Despite my claims of being a hard-headed rationalist, I have to admit to being fascinated by a mystery. There is simply something intriguing about the unexplained. While most of the sorts of stories you read in books with titles like Amazing Unexplained Mysteries of the Universe can be attributed to hoaxes, urban legends, flawed eyewitness testimony, and the like, there are a few that stand out as being thoroughly documented, researched in depth, and yet which defy conventional explanation.
One of the most curious ones is a story right out of The X Files, and one which I didn't know about until a friend sent me a link a couple of days ago. It's called the Dyatlov Pass Incident, and occurred in February of 1959. The mystery -- what caused the deaths of the nine backcountry skiers?
Events began in January of that year, when a group of students at the Ural Polytechnical Institute in Yekaterinburg decided to take a cross-country ski trip across the northern Urals. It was led by Igor Dyatlov, and was composed of eight men and two women, who took a train to the town of Vizhai, and then went off on skis toward Mount Otorten. One member, Yuri Yudin, became ill right at the beginning of the expedition and returned to Yekaterinburg via train, leaving the nine others to trek off into the wilderness.
All nine were experienced skiers and backcountry hikers. All were in excellent physical condition, and had done similar treks before without incident. By January 31 they had camped in a wooded valley, cached food and supplies, and the next morning headed up toward the pass that would one day bear the name of the leader of the ill-fated group.
On February 1, a snowstorm moved in, and the group lost their way -- instead of maintaining their heading toward Dyatlov Pass, they veered west, toward the peak of Kholat Syakhi. At some point they realized their mistake, but instead of retracing their path, they chose to camp on the mountainside and wait out the storm.
Then... something happened, and all nine hikers died.
Igor Dyatlov had told Yuri Yudin that they should be back in Vizhai by February 12, and that he would send a message by telegraph when they got there. When no word from the hikers was sent back to friends in Yekaterinburg by February 20, a rescue expedition was formed. On February 26, the camp on the side of Kholat Syakhi was found, but there the mystery deepened. The camp was uninhabited -- but the single large tent had been cut open from the inside. Within the ruined tent were all of the hikers' supplies -- and all of their shoes. A line of footprints led from the camp down the side of Kholat Syakhi, and all of the footprints showed that the individuals who made them were barefoot or clad in socks. Five hundred meters from the camp the rescuers found the bodies of Yuri Krivonischenko and Yuri Doroshenko, shoeless and clad only in their underwear. Further along, and in similar states of undress, were the corpses of Dyatlov, Zina Kolmogorova and Rustem Slobodin. The remaining four members of the expedition were not found until May 4, when the thawing snow uncovered their bodies 75 meters further down the hillside.
The bodies were examined by doctors, and the first five were all found to have died of hypothermia. Slobodin had a minor skull fracture, but not sufficient to be the cause of his death. The four who were found on May 4, however, were a different story. Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolles had major head injuries, and Ludmila Dubunina and Alexander Kolevatov had huge chest injuries, "similar to those that would result from a car crash." However, none had external damage -- it looked more like "injuries resulting from high, crushing levels of pressure." Dubunina's tongue was missing. The hikers who had died from injuries rather than hypothermia showed no signs of having been killed in a fight -- the doctor who examined them, Dr. Boris Vozrozhdenny, stated under oath that the damage could not have been inflicted by a human being, "because the force of the blows had been too strong and no soft tissue had been damaged."
A friend of the hikers, Yury Kuntsevich, who was at the time of the incident twelve years old, recalls that when the bodies of the hikers were brought back to Yekaterinburg, their faces looked "scorched," as if they had "deep brown tans." Forensic radiation tests found that the hikers' clothing had high levels of radioactivity.
Now, if that wasn't weird enough, another group of hikers who was 50 kilometers to the south of Kholat Syakhi reported that on the night of February 2, they saw "orange spheres" hovering over the mountains in the direction of Dyatlov Pass. Similar reports continued during February and March in the entire area, sightings that were corroborated by independent witnesses including meteorological services and members of the Soviet military.
The inquest into what had happened to the hikers was closed during the third week of May, because of the "absence of a guilty party." All that could be concluded, the inquest said, was that the hikers had died because of a "compelling unknown force." What caused their deaths remains a mystery.
There are a number of rational possibilities, of course. The Russians were, at that time, testing missiles of various sorts, and it's possible that all of the facts of the case could be explained by a nuclear-powered missile firing gone wrong. It is curious, however, that if this was the case, the military would have admitted to seeing the "orange spheres" sighted above Kholat Syekhi in February -- the Soviets were not exactly known for openness with regards to their military maneuvers. It could be that the hikers stumbled upon the remains of an earlier nuclear test, and the combination of radiation poisoning and hypothermia led them to wander off unclad and shoeless -- but how, then, to explain the catastrophic compression injuries of Thibeaux-Brignolles, Dubunina, and Kolevatov?
However you look at it, the Dyatlov Pass Incident remains a perplexing and terrifying mystery. I am still certain that there is a rational explanation for the whole thing, but even after reading a great deal about the facts of the case, I'm damned if I can see what it is. All we know, 53 years later, is what we knew then -- that nine hikers died, under bizarre circumstances, on a snowy mountainside in the Urals, and no one knows why.