The Dyatlov Pass Incident – a grim, yet tantalizing true mystery.
Semen Zolotorev pushed his face into the howling wind. Spindrift stung as he crawled out of the tent, standing as he cleared the flap.
“Close it,” he heard Lyudmila’s muffled shout.
“Ya,” he mumbled, as he pushed fabric into her reaching hand. She tied it shut, cutting out the dim light from within. He turned the flashlight on, found his way to the edge of the snow platform, and began the process of undoing three pairs of pants. He had to pee.
It took him some time, undoing the ski pants, then the second and third pair beneath. The temperature was -15°C, but shit, the wind! The soft leather burkas on his feet were getting covered in wet snow. He wanted to do this quick.
He looked across the snowfield – the snow swirled and raced across the slope, hugging ground until catching and drifting against scrubby trees a few hundred meters below. He’d been watching those trees earlier.
His spine shivered with the cold. To his bladder, he said, “Ughh, come on, let go before we get frostbitten.” He felt strangely uneasy, but managed to make a stream. He enlarged the steaming hole, swinging his hips to widen it.
Something caught his eye – a dark motion in the trees. He turned to look directly at it, and saw nothing but trees in the wind.
The trees were sparse, dwarf pines growing along a drainage to the forest below. They were 200 meters away across an empty snowfield on the flank of Kholat Syakhl – the “Mountain of Dead” as the local Mansi tribesmen called it. The Mansi tried to persuade them not to come here.
On that day, Semen began thinking they were right. He saw a dark object move in the trees. Did I see that? he thought. He peered into the gloom, straining to see movement against the white gleam of snow at the tree-line.
“Huk,” his breath hitched as he saw something move against the wind. He turned off the flashlight. It’s beam only reflected blowing snow. “I see it.” He ran back to the tent, dropping the flashlight and pushed at the flap, bowing it inward until he found the tie and yanked it loose. He flipped it away and dove inside in one fluid motion.
“Hey, you Cossack. don’t run me over.” Lyudmila squeeled, closing the flap behind him and buttoning it against the wind.
“It’s out there!”
“What? Did you leave a turd?” asked Yuri.
“I saw it in the trees. I told you! It’s watching us,” Semen sat and stared at his eight comrades. His face was white.
“What did you see, Sacha?” asked Igor Dyatlov, the expedition leader. He used Semen’s nickname. Semen never liked his given name – “You know what that means in English?” he’d say.
“Yarwoooooooow”…a howl rose above the scream of the wind, trailed off, and then…”Yaaaaghhhh,” a gut-churning growl seemed to vibrate the tent.
“Sacha, what was that,” asked Zina.
“I told you, it’s out there,” is all he said.
“I don’t believe it,” said Aleksi. “That was wind. Stop joking with us, Sascha.”
“It’s out there. You just heard it,” Semen said.
“What do we do?” said Zina.
Semen was digging in his backpack. He brought out a camera.
“Are you going back out?” asked Rustem. “Where is my camera – I want to see.”
“Don’t go out,” said Igor. “Did you really see it, Sascha? Are you sure?”
“You just heard it didn’t you? It’s down the hill in the trees.”
“What? It’s coming at us?”
“No, it’s down in the trees,” Semen pointed towards the pass they had traveled that afternoon.
“The sound came from above.”
“That’s what I heard, too. It came from above us.”
“No, it’s that way. It’s getting closer.”
“How many are there?”
“Don’t open the tent.”
“We need to see.”
“Cut a slit above your head.”
“I’m making a slit too. I hear something over this way…”
Of course, no one really knows what they said to each other. No one really knows what happened.
The date is February 2, 1959. The place is a mountain-side overlooking a wooded valley that will come to be known as Dyatlov Pass. The party, nine trekkers led by 24 year old Igor Dyatlov, are four days into a ski trip to Mount Otorten, deep in Russia’s Ural Mountains. Camped on the snow-blown slopes of the neighboring peak, Kholat Syakhl, they intend to reach their goal on the following day. That day never comes for these nine trekkers. As Rod Serling would say – they had entered the Twilight Zone.
The story of the Dyatlov Pass incident was not widely known outside of Russia until the 1990’s. The Soviets didn’t allow information to escape to the west unfiltered, and there was no way to filter this story to make it look good. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the release of records, it is now widely known as the most disturbing and haunting mystery of modern times.
At first look, the story is uncomfortable. The nine healthy, young and experienced explorers left the safety and warmth of their tent and belongings, even their shoes, on a moonless, stormy night where temperatures are believed to have reached -18°C (-4°F) with a 20 to 30 knot wind. They then traveled a mile into the forest only to die of exposure and horrific injuries.
Avalanche is the rational culprit according to many. Why else would they abandon the tent in such a hurry without shoes. How else would the rib cages and skulls of three of them suffer blunt trauma, likened by the coroner to the energy of a high speed car impact. But searchers found virtually no physical evidence of an avalanche. What they did find only puzzled them more. In fact, each piece of evidence only added layers of mystery. The events that caused their deaths have become the focus of many theories, books, movies and documentaries.
The dramatization in this article is one possibility.
On February 26, a search party found the tent. Footprint evidence still remained of eight, or nine individuals leading from the tent down the slope in a more, or less, orderly trail. The searchers did not take care to preserve the scene properly, not yet realizing it was the scene of horrific tragedy – perhaps even murder.
The footprints ended five hundred meters from the tent, the snow and wind having covered them beyond that point. The searchers saw no other footprints on the snowfield.
Two searchers looking for a place to camp near the treeline approached a promising clearing near a large cedar, where they would have a clear view of the tent above and the surrounding slopes. Under the cedar, they found another camp – occupied by two of the trekkers.
They were frozen stiff, laid side-by-side, wearing only underwear and no shoes.
Searchers using metal poles to probe the snow found two more bodies, between the cedar camp and the tent, as if these victims had died attempting to get back to the tent.
Another body was found between the two returning to the tent. Examination showed he had a cracked skull, but the injury wasn’t deemed fatal. It was determined all five of the trekkers died of hypothermia – frozen to death. This one must have fallen at some point, or been hit by something.
The situation looked fairly obvious at first. The trekkers must have been buried by an avalanche – or heard one coming – and cut their way free of the tent to seek shelter in the trees. Because of the freezing temperatures, and the fact their cold weather gear was left in the collapsed tent, they quickly succumbed to the elements, unable to return to the tent on their frozen feet.
But if an avalanche hit them, why were their footprints still visible leading down the hill. Why was the tent still partially standing. Why were tent stakes and ski poles still standing, and the tent fabric – torn and collapsed – only covered with a small amount of snow. Why did they run straight downhill in the obvious path of any avalanche they were escaping. Why didn’t they run across slope to escape, as anyone experienced with avalanche knows. Why did they even camp so high on the mountain, instead of in the trees a mile away where there was shelter from the wind. Why did they keep walking a mile with no shoes, which likely took twenty, to thirty minutes under the conditions they were in. Avalanches happen in a few minutes, why did they go so far before attempting to go back to the tent. These questions must have begun to concern the searchers. And there were still four more trekkers to find. Where did they go?
The search expanded. Helicopters and government officials came to replace the volunteer search party. Two months passed and the weather warmed. On May 4, snow melt exposed a piece of fabric in a ravine, 75 meters from the cedar tree. The searchers brought in shovels.
Thirteen feet down in the ravine, under twelve feet of snow, the four missing bodies were found. The autopsy of these individuals turned the investigation on its ear.
They had built a small den in the ravine to get out of the wind, with a cedar platform to keep them off the snow. There were even patches of clothing to sit on. But they weren’t found on the platform. The bodies were huddled together, several feet away. Only one died of exposure, like his five comrades found earlier. The other three died a different way. Two had crushed ribs and one a crushed head. These injuries were fatal and appeared to have occurred in the ravine.
Surely an avalanche might have done this. Many believe that to this day. But to many, the evidence just doesn’t fit that theory. The evidence suggests a more gruesome scene.
If an avalanche hit their tent while they were inside, as they relaxed after their evening meal, the impact of the snow could have crushed three of the party, leaving the others to dig out and save them. But if that occurred, why would they leave shoes and heavy ski jackets behind. Surely, after the avalanche was over, they needed warm clothes.
Perhaps they heard another avalanche coming – or thought they did – and rushed away to safety. But how, if three of them had suffered fatal injury, were they able to walk away? Eight footprints were found, and likely a ninth, leading from the tent in an orderly file. Some prints deviated from the path, but rejoined. They could have carried one party, perhaps piggyback, but there were still eight of them able to walk.
The investigation indicates it is unlikely they were injured in an avalanche. What follows is a description of the victims, how they were found and the causes of death. The descriptions and photos are horrific, so put your spooky hat on.
Igor Dyatlov, 22
Expedition leader, experienced trekker and athlete. Igor studied Radio Engineering at the UPI University in Sverdlovsk. He designed the small stove that was used to heat the tent used on the trek. Igor was respected as a leader: thoughtful, methodical and well organized. He courted Zina Kolmogorova, another member of the trek.
Igor was the third to be found. He wore a fur coat unbuttoned, a sweater, long sleeved shirt and ski pants over inner pants. He had only one pair of socks, woolen on the right and cotton on the left. No shoes. He carried a pocket knife and a photo of Zina Kolmogorova with him.
He was found 300 meters from the cedar, apparently on his way to the tent when he died of exposure. This photo shows his corpse as it was found, after the snow was removed. The autopsy indicates he died face down. There is no explanation why they found him on his back.
Georgyi Krivonishenko, 24
Graduated from UPI University in 1959, Krivonishenko was one of two bodies first found under the cedar tree. He was dressed in a shirt, long sleeved shirt, swimming pants, pants and a torn sock on his left foot. No shoes.
He lay beneath the cedar next to Yuri Doroshenko. A camp fire was next to them that they apparently had trouble keeping lit in the wind.
The cedar itself had been climbed. Branches were broken-off fifteen feet high in the tree. Whether this was to supply firewood, or some other reason isn’t clear. Searchers reported there was adequate firewood on the ground.
Investigators noted the pattern of high broken branches appeared on one side of the tree, as if someone had broken them to clear a view to the tent.
Yuri Doroshenko, 21
Doroshenko was found in a short sleeve shirt, vest, knit pants and shorts over pants. His pants were badly ripped with one large hole on the right and a smaller on the left. Pants had tears on the inside of the thighs. On his feet he had a pair of wool socks. The left sock was burned. He wore no shoes.
Because of some of his injuries, it is thought he was the tree climber, although others may have climbed it too. The tree had traces of blood and skin embedded in the bark. Residue of foamy grey fluid around his mouth led some investigators to speculate his chest had been compressed before death, which could have been the result of a fall. They did not conclude it contributed to his death, however. The cause of his death was hypothermia.
Both Doroshenko and Krivonishenko died of exposure. It is believed they were the first to die, because their bodies were still at the cedar tree, where it is believed they all congregated after leaving the tent. Others had removed some of their clothes and left to either attempt a return to the tent, or shelter in the ravine.
Zinaida Kolmogorova, 22
A student at the UPI University as a Radio Engineering Major, Zina was a tough, experienced hiker. Some speculate her relationships with the men may have caused a problem that led to the incident. There is no evidence to support this speculation and every evidence they were a level-headed group that got on well together.
Better dressed than the bodies beneath the tree, she wore two hats, long sleeved shirt, sweater, another shirt and sweater with torn cuffs. Plus trousers, cotton athletic pants, ski pants, a military mask and three pairs of socks. No shoes.
Zina got closer to the tent than anyone else. She was found 630 meters from the cedar – a third of the way back to the tent. Among minor injuries, she had a bruise that encircled her torso on the right side. Her cause of death was declared hypothermia due to violent accident.
Rustem Slobodin, 23
Graduated from the UPI University in 1959, Slobodin was known as very athletic, honest and decent. He played a mandolin that he brought on the trek and left cached at a supply depot for the return trip. The group often sang to his mandolin.
Rustem wore a long sleeve shirt, another shirt, sweater, two pairs of pants, four pairs of socks. Unlike the others, he wore one boot on his right foot. His pockets had 310 rubles, a passport, a knife, pen, pencil, comb, match box and single sock.
He was the third trekker found making his way back to the tent, 480 meters from the cedar. He suffered a blunt trauma head injury, with a fracture to the side, frontal bones of his skull and hemorrhaging. Examiners deemed it non-lethal, however severe enough to cause loss of coordination due to initial shock following the blow. They determined he died of exposure aggravated by violent injury. Beneath Rustem, the ice had melted and refroze, indicting he was still warm when he fell. The other bodies did not exhibit this. Perhaps they never fell, crawling may have been the only way to move with frozen feet. Rustem at least had one boot.
Lyudmila Dubinina, 21
A third year student in Engineering and Economics at the UPI University, Lyudmila took many of the trip pictures and recorded events in their journal. Once, she was accidentally shot during an expedition by another trekker cleaning a rifle, and endured the painful injury well. She was known to be very outspoken.
Lyudmila wore a short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, two sweaters, underwear, long socks and two pairs of pants. The outer pair was badly burned and subsequently ripped. She also wore a hat and two pairs of warm socks and a third sock not paired. She had a piece of Krivonishenko’s pants that were cut away from his body. She’d wrapped a piece around one foot, another piece was found in the snow.
Her injuries included four ribs broken on the right side with two fracture lines visible and a massive hemorrhage in the right atrium of her heart. On the left, six ribs were broken, also with two fracture lines.
Semen Zolotarev, 38
He was the oldest and somewhat of an outsider to the group. He was a ski instructor who joined the expedition to gain performance points to achieve promotion to the rank of “Master” instructor. Born a Cossack, he distinguished himself in the brutal conditions of the Great Patriotic War a decade earlier. His real name was Semen, while everyone called him “Sasha,” or “Alexander”. No one knows why he chose to introduce himself by a different name.
The body of Semen Zolotarev was found with two hats, scarf, long sleeve shirt, black sweater and a coat with two upper buttons undone. The lower part of the body was protected by underwear, two pairs of pants and a pair of ski pants. He had a copy of newspapers, several coins, compass, and a few other items. His feet were protected by a pair of socks and a pair of warm leather handmade shoes known as “burka”. Zolotarev had a camera around his neck.
Zolotarev had five ribs broken along two fracture lines and the ribs detached from the chest wall. An open wound on the right side of his head exposed part of his skull. The chest injuries were fatal.
Aleksander Kolevatov, 25
An experienced outdoorsman and scientist, Kolevatov was studying for a Major in Physics at the Sverdlovsk UPI institute and had already completed Mining and Metallurgy College. Known as a good student, he’d lived in Moscow working at the Ministry of Medium Machine Building, and later was engaged in producing materials for the nuclear industry. In 1956 he moved back to Sverdlovsk to study physics at the UPI Institute. He was respected as a leader, organized, methodical and diligent.
Medical examination found a deformed neck and an open wound behind the ear. His death was determined to be hypothermia.
Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolle, 25
Graduated in 1958, Nicolai majored in Civil Engineering at the UPI University. He was the son of a French Communist executed during the Stalin years and was born in a concentration camp for political prisoners. He was known as a friendly, caring and open person who often set aside his own comfort for the benefit of others.
Thibeaux-Brignolle had multiple fractures to the temporal bone of the skull, radiating to surrounding bone. He died from the wound.
The tenth member of the Dyatlov party and the only survivor, Yudin was a student of UPI. Yuri left the expedition on January 28, before the tragedy struck due to medical reasons. He passed away on April 27th, 2013. He maintained an enduring curiosity for what caused his friends death throughout his life.
Timeline of the tragedy
Examiners used estimates of travel time, life expectancy after injuries, time for survival in the extreme cold, and the remains of undigested food in their stomachs to construct a probable timeline of events. The evidence indicates they died within six to eight hours after their last meal. Exposure at those temperatures can kill in three to six hours.
4 P.M., February 1 – Party arrives on the slopes of Kyolat Syakhl. They set camp high on the snowfield away from the tree-line, as recorded by photograph. Why they camped there is unknown, but Yuri Yudin, the tenth member of the party who had earlier turned back, believed they decided to camp there to either gain the experience of a high camp, or because they were reluctant to loose altitude they would have to re-climb the following day.
6 to 7 P.M. – Group prepared and ate a meal.
7 to 10 P.M. – Group relaxed in the tent with boots off and in various stages of undress. The implication is nothing was out of the ordinary at this time. The weather was believed to be -18°C at this time in the evening, and windy. At some point, someone urinated outside near the tent.
10:00 to 11:00 P.M. – The group, in various states of undress, used knives to cut through the sides of the tent and flee downhill to the forest. Tracks indicate the group was scattered at first, but came back together part way down the slope.
11:00 P.M. to 1:00 A.M. – The group hides under a large cedar tree inside the edge of the forest approximately one mile from the tent. They light a fire and remain for possibly two hours trying to keep warm. Various burns on clothing, skin and hair imply they crowded the fire for warmth and probably to shield it from the wind. The fire is situated behind the tree relative to the tent. Broken branches in the cedar suggest at least one of the team climbed it to view the tent on the slopes above.
12:00 to 1:00 A.M., February 2 – Two group members, Krivonischenko and Doroshenko die from cold exposure.
Three members of the team try and return to the tent. Dyatlov, Kolmogorova and Slobodin, already suffering hypothermia, fail to make it and collapse at various intervals. They are found separately at 985, 1,575 and 2,065 feet from the tree.
The four still alive take the clothes from the dead bodies of their comrades. Dubinina wraps her feet in trousers cut away from Krivonischenko’s body.
12:30 to 1:30 A.M. – Four of the skiers move 75 meters away to a ravine where they huddle together. Nicolas dies of head wounds. Dubinina dies from chest injuries and hypothermia. Alexander Zolotarev takes her coat and hat to keep himself warm.
12:45 to 1:45 A.M. – Zolotarev dies from a combination of chest injuries and hypothermia.
1:30 to 2:45 A.M. – Alexander Kolevatov, frozen and alone, dies of hypothermia.
If it could be determined an avalanche killed them, we wouldn’t have a mystery.
This is the puzzle for the avalanche theorists – the mortal injuries to Dubinina, Zolotorev and Thibeaux-Brignolle. If they were injured in the tent in an avalanche, it is highly unlikely they could have trudged a mile in snow with no shoes to the tree, and later to the ravine, apparently outliving members of the group who were not severely injured. The footprints say they walked away from the tent. There was no evidence of dragging, or anyone being carried.
There was no evidence of an avalanche at the tent, either. No flow patterns, or debris from an avalanche were found. The slope angle was 23° where they pitched it, rising to 30° above and considerably shallower below. The location is not conducive to a snow build-up likely to avalanche according to terrain analysis, and even if it had, an avalanche would have missed the tent. No subsequent expeditions to the area have ever witnessed avalanche conditions at the site.
They built a platform, clearly seen in the photo shown, that left a protective cleft to shield them from snow slide – they were experienced at what they were doing. Tent poles and ski poles were found standing, with a small amount of snow not fully covering the tent.
Some have suggested an avalanche hit them after they left the tent, sweeping the four into the ravine. Such an avalanche would have also swept the other five bodies and damaged trees, for which no evidence was found. The other bodies were found with only a layer of atmospheric snow on them.
The ravine was surrounded by trees and relatively flat ground. The trees and brush at the ravine showed no evidence of avalanche.
Another theory holds they ran headlong into the ravine and broke their bones in the fall. The ravine was measured at 10, to 17 feet deep in the vicinity where the bodies were found. The slope into the ravine was at a thirty, to forty degree angle and the ravine measured 130 feet across.
The coroner concluded Thibeaux-Brignolle’s head injury to be consistent with impacting a rock as a result of a fall from a height of 6 to 10 feet, but not more. Any greater height should have broken the apex of the skull and Thibeaux-Brignolle had no apex damage. Hemorrhaging suggests that he was alive when he sustained the injury.
The broken ribs of Dubinina and Zolotorev were very similar in pattern and impact energy, as if the target of similar blows. There was little, or no external damage to tissue. Extremities most exposed to fracture in a fall, or avalanche, such as hands, arms, legs, or collar bones, were not broken.
Another speculation is the bones were perhaps fractured less severely and the weight of later snow finished the crushing as it accumulated over time. Medical examiners found the wounds to be complete before death, however. The damage was done while they were alive.
There was no physical evidence of an avalanche at the tent, or at the ravine, or having hit them in between. A fall into the ravine could have caused the injuries, but it is difficult to imagine a fall such as this. Three of four people tumbling down a forty degree slope, or breaking through ice into the ravine below is certainly possible, but the pattern of injuries is odd. Two of them suffering very similar impacts to the ribs at the sides of the chest, and one impacted on the side of the head. Three simultaneous mortal injuries from a fall that left no related external injury, or broken limbs.
In Part 2 we will examine more strangeness: more injuries and evidence, more circumstances and theories, more pictures and some journal entries – and the dramatization will continue.