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.
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.