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The Dyatlov Pass Incident: Mountain of the Dead

The following is an article from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader The World's Gone Crazy.

More than 50 years ago, a group of experienced skiers met a gruesome end on a snowy mountain range. And to this day, no one knows for sure what happened to them.


In January 1959, 23-year-old Igor Dyatlov led a group of 10 college students from the Ural Polytechnic Institute on a two-week cross-country ski trek across the northern Ural mountains of Russia (then the Soviet Union). To reach their destination, the eight men and two women first had to ski over a mountain pass known as Kholat Syakhl. In the language of the Mansi people native to the area, the name means “Mountain of the Dead.” But as far as Dyatlov’s team was concerned, that was just folklore.

Just three days into the trip, one of the members, Yuri Yudin, felt sick, so he left the group and returned home. The remaining nine continued on… and no one ever saw them alive again.


(Image credit: Alerseya_Koskina)

A few facts about the days leading up to the disappearance were pieced together from diaries and cameras that were later found at one of the expedition’s campsites. On January 31, the group reached the base of the mountain and stored some equipment and food they would need on the way back. The next day, they started for the pass. But heavy snow caused whiteout conditions, and the group veered off course. Realizing their mistake, Dyatlov decided to make camp there on the slope and wait out the storm.

After that, all that’s really known is that the group failed to report in as expected on February 12. Initially, this didn’t cause much alarm; overland ski trips often run longer than expected. But as the days ticked by, family members became more and more concerned. On February 20, a rescue expedition of students and teachers was launched. The Russian army and police soon joined in, and on February 26, the first team reached the abandoned campsite on Kholat Syakhl.


When the film from one of the cameras was developed, the photographs showed the group of healthy young men and women posing for the camera, smiling, seemingly having a great time. But the scene the rescuers came upon showed a much different picture: One of the heavy canvas tents had been slashed through from the inside, as if the occupants were desperate to escape. Footprints led the searchers down the mountain to find two men, dressed only in their underwear, frozen to death. About a hundred yards away was Dyatlov himself, wearing only one shoe, also frozen to death. Additional searches eventually turned up two more frozen corpses away from their tent, both of whom were wearing each other’s clothes. They all seemed to have no external wounds, and four bodies were still unaccounted for. They weren’t found until May, in a nearby ravine.

When medical examiners couldn’t find any injuries on the first five bodies, they ruled the cause of death as hypothermia. But of the four bodies found later, three had severe (but not life-threatening) injuries, one to the skull and two to the chest. And one of the women was missing her tongue, though it was unclear if it had been cut out or if she’d bitten it off herself. “In the absence of a guilty party,” the final verdict stated, the members were deemed to have been killed by an “unknown compelling force.” The inquest was officially closed; the files were packed away until 1993 when they were finally declassified. But the “official files” have only added to the mystery.


As more evidence has come to light, three theories have been proposed to explain what happened on Kholat Syakhl, now called Dyatlov Pass.

• Secret military tests: Recent discoveries of scrap metal near Kholat Syakhl suggest that the Russians were using the area for secret military tests. Low levels of alpha radiation found on some of the victims’ clothes suggest that the testing may have been nuclear. So perhaps the nine adventurers wandered into the middle of some kind of experiment. The Soviet government denied this, and the search team found no evidence of any type of explosion.

• Alien attack: Hikers about 30 miles south of the pass reported seeing orange spheres in the sky the night the expedition met its end. Similar sightings were recorded throughout February and March. During the open-casket funeral for four of the members who froze to death, their relatives noticed that the victims’ hair had turned gray and there was a strange, orange cast to their skin. So perhaps the orange lights scared the first five out of their tents, where they died of exposure, and the four others who searched for them were then attacked by those same orange lights.

• Avalanche: Brian Dunning, author of Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena, looks for a more plausible explanation: “Sometime during the night, a loud noise, either from a nearby avalanche, a jet aircraft, or military ordnance, convinced at least five members of the group that an avalanche was bearing down on them. They burst out of the tent wearing whatever they happened to be sleeping in and ran.” Then, says Dunning, they got lost trying to get back to the camp. And when the other four went to look for them, they got caught in a real avalanche—which might explain the internal injuries and the woman’s missing tongue.

Dunning also points out that the radiation found on the clothes may have actually come from their camp lanterns, which contained a radioactive substance called thorium (the lanterns even had a radioactive symbol on them). So what about the orange skin and gray hair? “Their bodies had been exposed outdoors for weeks,” said Dunning. “Of course they looked terrible.”


Still, many lingering questions about the Dyatlov Pass Incident keep the conspiracy theories alive: Why did the searchers find so many sets of footprints? An avalanche would have covered them all up, along with the camp. And if it was a simple avalanche that killed the group, why would the Russian government try to cover it up? Why say the skiers were killed by an “unknown compelling force”? Nearly 30 years after the case was officially put to rest, the chief investigator, Lev Ivanov, made this statement: “I suspected at the time and am almost sure now that these bright flying spheres had a direct connection to the group’s death.” But just what were those spheres? Strange weapons, UFOs, or something else?

“If I could ask God just one question,” said Yuri Yudin, the skier who had to turn back, “It would be, ‘What really happened to my friends that night?’”


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader The World's Gone Crazy.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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