03 August 2008

Sunday Mystery: The Incident at Dyatlov Pass

In the typically harsh Soviet winter of 1959, Igor Dyatlov led nine students and graduates of the Ural Polytechnical Institute on a ski trek in the Ural Mountains. The journey was to be arduous. Despite their experience, the travelers would have to contend with rugged terrain, snow storms, and temperatures far below freezing. The group departed on January 25th with the understanding that Dyatlov would send a telegram confirming their return to base camp by the 12th of February. There was no concern when word of the group failed to materialize by that set date, as weather conditions often caused a few days' delay. However, by the 20th a rescue mission was dispatched.

The first of the bodies was discovered a month after the party was last seen, on February 26th (one, Yuri Yudin, became sick before leaving base camp and stayed behind). The obvious conclusion was that they were victims of the elements, and the initial evidence seemed to support this notion.
Mikhail Sharavin found the first tent: “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 first five members of the group were found sprawled in the snow, far from their tents, dressed only in their night clothes. It was determined a few of the victims had been trying to make their way back to the camp.

The bodies were sent away for autopsies. It was confirmed the five died of hypothermia, despite one member of the group having a fractured skull. The other four victims were not found until considerably later. From the St. Petersburg Times:
"Their bodies were found buried under four meters of snow in a forest ravine, 75 meters away from the pine tree. The four — Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel, 24, Ludmila Dubinina, 21, Alexander Zolotaryov, 37, and Alexander Kolevatov, 25 — appeared to have suffered traumatic deaths. Thibeaux-Brignollel’s skull had been crushed, and Dubunina and Zolotarev had numerous broken ribs. Dubinina also had no tongue.

The bodies, however, showed no external wounds."

A doctor judged that no human could have inflicted the injuries and that it appeared as though the casualties were the result of force similar to a car crash. The mystery deepened when it was discovered that the latter group's clothing showed high levels of radiation. No source for the contamination could be found. Family and friends who later saw the victims' bodies claimed that their skin had taken on a strange orange color. There is evidence they may have been blinded. These oddities were followed by reports of strange colored lights in the night sky.

An investigation into the affair was opened and closed within the space of a few months. The findings were classified (which, in Soviet Russia, was not particularly notable), and any further inquiry was dropped. The area was closed off to expeditions for three years.

So what really happened? The circumstances truly possess all the key components of a great horror tale: isolation, an extreme environment, and deaths that defy simple, logical explanations. And yes, there's a hint at UFOs as is present in so many of these scenarios. Yet, the story can't be dismissed as more tomfoolery from the foil-hat demographic. Even the medical investigations were unable to draw definitive conclusions. The official cause was listed as an "unknown compelling force."

It is certain something did take place that forced the group to leave their shelter in the middle of the night, ripping open their tents from the inside, emerging only partially clothed and without outdoor equipment, in a temperature of -30°C. According to Wikipedia, "Some were found wrapped in snips of ripped clothes which seemed to be cut from those who were already dead." The official inquest cited two more facts, again taken from Wikipedia:
  • Six of the group members died of hypothermia and three of fatal injuries.
  • There were no indications of other people nearby apart from the nine travellers on Kholat Syakhl, nor anyone in the surrounding areas.
Perhaps hypothermia is a reasonable explanation. In severe cases, victims become confused. They may actually begin to remove their clothing. Sufferers may become combative and behave irrationally. Perhaps there was an avalanche. Perhaps a conclusive answer will never be found.

In all likelihood, the truth of the accident is mundane. Something attributable to the conditions the party found themselves in. Yet, the thrill of a great mystery like this is in avoiding the plausible. Conveniently overlooking the ordinary and letting our imaginations get the best of us. And it's this reason that the Dyatlov Pass Accident remains a captivating tale.

You can find more information from the places I stole mine :
St Petersburg Times
SF Gate
Photos taken from here
You can find pictures from the trekkers' own cameras here

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