Everyone loves a good mystery – especially some unsolved ones that sparked many imaginations and conspiracy theories that are sometimes more outlandish than the actual reported incident as it became a thing of legend. Today’s mystery is no exception. This happened roughly 62 years ago as of this writing in 1959, around February 1 or 2. I’m sure you’ve heard of it; it’s about a group of professional Russian hikers that went missing who were all from the Ural Polytechnical Institute, then were all found dead from unkown causes several days later. These hikers had established a camp on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl once called Devil’s Pass – which at this point they now changed it’s name in honor of the ill-fated group’s team leader: Igor Dyatlov. Due to the mysterious circumstances of their death when they were finally found, it is now forever known as the DYATLOV PASS.

The story begins a month or so earlier that same year when the group was formed for a skiing expedition across the northern Urals in Sverdlovsk Oblast, Soviet Union.  The group consisted of Igor Alekseievich Dyatlov, the group’s leader (born January 13, 1936), Zinaida Alekseevna Kolmogorova (born January 12, 1937), Lyudmila Alexandrovna Dubinina (born May 12, 1938), Alexander Sergeievich Kolevatov (born November 16, 1934), Rustem Vladimirovich Slobodin (born January 11, 1936), Yuri (Georgiy) Alexeievich Krivonischenko (born February 7, 1935), Yuri Nikolaievich Doroshenko (born January 29, 1938), Nicolai Vladimirovich Thibeaux-Brignolles (born July 5, 1935), and Semyon (Alexander) Alexandrovich Zolotariov (born February 2, 1921).

There was one other member, Yuri Yefimovich Yudin (born July 19, 1937 – died April 27, 2013) – but he had chosen to abandon the group due to having fallen ill – thus he was spared the same fate as his unfortunate comrades. All of them hailed from the Ural Polytechnical Institute (now Ural Federal University).

Each member of the expedition were experienced hikers with ski tour experience, and all would be receiving a higher grade certification upon their return from the trip.  At that time, that certification they were aiming for was the highest certification available in the Soviet Union, and required candidates to traverse 300 kilometres (190 mi) to qualify, hence one of their primary reasons for doing so. The specific route was designed by Dyatlov’s group with the goal to reach Otorten, a mountain 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) north of the site where the incident occurred. The route was approved by the Sverdlovsk City Route Commission, a division of the Sverdlovsk Committee of Physical Culture and Sport. It was reported that they had confirmed the group’s plans on January 8th, 1959.  The route they chose to undertake in February was estimated one of the most difficult to traverse due to several challenges it had, weather included.

What happened next remained somewhat sketchy. An investigation by Soviet authorities was launched when the group never made it to their final destination weeks later. Investigators surmised that during one night when they set up camp, something had caused them to cut their way out of their tents and flee the campsite despite being inadequately dressed for the heavy snowfall and subzero temperatures. Their bodies had been found separately, though not that far from the campsite they had hastily abandoned, they had determined that six had died from hypothermia while the other three had been killed by physical trauma. List of damages include minor and major skull damage, and severe chest trauma. Four of the bodies were found lying in running water in a creek, with three of these showed soft tissue damages on the head, two of the bodies were missing their eyes (both sets), one was missing a tongue, and another was missing their eyebrows. The investigators couldn’t figure out exactly what had happened because any scenario they could come up with at that time couldn’t be explained with whatever concrete evidence they could find – or couldn’t find, in this case.

Enter the MANY, many theories from alien interferance, atomic blast, abominable snowmen, etc. Your guess, is apparently, as good is mine.

The latest stab at trying to solve the mystery was released via an article published on January 28, 2021 in the online journal Communications Earth and Environment. The researchers identified data supporting the theory that a small, impactful avalanche may have been the cause of their harried exit under duress.

According to a team from the Snow Avalanche Simulation Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland, they were able to use analytical models, simulations, and technological help from Disney’s animation studios to explain how an avalanche may have occurred without leaving behind evidence. The lengthy PDF of the study can be found here.

That theory isn’t new though; as it was also posited originally amongst the initial investigators at the time, but many hardline skeptics kept refuting that theory because such an event happening is like lightning in a bottle – or the equivalent of hitting the lotto from numbers chosen via blindfold. But despite the detractors, the avalance theory is the most persistent among them.

But there’s another theory posited two years earlier. A freak “blizzard” known as Katabatic Winds.

In January of 2019, durign the sixtieth anniversary of the incident surrounding Dyatlov Pass, two Swedish adventurers, Richard Holmgren and Andreas Liljegren, alongside two experienced local guides, Ekaterina Zimina and Artem Domogirov, set out on a new expedition to the Kholat Syakhl in an effort to possibly uncover the truth about exactly what happened to the Dyatlov Pass victims. The group’s aim was to replicate the exact challenges that the original expeditionary group had faced. The new expedition would take the same route to the site during exactly the same time of year as the original Dyatlov group – and hopefully, in almost exactly the same conditions. The week between January and February, equipped with nothing more than a large tent and the essential supplies, the new expedition set off to do pretty much that. We already knew that weather definitely was a contributing factor in the incident, but not how.

Long story short? The replicated expedition posit the theory that the incident during their own experience which led to the deaths of the original expedition was possibly caused by Katabatic Winds – a phenomenon that carries high-density air from a higher elevation down a slope under the force of gravity. Such winds are sometimes also called fall winds; the spelling catabatic winds is also used. Katabatic winds can allegedly rush down elevated slopes at hurricane speeds that can hit you like a proverbial locomotive at high speed, but most – if not all – are not as intense as that.

The reason for such a theory exists because of one such incident that almost mirrors Dyatlov Pass was the Anaris Mountain Accident that occured – eerily enough – also on February in 1978. The reports said that in February 1978, a group of 9 hikers/skiiers set out across the Anaris Mountains of the Valadalen Nature Reserve in Central Sweden. Tragically, eight of them perished in almost similar circumstances to how their Russian counterparts did 19 years earlier. Like the Dyatlov group, they abandoned their camp in a chaotic mess with most of them dying from exposure and with each of their bodies lacerated with minor injuries.

The biggest exception to the Dyatlov Pass incident was that this time there was a lone survivor.

He was able to describe in detail what had happened. During their time in the mountains while skiing, the weather deteriorated quite rapidly that they didn’t have ample time to adequately muster enough defense against it in the suddeness of the event. The freezing temperatures created by the relentless winds meant that the stranded skiers were quickly incapacitated.  The only reason why one of them was able to narrowly escape death was due to the fact that the skiiers weren’t completely out in the middle of nowhere, and the survivor was able to reach for help – unlike the tragic victims of Dyatlov Pass.

Whether the hypothesis of an avalance or a freak blizzard like the Katabatic Winds holds true, one thing is for certain: an unknown force of nature was strong enough to prove fatal to even the most experienced of mountaineers. And that these more recent theories sound more realistic than most of the conspiracy theories and tall tales of what might have happened to Igor Dyatlov and his team on that tragic night in 1959.

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Sources and suggested reading: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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