Confirmed: Avalanche most likely explanation for tragic Dyatlov Pass incident

Enlarge / A view of the tent as rescuers found it on February 26, 1959. The tent had been opened from the inside and most of the skiers had fled in socks or bare feet.

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In February 1959, nine young Russian hikers perished while cross-country skiing in the northern Ural Mountains. All were highly experienced, so investigators were mystified as to why the hikers had forced their way out of their tents in the middle of the night and fled into the desert to their deaths. Last year, two scientists published their hypothesis that the group was surprised by a sudden slab avalanche. Now, these scientists are back to addressing the concerns of their critics in a recent paper published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment.

The ‘Dyatlov Pass Incident’, as it has been dubbed, is named after the 23-year-old radio engineering student who organized the expedition, Igor Dyatlov. (A mountain pass near the site has been named Dyatlov Pass as a memorial.) He and his traveling companions – seven men and two women – were students at the Ural Polytechnic Institute, since renamed the Federal University from the Urals. One member, Yuri Yudin, backed out on January 27 because his rheumatism had flared up and the pain in his knees and joints was too bad to continue. He was the only one of the original 10 to survive.

According to logs and cameras recovered from the ill-fated campsite, hikers began crossing the pass on the morning of February 1. Their objective was to set up camp for the night on the other side. But they lost their bearings due to snowstorms and poor visibility and found themselves further west, on the eastern slope of Kholat Syakhl. Rather than backtracking to set up camp in a wooded area just under a mile (about 1.5 kilometers) downhill, the team opted to dig a gash in the slope and plant their tents for the night. (Yudin speculated that Dyatlov, the team leader, probably didn’t want to lose the altitude they had gained during the day.)

Dyatlov's group on February 1 en route to Kholat Syakhl.
Enlarge / Dyatlov’s group on February 1 en route to Kholat Syakhl.

Dyatlov Memorial Foundation

The group was due to return home on February 12, and friends and family at first assumed the party had just been delayed. But as the days went by, relatives requested a search and rescue team. On February 26, rescuers found the abandoned tent half-destroyed and covered in snow. Hikers’ shoes and belongings were still inside. The tent had been gutted from the inside, and nine sets of footprints led to a nearby wood.

A macabre discovery

Rescuers found the first two bodies (Yuri Krivonischenko and Yuri Doroshenko) under a tall Siberian pine. The men were barefoot and in their underwear next to the remains of a small fire. Three other bodies were found between the pine and the campsite (Dyatlov, Zinaida Kolmogorova and Rustem Slobodin), posed in such a way as to suggest that they were trying to reach the tent. Rescuers needed a full two months to find the last four team members (Lyudmila Dubinina, Aleksander Kolevatov, Nikolay Thibeaux-Brignolle and Semyon Zolotaryov), as the bodies were buried under 13 feet of snow in a ravine in Woods.

Medical examination of the first five bodies concluded that all had died of hypothermia, although Slobodin had a small crack in his skull which was not considered fatal. But the four bodies discovered later seemed to tell a different story. Three had suffered fatal injuries: Thibeaux-Brignolle’s body had extensive skull damage, while Dubinina and Zolotaryov had major chest fractures, all requiring force comparable to a car accident. Yet, there were no external injuries that could be related to the bone fractures.

The heads and faces of these four people also showed numerous soft tissue lesions. Zolotaryov’s body had no eyeballs, Kolevatov was missing his eyebrows, and Dubinina’s body was missing the tongue, eyes, part of the lips, and paper handkerchiefs. These horrific injuries were sustained post-mortem. All of the victims had died six to eight hours after their last meal.

Film recovered from the scene includes the last photograph taken by Dyatlov's crew: crew members cut the snow slope to erect their tent.
Enlarge / Film recovered from the scene includes the last photograph taken by Dyatlov’s crew: crew members cut the snow slope to erect their tent.

Dyatlov Memorial Foundation

In the decades since, many theories have been proposed to explain the tragedy. The first suspects were reindeer herders native to the area, called Mansi, but only the hikers’ footprints had been found, and the force of the blows (and lack of associated soft tissue damage) was inconsistent with a violent attacks Mansi. Later theories included the panicked group in response to infrasound; a romantic argument; secret testing of ballistic rockets or nuclear weapons; or a snow avalanche. None were found to be particularly satisfactory, and the initial inquest simply concluded that the hikers’ deaths were due to “compelling natural force”.

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