“If I had a chance to ask God just one question, it would be, ‘What really happened to my friends that night?’” Yury Yudin, expedition survivor.
You may think horror films are creepy, but sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. In 1959, ten normal, healthy cross-country skiers set off on a camping trip in Russia’s Ural Mountains. Nine never returned. When their bodies were finally found, many elements of eerie mystery hung heavily in the air. Three of the individuals had fallen victim to inexplicable crushing injuries. The tongue of one of the others was missing.
According to some reports, the radiation levels of the victims’ clothing were also abnormally high. Why? Nobody knows. And what was it that made the skiers slash their tent from the inside to trudge, practically naked, through deep snow, in temperatures as low as –30°C (-22°F)? Further deepening the mystery, why did the government seal all the files relating to the incident? Join us as we journey back in time to trace the steps of those who died in Dyatlov Pass (which was named after the leader of the expedition). Pictures of the dead follow.
The skiers set out on their expedition on January 27, 1959. One of the original members of the party, Yuri Yudin, had to turn back due to illness before the first night’s camping. He was the only one of the trekkers to survive. As for the rest, they were headed towards a peak named Kholat Syakhl, which means “Mountain of the Dead” in the language of the native Mansi people.
At this point, everything seemed fine. The skiers took pictures of one another smiling and embracing one another. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. However, in came bad weather, and with it a turn for the worse – and decidedly stranger.
Caught in a snowstorm, the trekkers veered off course and decided to set up camp on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl – at 5pm on February 2, judging from their photos and diary entries. They went to sleep. Then something horrific occurred, the nature of which we can but guess at. Some have suggested that it was an avalanche, but others aren’t satisfied with this explanation. Only one thing is known for sure. Whatever it was, it was serious enough to make the skiers leap up in the middle of the night and escape from their tent by cutting it open from the inside. Some didn’t even bother to put on clothes or boots as they ventured outside into the bitter cold. Most went out into the snow barefoot or wearing only socks.
The expedition had been expected to return around February 12, but no search was started until February 20, after worried relatives raised the alarm. It took six days for the initial search party to find the campsite, which was discovered abandoned and with most of the skiers’ belongings left behind. Investigators found the footprints of eight or nine people leading away from the camp and down the mountain slope to a nearby forest. Near the edge of the woods were found the remains of a campfire, made using wet wood, and the first two bodies dressed only in underclothes. It seemed they had tried to climb a tree, perhaps as a way to get more heat from the fire.
Three other bodies were found between the trees and the camp. It looked as if the three had died trying to return to the tent. Of course, the question remains: What could have caused them to leave their camp undressed in the first place? What manner of terror made them rush out without their shoes in freezing weather? Furthermore, what were they so afraid of that prevented them from returning to their tents before it was too late?
The medical examiners said that all five of the first victims discovered had died of hypothermia, although one of them had also suffered a non-fatal fractured skull.
The remaining four trekkers were not discovered for a further two months. They were found in a ravine under deep snow four meters thick. Some of them were wearing each others’ clothes; this may have been due to the effects of hypothermia, which can prompt the paradoxical feeling of a need to undress, but no one knows for sure.
All four had no external wounds – but here is where it starts to get eerier still. One had a crushed skull, the others broken ribs, and – like something out of a horror movie – the woman among them was missing her tongue. There seems to be no earthly explanation for this last fact. If a wild animal had taken the tongue there would surely have been some external trauma that would have shown on her face or body. If she had bitten it off herself, one would have thought there would be evidence of this, too. Was it the effects of bacteria? Or something else? Heaven only knows.
When the investigations initially began, some wondered if perhaps the indigenous Mansi people had murdered those members of the party who had not died of hypothermia. The theory was nixed by the medical examiner, however, who said that no human could have caused this, that the injuries were the result of far more powerful blows akin to those that might have been caused by a car crash. Had they fallen into the ravine and then been crushed under the weight of falling snow? Possibly – but there’s more.
Adding further to the sense of mystery were reports of bright orange spheres seen over the mountain the night the trekkers fled down the slope. Lev Ivanov was the chief investigator in 1959. He was told by officials to classify the investigation as secret and close the case. “I suspected at the time and am almost sure now that these bright flying spheres had a direct connection to the group’s death,” Ivanov has been quoted as saying.
Yuri Yudin, the member of the original party who survived, said he was asked to identify all the objects found and connect them to the victims. However, there were a few (such as a pair of glasses and a piece of cloth) which, together with document he had seen, led Yudin to suspect that not only had the military been at the scene before any rescuers, but that an official investigation was actually opened two weeks before the search team arrived.
Later investigators found a “cemetery” of scrap metal in the area, heightening the possibility of military involvement in the deaths – perhaps due to experiments of some kind. One piece of metal found in the pass is shown here.
It gets even stranger. The clothing of the victims contained high levels of radiation, for which there is no obvious explanation. Could it have been connected with the flying orange spheres seen that night? No one knows, except perhaps the people who have seen all of the files – some of which remain missing, even though copies were released in the early 1990s.
In 2008, six of the former rescuers and 31 independent investigators met to examine the case. They came to the conclusion that the military had somehow accidentally caused the deaths while carrying out testing. But what sort of tests? And exactly how did the victims who did not perish in the cold meet their end?
Until all the missing files are found, there will be no adequate answers – and we may never know the truth. Theories abound, but all we know for sure is that nine people died in Dyatlov Pass – some with horrific internal injuries, some in a state of undress. Their tent was slashed from the inside, so something clearly terrified them. And then there are the reports of the radiation and unidentified flying objects. The official cause of their death? An "unknown compelling force".