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Mysterious Deaths

Theories about the Dyatlov Pass Incident

For those who don’t already know the story – a team of nine people hiking in the Ural Mountains suddenly cut a hole in their tent in the middle of the night and fled to a nearby forest.  In sub-zero temperatures their chances of survival were poor and they died. But why did they do it?

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Dyatlov Pass Incident Theories
(C) Dyatlov Pass Memorial Foundation

Dyatlov Pass Incident Theories

The real mystery of the Dyatlov Pass Incident is to understand what really happened that terrible night back in 1959 when nine frightened hikers died on a lonely mountain far from home.  The Russian authorities’ may-or-may not know themselves. The available evidence may-or-may not be wholly accurate.

For those who don’t already know the story – a team of nine people hiking in the Ural Mountains suddenly cut a hole in their tent in the middle of the night and fled to a nearby forest.  In sub-zero temperatures their chances of survival were poor.  They tried to make a fire and use what ever clothes they had but they all died.  Investigations later found that some of them had sustained terrible injuries, missing organs and even had traces of radiation on their clothes.  These people experienced something horrific and then died and no one really knows why. This is one mystery that deserves to be solved.

The Official Statement from the Russian Authorities

“As there was no evidence of a guilty party the reasons for the actions of the ski-team and their subsequent injuries is unknown. All that can be said is that they were the victims of a “Compelling Force”.

Even until today the authorities have failed to clarify what they meant by this statement. Were they referring to a physical force capable of inflicting the injuries, such as a shockwave, or were they referring to a mental compulsion – or perhaps both?

After many years and the tireless work of the Dyatlov Pass Foundation, the official investigation has been reopened by the Russian authorities.

There have been many theories regarding what happened. Here are a few to consider:

The Fear of Avalanche Theory

When the ski-team set up their last camp the slopes of Kholat-Syakhl (a Mansi name apparently meaning ‘Mountain of the Dead’) they chose a spot that has surprised both rescuers and investigators. It was highly exposed and just possibly in the path of a small avalanche should it occur. However, it was a good place from which to start the following day’s journey.

As very experienced skiers and hikers it is likely that the team was fully aware about where they were camping. Maybe they saw the risk as low and worth taking or were just too tired to relocate.

Last phot of Dyatlov Team

The Last ‘Clear’ Photo taken of the Team as they made camp. (Russian National Archives)

The theory suggests that regardless of their misgivings they stayed where they were. However, as night fell, and the wind rose, these misgivings may have turned to nervousness and finally fear.

Perhaps there were arguments and disagreements about what they should do. Then, to increase their anxiety, they could periodically here faint roaring and rumbling noises above the wind. Was this the sound of rocks and snow sliding down far mountains? Still, they had no choice but to stay where they were and prepared to sleep.

Suddenly they notice a far-off roar of noise that grows quickly loader. In their minds they can see the snow ice and rubble sweeping towards them. The noise now becomes very loud, and they panic. Perhaps someone screams “Avalanche!” Desperate to escape and with no time for fastened tent flaps, they slash through the canvas and, as a group, run to the nearest forest. All around them the roaring grows louder until they can hear nothing else. Finally, the sound fades away as they reach the shelter of a giant pine tree.

In their confused and exhausted state, they look back up the hill and imagine their campsite buried under the snow. They are relieved to be alive but also realise they’re in desperate trouble. Quickly they gather what firewood they can in the dark and build a fire. The team don’t realise that there has not been an avalanche at all. The sound that they had heard was the jet engine and “after burner” of a low flying Mig21 (Mig21f prototype) jet fighter or fighters (possibly a Sukhoi Su-9) on a night training mission above them.

It was these same jets and their engines that had been seen by another group many miles away and had been recorded as moving orange lights. (Please note that the noise created does actually sound a bit like an avalanche. It is higher pitched than its USA counterparts with a distinctive rattle.)

dyatlov_pass_the_flight

The escape route taken by the fleeing ski team. The landscape picture was taken by the 2004 expedition while the semi-transparent black and white image was from the original investigation in 1959 and has been used to show the location of the tent. (DPIF)

For a while the group remains together but as their situation deteriorates, they urgently discuss what to do. The wind is literally killing them. Slobodin climbs a tree to see if he can make out the camp. On the way down he slips and receives a minor skull-fracture. In desperation, Dyatlov decides to head back for the camp and see if he can access their supplies. He and two others (Zinaida Kolmogorova & Rustem Slobodin) set off but never make it. They die one-by-one of hypothermia.

The others wait. Perhaps they shout out to Dyatlov but hear nothing. They remain under the pine and while they do so both Georgyi Krivonischenko & Yuri Doroshenko die from hypothermia. Dubinina hates herself for what she does but she still removes Krivonischenko’s trousers to wrap around her freezing feet. This action suggests that at this time she was not as yet severely injured.

When Igor Dyatlov fails to return, the survivors assume that the camp site is gone and that Dyatlov is dead. They make the decision to move into the forest – possibly in search of a pine cave to shelter in. They abandon their dead comrades and walk 75m metres into and along the forest. Fate is against them and suddenly the ground gives way, and they fall into a ravine. Three of them sustain serious impact injuries. Dubinina and Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel die almost instantly. Alexander Kolevatov takes Dubinina’s hat and coat and tries to keep Alexander Zolotarev warm but cold and exhaustion quickly claims the lives of the remaining two survivors.

The rescuers found the campsite on 26 February 1959 and quickly discovered the first five bodies. It took a further three months to find the remaining four in the snow filled ravine. Apparently, radiation was identified on the cloths of some of the victims, but this may well have been from work they did at the polytechnic and thus nothing to do with the strange deaths.

Body of Zinaida Kolmogorova buried in the snow.

The Body of Zinaida Kolmogorova Buried in the Snow. (Russian National Archives)

The lack of bruising and hard-impact contusions on the bodies may or may not be true. However, bruises and the like form far more slowly in colder temperatures and in the case of people frozen to death may not form at all. Finally, after two months in the frozen snow there would be considerable tissue damage that could disguise existing bruises.

Perhaps the most mysterious part of the incident was the discovery that Dubinina’s tongue had been ripped from her mouth. In this theory, the explanation is that her mouth may have been open and her tongue available to a scavenger, such as a fox, that would take what it could and leave.

The reason for the Russian secrecy can also be explained if they were actually testing new jet fighters in the area and were thus paranoid about high levels of security. Also, they in no way wanted to be associated with the deaths of nine good citizens.

For the strange orange tan and so-called grey hair displayed by the victims this theory has no answer other than to say that it could be exaggeration, normal sunburn or even morticians at work.

This theory is a practical approach based on the evidence available. It takes all the key elements of the mystery and provides a cause-and-effect chain where the components do fit together in a plausible way.

It’s not without problems though. Would the skiers really be fooled by a jet flying overhead? Once they reached the trees would they not have realised that there had been no avalanche and immediately return to their tent? How could three people sustain such crippling injuries by falling into a shallow ravine?

The biggest problem with this theory is the fact that the team knew that the chance of an avalanche was tiny, and they also knew that by cutting and fleeing their tent they were probably going to die from exposure.  They would have actually had more chance of surviving a tiny avalanche if they stayed in the tent and dug themselves out later.  A study of the photographs confirms that there was actually only tiny chance of an avalanche and the team would have known this.  Finally, the investigators found no trace of an avalanche at the site.

However, after completing the 2019 investigation, the Russian Authorities stated in 2020, that the cause of the accident was just an avalanche.

The Mansi Natives Abduction Theory

This was actually the first theory to emerge but was quickly discredited by the Russian authorities. In this theory the skiers, who are inside their tents, are surprised by Mansi native intruders. The intruders cut open the sides of the tent and force the partially clothed skiers down the hill to the forest.

Dyatlov Pass Tent - Multiple Cuts

One of the things that caught the attention of the rescue team was a sequence of cuts in the tent canvas. It is often described that the team made only one large cut but this is clearly not true. (Russian National Archives)

It is the intruders that build a fire for skiers and force them to wait in the freezing cold. After a while two of the skiers die from hypothermia. Dyatlov and two companions make a run for the tents? Exhausted before they even start, they collapse on the way and die. The remaining survivors are forced to march into the woods and made to stand at the edge of a convenient ravine but not before they take what clothes they can from their fallen comrades.

Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel is struck over the head with a weapon crushing his skull. Dubinina keeps shouting at the attackers to stop so they force her to the ground and kneel on her chest thus breaking her ribs they then rip out her tongue. Half dead, they throw her into the ravine. They attempt the same on Alexander Zolotarev but only succeed in breaking his ribs. Alexander Kolevatov doesn’t wait but jumps after them and tries to save his injured companions. The attackers leave them all for dead.

This was a theory apparently suggested at the time and dismissed. The reason for this was that according to the investigators there was no evidence of any other people in the vicinity. This is a dubious assessment as the whole area would have been walked over and examined by the rescuers before the investigation began. In addition, almost 23 days had passed before the discovery of the first set of victims. Snow and wind could have concealed many things during this time.

One proponent of the abduction theory suggests that the Russian authorities knew that the Mansi had been involved but covered this up so as to avoid yet another tribal and ethic issue. In short, they wanted to avoid internal unrest and possibly low-grade military fighting.

There is a very good reason for doing this – oil. A little-known fact about this case is that in 1957 and 1958 the Soviet Union was desperately seeking increased oil production and had secretly decided to exploit the rich reserves in the Khantia-Mansia region. In 1960, the year after the event, one of the biggest oil exploitation projects began in this district. It is easy now to see what motivation the Russian authorities would have to avoid internal conflict. In addition, even now some 30 years after the USSR broke up, it is clear that many of the components of the Soviet Union were not that friendly – Ukraine, Georgia, etc.

This theory discounts the orange lights, strange tans, grey hair and radiation as actually unrelated to the main event.

This theory has some merit and is not dissimilar to actual recorded events where tourists have been abducted merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, there is one major flaw in this theory. The victims do not appear to have been robbed and the campsite had clearly not been ransacked. Many of the items that the ski-team had with them would have been highly valuable by Mansi standards and would have almost certainly been taken. They were not.  Still, it has been pointed out that according to the Mansi (Vogul) code, killing intruders might have been acceptable, but robbing them would not.

Over the years the Mansi have been repeatedly questioned about the event.  Not one shred of evidence has been found that they were involved.  Perhaps the most compelling argument is that the had no reason to attack the camp.  The mountain has often been said to be sacred to the Mansi people but that just isn’t true.  Also, the name of the mountain has been mistranslated by the media – it is actually called The Mountain of the Swirling Winds.

Finally, according to Valery Anyamov, a middle-aged Mansi man based at Ushma and who works in the forest as a warden: “If any of our people had been involved in that crime, they would have thrown us all into prison because it was a cruel time. In those days people were executed by firing squad without investigation or trial.”

The Weapons Testing Theory

This theory proposes that on the night of the 2 February 1959 certain military tests were conducted extremely close to the where the ski-team had camped. The authorities conducting the tests would have probably been unaware that the ski-team was even in the vicinity. The weapon, if it exists at all, was probably an air burst concussion device with a chemical warfare component.

Whatever happened, it panicked the skiers who fled for the safety of the forest. They stayed under the pine tree until Dyatlov, and his two companions decided to venture back to the camp. Unfortunately, the cold overwhelms them, and they die on the way.

Under the pine tree two further members die. The survivors try to wait it out, but a second device is detonated overhead severely injuring three of them. Once again, they are panicked into moving. After stumbling through the woods, they reached the ravine. They clearly tried to survive but, in the end, all four died and were covered with snow. Dubanina’s tongue is later taken by a scavenger.

This theory covers everything raised as a question by the evidence – just not very convincingly. Why test a weapon in this place when they had far better sites that they could use? Why did this weapon inflict such serious damage to some of the group but not others? Surely a blast sufficiently strong to crush a skull and break multiple ribs would have damaged the tents and or parts of the trees? However, this is still the theory proposed by Yuri Kuntsevich, head of the Dyatlov Pass Foundation.  Oleg Arkhipov, a researcher, and author from nearby Tyumen claims that the original investigator Lev Ivanov was warned off the case and later sent to an obscure town in the Republic of Kazakhstan.  Ivanov admitted these facts in 1990 and actually apologised the families of the victims.  But …surely toxicology tests would have shown up evidence of chemicals sufficiently strong to change the victims’ skin colour. According to Oleg, test samples went missing after the autopsy possibly because they revealed things people wanted to hide.

dyatlov-pass-radiation

Dyatlov Pass Radiation Testing

He also points out that it wasn’t regular police that guarded the bodies after they had been recovered and taken to Ivdel but KGB agents.  Finally, he points out that a large barrel of alcohol was delivered to the holding station.  Far too much for sampling or to drink.  He suggests that it was there as a rough-and-ready way of wiping away radiation contamination.

 

The Toxic Snow / Drugs Theory

This theory claims that the ski-team probably melted contaminated snow for drinking water and subsequently experienced disorientation and hallucinations that caused them to behave as they did.

For individuals that were supposedly hallucinating and disorientated they actually behaved in quite a rational manner. They managed to start a fire from wet wood, used clothes from their dead companions, tried to return to the camp for supplies and tried to take care of each other to the very end.

Toxic snow, accidental ergot poisoning and even recreation drugs have all been suggested.  The reality is that the behaviour of the hikers just doesn’t match the proposed cause, nor does it come close to explaining the injuries or the changes to the hikers’ physical appearance.

The UFO / Alien / Meteor Theory

The advantage of alien UFO theories is that you can invent anything to fit the facts. The main thrust of this theory about the Dyatlov Pass Incident is based on the strange lights in the night sky, tanned orange skin, weird injuries and (supposedly) high levels of radiation

In brief, this theory states that the Dyatlov group encountered an extra-terrestrial phenomenon and tried to flee the scene.  It’s suggested that something alien was trying to get in through the main flap of the tent and the hikers, realising they were trapped, cut open the tent and fled down the hill.  The alien followed them and inflicted the mysterious injuries.

Alien Terror on Death Mountain

Alien Terror on Death Mountain

According to Mikhail Sharavin, part of the original search Party, three of the team seemed to be heading back to the tent when they died.  Dyatlov was found clutching a birch branch and Zinaida was found with bruises on her ribs consistent with being hit by a batten.

Could there be any truth in this version of events? For a start, the area is well known for strange lights and mysterious fireballs that seem to have a life and intelligence of their own.

On the night of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, several independent witnesses all claimed to have seen orange glowing orbs in the sky near to where the hikers were camping.

Members of the original rescue team, including Boris Sychev, actually saw these fireball phenomena while on the way to the incident site and were extremely perplexed with no rational explanation for what they had witnessed.

Finally, one of the last photos taken by the group clearly shows a mysterious humanoid figure lurking in the trees.  It is usually described as a Russian yeti, but proponents of the extra-terrestrial phenomenon theory believe it could just as easily have been an alien.

Witnesses at the funerals of the hikers remarked that the victims had skin the colour of bricks and hair that had turned dirty grey.  This was noted independently by both Yuri Kuntsevich and Tatyana Dyatlov as well as being mentioned in several reports.  This change in skin colour is often attributed to exposure to sub-zero temperatures but those who witnessed the discolouration claim it looked much different.

No all out-of-space theories point to aliens.  One version of this theory is that a meteorite exploded above them and they believed it was a nuclear weapon and ran for the shelter of the valley.  Russian youngsters of the 1950’s, just like their western counterparts, were trained what to do in the even of a nuclear blast and the first rule was get out of the open and underground wherever possible.

The Argument Theory

This is pretty straightforward.  The group had a fierce argument and one of the team slashed open the side of the tent and ran out into the cold.  Others followed but became disoriented and lost.  The injuries were all caused by accidents.

Nothing about this theory makes sense.  Some of the group would have stayed to fix the tent.  Those that left the tent would have dressed properly before going out into the cold.  There was no evidence in any of the diaries that the group were growing hostile to each other.  Leaving the tent was near suicidal and unthinkable.

The Infrasound Theory

This theory proposes that wind blowing around the tent created a “Karman vortex street” that created disturbing levels of infrasound that caused the hikers to panic and flee.  There is something to this idea as the real name of the mountain translates to Place of the Swirling Winds.  Would it have been enough to panic nine experienced hikers? Probably not.

However, one of the Dyatlov Pass researchers suggests that the infrasound experienced by the team was anything but natural.  They point to a nearby airbase that was secret at the time and suggest that an infrasound weapon may have been tested at this time.

We do know from declassified records from this time that both Russia and the USA were messing about with a wide variety of alternative weapons from mind control experiments such as MK Ultra and trans dimensional travel such as the Philadelphia Project. The theory proposes that the team were exposed to the sound test and went temporarily insane.

The Russian Yeti

According to this theory, the group were attacked by the Russian equivalent of a yeti.  Bizarrely, there is actually some evidence for this suggestion. Shortly before the incident one of the team took a photo of a blurred humanoid figure coming out from behind a tree. The image is not recognisable as a person from the group and does appear somewhat hairy and ape-like. Sceptic claim it is one of the team wearing a coat while proponents of the theory point out the image looks nothing like a person.

Possible Yeti, Menk, or Alien taken from Camera of Thibeaux-Brignolle

A violent animal like attack would explain some of the injuries and would explain why the group ran from the stricken tent.  However, no yeti has ever been biologically identified and there was no evidence of an animal on any of the hikers.

Other theories

Some of the other theories surrounding this case include:

  • The skiers were mistaken for escaped ‘Gulag’ prisoners from Ivdel.
  • They accidentally drank methanol and went crazy
  • A wolverine got into the tent and sprayed them with its skunk-like scent
  • The youngsters took drugs either on purpose or accidentally
  • They were suffering from near asphyxiation caused by a build up of gas in the tent.
  • They had been in a fight some days earlier and they had been followed and attacked.
  • The USA had secret agents in the area spying on missile launches and were discovered by the team.

While every theory on this page has some merit, none of them are perfect and many of them are easily challenged.  The truth is that even after two investigates more than 60 years apart, there is no explanation that can offer and undeniable answer.

For now the deaths at Dyatlov Pass remain unsolved and the mystery remains very much alive.

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