Thursday, February 2, 2012

February 2, 1959

A strange event happened 53 years ago today. And what makes it unusual is that the facts are well-documented. It's the "why?" that may never be known.

Kholat Syakhl is a mountain in the Ural range in Russia. The name is from the language of the local Mansi tribes, and means "Mountain of the Dead."

In early 1959, a group of 9 young men & women set out to ski-trek through the area. It was winter, but all were experienced, well-trained winter skiers. They carried plenty of supplies. All were students, or recent graduates, of Ural State Technical University. The leader of the group was 23 year-old Igor Dyatlov.

Igor Dyatlov

They carried cameras and diaries, which were eventually recovered. The pictures showed routine events in the trek, and were helpful afterward in trying to reconstruct times... up to a point.

They left Vizhai on January 27, 1959, and their pictures suggest the trip went well. They show a group clowning around and enjoying themselves.

On January 31 they climbed into a highland area, and near a clump of trees cached surplus food & equipment for the return leg of their trip.

On February 2 they began hiking through a mountain pass. Their original plan was to get through the area and camp on the opposite side that night, but snow had started to fall. With the visibility worse they headed west by mistake, going upwards on Kholat Syakhl.

They realized the mistake quickly, but by then darkness had started to set in. They decided to make camp in a clearing there, and cross the pass in the morning. They set up camp at around 5:00 p.m., had dinner, and were settled down for the night by 9:00. By all indications it was a fairly typical evening.

Setting up camp.

Dyatlov was planning to send a telegraph home when they returned to Vizhai, on February 12. When it didn't arrive there was little initial reaction, as treks of this sort were known to last a few extra days. But by February 20 enough people were concerned that the first search parties went out. Eventually the police were brought in, and used helicopters to search the area.

On February 26, searchers found their tent on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl. It was badly damaged, and curiously had been cut through from within. The entrance was still clasped closed from the inside.

Outside the ruined tent were footprints heading for the forest. Following them, searchers found the first 2 frozen bodies. Both were under a large tree, near the remains of a fire. They were men, both barefoot and wearing only underwear. Branches of the tree were broken off, and the mens' hands and feet were injured, suggesting they'd tried to climb it.

Three other bodies eventually turned up, spread out between the tent and the tree, in positions suggesting they were returning to the tent when they died. One was Dyatlov, clutching a large tree branch in one hand.

It had been -22°F (-30° C) that night, with blowing snow. Yet, something had happened that drove experienced skiers frantically out, nearly naked, into temperatures that they knew would be fatal in a short time. All were found to have died of hypothermia. Only one body had any sign of injury, a small, non-fatal, skull fracture.

The remaining 4 frozen bodies weren't found until the spring thaw, on May 4. They were in a stream bed a few hundred feet from the tree.

The autopsies of the last 4 added to the mystery. They were wearing more clothes than those found under the tree, but not nearly enough to handle the temperatures (most of the heavy clothing had been left in the remains of the tent). Only one had died of exposure. The other 3 from severe trauma: 1 had massive skull damage, the other 2 had suffered serious chest cavity injuries and broken ribs. One woman had her tongue completely torn out. None of the bodies had any signs of external wounds, and there was no superficial soft tissue damage. This suggested massive, sudden pressure to the affected areas (such as seen in high-speed car accidents).

Based on the amount of food in their stomachs, all had died 6-8 hours after their last meal (between 6:00-7:00 p.m. from the diaries).

All their clothing, and the tent, had varying levels of radiation on them (higher than the area's natural background).

So what happened?

The best that investigators in 1959, and again during a 2nd review of records in the 1990's, came up with is that a "compelling unknown force" occurred between 11:00 and midnight that night.

Something that made 9 highly-experienced winter skiers so desperate to get out of their tent that they cut through it from inside rather than unclasp the entrance, then ran into the freezing night wearing far less than they knew would be needed to survive the weather outside.

From the footprints they ran in all directions initially, then regrouped and built a fire under the tree. At that point they tried to share clothing for warmth (based on what different bodies were wearing). They were only 1500 feet from the tent and all of their supplies, but, because of whatever had happened, didn't want to go back.

At some point 2 of them died of exposure, which is likely when Dyatlov and 2 others headed back to the tent. They never made it.

In the next few hours the remaining 4 left the fire, and decided that heading farther into the forest was safer than going back to their supplies and the tent. During the night they reached a frozen stream bed, where something caused serious bodily injuries to 3 of them.

And the "compelling force?"

There were suspicions that local Mansi tribes had attacked the group, but no other footprints (human or animal), or even evidence of a struggle, were ever found. There was no evidence of gun or knife wounds. In addition, all their food and other supplies were untouched. Tribesmen would likely have taken anything of use. Animals, such as bears, would have eaten the exposed food in the tent (not to mention the bodies).

Some suggest they were startled by an avalanche, but there was no evidence of one, even minor, in the area.

Another theory (and still the most persistent) is that they were accidental victims of a Soviet secret weapons test in the area, though again, no evidence to confirm this has ever come to light, even with files re-opened in the 1990's.

Inevitably, UFO's are blamed. A group of hikers 32 miles south of Kholat Syakhl that night had reported seeing "orange spheres" in the sky. Similar sightings were also reported by a meteorological station in the area, before the disappearance of the hikers was known. But this is hardly enough to draw conclusions from. I, personally, am very skeptical of paranormal claims, UFO's, etc. And don't even get me started on cryptids.

The bottom line is that the "compelling unknown force" was known only to 9 people, and none came home to tell the tale.

After the incident the area was closed off for 3 years. Today it's named Dyatlov Pass, in memory of the group. Nothing unusual has happened there again.

Something took the lives of 9 young men and women 52 years ago today. It remains a complete mystery. And likely always will be.


Ketsuban said...

Avalanches really aren't that terrifying. Powerful yes, terrifying no.

"The big fact that gets lost in the re-telling of this story is that the bodies weren't found until weeks later. It's not like somebody turned their back, then five minutes later all their friends were dead and half naked.

That makes the missing tongue a lot easier to explain. As disturbing as it may be, the first thing a scavenging animal is going to go for is probably the soft tissue of an open mouth... Laying out in the sun surrounded by white snow for days also accounts for the weird tan.
The trauma and the destroyed tent points to an avalanche. Their state of undress can be explained by paradoxical undressing, a known behavior of hypothermia victims when their brains start to freeze and malfunction. In other words, it's the kind of behavior you'd expect from a group of injured avalanche victims wandering around in the middle of the night in the freezing cold."

The raised levels of radiation and orange lights in the sky are counterfactual claptrap promulgated by wilfully ignorant people wanting to turn an ordinary hiking accident into a paranormal event.

Anonymous said...

Hm... my first thought was the paranormal. Maybe that is just where my head goes. I have heard of the paradoxical undressing, but couldn't figure out why they would have cut the tent. Why would they have had hypothermia in the tent? A very interesting story and I love a good mystery. Thanks for sharing Ibee.

Moose said...

What's Russian for "Blair Witch"?

Lilly said...

Ketsuban- so if there was an avalanche, why wasn't it all buried? Or the footprints obliterated?

The Old Timer said...

I was also 23 in 1959. At that time schools in America talked about the Russians being evil and out to annihilate us. I suppose their schools were teaching them the same thing about Americans.

Looking at the pictures, they look and acted the same way any of my friends did at that age.

In fact they look like people. What do you know?

Ketsuban said...

Avalanches aren't all enormous cascades that demolish entire cities. Some are just moderate collapses capable of injuring people on rocks and smashing campsites without burying everything.

Footprints can be made after the fact. Nobody is claiming a bunch of instant deaths.

Francine said...

Interesting...Sad, but interesting.

Allison said...

I make no presumptions about what happened, but I am thoroughly freaked out. This solidifies my decision to never go camping.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Allison- hell, my goal in life is to never go camping. I've had that goal since I was born, and no one elses camping experiences (good or bad) has ever altered it.

Mari-Ann said...

Camping is bad but WINTER CAMPING? Seriously crazy. You give us the best stories, Grumpy! That would have been a great campfire story except we don't camp.

Hiker said...

Paradoxical undressing is quite real, but it's not like their clothes were scattered around the area. They were still in the tent.

If they were undressing, then they would have had to be placing the removed items back in the tent as they took them off, then going back to the forest.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating! Thanks for the history lesson. One reason I love your blog so much.

Don said...

The wikipedia article is interesting, to say the least. It sounds as if the soviets did something in the area, with a cover-up. I'd heard of it before, I think thru a Fortean Times article some years back. Thank you for the post.

bobbie said...

Sad... but fascinating!!!

Charlene said...

Wow. I'm a regular reader of your blog, and I've never commented before, but I couldn't resist with this post. Wow. I really don't know what else to say. It's crazy and I wish I could make sense of it.

Syrlinus said...

What about drugs? Couldn't that cause reactions or hallucinations that result in oddities like shedding of clothes and potential violent behaviour?

SeaSideRobin said...

I vote sasquatch. Or is it the yeti in Russia?

Grumpy, M.D. said...

SeaSideRobin- it's called Almas.

Don said...

While I'm open to the idea of Yeti, and Sasquatch, the radiation aspect tends to make that doubtful, as are the lack of other tracks. The big question is, why the cover-up?

Anonymous said...

That must have been one serious fart.

Margaret said...

Thank you for another great tale.

My idea of camping is slow room service.

Packer said...

I am an experienced outdoorsman. thus my name. Hypothermia causes confusion and one of the things that may hypothermics do is strip naked. Mystery solved. Hypothermia can kill you at 60 degrees, it doesn't have to be super cold.

Anonymous said...

What about ergot poisoning from rye or other grains? Then things could have gotten trippy with everyone having hallucinations. Can't find what the typical time of onset after ingestion is, however, and whether they'd all peak at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Well if Almas (the yeti type creature) was really a radioactive man gone wrong ..... Wait... I know what happened! Combining several comic book answers, one of the campers turned into the Almas due to weapons testing in the area. The campers had to cut out of the tent to escape the hulk style rage, some tried to climb trees (and were killed there). It declared the tent area its own territory. Two decided to return and fight the beast while the others stayed at the creek. But before they could take the Almas out, the radioactivity that had been contained in the beast exploded, killing all on site. Solved it!

Taryn said...

I always enjoy your history posts! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

January 1988 my sister died of hypothermia exposure climbing Marcus Baker, one of the higher peaks in the Chugach Range. She was an experienced climber, having climbed mountains and glaciers, skiied, ice-skated, bushwhacked in winter, etc. since high school. She was in a party of three. It was a January climb during winter break from UAA. She had prepared adequately. They had taken a map which was inadvertently the opposite route of their climb, and had to backtrack a day. They were within several hundred feet of summiting. My sister wanted to rest and made camp to await the other two who thought they could easily reach the top within hours, however a storm came up. Those at the top were stranded for > 24 hours. When they returned, my sister had died. Hypothermia, and lower levels of oxygen distort the senses. She was found frozen several feet from the tent, with only her lighter garments, scratches to her face apparently from being tossed by the wind during the storm. At the wake, my brother spoke to the issues of climbers staying together, and she might have lived to scale another peak if that had been the case. She'd already attempted Denali, and was interested in UW Climbers on Everest that summer. Low oxygenation affects humans to different degrees. Anchorage is sea level. Mountain ranges in AK are among the highest in the world considering base at sea level.

An interesting story of the Ural Mtn climbers.

Anonymous said...

The problem I have with the hypothermia and paradoxical undressing is that 9 people snuggled together in a tent ought to be able to keep quite warm.

Vicki said...

My initial thought was drugs too. I don't know enough about individual drugs to know which could have led to this, but it seems like drugs would explain why they may have cut the tents open from the inside, and then hypothermia took over after that.

SeaSideRobin, the Sasquatch is found (or not found, depending upon to whom you talk!) in Canada and the Yeti in Nepal around Mt. Everest. I'd never heard of Almas before! The things you learn from Dr. Grumpy!

Anonymous said...

Take a look at this:

RSDS said...

Like anonymous @ 1:06 PM I also immediately wondered about the possibility of ergot poisoning. LSD was initially derived from ergot.

WV: noongs
Maybe they were attacked by noongs.

Liz 2 said...

I LOVE stories like this . . . very subtle undertones that get creepier the more you think about them.

Of course there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation, but that wouldn't be any (morbid) fun. :)

Anonymous said...

I think I am most to agree with Syrlinus - a sudden and odd behavioural change in all of them to make them do things they would not normally do?? Could they have had some from of drug/been exposed to some sort of chemical that would ellicit such behaviour? Did they smoke something? Was water they used poisoned? Were there such tests then used during autopsy to eliminate drugs/chemicals in their bodies?
I guess I'm just stabbing in the dark for possible ideas much as anyone in these tragic sort of events.
A fascinating and sad story Dr.G.

Anonymous said...

I have just commented then realised that drugs would not necessarily account for the trauma of the people found by the stream...and was the park closed for 3 years just because of this tragic and fatal event, or was there higher levels of radiation than normal?
Those poor families not ever knowing.

Allison said...

Dr. Grumpy- I live in Michigan. Detroit, specifically, for med school right now (err... next year really when I'm done with medical leave). One of my friends, from Cuba, yes, CUBA, meaning he knows NOTHING of the cold, wants to go camping in the upper peninsula this month. In a cabin with no heat, electricity, or a toilet. In all honesty, I told him he had a pretty good shot at dying alone up there because no one in their right mind would go with him. I think I'm going to point him to this story and ask him to consider choosing life.

To summarize, I love civilization. It got us so far. There's no need to pretend it doesn't exist.

Dafeenah said...

I've seen this story on several different websites. Some claim there was no "mystery". The group were in their tent and an avalanche occurred and each thing listed as "mysterious" is given a plausible explanation. But like you say only 9 people know truly what happened that night and none are alive to tell it.

Anonymous said...

1) my vote goes for hypothermia, it makes the most sense. Fortunately this didn't turn into a Donner party story.

2) Dr. Grumpy, isn't your son a Boy Scout? Doesn't he do Winter Campout - snow caves? haven't they coerced you into going yet?

3) When you speak Russian, any russian word that is spelled phonetically drives me batty. I can't figure what they are trying to say and have to find it in Cyrillic. LOL

4) loved the article ... in a sick, morbid way. And it wasn't about some giant beaver/rat/nutria that was yanked out of hibernation.

Anonymous said...

OK - while hypothermia is plausible, how were the higher than background radiation levels explained? Same goes with avalanche. Former testing location? Just coincidence or something of substance? These inconsistencies are likely why the mystery remains...

Whizzed said...

I found it an interesting story personally, the woodsman's comment on Hypothermia is quite true and would be worse at the altitude this party were camping I reckon.

Mad Jack said...

My idea of roughing it is a hotel room without air conditioning in the summertime.

This is a great story. Thanks for the post.

About all investigators could be certain of is that:
all the people were very experienced
all were young and therefore felt themselves invulnerable
they carried a known amount of equipment and were not under equipped
they faced harsh conditions

Likely an avalanche, perhaps several were involved. Hypothermia would also be a factor, but with their physical stamina and experience all of them getting hypothermia at once is possible, but not likely. There had to be other factors. The idea of a hallucinogenic of some sort is a good one, but it still doesn't explain everything.

C said...

-22F is maybe there was an avalanche and they could not get out of the regular tent opening...they decided to go make a fire- thus the tree branches, etc. but making a fire in a -22F storm...not so easy. And you would not make a fire too close to your tent because you would not want to burn it. And you might not have all your clothing on because you would want to warm yourself. In a storm/avalanche, you could easily lose your sense of direction, so the people in the frozen stream might have been trying to go back to the tent, but they got lost. Think about the windchill and the white out conditions at -22. 1959 -no gortex; no modern down clothing. Not a lot of room for errors.

Maurizio Morabito said...

A more down to earth was the USSR in the late 50's, with U2s flying high and all the rest...the victims might have simply stumbled into some military super-secret operation/patrol. I'm sure those would have been scary enough to warrant running in one's underwear. And the four dead by the river might have been killed with a hand grenade, thereby explaining their injuries.

Of course the aforementioned military would have had no problem in covering up the tracks and/or changing the records so as to make it appear as if no other tracks had been found.

Whizzed said...

Yes I have to agree in a way with
Maurizio Morabito's comment they certainly may have simply stumbled into some military super-secret operation/patrol. however, at the same time the old Soviet union was nowhere near as bad for a law abiding citizen as we have all been led to believe.
I have met many Russians of that era who agreed on that, I come from that era myself.
I doubt we shall ever find out how or why it happened.

Vulcan said...

For people saying that it was military, then why would the tent have been cut from the inside out if exiting from the front would have been easier/quicker. Why would they have stripped naked? Maybe military caused them to evacuate their campsite, causing them to get hypothermia. Most likely though, it was an avalanche.

Lisa said...

Wow, Very interesting story. Here is another mystery, still unsolved. A bit more recent, 1994. When I read it, I immediately thought of sharing it with you, Dr. Grumpy. Warning: lots of chemistry in this story. ---longtime reader and medical student

Lisa said...

I'm a silly so-and -so, I forgot to add the link for this cool chemical mystery.

thanks for taking the time to read this.

--longtime reader and medical student

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