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Mountaineer tries to solve the greatest outdoor cold case of all time

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Mountaineer tries to solve the greatest outdoor cold case of all time

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Mountain climber and columnist Adam Fox is an Ashland native who has been writing for Richland Source properties for three years. He warns that this story contains graphic content.

What truly happened at the Dyatlov Pass Incident?

Nine explorers died in the Ural Mountains of Siberia in February of 1959. The bizarre way in which they perished has been tied to UFOs, KGB/CIA conspiracies, murder by the natives, infrasound, avalanches and a Yeti, to name a few theories.

Be cautioned, this story will take you down a rabbit hole that knows no bottom because none of the facts add up to a concrete conclusion.

Maybe you will see a new detail to help solve the case? But from a climbing standpoint, there may be closure.

One of the biggest things that will raise the hair on the back of your neck is the fact the tent was cut from the inside. Reports have the weather anywhere from -15F to -40F, with insane wind gusts. You gash the tent open instead of using the door, that’s a one-way street. Further, the footprints leading away from the tent show hikers without boots -- toe prints were seen in the snow. 

What would make nine experienced hikers cut a hole in their tent, leave coats, hats, boots and survival gear behind and walk single file, down a tundra slope for a mile, in the middle of the night, to the treeline in absolutely brutal weather? 

Two bodies were found almost naked by an extinguished fire under a large cedar tree. The branches above them had been broken, showing signs a human being possibly scaled them. 

Three other bodies were found staggered halfway up the hill, seemingly heading back towards the tent with clenched fists, covered in scrapes and small cuts and odd injuries, frozen to the land.  

The remaining four cadavers were located in a ravine with injuries including a severely fractured skull and ribs. They were wearing clothes belonging to the other team members. 

How did they all die such violent deaths and why did they leave the tent?

Expedition Background

Igor Dyatlov, 23, was a student at Ural Polytechnic Institute in Yekaterinburg (middle of Siberia, but today the fourth-largest Russian city) and wanted to get his Grade III exploration certificate from the Soviet Union. 

The certificate was no joke. Candidates had to traverse 300 kilometers (186 miles) to earn the ranking. So Dyatlov assembled an experienced team of 10 people (they all had hikes under their belts, but weren’t doing climbs in the Himalaya, so levels varied). Their task was to traverse backcountry hike/ski/climb in the Siberian winter months of January/February, as those were the most unforgiving. 

The goal was to reach the northern areas of Sverdlovsk Oblast region (like a giant U.S. state) in Siberia. They headed north on Jan. 23, took a series of trains, got a ride in the back of a truck and hired a sled to get to an abandoned mining camp. On the 28th, one member of the group returned with the sled due to illness. The team continued out on skis, attempting a multi-day journey towards the peak of Otorten. 

The group diary clearly outlines their route and as you could imagine, it was a serious undertaking given the conditions. Just the will to attempt a trek like that would go a long way -- and there was even a World War II vet that was added to the party later in the planning process.

The two women on the expedition were exceptionally badass, as one was allegedly bit by a viper on a previous hike and refused to let anyone help her carry her pack back to camp; the other was reportedly shot by a hunter and saved herself. 

The last journal entry, on Jan. 31, talks about fatigue and only being able to go one mile an hour. The river wasn’t frozen so the explorers had to go inland and follow trails made by the native Mansi, marked by carvings in the trees. Route finding was beyond difficult and the wood was not good. 

“Walking is especially hard today. We can't see the trail, have to grope our way through at times. Can’t do more than 1.52 km (1 mile) per hour ... Thin birch grove replaces firs ... The end of forest is getting closer ... We’re exhausted, but start setting up for the night. Firewood is scarce, mostly damp firs. We build the campfire on the logs, too tired to dig a fire pit. Dinner’s in the tent. Nice and warm. Can’t imagine such comfort on the ridge, with howling wind outside, hundreds of kilometers away from human settlements,” -- from the group journal, dated Jan. 31, 1959.

The camp spot on the 31st was the first big error of the expedition. Dyatlov’s original planned route had them going over an easier, albeit still snow-covered and bare, lower pass. A mountain pass is the low point, or saddle, between the two mountains summits.

The original plan was: as they were skiing northwest, they were to veer due north, or turn right, before Peak 835, for the much lower pass. So Peak 835 would have been on their left and the treeline to their right. Instead, they overshot the turn and looked to travel through the saddle of Peak 835 on their right and a much bigger peak, 1079, or The Dead Mountain, on their left. 

You have to imagine there weren’t maps of the area that the team could easily reference. It was pieced together with help from geologists and pilots and previous expeditions. They probably thought they were headed for the correct pass. The journey and route finding truly were a massive undertaking from a hiking and mountaineering perspective.  

The tent was a heavy, durable, long house style structure that had a stove that could be placed inside for heat and warmth, with piping for the smoke. As the journal entry described, they were exhausted but made dinner and wanted to get over the pass the next day and back into the forest. 

They made a supply stash for the way home. The goal was to get above treeline, cross the pass and camp on the other side of the aptly named, Dead Mountain. Then most likely sleep, make a summit push for Otorten the next day, return to camp, spend the night, tear down in the morning and get all the way back to the cache spot before complete exhaustion. 

It’s believed the team go off to a slow start on Feb. 1, 1959, and they didn’t make it across the pass and had no choice but to bivy on the side of Dead Mountain as darkness fell. Luckily, the grade wasn’t too severe and they cut into the snow bank for wind protection and set up the tent perpendicular to the slope. 

The photo below is estimated to have been taken around 5 p.m., close to sunset, as they cleared a spot for the tent. It looked like absolutely brutal conditions to try to set up camp. But they did. 

Setting up the tent

There is great controversy on whether the stove was set up. The previous journal entry said that “firewood is scarce, mostly damp firs.” But there were reports of cooked ham found inside the tent. Some reports say there was wood in the tent, others, not. 

They were 10 miles from their end destination, the mountain Otorten.

The Insanity Starts -- Exiting the Tent

The autopsy stated they died 6 to 8 hours after their last meal. Two flashlights were found, most of them were not fully dressed or wearing shoes and watches stopped early morning -- so there’s good reason to believe this began in the middle of the night. 

If the interpretation of the found footprints was accurate by the rescue team, all nine exited the tent and walked single file, most without their gear on, one mile to the treeline. However, rescuers reported there were no tracks around the immediate tent area, and they picked up the trail 30 meters down.  

"Footprints can be preserved in the mountains because of the way the wind works there. You see the prints not as lowered imprints, but rather as raised columns, because the snow under the print is left compacted and cannot be eroded by the wind, but the area around it is scoured by the wind. Then the sunrise makes the print area become even firmer, and in this way it can be preserved for the entire winter,” from the witness statement of Brusnitsyn. 

footprints in snow

The footprints leading away from the tent and towards the forest, preserved by the wind and showing some weren't wearing shoes. 

Anyone who has ever camped in negative temperatures knows that we never leave the tent (pee bottles are kept inside) and even if you did, you wouldn’t go outside without your boots and jacket for any reason. 

From a mountaineering standpoint, the easy answer was some kind of an avalanche. Snow crashed into the tent, collapsing it, they panicked and ran down to the treeline to be safe. And if not an avalanche, a snow slab or a shelf slide, as they cut into the snow bank at a certain angle and could have created a toppling effect, along with the insane winds, that some think were katabatic. 

They slashed their way out, as the entrance would have been blocked by snow. But the cut holes were sporadic and some didn’t make it all the way through, almost as if someone was stabbing the cloth. Some cuts appear to be lookout holes. (They also had to sew the tent at different times during the journey, so perhaps the wind made the holes worse before rescue teams found it. And there are reports the search party made the holes much bigger.) 

Some reports say that Dyatlov’s jacket was found outside, others said it was stuffed in a hole in the tent. 

A working flashlight was located on top of the tent. The search team found that very curious.

"We couldn’t understand why the snow under the flashlight was 10 cm thick, yet there wasn’t any on the flashlight itself,” from witness testimony, Sheet 299, Slobtsov, tanslated by dyatlovpass.com.

That quote points to the snow-slab theory. It buried the door, they cut and crawled out. At that point, they were outside and maybe feared more soul-burying snow was coming, so they went down to the treeline. But even if there is debate about how experienced backcountry skiers and explorers they were, even at the most basic level, if they thought another avalanche was imminent, why such a calm walk down? 

The snow on the tent wasn’t significant enough to be a full-on avalanche. The ski poles in the front were still standing. Wouldn’t you at least try to dig out your coats and boots after a snow slab fell on your structure?

The horrific injuries we see later couldn’t have happened then, there’s no way they could have walked down a mile with skull fractures and all that brutality. The team had to have known it was a death sentence to leave all that gear behind in the Siberian winter with those temperatures and that wind chill.

Were they forced to march to the treeline?  

broken tent

How the search party found the tent

Tent exit theories

They had the stove going, didn’t ventilate correctly with the winds, got carbon monoxide poisoning, cut holes for air and eventually went outside. That doesn’t explain leaving the tent and not going back in for your gear. And their actions in the treeline didn't show people that had lost their minds. (We’ll get to that.)

Another theory was infrasound, where the pitch coming over the mountain drove them insane inside the tent, and they cut out and ran. Just have never seen any other case where infrasound makes mountaineers behave like that.

Either way, it is logical that no matter why they left the tent, it would have been very difficult to navigate back to it in the dark and whiteout conditions.  

Natives and those working in the gulag labor camps reportedly saw bright lights in the sky around those nights. (No camp reported a missing prisoner and nothing was stolen, so a convict was not a suspect.)

The camera photos from the team that were developed later showed weird orbs and other things, so there’s always the UFO/alien explanation, not simply damaged film.

The same line of thought follows with the Yeti, as one of the photos is creepy and could be a Yeti that stalked them. Did it get inside the tent forcing them to flee through cut holes? And then did the Yeti track and kill them? Yet there are no signs of animal bite marks or fur. 

yeti photo

One of the last photos taken--was a Yeti tracking the group? 

They could have also turned on each other, someone got cabin fever and the rest were fleeing for their lives. This was a very militant group, so if someone wasn’t pulling their weight, it could have turned bad. One time someone rested before camp was completely set up and the journal entry named them and said, “the law is, until the work is done, no one can approach the fire.”

Two other team members had extra work one day, according to the journal, because they slowed the group down earlier. And there was a confrontation about who would sleep next to the stove.  

The most logical explanation is that the snow slab slid down, covered the entrance, freaked everyone out and forced them to cut their way out. Panic set in and they all followed the first person down the hill, thinking certain avalanche death was right behind them.

Still, I find it hard to believe they left all that gear behind or didn’t try to dig it out. That’s why the Mansi are a prime suspect. 

It’s not a popular opinion, but the Mansi hunters need looked at again. Sure, they were a peaceful people, but you never know about some rogue hunters. Testimony given to investigators was inconsistent in terms of holy sites and other details.

Most notably, there was mention of a group of five Ostyaks, separate “savages,” that might have attacked the tent. 

The Mansi themselves may have been tired of the white migration north into their lands. Hunters were out during that timeline and really, they would have been the only ones that could have done anything in those winter conditions. 

On one of their tree carvings, someone etched “1958” the year before, so maybe the Mansi saw that as things to come?

Doc Mug

Adam Fox, Source Contributing Columnist 

Scenario

The Mansi hunters forced them out of the tent without gear and sent them down the hill, knowing hyperthermia was imminent. They slashed open the tent from the inside to make it useless.

But they didn’t realize how resilient the group was, so they had to go finish the job with brute force on many of them. 

Another theory is the government was doing weapons testing, because of the lights and flashes in the sky and from the photos. Further, radiation was found on some of the clothes. But again, no one is doing any testing when it’s a blizzard and -40F out.

At the Treeline -- Death, death and more death

So let’s follow the snow slab theory, not the Mansi hunters, as to why they went to the treeline. The battery died in the flashlight (found by the rescue team) and they couldn't find their way back to the tent or didn’t want to go back for whatever reason. 

A couple of them climbed a cedar tree, broke branches for firewood, cut nearby samplings and somehow in those conditions, got a fire going. This point cannot be stressed enough, details like that show how experienced and resilient they were, but yet outside without their coats.

Further, when mountaineering, you don't change into your PJs. If you have wet clothes on, you change out, but you are still wearing many layers. And they would have been, too. So this happened as many were changing into dry gear or they were forced to remove some layers. However, most of the clothes were organized when rescuers inspected the tent, not panic tossed around. The boots were stacked abnormally though, one search party member recorded.    

The two that we assume were dressed the lightest, Yuri Doroshenko (21) and Yuri Krivonischenko (23), died by the fire. The burn marks on their feet and hands may have indicated they were trying to get as close as they could to the fire to survive.

Once they passed, their clothes were stripped/cut off for the others to wear. That all makes sense. (Or maybe they didn’t die right away, but were incapacitated by hypothermia and stripped of their clothes so others could stay warm?) 

The group was down to six and they realized the fire, no matter how big, wouldn’t save them out in the open. The team split, as three of them decided to try to make it back to the tent.

Why did they deem it was safe at that point? Maybe they had no choice but to flee that way? 

Zinaida Kolmogorova (22) made it the furthest. She was found 630 meters from the cedar tree. There were numerous small abrasions and bruises, consistent with what she would have endured in that weather.

There was “a long, bright red bruise 29x6 cm in the lumbar region on the right side of the torso. The bruise looks like left from a baton,” from Sheet 127, ACT No. 4 of the official autopsy report, translated by dyatlovpass.com

Maybe the “baton” bruise was from the snow slab falling on her, but she was still able to walk? Or maybe it was from someone making sure she stayed down and froze? 

Behind Kolmogorova, 480 meters from the cedar, rescuers found the body of Rustem Slobodin (23). 

Slobodin had similar cuts and scrapes. But he also had a fractured skull. And not to the back or front, as a normal falling impact pattern would show. 

“His injury pattern is a reverse of what we would usually see in injuries suffered by a freezing man in the last minutes of his life. It looks as if Rustem fell repeatedly on his face as he was walking down the mountain. And every time he fell he managed to hit the sides of his head,” from Sheet 95, ACT No. 5, of the official autopsy report, translated by dyatlovpass.com

Considering the possible hurricane-level winds and limited sight, maybe he fell and cracked his head on a protruding rock? Even though it was odd that he fell sideways, and seemed to be walking down? Or maybe someone hit him to take his clothes? Maybe the Mansi hunters did it if they thought he could get back to the tent?

Some footprints were perfectly preserved, others vanished. 

The third member of the party that may have been attempting to get back to the tent was expedition leader Dyatlov (23), found 300 meters from the cedar tree. The vest was unbuttoned, but that would happen if he had hyperthermia and was undergoing “paradoxical undressing.”

Further, the bodies had money, passports, matches, etc., on them, so they weren’t looted by any means. And there’s some thinking that the vest was Doroshenko’s, so Dyatlov maybe didn’t think about buttoning the vest of his dead friend that he peeled off him by the cedar tree moments earlier. In extreme cold, the extremities go first, so maybe he lacked the motor skills to button. 

His watch was frozen at 5:31 a.m. Again, abrasions and scrapes all over his body, but no internal damage and the official report was death via hypothermia.

The only weird part about Dyatlov, was all the bruising around the metacarpophalangeal joints, or knuckles, which you would see after a street fight. All three bodies that were heading back to the tent had this bruising. Were they fighting off Russian soldiers, other team members, Mansi hunters, aliens or a Yeti?     

The remaining four “tourists” went into the ravine not far from the cedar tree, where there’s more wind cover and proceeded to build a den. They were found months later, near the den but not in it, with massive and traumatic injuries. 

Lyudmila Dubinina (20) was wearing the sweater of Krivonischenko, and found with her eyeballs missing and no tongue, along with a broken nose and multiple fractured ribs. 

She could have easily fallen through a snowbridge, died of exposure and animals would have eaten her eyes and tongue over two months. As more snow fell, the weight could have crushed her ribs and other body parts.  

There was 100g of “brown mucosal mass” found in her stomach, that some believe was blood, that the heart was pumping and she was alive when the tongue was removed. 

Empty eye sockets again with Semyon Zolotaryov (38), perhaps the most mysterious person in the group. This body also had broken ribs and a head wound that exposed the skull. Hypothermia most likely wasn’t the cause of death. Zolotaryov had on plenty of clothing and allegedly was used to surviving in dens on the front lines of World War II. 

Many think he was outside of the tent when the madness began. He was also found with a camera around his neck -- in all the insanity, he grabbed a camera? Or was it already around his neck as he was taking pictures of the Yeti or weapons testing or of the Mansi?

The film was destroyed from water damage so we’ll never know.

Everyone else on the expedition was a student or recently graduated, so the late-add of Zolotaryov was interesting, and could link to the military testing. It just seems like a whole lot of work to drop some bombs.

The autopsy has them alive when the injuries occurred, but there was no damage to the soft tissue around the chest. Was that because the injuries were from a bomb shock wave? 

Like a marble statue, Zolotaryov was preserved in his final resting place, and it is believed it was him they found with a piece of paper and pencil in his hands. The page was blank, but what was he going to write?  

The third victim found around the den, Aleksander Kolevatov (24), may have died from radiation. Yes, his clothes tested radioactive, which is another bizarre twist to the tale. It could have been from the lamps used in the tent or from a previous job.

Was the whole area radioactive and turned them all mad? No, because they built the den and fire. 

There was a wound behind the ear of Kolevatov and a “deformed neck,” so most likely that was from a fall or snow compression. His body was next to Zolotaryov’s, in a chest-to-back position. 

Finally, the body of Nikolay Thibeaux-Brignolle (23), was found well insulated, like that of World War II vet Zologtaryov. Boots, many layers, etc., so one wonders if he was already outside of the tent as well. But doing what? No one goes outside except maybe to pee, but pretty coincidental timing.   

There were multiple skull fractures, equated to being hit with a fast car. No soft tissue damage, so no one smacked him with a rock or anything. It would not have been from just falling over. There was about a 15-foot cliff area not too far, so maybe he fell off that, but an autopsy would have revealed severe trauma and he wouldn’t have been able to move on his own. 

What Happened

In mountaineering, things can turn bad in a way that there is no recovery. That’s what most likely happened to the Dyatlov party -- day after day in those conditions, even in peak fitness, the body can only handle so much. It had gotten to a point where they didn’t even have the strength to build a fire pit.

Then they gained elevation, camped essentially on an exposed glacier because their navigation was off and at that point, there was no room for error. 

If the tent started to tear apart in the wind, or if there was a snow slide collapsing some of the tent, and you’re given an evac order in the middle of the night, the few calories left that are running your brain switch to flight mode. 

Not sure who gave the order, but the most experienced person, the World War II vet, left with them all, but was fully clothed. And they fought HARD for survival down at treeline -- no one just gave up. 

Based on many years of experience in the mountains, it seems like there’s an 80% chance that it was weather and bad judgement that murdered the team.

The other 20% would point to the Mansi, because of all the head trauma and bizarre injuries. The Mansi are the only plausible human beings who could have been there, with motive and most importantly, been able to exist in that habitat and leave without a trace.

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A mountaineer’s perspective on what truly happened at the Dyatlov Pass Incident 

I write and climb mountains. Digital marketing maniac at Source Brand Solutions. Wine is good.