Historical Horror: The Dyatlov Pass Incident

The hikers embark on their adventure

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.

The group say goodbye to Yuri Yudin

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.

Rescue teams discover the abandoned tent

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.

The first few bodies are uncovered

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.

The last photo taken by the group

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.

Historical Horror: The Dyatlov Pass Incident

Historical Horror: Unit 731

“The fellow knew that it was over for him, and so he didn’t struggle when they led him into the room and tied him down. But when I picked up the scalpel, that’s when he began screaming. I cut him open from the chest to the stomach, and he screamed terribly, and his face was all twisted in agony. He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped. This was all in a day’s work for the surgeons, but it really left an impression on me because it was my first time”

This is a quote taken from one of the worker’s at Unit 731. Let me be straight here: this post will contain descriptions of graphic violence in its barest form, sans the humour of my usual posts. I lived and worked in China for two years, I have studied the language for longer than I care to recount here, and I currently work for a Chinese company. The country is very close to my heart and the atrocities that took place in Unit 731 disgust me to the very core of my being. This is why I am determined to write about them now, and why I have warned you here.

Unit 731 was an undercover operation led by the Imperial Japanese Army to conduct research into biological and chemical warfare. Throughout the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the unit was used to perform lethal human experiments on POWs and civilians. Behind the walls of this compound, some of the world’s most notorious war crimes took place.

The complex was established in 1934 and based in Harbin, a city at the very northernmost and iciest expanse of China’s borders. It was officially known as the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army; an alias that would serve it well for several years. The site was the brainchild of General Shiro Ishii, a decorated medical officer in the Imperial Japanese Army who proposed the idea for the facility in 1930.

Its predecessor, Unit Tōgō, was also masterminded by Ishii but was shut down not long after a prison break overran the facility. His new compound, however, far outranked its ancestor; it covered six square kilometres and was made up of more than 150 buildings. The walls were reinforced, making the buildings incredibly difficult to destroy, and overall they contained over 4,500 vessels used to breed fleas and approximately 1,800 used to produce biological agents.

It is estimated that anywhere from 3,000 to 12,000 men, women, and children were subjected to horrific human experiments in the base camp alone; about 600 people every year. About 70% of these victims were Chinese, while the remaining 30% was made up predominantly of Russian POWs as well as a few Southeast Asians and POWs from Allied countries. Right up until the end of the war in 1945, the unit received generous support from the Japanese government.

Workers within the compound would refer to human subjects as maruta or “logs” in an effort to dehumanise them and hide their presence from outside forces. This euphemism was treated as a joke, as the cover story given to the local authorities was that the facility was a lumber mill. Victims routinely rounded up for use in experiments ranged from POWs and criminals to infants, pregnant women, and elderly civilians.

Many of the victims were forcibly infected with diseases before being subjected to live vivisection without anaesthesia. Doctors would perform invasive surgery on these inmates and remove vital organs, such as the brain, liver, and lungs, to see what effect certain diseases had on the body. They felt that victims must be alive for these experiments, lest decomposition took place and damaged the organs. During some experiments, victims would have their stomachs removed and their intestines connected directly to their oesophaguses.

In 2007, a military surgeon named Ken Yuasa, who had worked in Unit 731, was quoted by the Japan Times as saying: “I was afraid during my first vivisection, but the second time around, it was much easier. By the third time, I was willing to do it”. Based on his testimony, it was estimated that at least 1,000 medical staff were involved in these horrific surgeries.

Prisoners would have limbs amputated, again under no anaesthesia, to see the effect of blood loss. In some cases, the limbs would be re-attached to the other side of their body so that researchers could determine whether this was a viable way of keeping the limbs alive. Sometimes they would be frozen and amputated, or allowed to thaw to see the subsequent effects of rotting and gangrene.

Frostbite was a particular concern, as Japan wanted to be prepared in the event that they had to invade Russia and deal with its unforgiving climate. A physiologist named Yoshimura Hisato pioneered frostbite research by taking prisoners out into the sub-zero temperatures, dipping their limbs into water, and then allowing them to freeze. Once the area was completely frozen, they would experiment in a number of ways to try and “treat” the frostbite, including bludgeoning the limb and chipping away the ice.

Even if they were spared surgery, the vast majority of prisoners were intentionally injected with venereal diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhoea under the guise of “vaccinations”. Some prisoners were repeatedly raped by guards, who had contracted the disease after having raped civilian women or shared unwilling sex slaves. In an attempt to find a cure, many civilian women were forcibly injected with syphilis, and some of them were even forced to get pregnant before being vivisected to further examine the vertical transmission of the disease.

Those who were “lucky” enough to escape surgery, forced infection, and frostbite were tied to stakes outside of the facility and subjected to grenades, flamethrowers, germ-releasing bombs, chemical weapons, and explosive bombs. Other experiments involved depriving prisoners of food and water to see how long they would last; placing prisoners into pressure chambers to determine how much pressure the human body could take before the eyeballs popped out; spinning prisoners in centrifuges until they died; injecting prisoners with animal blood; exposing them to lethal doses of x-rays; gassing them; injecting them with sea water; and burning them alive.

Unit 731 and an affiliated site, known as Unit 1644, continuously bred plague infected fleas while another satellite complex, Unit 8604, was used to breed rats. Outside of the facility, plague fleas, infected clothing, and infected supplies were packaged into bombs and dropped on various targets throughout China. The resultant effects, including widespread cholera, tularemia, and plague, were estimated to have killed over 400,000 Chinese civilians.

They were known to have spread plague infected fleas over the coastal city of Ningbo in 1940 and Hunan’s Changde City in 1941 using low-flying planes. On September 22nd 1945, the Imperial Japanese Army had prepared and scheduled to drop one of these patented plague bombs on San Diego, California. However, they surrendered five weeks before the bomb was due to launch.

When Russians finally invaded the Harbin area in 1945, the researchers in Unit 731 abandoned their work and fled to Japan. General Ishii ordered them to take their secret to the grave and issued all of them with vials of potassium cyanide in the event that they were captured. Japanese troops were sent to blow up the compound and destroy all of the evidence, but it was so well built that it survived somewhat intact.

After continuing pressure from the American military, a microbiologist known as Lieutenant Colonel Murray Sanders was provided with a manuscript by the Japanese government detailing their involvement in biological warfare. He took it directly to the then Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces; Douglas MacArthur. Yet, when evidence of the unit was finally discovered, rather than punish the perpetrators, the Americans decided to grant the researchers immunity in exchange for their data on biological and chemical warfare.

On the 6th of May 1947, MacArthur wrote to the Pentagon stating that “possibly some statements from Ishii probably can be obtained by informing Japanese involved that information will be retained in intelligence channels and will not be employed as ‘War Crimes’ evidence”. They managed to dismiss victims’ testimonies as “Communist Propaganda”.

The physicians provided the U.S. government with details of their research, agreed to withhold this evidence from other Allied countries, and in exchange were granted immunity. One member of Unit 1644, Masami Kitaoka, went on to perform experiments on unwilling Japanese subjects. He infected prisoners with rickettsia and mental health patients with typhus while working for Japan’s National Institute of Health Sciences.

To this day, none of the known perpetrators who carried out such inhumane experimentation have been tried, nor has Japan acknowledged the presence of the unit or apologised formally for the atrocities committed there. While many of these war criminals went on to enjoy high-ranking medical positions and normal lives, they have left behind only devastation in their wake.

Historical Horror: Unit 731