After more than half a century of conspiracy theories and poorly supported investigations, one of the world's greatest mysteries may finally have an answer. In what would become known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, nine Russian hikers died under bizarre circumstances in February of 1959. Numerous hypotheses have been put forth in the ensuing decades to explain their deaths. Some point to localized natural disasters like avalanches. Others veer into more outlandish territory like a violent Yeti attack. Now, through computer simulations and analytical models, a team of Swiss scientists have put together a comprehensive explanation for what may have happened on that snowy mountain.
What Is the Dyatlov Pass Incident?
On January 23, 1959, radio engineering student Igor Dyatlov led a group of eight experienced Russian hikers, ranging in age from 20 to 38 years old, into the Ural Mountains. Personal journals and film taken by the adventurers confirmed that on February 1, the team made camp on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl. In the local indigenous dialect, Kholat Syakhl ominously translates to "Dead Mountain." Sadly, the tragic events that occurred on that frigid night lived up to the name.
Sometime in the middle of the night, the hikers cut their way out of the tent and fled down the snow-covered mountain. Search and rescue teams found their bodies several weeks later. Examination of the remains determined that most of the hikers died of hypothermia. But if that had been all the examination revealed, the mystery of their deaths wouldn't endure until today.
Three of the hikers also had severe physical trauma to their skulls and torsos. Some of the bodies were missing their eyes and tongues. And in perhaps the strangest twist of all, several of the hikers were found half-naked and barefoot—highly unusual considering the location's subzero temperatures. Investigators even found trace radioactivity on one hiker's clothes.
What no one knows is why. What caused Dyatlov and his companions to flee the safety of their tent? The fact that they cut their way out points to urgency. In addition, no one can explain why they were found without clothes on. Who strips naked in freezing temperatures? Even more unnerving is the state of the bodies. What caused such terrible injuries and why were body parts missing?
These unanswered questions would fuel endless speculation for the next 60 years.
Over 60 Years of Conspiracy Theories
The mysterious nature of the hikers' deaths, and the even more mysterious condition of their bodies, left many questions. Bereaved family members and a skeptical general populace wanted answers. In the decades to follow, the Russian government would open a few investigations into the incident. They all came to the same conclusion: an avalanche had struck the hikers’ tent. The natural disaster could explain why the team would flee down the mountain slope in the middle of the night, and even why some of the bodies displayed such severe physical trauma.
However, doubts remained. An avalanche does not explain why some of the hikers were found half-naked, nor can it explain the missing body parts. In fact, under conventional wisdom, Kholat Syakhl's slope isn't even steep enough to facilitate an avalanche. Not to mention there were no obvious signs of one having taken place that night. Those details and a lack of compelling evidence only led skeptics to seek other alternative explanations.
Not all theories behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident are bizarre. The idea of destructive katabatic winds—hurricane-force winds that surge down mountain slopes—arose as a result of the terrain. A few theories, like those suggesting an interpersonal dispute among the hikers that turned violent, arose out of knowledge of human nature. Others, such as a murderous attack by the local indigenous people, stem from bigotry. But the more pervasive theories arise from enduring distrust of the Russian government and military.
These conspiracy theories revolve around a military weapons test. The exact nature of the weapon varies from theory to theory. Some explanations say the hikers fled out of panic when they found themselves in the path of a parachute mine exercise. Perhaps they escaped their tent when falling debris from a weapons test rained upon them. Maybe some of that debris hit them, resulting in the injuries found on the bodies. Due to the trace radioactivity found on one body, some people claim the hikers witnessed a secret nuclear weapons test and were killed by the government because they saw too much.
The Small Avalanche Theory
Fans of the more outlandish conspiracy theories may be disappointed to learn that the latest hypothesis returns to the initial and most mundane of explanations: an avalanche. In a paper published in Communications Earth and Environments on January 28, 2021, researchers from the Snow Avalanche Simulation Laboratory theorized that a bizarrely small, impactful avalanche caused the Dyatlov Pass Incident.
Their theory came about in a most unusual way: after watching the Disney movie Frozen, a researcher was struck by the film's remarkably lifelike depiction of snowfall. He was granted permission to borrow the movie’s animation code and applied it to his own avalanche simulation models. This proved to be the breakthrough that was needed to explain the unusual circumstances of the tragedy at Dyatlov Pass.
The Snow Avalanche Simulation Laboratory suggested that the slope of Kholat Syakhl is misleading. While the overall angle is not conducive to avalanches, the particular location where the hikers chose to make camp was indeed steep enough. Heavy snow would have masked this crucial anomaly in the landscape, making it appear less dangerous than it was.
The slope's steepness wasn't the only thing masked by heavy snowfall. Over time, snow and ice can compact into a solid slab that can be disguised by a fresh layer of snow. We think of avalanches as disasters that cover a mountain's entire slope, but a compacted slab as small as 16 feet could prove just as deadly to nine adventurers, no matter how experienced they were.
As for the strange condition of the hikers' bodies, less-than-bizarre explanations exist. If the team had placed their sleeping bags on top of their skis, the impact of the cascading slab could have caused the severe head and chest trauma. The missing eyes and tongue—in other words, soft tissue—was most likely eaten by scavenging animals.
Even the hikers' state of undress may be a grim artifact of hypothermia known as paradoxical undressing. When a person experiences hypothermia, blood vessels in the body's extremities constrict to conserve heat. This is why people lose toes and fingers in extreme cases. However, vessel constriction can't last forever and will eventually stop. When it does, the ensuing rush of blood to a person's extremities give the illusion of fever. Hypothermia can also cause confusion and disorientation, so people sometimes strip naked to relieve the heat—not aware that by doing so, they further expose themselves to freezing temperatures.
As for the radioactivity found on one of the bodies, lamps used by hikers actually contained thorium. If a lamp broke during the avalanche, it's possible some thorium spilled on the hiker.
But Conspiracy Theories Are Hard to Let Go
The Snow Avalanche Simulation Laboratory doesn't claim to have conclusively solved the mystery. They presented their research as one reasonable explanation for the Dyatlov Pass Incident and a starting point for more studies on avalanches. Even so, people remain skeptical of the findings, and rightly so; though the most recent research makes a compelling argument, there are still unanswered questions about how this freak accident came to pass.
In recent years, the Dyatlov Pass Incident caused the slopes of Kholat Syakhl to become a popular tourist destination for adventure seekers. Less than two weeks after the paper published in the Communications Earth and Environment, an unregistered team of hikers allegedly went missing. The report fed fears that yet another group had fallen victim to the same forces that claimed the lives of Dyatlov's team. What was less reported is that the hikers later arrived safely back in civilization. The reasons for their missed check-in stemmed from severe weather that delayed their return.
Still, the speed at which people jumped onto an apparent repeat occurrence of the original Dyatlov Pass Incident only goes to show that more thorough investigations must be done before this lingering mystery can finally be put to rest.
Sources: National Geographic