In 1959 something strange happened in Russia. In the Ural mountain chain lies the mountain Kholat Syakhl, which in the local Mansi tongue means Mountain of the dead. The reason for this name is that 9 Mansi hunters once stayed here overnight and were all found dead later. The Mansi people believe the mountain is haunted and hence avoid it.
On the east shoulder of this Mountain of the dead, in an area later to be named the Dyatlov Pass, a group of 9 students and researchers met their strange and untimely deaths in 1959.
Igor Dyatlov, 22, Semen Zolotarev, 38, Lyudmila Dubinina, 21, Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolle, 25, Alexander Kolevatov, 25, Yuri Krivonischenko, 24, Rustem Slobodin, 23, Yuri Doroshenko, 21 and Zinaida Kolmogorava, 22.
The leader of the group, Igor Dyatlov set out on January 23, 1959, to lead a team of 10 people, all experienced in long skiing treks and mountain expeditions, to climb the peak of Mount Otorten, which in Mansi tongue means “Don’t go there”. It was a 350 km long ski trip meant to commemorate the 21st Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. One of the 10, Yuri Yudin, got sick and had to remain at the base camp.
The group of 9 people went up in the mountains and failed to make radio contact on the previously agreed upon date. Later in February a search party found their dead bodies in the mountain, some with very peculiar injuries. To this day, no conclusive answer as to what really happened on that mountain has been found.
WARNING. Some of the photos in this article are of the actual dead bodies.
The expedition members kept a journal and had cameras with them, and from the notes and the photos we are able to piece together most of how their trek played out.
On January 23 the group left Sverdlovsk (modern day Yekaterinburg) and arrived in the morning of January 24 at the town of Serov. An incident took place at the train station in which one of the expedition members was arrested for singing, which would apparently disturb the peace of the other travelers. The problem was quickly settled and they traveled by train to Ivdel at 6.30 pm. From Ivdel they took a bus the next morning to Vijay. On January 26 the group went by car to the 41st quarter/settlement only to proceed by horse sled to the 2nd Severnity settlement.
On January 28 the geologist Yuri Yudin lead some of the group members to look for some local minerals. Only some pyrite and quartz veins were found. After this Yuri decided to go back because of illness.
In later interviews he recalled a conversation between one of the local men and Dyatlov. Yudin didn’t catch the whole conversation but it seems the local tried to warn Dyatlov about something. Dyatlov brushed it off and ignored the warning as superstition and replied simply by saying that they would decide which path to take once they will got to the river. Dyatlov never changed the planned route. He only told Yudin that their planned return would probably be postponed from February 12th to February 14th.
The expedition headed towards the river Lozva. The snow was apparently significantly less deep than the previous year and it seems the group experienced problems with melting snow getting stuck under their skis. At 5.30 pm they stopped and made camp. The evening was spent sitting around the campfire singing songs and talking about love. The stove they brought with them for heat and for melting water and such seems to have been a source of some arguments as no one wanted to sleep next to it.
On January 29 the expedition continued from the Lozva river to the Auspiya river. Not much is noted except that they follow an old Mansi trail and that the temperature was -13 C with hardly any wind.
The next day they continued on, following the banks of the Auspiya river. Apparently the river proved difficult to cross as they were having problems finding a section of it that was frozen all the way across. They ran across markings left by the Mansi and they discussed this people of the north;
“Very interesting and unique people that inhabit the North Polar Urals, closed to the Tyumen region. They have a written language and leave characteristic signs on forest trees.”
On January 30 the weather seemed to worsen. The morning temperature was between -13 and -17 C only to drop to -26 C at night. The Southwestern wind had picked up significantly and snow had begun to fall from the thick cloud cover. The group ran into several Mansi marks signifying what animals had been seen, where they had stopped to rest etc. The forest thinned out with the altitude and consisted here mostly of pines and dwarf birches. They still hadn’t found a place to cross the river by this time. As they made camp for the night the wind had turned western and was strong enough to blow the snow off the trees, making it seem like it was snowing.
On January 31 the wind was blowing hard from the west but the sky was clear. The only snow falling was what was blown off the trees by the wind, albeit this seems to have impaired the visibility.
This was a tiring day, judging by the journal notes;
“The walking is especially hard today. Visibility is very low. We walk for 1.52 km (1 mile) per hour. We are forced to find new methods of clearing the path for the skis. The first member leaves his bag on the ground and walks forward, then he returns, rests for 10- 15 minutes with the group. Thus we have a non- stop paving of the trail. It is especially hard for the second to move down the new trail with full gear on the back.”
Gradually they left the Auspiya valley and continued upwards and onwards. The snow cover was reported to be only 1.22m thick and by evening they were too exhausted to dig a hole for the fire. This was the last day they wrote in the journal.
Clues left behind tells us that the expedition started out fairly late on February 1 and only traveled 2.5 miles that day. Excess gear and food was stored on a platform in the forest called a labaz, or camp base. Camp was set up around 5 pm on a slope of Kholat Syakhl just 10 miles from Mount Otorten. They had their dinner around 6-7 pm and one or two members of the group went outside to relieve themselves, presumably Semen Zolotarev and Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolle, since they were found to have been better dressed than the others.
Then something went catastrophically wrong.
After the group failed to make radio contact with base camp a search and rescue expedition was sent to the area. On February 26 the group’s tent was discovered. Strangely it was found that its sides had been slashed open from within. Why the group decided to choose this unorthodox way of exiting the tent no one knows. Warm clothes, shoes, knives, flashlights and other useful items when trying to survive in the Siberian wilderness were left inside the tent. Money and train tickets were found inside the tent, which pretty much rules out some type of criminal activity having occurred.
By this time no one had expected to find the expedition members dead so no particular care was taken to preserve footprints and such, although people involved in this first search and rescue team reported 8 or 9 tracks of people with almost no footwear. Other footprints were also discovered and photographed but it’s hard to say if these were left by someone else or rescuers themselves.
On February 27 two members of the rescue operation came across a large cedar tree surrounded by a large and fairly even area that would make a good place to set up the new camp. When the men approached the cedar they spotted two bodies in the snow near the visible remains of a small fire. The bodies were carefully laid side by side in the shallow snow. They were not well dressed and had no shoes on. Some may attribute this to so called “paradoxical undressing”, which may occur when a person succumbs to hypothermia, although other clues later found in the area showed that this is unlikely what happened.
The bodies under the cedar were later identified as those of Yuri Doroshenko, 21 and Yuri Krivonischenko, 24.
Approximately 400 meters from the two bodies and towards the tent another body was found lying on his back with his head in the direction of the tent. It was quickly identified as that of Igor Dyatlov, 22, the group’s leader.
Mansi hunters that had been recruited for the rescue operation searched the area with their dogs and another 500 meters closer to the tent they found the body of Zina Kholmogorova, 22. The position of her body also pointed in the direction of the tent. Presumably both Dyatlev and Kholmogorova had attempted to get back to the tent but from the cedar tree but ultimately failing to do so.
The contents of the tent were assembled and removed. One of the more unexpected findings was a ski pole with clear cutting marks on it. It is unclear why anyone would damage the pole on purpose since they carried no extras with them.
The following week yielded no new findings other than a flashlight with dead batteries.
On March 2 the labaz, or camp base, was discovered. 55 kg of gear and provisions were found as well as the mandolin of Rustem Slobodin, some clothes, ski shoes and a pair of skis. The items were meant to be picked up by the group on the way back but nothing was touched.
On March 5 the body of Rustem Slobodin, 23, was discovered on the same line between the cedar tree and the tent and in between the bodies of Dyatlov and Kholmogorova. He was the only group member found to have fallen while still fairly warm as the snow under him had melted and later frozen to an ice bed underneath his body.
The cedar tree was found to have had its lower branches cut, possibly as firewood. More peculiarly, human skin and blood was found still lodged in the bark’s crevices.
The remaining four bodies were not found until May. They had managed to dig out a den in the snow where they had tried to keep themselves warm. Cedar branches had been brought to the den and laid out as to minimize contact with the snow. Some of the clothes draping the cedar branches had been taken from the bodies placed under the cedar tree, but apparently they were not used.
The den was located approximately 70-75 m from the cedar tree in a ravine, protected from harsh winds. The bodies were better dressed than the other five and their deaths were clearly not the result of hypothermia. They had broken ribs, cracked skulls and one of them, Lyudmila Dubinina, was missing her tongue.
It was apparent that the four in the den had managed to start a fire but failed to keep it going. However no one was able to explain why the bodies had so many fractures, internal bleeding, scratches and burned parts of the body. Another mystery was that the clothes of Krivonischenko had elevated levels of radiation. Even more mysterious is the fact that officials insisted on checking for radiation. There was no proper reason for that, so it seems like they knew what they were looking for. Still, it’s perplexing that only the clothes on one of the group turned out to have increased levels of radiation on them.
Another strange thing regarding the den is that the bodies were found a few feet away from their temporary shelter, in a deep part of the ravine.
Yet another peculiarity is the fact that Semen Zolotarev was found with a camera around his neck. This camera was not reported as having been part of the equipment and it seems strange that someone would flee his tent in -30 C temperatures and bring his camera but no warm clothes or protective equipment such as knives. Furthermore, the film in this camera was said to have been damaged by water.
In the next part I will write about the autopsy reports, additional information and the theories.