The Horrifying Mystery of the Dyatlov Pass Incident

Here at Curiosity, we're sort of in the business of explaining the unexplainable, or at least making it easier to understand. But every once in a while, we come across a story that's just too strange to explain — and too terrifying to forget. Welcome to Dyatlov Pass.

Just the Facts

On January 28, 1959, 10 students and graduates of the Ural State Technical University embarked on an ill-fated backcountry hike into Russia's Ural Mountains. They were all experienced mountaineers, and they expected to reach their destination by February 12. One of the hikers, Yury Yudin, got sick just before the crew got into the actual backcountry and had to stay behind. He was the group's only survivor.

So a group of nine hikers heads into the woods and never comes out. It's sad, but it's also one of the risks of wandering in the wilderness, right? The thing is, when they didn't arrive at the expected time, the search-and-rescue team that was dispatched to find them discovered a terrifying and frankly inexplicable scene. First of all, the tent that the nine had shared had apparently been cut open from the inside and was full of the party's rations, warm clothing, and other essentials. The team then discovered five of the missing hikers about one mile (1.6 km) from their tent. Two were discovered beside the remains of a campfire, and their hands were severely burned. The other three were discovered in intervals of about 100 feet (30 m), apparently attempting to return to their destroyed tent. All five were found in various states of undress — some were barefoot, and others were wearing only their socks. One of the men, Rustem Slobodin, had a small fracture in his skull, but it was ruled that he had died from exposure, not injury.

The remaining four hikers were found approximately three months later. But instead of clarifying the situation, their bodies only made the story stranger. Some of them were wearing clothes that belonged to the ones left at the campfire, indicating that they had scavenged those bodies in order to stay warm in the minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 34 degrees Celsius) weather, but all four apparently tumbled into a ravine and died there. One of these hikers had suffered a chest injury that doctors compared to a car crash, and another was found to be missing her tongue.

Now is when things get really weird. The hikers' clothing was all strongly radioactive, and other than their severe injuries, there were no obvious signs of struggle or the presence of any other living thing in the area. One of the hikers, Semyon Zolotaryov, had apparently taken the time to grab his camera before fleeing the tent but left his clothing behind (what had he hoped to photograph?). And speaking of cameras, another member of the party, Yuri Krivonischenko, had taken a blurry picture of a glowing ... something before the incident. Oh, and the place they all died? Its name translates to "Mountain of the Dead."

A Shot in the Dark

So what could have killed the hikers? In short, we have no idea. There are a few theories that tend to come up, though. One is that they were attacked by someone or something in the woods, but there's just one problem: the search teams found nine sets of footprints in the snow — one for each of the victims — but no others, human, animal, or otherwise.

So maybe it wasn't an outsider. Maybe something happened between the hikers that caused them to turn on each other, or caused one to become extremely violent. Except there's not really any great evidence of that, either. The diaries of the hikers found back in the tent didn't indicate any kind of rising tension, nor did anyone who knew these nine believe they would have allowed their emotions to interfere in a survival situation. Some nearby residents reported seeing orange lights in the sky, leading some people to theorize UFOs had to be involved, and other (somewhat) calmer minds to suggest that they had been the accidental victims of some sort of Soviet weapons test. At least that would explain the radiation. It would also explain why the official investigation into the incident closed almost as quickly as it opened — investigators were satisfied to list "a compelling natural force" as the cause of death.

One theory that has gained some traction is that the hikers were the unfortunate victims of infrasound. The idea is basically that the wind that night would have resonated exactly in the valley where they made their camp to create a low-level rumbling just outside of the range of human hearing. That could have caused a panic in the tent — perhaps a fear of avalanche — and sent them all running into the night without their essential gear. The strange injuries? Since they didn't seem to affect the soft tissue, only the bones, they might have been a result of snowpack over the bodies after death (although that wouldn't be the case for the first bodies discovered, since there wasn't even enough snow at that point to cover their footprints). The missing tongue? It might have just been a too-good-to-pass-up snack for a raven or fox. And finally, the radiation might be explained by the fact that their candles would have contained radioactive thorium.

So was it all a series of terribly unfortunate accidents that happened to add up to a bizarre mystery? There's no way to know for sure. But we're not heading into the Ural Mountains anytime soon.

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

If you're like us, then you need to know more about what exactly went down at Dyatlov Pass. And in that case, we recommend you follow our lead and check out Donnie Eichar's "Dead Mountain." The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas December 7, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.