The Dyatlov Pass Mystery: Could an Avalanche Have Killed the Hikers?

By: Nathan Chandler  | 

Dyatlov Pass
A view of the hikers' tent as searchers found it on Feb. 26, 1959. The tent had been cut open from inside, and most of the hikers had fled in socks or barefoot. Wikimedia Commons

Forget the unknowns surrounding Amelia Earhart's fate or who really shot JFK. One of the most enduring unsolved mysteries of the 20th century is what happened to nine hikers found dead at Dyatlov Pass in the Ural Mountains of Russia in 1959.

Ever since then, researchers and conspiracy buffs the world over have pondered the mystery. Government inquiries yielded eerie black-and-white photographs of the mostly 20-something outdoor lovers as they pushed deeper and deeper into the backcountry.

But the ghostly images couldn't speak for the dead. And other bits of evidence didn't form a cohesive story of how they perished during their planned 200-mile (322-kilometer) adventure.

Amidst a Cold War backdrop, conspiracy theories flourished, including the possibility that perhaps the deaths resulted from a murderous love triangle, Yetis, a drug party gone wrong, secret KGB projects or even aliens.

Finally, in 2019, pushing back against resurgent headlines about the incident, Russian officials revisited the case in hopes of settling it once and for all — and cited an avalanche as the most likely cause of the disaster.

Yet for many people, the evidence was still far from conclusive.

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A New Study Is Released

In Jan. 2021, a study presented by two Swiss researchers in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, seemed to back the official claim that an avalanche caused the tragedy. Aliens weren't at fault. Rather, it was a rampaging block of ice and snow that partially buried the hikers' tent and sent them, panicked and partially clothed, into sub-zero temperatures, where they had no chance of survival.

The research was conducted by Alexander Puzrin, a geotechnical engineer at ETH Zürich, and Johan Gaume, head of the Snow Avalanche Simulation Laboratory at EPFL, a Swiss federal technical institute.

As they dug into the data, they realized that the supposedly gentle incline of the deadly camping site was actually closer to 30 degrees, just enough to qualify it for potential avalanches. Earlier investigators assumed that the slope was gentler, in part to snowfall and the area's wildly undulating topography.

They also surmised that the ditch the campers dug to keep their tent stable may have conversely contributed to the destabilization of the snow slab just above them. Then, high winds (reported in the hikers' journals) could have piled just enough extra weight onto the ditch's rim to create avalanche conditions.

The resulting mass of moving snow and ice wasn't huge or dramatic — the block may have been less than 20 feet (6 meters) long. It was small enough to confuse the first investigators who arrived, yet large enough to cause utter panic and subsequent disaster.

The researchers also point out that the hikers had placed their bedding on top of their skis. With their bodies against this hard, rigid material, the force of the rushing snow would've caused a lot of physical harm, explaining some of the injuries listed in the official autopsies.

In the chaos following the avalanche, team members likely dug each other out in various states of injury and fatigue. But the extreme cold and lack of functioning equipment essentially sealed their fates. Mother Nature, in the form of weather and wild animals, could account for the rest of the harm that befell their bodies.

The avalanche scenario isn't as intriguing as a shadowy government plot or murderous Yetis, nor is it desirable for a profitable conspiracy theory market. Its simplicity, however, offers some comfort to the families still grieving their loved ones who died in the cold and snow so long ago.

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The Story, From the Beginning

The odd series of events started in the winter of 1959, when savvy outdoorsman and 23-year-old college student Igor Dyatlov assembled a group of 10 people to go on a skiing/hiking journey through a northern stretch of the Ural Mountains, in what used to be the Soviet Union.

The adventure wasn't just a group of crazy college kids on a lark. They didn't pack booze. They swore off cigarettes. It wasn't vacation — it was a mission. All of them (eight men and two women) were experienced outdoorsy types, with Grade II-hiker certifications including ski experience, and the 190-mile (306-kilometer) journey would qualify them for Grade III status, the highest possible certification in the country at the time.

On Jan. 25, they set out into the cold and snow. Almost immediately one man, Yuri Yudin, felt physically unwell and turned back for home. He could not have known at the time that his ailments would save him from certain death.

Dyatlov Pass
The nine hikers as they set off into the wilderness.
Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 4.0)

The nine others continued onward.

On Jan. 31, the group reached a critical waypoint, a valley that marked the approach to what would eventually come to be called Dyatlov Pass. There, they stashed extra gear and food that they'd need for their return trip.

The following morning, they began their ascent, hoping to push over the pass and then make camp. But a fierce snowstorm pushed them off their intended route and onto the slopes of a mountain named Kholat Syakhl, which, in the language of the indigenous people who live here, means "Dead Mountain."

The altered route meant that the team had to choose a new campsite. Rather than retreating to a more protected area they opted, for whatever reason, to camp on the mountain's exposed slopes.

Perhaps they simply didn't want to lose the ground they'd gained. Maybe they were too cold and weary to fall back. In any case, they pitched their large shared tent, where they would soon be subjected to temperatures that nosedived to around -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 degrees Celsius).

Researchers know this much thanks to journals and film recovered from the camp. But much of what transpired during the next two days on Kholat Syakhl is hard to understand. The group failed to arrive at a rendezvous point at a predetermined time, so search and rescue teams, including army units, set out to find them.

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What the Searchers Found

Three weeks later, on Feb. 26. 1959, they finally located the ruined camp, amid a string of truly weird circumstances. How weird? Let us count the ways.

  • The tent was half-covered with snow, torn open — from the inside — with no one around. The group's belongings, including vital necessities like shoes, had been left behind.
  • A line of footprints indicated that the nine people had walked away at normal speed, but some just wore just one shoe or were totally barefoot.
  • About a third of a mile (0.53 kilometers) away there was evidence of a campfire, along with the shoeless and mostly naked remains of two group members.
  • Within several hundred feet, between the campfire and tent, they located three more bodies frozen in poses that made it seem as though they were attempting to return to camp.

It wasn't until May 4 that the weather warmed enough for investigators to track down the other dead, whose remains were found a few dozen feet from the chaotic campfire, their bodies lodged in a creek bed.

Autopsies showed that the first six hikers found died of hypothermia. But:

  • The three found in the ravine suffered a variety of terrible injuries, including skull and chest fractures. One woman's eyes and tongue were missing, yet there was no sign of struggle, which seemed to rule out foul play.
  • Pictures recovered from cameras at the scene seemed to portray a group that started in high spirits but ended with dour, anxious faces, perhaps because they thought they were lost ... or maybe there was some other danger afoot.
  • One photo shows tree markings made by local Mansi people; another shows an unidentified figure that some people believe could be an intruder (or more outlandishly, a yeti).

Officials first suspected that the Mansi may have been offended by the trespassers on their sacred land, causing them to lash out in violence against the hikers. But in the end, investigators concluded that no one else was on the mountain when the hikers died.

By the end of May, the investigation was officially ended. The causes of death were listed as "compelling natural force." Some documents were then classified, and the area was closed to public access for years following the incident.

Given the circumstances, you can see how surviving family members might be unsatisfied with the government's vague conclusion.

In the vacuum of an actual explanation, many wild theories took root. Here are some of them:

  • There was avalanche, extreme high winds, or wild animal attack.
  • A possible lover's quarrel, combined with a psychedelic drug obtained from locals, caused a wild sequence of events.
  • Deep infrasound vibrations conjured by winds roaring over the mountain pass incited panic in the group.
  • Since some of the hikers' clothes were found to be radioactive, perhaps they stumbled unwittingly into a military weapons experiment.
  • Maybe aliens were involved — locals later told officials that they'd spotted unidentified flying objects over the area the night of the deaths (it was later revealed that the military was testing parachute mines in the region when the group was killed).

Now, more than 60 years later, the case escalated from regional authorities to a federal branch of the country's Investigative Committee, which obtained all relevant documents regarding the deaths as part of the research process.

Dyatlov Pass
Four of the hikers, Nikolay Thibeaux-Brignolle, Lyudmila Dubinina, Semyon Zolotaryov and Zinaida Kolmogorova in a happy moment, from one of the cameras found at the scene.

To begin the fresh inquiry, officials whittled down the list of 75 possible causes to just three of the most likely hypotheses, all of which centered on natural causes: a hurricane, avalanche or snow slab. The idea was that they'd revisit the area with those three possibilities in mind in hopes of untangling the course of events.

But investigators were dealt a tough hand right from the start. None of the three possibilities seems to explain why:

  • The hikers slashed through their tent and fled without any clothes.
  • There was no real evidence that an avalanche had taken place — in fact, in more than 100 subsequent expeditions to the area, no one has ever reported avalanches in the area.
  • The hikers' footprints were visible and not covered by snow, further deflating the avalanche theory.
  • Although the tent collapsed laterally, there was no evidence of horizontal force that would've indicated sliding snow and ice.

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Were They Murdered?

All of the strange circumstances so puzzled Teodora Hadjiyska that she launched DyatlovPass.com as a comprehensive archive of many documents and images related to the case. Born in Bulgaria, she's one of the few people who has taken the time to translate the many Russian files into English, and has created a comprehensive database of all the photos, evidence and theories, making her an expert on the tragedy.

In an email interview, Hadjiyska says the information that's publicly available – either by ineptitude, or more ominously, by design – doesn't fully explain what happened to the hikers. She's also far from convinced that the government is trying to truly solve the case rather than using half measures to pacify families still yearning for answers.

After years of picking through the information, she has her suspicions about what transpired on that frozen mountain.

Her take? The hikers were murdered.

Hadjiyska says she thinks that something alarmed the group and they clambered out of the tent. Then, her theory goes, armed people confronted them and there was a brief scuffle.

"The hikers were marched down to [to the tree line to] die from exposure. They didn't know that. They thought the perpetrators [were] after their belongings. So, they complied," she says. Certain that their victims would quickly perish in the life-draining cold, the murderers wandered back to the tent.

The half-naked group frantically – perhaps miraculously – managed to start a campfire, which alerted their foes, who rushed back down the hill to finish them off. By then, the three who were wearing more substantial clothing had moved away from the fire in a bid to create a shallow snow den to survive the night. But soon they were found, too, beaten to death, and then dragged to the creek.

"It still lacks the who and why, but [this scenario] explains the mysterious behavior of the hikers. It is a murder, [so] it doesn't have to make sense," says Hadjiyska. "Little can be safely deduced from the facts, but at least there is no doubt that somebody helped them die."

She feels certain that the group was under attack in three separate instances – at the tent, then the tree line and then at the snow den. "The whole ordeal must have taken hours. Even if something scared them at the tent (fireball, avalanche, yeti) that something had to follow them to the cedar after they had the time to make the fire."

That's because building a fire takes time – which means that the hikers were under the impression that they would make it through the night. They also had the time and energy to make the den. "And then something really awful happened to whoever was left alive while they were not in the den."

She believes this hypothesis shows a pattern of assailants following the group and escalating the attack, amid unbearably cold and perhaps blizzard-like conditions, where confusion and panic affected all parties.

Dyatlov Pass
The hikers ski into the wilderness to meet their fate at the pass that will later be named for their leader, Igor Dyatlov.

To date, Russia authorities have not released a statement regarding what's still regarded as a preliminary investigation, but they've assured the public that modern forensics and analysis will be used during this phase.

Perhaps with new insights they'll finally wrest real answers from the grips of an icy-cold tragedy that seems frozen in time. Or maybe, just maybe, those who really know what happened on the slopes of Dead Mountain will do everything they can to further bury the truth in an avalanche of half-truths and lies.

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Originally Published: Oct 1, 2019