty.

Hiker Yury Yudin, then a 22-yearold student at the engineering faculty, contracted dysentery and remained behind at the last populated settlement the group passed.

According to investigators, the remaining nine hikers made their last camp on Feb. 1, on the mountainside of Kholat Syakhyl, which translates from the language of the indigenous people of Mansi as the Mountain of the Dead.

Given a stringently atheist worldview, the hikers would not have ascribed anything mystical either to the mountain, or to the strange fireballs they may have seen in the sky on their last night alive.

The bodies

Dyatlov’s group was supposed to telegraph about the completion of their journey on Feb. 12, but no signal came. By Feb. 20, a search group set out for them. Six days later, their tent was discovered: abandoned and slashed from the inside with a knife, most of their belongings still inside it.

It appeared that the tent had been very suddenly abandoned.

On Feb. 27, rescuers began discovering the first bodies. Two of them were dressed only in their underwear (their clothes may have been removed by other survivors following their deaths, investigators theorized), and had burns on the hands and feet, while the skin had a strange, orange-crimson tan.

Forensic testing on the first four bodies showed a number of injuries. Death ultimately occurred as the result of hypothermia. The fifth body soon recovered showed signs of blunt trauma – trauma that hastened the onset of hypothermia. Investigators concluded that at least three hikers were on their way back to the tent when they died.

In May, the last four bodies were discovered lower on the mountainside next to a stream, under four meters of snow. Autopsies stunned the doctors: two had broken ribs, one had a crushed skull with no broken skin, and one body had part of the face missing, including the tongue and eyes.

One of the doctors told investigators that only an explosion could cause the kind of damage seen on several of the victims.

Strange lights

The most obvious explanation – an avalanche – could have caused the deaths, but does not account for one of the central mysteries.

Anatoly Shumkov, a student who had camped out nearby on the same night of Feb. 2 with a separate expedition, described seeing a shining light floating down slowly over the Ural mountain range.

Shumkov’s recollections are quoted on an online project devoted to the Dyatlov Pass incident, created by Dmitry Romashko.

Military search team members in the area also went on to describe strange lights in the sky, according to data gathered by Romashko.

The phenomenon was further noted by local indigenous groups in the area, according to author and hiking expert Yevgeny Buyanov.


According to scans of case documents obtained and shared by Kuntsevich of the Dyatlov Foundation, tests conducted on the hikers’ bodies and clothing showed small traces of beta radiation.

When asked whether such levels of beta radiation were normal for clothes obtained from an area not known to be contaminated, the expert, identified only as Levashov, said, “absolutely not,” according to the 1959 protocol of the test results.

A myth is born

The Soviet Union’s hurried decision to classify the case suggested that the “elemental force” that wound up killing the hikers originated with the government itself.

In May 1959, local Communist Party chief Andrei Kirilenko reported about the investigation directly to Nikita Khrushchev. Afterwards, investigator Lev Ivanov was ordered to close the case. The area was closed off to visitors, those involved were made to sign a statement not to disclose anything about the case, and the case itself was classified.

Yudin, the hiker who stayed behind, is convinced the government had set out to conceal military tests that had gone awry. He believes the authorities appeared more interested in why the hikers had wound up in that area, than in how they died.

Yudin believes that the strange spheres of light seen in the skies over the Mountain of the Dead are the key to what happened – and that, in the end, there is nothing mystical about this gruesome campfire story that happens to be true.


Popular theories:

1) Avalanche

This is the most straightforward theory. Some evidence of an avalanche was discovered on the site. But the evidence appears inconclusive.

2) Military testing

A 2008 conference at the Urals State Technical University, together with the Dyatlov Group Memorial Foundation, concluded that military testing was the likeliest explanation. No state agency has responded to Yury Kuntsevich’s requests for information except for the FSB, which said that all those involved in the case had long died, so there was no more information to provide. Kuntsevich, however, obtained additional evidence corroborating the theory. According to a 2009 witness statement from a former serviceman, the Soviet military carried out exercises in the area. The bomber would cast bombs on a parachute; to enable pilots to see where the bombs landed, they were accompanied by burning fuel that could have accounted for the rotating lights, the burns on the bodies and the radiation.

3) Murder

According to investigations by Kuntsevich, who has spoken to former servicemen in the area, the group could have been killed by offi cers charged with catching escaped prisoners from local prison camps (which were part of the Soviet gulag) or by offi cers doing clean-up after the military exercises.

4) Counter-Intelligence

According to one theory proposed by researcher Alexei Rakitin, whose book on the Dyatlov Pass incident came out last month, two of the hikers were KGB offi cers on a mission to uncover a cell of CIA agents stationed in the area. As part of their cover, they were to deliver radioactive samples and then take photographs of the American spies. But something went wrong, and when the Americans discovered the agents were playing a double game, they killed the group.

Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #06"
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