Even 54 years after this tragedy occurred, there is no definite answer to what had happened there on till then still unnamed pass on the slopes of Mount Otorten and Kholat Syakhl. The whole world is now familiar with the puzzle that was until the fall of USSR quite contained within its borders. People in the region, but above all, the still living friends and relatives of unfortunate members of the expedition who died so gruesomely, still wish to have the answers – How? Why? Who? Or… What?
THE INCIDENT IN THE BOOKS AND DOCUMENTARIES
In order to get some more insight into what happened there that fatal February 1959, I’ve tried to find some books written about it. Not any fictionalized version, but serious non-fiction work about it. There are three brand new books (written this year) that came to my attention:
- Dyatlov Pass Keeps Its Secret by Irina Lobatcheva, Vladislav Lobatchev and Amanda Bosworth;
- Dead Mountain: The True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar;
- Mountain of the Dead: The Dyatlov Pass Incident by Keith McCloskey.
Not having that much money to spend on every book out there, I chose only one, and that is the last one. I didn’t regret the choice – the book was great in every sense. It didn’t try to persuade me into anything and offered on the plate as many theories as were available at the time of its print – some quite convincing, some totally unbelievable. I liked that the author was of opinion every thought was worth hearing, never mind how weird it would sound to an average reader. There were no prejudices set in advance against any theory. I wish only there were some sketches of the investigation (or theories). Charts at the end of the book were all right, but not enough informative for so many data in the text. I know it might be said pictures dumb down the content, but still, a sketch or two would have been helpful to me, as my understanding of distances and an area in question is tad limited.
I highly recommend this book for anybody who wants to know more about this tragedy in one comprehensive volume. The sad thing is only one will get out of it full of information but with not much more insight, because cloud of secrecy still remains above every word and document. There are probably many files yet to be uncovered.
For a quick overview, one may check some articles written about the case:
- Anna Arutunyan: Dyatlov Pass: the truth is out there (The Moscow News, 18/02/2013)
- Aquiziam World Mysteries: The Dyatlov Pass Accident (time of writing unclear, but quite interesting anyway!)
- Svetlana Osadchuk and Kevin O’Flynn: The Dyatlov Pass Incident (Fortean Times, February 2009)
- Svetlana Osadchuk: Mysterious Deaths of 9 Skiers Still Unresolved (The St Petersburg Times, 19/02/2008)
As for my complaint – not enough images – I quickly solved that issue with absolutely brilliant documentary film made by Television Agency of Ural, translated as Mystery of Dyatlov’s Pass. Some documentaries tend to be boring. This one no – it was amazing. Not only it was obvious the research was done meticulously and highly respective of all people interviewed, they didn’t try to push their own views of the story. They just offered the facts and words of interviewees about the participants of the expedition, the search teams and the whole investigation. In my opinion, this documentary film is the showcase how stories about real life events should be done.
THE INCIDENT AS INSPIRATION FOR AMERICAN CINEMA AND TV
Devil’s Pass (2013) is, scientifically (and in any other sense) speaking, nonsense. It had incorporated some facts known from the files into the film, but didn’t make much effort to stay truthful, for the thrill sake of course. And the conclusion to the story? Risible effort to kill two flies with one stroke, mixing American mysteries with the Russian ones, and voilà! Here was the answer to both. However, as a movie, if I dismiss the background of the story, it was entertaining. Some puzzles (seriously, you must suspend the belief…) have nicely fitted to the beginning of the story. The only thing that was pretty bad for today’s standards, was CGI, as if from videogames.
Dark Matters: Twisted But True (season 2, episode 7) didn’t cover the story badly, it just oversimplified it. Well, in the lack of any other material, I guess it might serve in educational purposes.
NOW… WHAT DO I THINK?
Please, do not read further if you wish to hear and/or read the facts and/or theories for yourself. Besides, the paragraphs below are just my disconnected ramblings, my efforts to make some sort of simplified conclusion for myself. All theories were mentioned in the book and documentary film highlighted above, or I’ve read about them in the articles written about the case. In short, don’t take my words for granted.
What had exactly happened out there? It wasn’t first expedition done there. These mountains were popular among Sverdlovsk ‘tourists’ – the Russian equivalent for amateur sportsmen, mountaineers, hikers and such. The expedition itself really wasn’t something special, it was done before and after the mountains were opened again for the public. The issue though might be that this whole Sverdlovsk Oblast was a huge military zone. Without quite precise borders and limits in between, with many secret facilities, not to mention cities that were only numbers without marks on any road maps. Sverdlovsk itself (today Yekaterinburg) was a closed city back then. The fact that the military was involved in the search and in the investigation still makes people highly suspicious, because it certainly wasn’t the first time some mountaineers went missing and there were so many highly ranked officials around. The search itself started many days later than was expected to begin with. The case was at last abruptly closed with unsatisfying conclusions such as ‘death from hypothermia’ and ‘by an unknown elemental force’. We do not doubt that they died of hypothermia (and brutal injuries some victims had), we doubt willingness to investigate the causes that led to such deaths. To say they died that way would be just the same as to say an old man died of heart attack during the bank robbery without mentioning the robbery itself.
It could be said that it was in the spirit of USSR government back then to hush anything that might make people uneasy. However, it is unfathomable that after so many years government still clings to secrecy, and so stubbornly. If that was a sort of military accident, possible culprits in the case are probably long gone or too old to be charged for anything – if that was indeed an accident.
Some files are revealed to the public, but some requests mysteriously refer to the numbered documents that obviously aren’t. Some claim there was another diary, written by only one of the members. Some still hint at non-disclosure agreements that participants of search expeditions and investigation were obligated to sign. Only many years later, some of them revealed their thoughts of what had happened. The testaments of people who were involved in the search clash in weird way – tent wasn’t first seen at the spot where it was claimed to be found, as if it was planted there for some reason. It wasn’t put up as an experienced mountaineer would pitch it, especially when one compares it with the photographs of the same tent in the days before. There were bodies around it when it was observed from the airplane, why there wasn’t any when it was found a day later?
So, what was it? Some plain natural disaster maybe? I find that explanation the least plausible, because slopes on the photos themselves do not suggest that kind of calamity possible. Even if we do take that in consideration – an avalanche or a ragging snowstorm – why would experienced mountaineers flee the tent without any warm clothes and shoes on them? I am certain fear makes people do a lot of irrational things, but those weren’t incidents they weren’t in their minds prepared for. If an avalanche occurred in the middle of the night, I think they still would know what to do. They would run from the tent in a fear of getting buried under the snow, sure, but not without grabbing warm clothes and shoes first. How scared of a natural disaster they had to be to go into such coldness without protection? Snowstorms wouldn’t force people to use the knife either, in order to escape in the other direction – an avalanche might, I suppose. However, they wouldn’t afterwards try to climb a tree (a supposition though) in order to get a visual of the tent before going back. Unless there was something else in the darkness. Or somebody else.
The typical signs of hypothermia definitely leading to death are paradoxical undressing and terminal burrowing. Some victims were found almost naked, but they were unclothed after they died and those pieces of wardrobe were found on the others – not really irrational behaviour for the latter. That anyway doesn’t explain why they all went out of the tent so unprepared in the first place? Confusion and disorientation doesn’t seem applicable to those three found closer to the tent – the position of their bodies suggests they tried to get back to the tent but it was too late. The group of bodies found in May seemed as if they really attempted to make themselves not only a fire but a shelter also. Two of them were probably too badly injured to go back on their own. One of them wore the clothes of those two from the first group that built fire by a cedar tree. Why were they separated in two groups at all?
Those names, Otorten and Kholat Syakhl come from Mansi words for Don’t Go There and Dead Mountain, definitely appealing words to many lovers of supernatural. It doesn’t take much effort to make ourselves believe that some local forest deity was angered by the presence of the people on its mountain so as to dismiss any rational answer to the mystery, or to go to the opposite direction, that some Mansi tribesmen were led to believe that enough to commit a crime themselves. But, if that was indeed a case, then there would have been many more corpses around, as these mountains were popular among mountaineers and hikers, and still are. Besides, it is said these two mountains aren’t Mansi sacred nor taboo sites – Mansi were even very helpful during the search. Most likely that choice of words had really nothing to do with Mansi religion at all, but rather very rationally with the harsh living and hunting conditions of Northern Ural mountains, as Mansi tribes were mostly nomadic hunters and herders throughout their history.
Some theorists believe no deities were involved, but UFOs. They base their theories on some testimonies relaying there were some lights on that unfortunate night sky. Well, that might partly explain what might have frightened the students so much as to leap out of the tent scantily clad for the freezing night outside, but injuries do not explain that much. They were all found quite far from the tent. Some were found only with bruises and frostbites, while the others had injuries that defy any logical explanation. According to positions of their bodies, only three were on the way to the safety of the tent, while the rest of them were found frozen farther away in two separate groups. No, no. You can’t make me believe any UFO did this. Nor any snowman. I do not dismiss the possibility there might be some strange creatures up there – after all, we do still discover many new species every single day in the jungles and in the oceans, why not high up in the mountains too? The whole tongue removed from one victim does suggest a monstrosity, but injuries on victims were too random to be caused by a single person or a creature – maybe there was a group of them, but why would they then allow them to scatter like that and afterwards just leave them alone?
I think we do not have to go that far. The whole area was a military zone during the Cold War. There were many scientific facilities, whose purposes were mostly classified. It’s not hard to imagine some were there for new weaponry tests. It is peculiar that two years before there happened a huge nuclear disaster, in size a third after Chernobyl and Fukushima, called Kyshtym disaster, after the city that was closest to the site of radioactive contamination. Twenty years later, there was Sverdlovsk anthrax leak. There were also some Gulag camps nearby. Forgive me for jumping to conclusions, but don’t you think it was at that time a bit disturbing place to live in? All right, let’s not forget, beside having military facilities and forced labor camps around, Yekaterinburg was then (and now) highly respectable city in academic circles, a “leading educational and scientific center of the Urals”. After all, some young victims of the expedition were students at the local UPI University.
Military involvement is curious also because the main investigator in the case used Geiger counter in order to trace the level of radioactivity on the mountain and on the victims. Who in his/her right mind uses such an item in simple missing-mountaineers-frozen-in-the-snow case? Only the one who thinks the case isn’t that simple. And indeed there were some traces of radioactivity found on clothes. However, at least one of the victims was an active participant in the Kyshtym rescue activities. Some witnesses that were on the funeral claim the skin of the deceased was unusually deeply tanned.
The book goes into detail about some weapons able to produce terrible internal injuries, even from afar. Weaponry isn’t my fad, but radioactivity in this case indicates some military mishap might have occurred that night. Could it be that, in order to exterminate some Ivdel Gulag escapees without much effort, military accidentally tested some new weaponry on young campers as well? Could it be that the campers simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time? They could have seen some fireballs (UFO lights from previous paragraphs?) approaching the camp and tried to escape them as fast as possible. Three of them didn’t manage to escape the blasts unscathed hence such injuries. There didn’t have to be anybody else on the site. If soldiers of any kind were really personally there, and wanted to eliminate them for any reason, I doubt military would be that clumsy. Not only injuries were quite strange, military would probably have ensured their bodies weren’t to be found ever, regardless of the outcry of their relatives. It wasn’t so unusual to disappear back then.
If there was no trace of military activity (bombs, missiles and such) at the campsite, beside some radioactive matters, that doesn’t mean military didn’t have enough time to remove them. Maybe they even managed to transfer the place of crime somewhere else. The place where they were found was suspicious itself. According to their route plans, Dyatlov group wasn’t supposed to be on Kholat Syakhl at all. Mount Otorten was their target, in the other direction. They weren’t inexperienced beginner scouts. It was unlikely they would change plans on some whim, especially not without writing that fact down in their group diary, although who knows, maybe they would have written that down hadn’t something happened to them before. Unless they were supposed to be there, but for quite different reasons. Some conspiracy theorists say they might have been spies. Yes. Some do claim that because some members of the group were odd, like Semyon Zolotarev who died right on the eve of his 38th birthday, more than ten years older than the rest of them. Maybe they were all celebrating his birthday with drink and food that caused them to momentarily lose their minds? Now I am going too far…
I just got a headache from so many theories and conspiracies around. I would gladly cut them all down to one. There was simply some embarrassing military test gone totally wrong, the government tried to hush it, but instead created bigger mess than it should have been, so they closed the case without even trying to come up with any other conclusion beside hypothermia. If only things would be that simple… If only there are really some documents still waiting to be found. If only there are some witnesses finally willing to speak out despite of non-disclosure agreements. But as it seems, there aren’t any for now.
I am sincerely sorry for the deceased. Zinaida Kolmogorova, Lyudmila Dubinina, Rustem Slobodin, Semyon Zolotarev, Alexander Kolevatov, Georgyi Krivonischenko, Yuri Doroshenko, Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignolle and Igor Dyatlov. They deserve to have their deaths explained. They experienced something terrible and died in such a horrible way, out there in the freezing darkness, with no help available for hundred miles around. Some relatives and friends of theirs are still living. They deserve to know the truth. The Dyatlov Foundation, led by one of Dyatlov’s friends, Yuri Kuntsevich, is still trying to make the government to reopen the case. There was somewhere a mention the only surviving member of the group, Yuri Yudin, felt guilty whole life, just because he wasn’t there with them – he had to go back home before time because of a leg injury. In the photograph above on the left one can see how much they cared for him. How innocent and happy all they looked in all the photos! Who would have imagined such a fate was destined to them? And we might never find out why…