On the 25th of January 1959, ten unwary hikers made the train journey to Ivdel, a city at the centre of Sverdlovsk Oblast province. From there, they took a truck to Vizhai, the last inhabited settlement in the northernmost reaches of Russia. Their aim was to reach the mountain of Ortorten and so, battling the cold, these expertly skilled mountaineers began the long and bitter hike towards the mountain. Their names were Igor Alekseievich Dyatlov, Yuri Nikolaievich Doroshenko, Yuri Alexeievich Krivonischenko, Alexander Sergeievich Kolevatov, Zinaida Alekseevna Kolmogorova, Vladimirovich Slobodin, Nicolai Vladimirovich Thibeaux-Brignolles, Semyon Alekseevich Zolotaryov, and Yuri Yefimovich Yudin. They were all between 21 and 38 years of age at the time of the incident.
After just one day, Yuri Yudin was forced to return to Vizhai as he suffered from lumbago, which was exacerbated by the cold and proved too painful to continue. He would have no idea the kind of terrible fate he had escaped. The nine remaining hikers, full of enthusiasm and adventure, continued to document their travels using diaries and cameras. On January 31st, they arrived at the edge of a highland area and began making preparations for the long and harrowing climb.
By February 1st, they started moving through what is now known as the Dyatlov Pass, named after the group’s leader Igor Dyatlov. They had planned to conquer the pass and make camp in the wooded area on the opposite side, but tragically the worsening weather conditions impeded their plans and, due to snowstorms and decreased visibility, they veered off track and deviated west, taking them to the base of Kholat Syakhl or “The Dead Mountain”. Realising their mistake, they decided to stop and camp on the mountainside, rather than moving downhill towards a forested area just below them. It is posited that they did not want to lose the altitude they had gained, and also wanted to practise camping on a mountain slope.
Many of them were students or graduates of Ural Polytechnical Institute and so, before embarking, Dyatlov had agreed to send a telegram to the university’s sports club as soon as the group returned to Vizhai. It was estimated that they would return no later than February 12th, but the 12th came and went with no such message from Dyatlov. Yet it wasn’t until February 20th, after vehement demands from the hikers’ family members, that a search and rescue team was finally dispatched to locate them. After the first rescue groups, consisting of volunteer students and teachers, failed to find them, army and civilian police forces were dispatched to the area.
On February 26th, searchers discovered the hikers’ tent on the slopes of the unforgiving Kholat Syakhl. Although it was partially covered by snow, the tent appeared to still be standing. It had been cut open from the inside, and all of the hikers’ belongings and shoes had been left behind. Nine sets of footprints were discovered leading away from the tent, demonstrating that the hikers’ had escaped completely barefoot or wearing only socks. Something had frightened them so much that it had prompted them to cut through their own tent and rush out into the inhospitable −25 to −30 °C (−13 to −22 °F) weather in various states of undress.
The footprints demonstrated that the hikers had been heading for the nearby woods, about 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi) to the northeast. At the forest’s edge, under a large cedar tree, the rescue teams found the remains of a fire, along with the bodies of Krivonischenko and Doroshenko. They were shoeless and wearing only their underwear. The branches of the tree above them had been broken up to 5 metres (16 ft.) in height, indicating that one of them had tried to climb the tree in order to look for something. Or perhaps escape something.
Between the tree and the decimated camp site, the bodies of Dyatlov, Kolmogorova, and Slobodin were found. They were discovered at intervals of 300, 480, and 630 metres from the tree, in poses that suggest that they were making their way back to the camp before succumbing to the inclement weather. All five hikers had died from hypothermia and, although Slobodin had a small crack in his skull, the coroner found no fatal injuries on their bodies. The whereabouts of the remaining four hikers remained a mystery, until their bodies were found two months later in a ravine some 75 metres (246 ft.) away from the cedar tree.
Although a legal inquest had begun after the discovery of the first five, the complexion of the case changed completely when the final four bodies were found. Three of the hikers found in the ravine had sustained fatal wounds: Thibeaux-Brignolles’ skull had been several crushed, and both Dubinina and Zolotarev had major fractures in their chest. It appeared that the dead had relinquished their clothes to the living, as Dubinina’s foot was wrapped in a piece of Krivonischenko’s pants, while Zolotaryov was found wearing Dubinina’s hat and coat. It was widely believed the clothing had been taken after death, as cuts in the fabric indicated it had been forcibly ripped off.
According to Dr. Boris Vozrozhdenny, who worked on the case, their injuries were so severe that the force with which they were caused was equivalent to that of a car crash. Still more bizarre, the victim’s had sustained no external wounds related to their numerous fractures, as if they had suddenly been subjected to a high level of pressure.
Dubinina’s body appeared to be in the worst condition, as she was missing her tongue, eyes, part of her lips, some facial tissue, and a fragment of her skull. The rescue team’s report claimed that she was found face down in a stream, and that the damage may have been caused by putrefaction. Initially these wounds, coupled with those suffered by the other hikers, gave rise to the theory that they may have been attacked by the indigenous Mansi people for encroaching upon their territory. This hypothesis was eventually scrapped, as the lack of footprints or signs of a hand-to-hand struggle ruled out this possibility.
One of the more plausible explanations posits that the hikers were running from an incoming avalanche. In this scenario, the hikers cut themselves free from the tent, which had already been covered in snow. This snow may have potentially ruined their clothes and other equipment, so they fled into the night partially dressed. This theory suggests that Dyatlov, Kolmogorova, and Slobodin attempted to return to the campsite in order to salvage their gear, while Thibeaux-Brignolles’, Dubinina, Zolotarev, and Zolotaryov had gone to try and find help. Due to the snowstorms and decreased visibility, the latter four hikers had fallen into the ravine and Thibeaux-Brignolles’, Dubinina, and Zolotarev died as a result of their injuries. Alone and afraid, Zolotaryov tried to make it out before eventually succumbing to hypothermia.
The area they were camping in was not prone to avalanches, but the fact that snow was falling on the night of their disappearance and that their campsite had disrupted the stability of the snowpack lends credence to the avalanche theory. Yet this theory doesn’t explain why the hikers footprints were still visible nearly a month after their disappearance, why the tent was still largely upright and not completely covered in snow, why nine experienced hikers had fled blindly into the cold in stages of undress, why Zolotaryov had taken his camera with him but not his gear, and why the three injured hikers had no visible, external injuries related to their fractures. A fall into the ravine would have surely caused some scrapes, cuts, or at least bruises.
After the final four hikers were discovered, their deaths were swiftly ruled as the result of a “compelling natural force” and all of the files surrounding the incident were sent to a secret archive. When the victims’ clothes were tested, they contained high doses of radioactive contamination and information regarding the state of their internal organs was never disclosed.
On the night of the incident, another group of hikers just 50 kilometres south of Dyatlov’s campsite reported that they had seen strange orange spheres of light in the night sky to the north. Spanning a period from February to March 1959, several independent witnesses from Ivdel and other surrounding areas reported seeing similar spheres of light. These witnesses included members of the military and the meteorology service. Yury Kuntsevich, a 12-year-old boy who attended five of the hikers’ funerals, stated that each corpse had a bizarrely deep brown tan, in spite of the sub-zero temperatures and lack of sunshine. He eventually went on to found the Dyatlov Foundation in Yekaterinburg and is still pushing for Russian officials to reopen the investigation into the hikers’ deaths.
So the question remains: what exactly were those hikers running from on that fateful night? Was it simply a small avalanche, as several of the reports would have you believe? Or was it something far more sinister? Theories abound, from the sublime to the ridiculous, with paranormal researchers suggesting that the hikers were killed by anything from a yeti to hostile extra-terrestrial life. Yet the Soviet’s involvement in hushing up the case and it’s timing during the peak of the Cold War has resulted in the most widely accepted conspiracy theory; that the Russians were testing some secret weapon and these hikers were simply a casualty of an experiment gone wrong. Whatever hypothesis you choose to subscribe to, it seems we will never know exactly what happened to those unfortunate hikers on the night of February 2nd, 1959.