The infamous Dyatlov Pass Incident captures the modern imagination because of how bizarre the circumstances are surrounding the deaths of the nine hikers who tried to cross Kholat Syakhl, which translates to the Dead Mountain in English. Does new research into UFOs, Soviet Missile tests or psychedelic mushrooms help explain the mystery?
For a super quick overview of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, you can also see our video below:
In 1959, a group of ten skiers took off on a skiing expedition into the Ural Mountains of the Soviet Union. All members of the team were very experienced hikers. Some were certified in mountain climbing as well as hiking. In either case, Kholat Syakhl is not known to be a dangerous hike, especially considering the skill of the team. The team was lead by Igor Dyatlov, for whom the pass is known in the modern imagination. Before reaching the point at which the incident happened, one of the hikers by the name of Yuri Yudin, turned back because he was not feeling well, leaving the remaining eight hikers: Yuri Nikolayevich Doroshenko, Lyudmila Alexandrovna Dubinina, Yuri (Georgiy) Alexeyevich Krivonischenko, Alexander Sergeyevich Kolevatov, Zinaida Alekseevna Kolmogorova, Rustem Vladimirovich Slobodin, Nikolai Vladimirovich Thibeaux-Brignolles and Semyon Alekseevich Zolotaryov.
The team set off from the town of Vizhai to cross over to the town of Otorten. On February 1st, they started to move through the pass but started to veer off course because of a major snowstorm. After realizing they were off track, they made camp. That night, there was a mysterious incident which resulted in the deaths of all nine hikers. Piecing together the details from their diaries and evidence found at the camp, the tent had been cut open from the inside and the hikers had run down the mountain, away from the tent, some of them partially clothed. Two of the hikers (Krivonischenko and Doroshenko) were found near a large pine tree in nothing but their underwear. They seemed to have built a fire nearby. Some of the branches of the pine tree were broken, indicating that one of them had tried to climb the tree to look for something. Dyatlov, Kolmogorova and Slobodin were found in the snow between the tree and the camp, at various distances (300, 480 and 630 metres) from the tree. The other four hikers would be found four months layer under heavy snow.
Nearly all of the mystery surrounds the details of the investigation that followed. The facts that are known are as follows. The tent was cut open from within the inside. The two hikers found near the tree (Krivonischenko and Doroshenko) were found naked other than their underwear. However, some of their clothing was found on the three hikers found between the tree and the cap, indicating that the others may have salvaged some clothes from those two, presumably after they had perished. In general, there was a lack of clothing, as if the hikers had ran from the tent without grabbing anything at all. Lyudmila Dubinina was found with quite a bit of her face missing including her eyes, lips and part of her skullbone. Semyon Zolotaryov was missing his eyeballs and Aleksander Kolevatov was missing his eye-brows. Only the hikers’ footprints were visible and their paths did not indicate any sort of struggle. Some of them did not even have shoes on initially, supporting the idea they ran out of the tent without any time to prepare. One of the hiker’s had a very high level of radiation on his clothing. Krivonikschenko’s camera was found and contained several images from the expedition.
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An obvious theory in such a mountainous and frigid region would be they were either in the middle of an avalanche or were fleeing from one. Looking at the area though, this is extraordinarily unlikely. The slope was not steep, there were no snow patterns indicating anything other than steadily accumulating snow and in the more than 100 expeditions to the region since then, there have not been avalanche conditions in any of them. None of the bodies were covered with more than a few inches of snow and none of the trees seemed damaged from any sort of avalanche.
There was a theory that the indigenous people of the region, known as the Mansi may have attacked the hikers for invading their lands. No evidence supported this theory however. The Mansi people were not quick to attack others, there were no footprints other than those of the hikers in the snow and none of the bodies indicated any normal physical violence. Three of the bodies did have injuries but seemed to resemble some physical force but not anything resembling normal human violence. Dubinina and Zolotaryov both had major chest damage, which struck investigators as similar to that of a car crash. None of the bodies had any external wounds. It was almost as if they were crushed by some mysterious force. The other six deaths were easily attributable to hypothermia.
There are several theories involving wind as a mechanic. One is that of katabitc winds which are winds that are high in moisture, carried down the surface of a mountain by gravity. These types of winds are common under certain circumstances. The idea is that the winds would have been so strong, the hikers would have panicked and ran out of the tent with whatever clothing they could grab.
Another wind theory is that proposed bye Donnie Eichar in his book Dead Mountain. Eichar proposes that the wind around the mountain created a type of vertex which could produce a very low frequency (VLF) sound which is thought to cause panic attacks in humans. He proposes that the hikers ran out in a panic and three of the hikers ran into the ravine and died from the fall.
Both of the wind theories rely on the notion that the hikers ran out in a panic, almost presupposed by the cut in the side of the tent. However, initial reports from the first investigation indicate that the footstep patterns are of a normal walking speed and not from people running and stumbling down the side of a mountain.
The most common theory regarding military tests is that the Soviet Union was testing parachute mines in the area and the concussive nature of the weapons would have caused a sense of delirium in the hikers. The idea is that the hikers cut a hole in the tent, stepped out and saw the flash of bombs on the side of the mountain and decided to retreat to the woods where they would be safer. There are records of military tests of that nature around the time the team was in the area. The main reason for the theory is to explain the radiation on the clothing of one of the individuals. Later analysis indicates that radioactive weapons would have caused the same fallout on the clothing of all the individuals.
The UFO theory is based on some of the earliest evidence from the investigation. One of the leading investigators, Lev Ivanov, noticed that the tops of the pine trees were burned. There had been reports of fireball like UFOs on the mountain around the time of the disappearance. Whether this also coincides with the military tests is unknown. One intriguing bit of information from another investigator is that the burn marks on the tree did not seem to indicate an epicenter but rather they seemed to come from a beam of concentrated energy. That investigator actually went on to become a UFO consultant for the KGB.
As bizarre as it sounds, mushrooms are one of he recurring alternate theories which could explain some of the bizarre behavior pieced together from the evidence. The idea is as follows. The local indigenous people in the region, the Mansi, practice a form of shamanic religion in which local mushrooms are used by shamans to travel to the spirit world and help those plagued by illness or to communicate with the dead. Shamanic culture in Siberia is extremely well studied and there are numerous books about findings from a plethora of anthropological studies in the region. The shamans value a particular mushroom, Fly Algaric, so much that they dress up like them.
Fly Algaric (Amanita Muscaria), as far as magic mushrooms go, is a particularly toxic mushroom and is not easily processed in its natural form. It is so toxic that the shamans prefer to intake the naturally occurring psychedelic in another form, reindeer urine. Yes, that’s right, reindeer pee. Reindeer have a physiology much more suitable for processing the toxins in the mushroom and the psychoactive component of the drug, Musciomol, comes out in their urine. Shamans will collect the snow where the reindeer pee, drink it, get high and then pee again into the snow and, in an even more bizarre urine transaction, reindeer will even drink the shaman pee, creating a cycle of acquiring the drug.
If Fly Algaric looks familiar, it may be because of Alice in Wonderland where the mushroom is featured in artwork. In fact, the mushroom helped inspire the book due to some of its side effects such as macropsia in which things look larger than they are, making the person feel small. It can also cause the opposite effect, micropsia. These can even occur simultaneously, creating the effect known as Alice in Wonderland syndrome. Other effects are becoming delirious, entering a trance state, sweating and twitching.
The theory, as it applies to this case, is that the hikers may have found a bag of mushrooms hanging on a tree, something the shaman do to dry them out, and may have experimented with them during the night. Not understanding how toxic the mushrooms are, they would have entered a nearly hypnotic state, prone to easy suggestion. They may have also begun sweating and felt as though the natural environment would not harm them. In a hasty decision, they may have exited the tent by cutting it open, walked slowly down the hillside and built a fire. Within a few minutes, considering the conditions, the exposed hikers would have succumbed to hypothermia and the others would attempt to go back to the tent to get supplies.
The mushroom theory is interesting because it explains so much of the evidence. The mushrooms definitely grow in the area and photos taken from the hikers’ cameras show Mansi markings all around the area.
Death by Yeti
Several of the hikers had cameras and all of the cameras were analyzed to see if there were clues hidden in events of the days preceding the incident. In one of these photographs, some argue, there is a figure which resembles a Yeti or what we think a Yeti might look like. The figure does not seem to have any equipment and is just crossing in front of a clearing. It’s not clear if the image could have been a blurry photo of one of the hikers or the infamous snow monster. Most of the speculation around the Yeti theory relies on the fact that some of the hikers (those found in the ravine) had broken ribs and other bones. Also, these are the same hikers which are missing eyeballs and tongues. The idea is that a Yeti could explain the cause of these injuries. The Yeti theory is problematic though because it does not seem to fit with the notion that there were no other footprints coming or going from the scene. The injuries of the hikers in the ravine could also be explained by fall damage and predation.
The 2015 Investigation
In 2015, Russia launched an investigation of the incident again, this time through the ICRF (Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation) due to outcries from family members of the deceased. Their findings, again under pressure to come up with an answer, relied on the notion that a slow movement of heavy wet snow down the side of the mountain (a super slow avalanche) confused the hikers by pushing their tent. Not realizing that the situation was still reparable, they panicked, cut a hole in the tent and ran outside. The theory is that the two who ran out in their pajamas ran to a firepit which already existed next to the pine tree, thinking they could stay warm. The weather conditions at the time were quite severe with a heavy snow falling and temperatures well below zero and nearly hurricane force winds. A lot of the findings from the 2015 investigation highlighted the inexperience of the team in such conditions. Many have argued, however, that the group was not that inexperienced. Some were certified in mountain climbing and hiking and would have known not to make such basic mistakes as going outside in just pajamas. There’s also the troubling fact that they would even be in pajamas with hurricane force winds pummeling the side of a small tent.
Of all the theories, the mushroom theory tends to best explain the evidence we find. We know that the tracks did not indicate panic. We know that some of the hikers were in pajamas in profoundly disturbing weather conditions. We know that at least 6 of the hikers died from hypothermia as the direct cause of death. The evidence from the area, such as burn marks on the trees or could indicate some yet unknown theory. The Dyatlov Pass Incident stands out as one of the stranger stories out of the former Soviet Union and, due to the passage of time as well as the change in political structure there, the truth is probably too far gone for us to come up with definitive answers today. It will go down in history as one of the strangest and most documented unexplained events of the 20th century. However, it is such a rich source of speculation that we may revisit it ourselves in future articles as armchair sleuths come up with more ways to try to explain such a disparate set of facts.