In 1959 Nine Hikers Mysteriously Perished In The Ural Mountains And Experts Still Can't Explain It

In 1959 a doomed group of university students hiked deep into the Russian mountains; the mystery of their gruesome deaths persists to this day. The horrifying condition of their bodies, as well as the Soviet Union’s shadowy handling of the case, led to many unnerving conspiracy theories being concocted over the years. While the true nature of what happened on that snowy clifftop will likely always remain out of reach, one thing has always been clear: something extraordinary occurred at Dyatlov Pass.

Igor Dyatlov

In 1959 Igor Dyatlov was a 23-year-old engineering student at the Ural Polytechnic Institute (UPI). He loved to use his technical expertise to invent his own equipment — or improve existing gizmos — to use on elaborate trips into the wilderness.

He had been planning a great adventure — a cross-country ski trek in the Urals mountain range which separated Russia from Siberia — since the previous year, and the UPI had happily approved it. After all, he was an experienced outdoorsman. What could possibly go wrong?

An unheeded warning

Despite this, Dyatlov’s mother didn’t want him going on the trip. According to his sister Tatyana Perminova, who had been 12 years old at the time of the expedition, “He pleaded with her. ‘Just one last time, mama! Just one last time!’ And indeed, it was his last time.”

Sadly, when her son met a grisly fate alongside eight other hikers from his expedition, Dyatlov’s mother “couldn’t ever come to terms with his loss — especially since it was such a terrible and incomprehensible death.”

The Dyatlov Pass Incident

The Dyatlov Pass Incident — as it became known — has now been baffling and fascinating locals, historians, and conspiracy theorists alike for over six decades. How did a group of nine young, fit sportsmen and women come to such a terrible end?

The way the group was scattered across the snowy mountain, bodies frozen and exhibiting horrifying injuries, has defied explanation at every turn. For Perminova, receiving a phone call saying that her big brother had died was simply the beginning of a 60-year nightmare that seemingly has no end.

An innocent start

In contrast to its grisly end, the trip had started out with a sense of optimism and fun. We can be sure of this because various members of the group kept diaries and took photographs in these early days.

On January 23 they got on a train from Sverdlovsk and set off for their destination — Mount Ortorten — which lay 350 miles to the north. The mountain slopes Dyatlov had chosen would give them 200 miles of untouched land to ski on: to their knowledge, no one had ever traversed them before.

Guys and gals

Initially, there were ten members of the group: eight men and two women. Dyatlov was the leader, and Zinaida Kolmogorova was a fellow radio engineering student. Rustem Slobodin, Yuri Krivonischenko, and Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignolle were all studying engineering, while Alexander Kolevatov was a nuclear physics major, and Yuri Doroshenko read power economics.

Closing out the gang were economics majors Lyudmila Dubinina and Yuri Yudin, but also Semyon Zolotaryov, a sports teacher who was 15 years older than anyone else and seemed an odd fit for the group.

Fun and games in the beginning

Dubinina, the youngest person on the trip and a committed Young Communist, wrote about the train ride in her diary. She exclaimed, “In the train we all sang songs accompanied by a mandolin. Then out of the blue, this really drunk guy came up to our boys and accused them of stealing a bottle of vodka!”

She continued, “He demanded it back and threatened to punch them in the teeth. But he couldn’t prove anything and eventually he got lost. We sang and sang, and… slipped into a discussion about love… and kisses in particular.”

No idea what was coming

Kolmogorova wrote to her family from one of the train stops, a city called Serov. She enthused, “We are going camping, ten of us and it’s a great bunch of people. I have all the warm clothes I need, so don’t worry about me. How are you? Has the cow calved yet? I love her milk!”

The fact the young student had been asking about normal family life would certainly indicate she’d had no inkling, at that point, that the trip would go so badly wrong that neither she nor any of her friends would ever see their families again.

The “last day of civilization”

On January 25 the group stayed a night in Vizhay, then they were taken by truck to a logging base known as the 41st settlement. Kolmogorova again wrote to her family, revealing, “It turns out that this is our last day of civilization.”

She charmingly added that it was also “the last chance me and Lyuda had to sleep in beds. Tonight, we are going to be in a tent.” After this, a horse-drawn sled took the group’s supplies the last 15 miles through the snow to the North-2 mining settlement.

Yudin bows out early

It was at this juncture that the arduous journey — through miles and miles of punishing cold, snow, and winds — finally got the best of one of them. As Kolmogorova wrote, “Yura Yudin is leaving us today.”

She explained, “His sciatic nerves have flared up again and he has decided to go home. Such a pity. We distributed his load in our backpacks.” Yudin was devastated to have to bow out and told his pals how sorry he was, but it wound up being a blessing in disguise for him.

In the domain of the Mansi

The group continued toward Mount Ortorten, which lies in the historic territory of the indigenous Mansi people. According to The New Yorker’s Douglas Preston, “The Mansi came into contact with Russians around the 16th century, when Russia was extending its control over Siberia.”

Preston continued, “Though largely Russified by this time, the Mansi continued to pursue a semi-traditional way of life — hunting, fishing, and reindeer-herding.” In one of her final diary passages, Kolmogorova did reveal, “All day long we followed the river. At night we’ll camp on a Mansi trail.”

An odd place to make camp

On February 1 the group decided to pitch their tent on Kholat Syakhyl’s eastern slope. Fascinatingly, in a 2019 BBC article in which writer Lucy Ash retraced the group’s steps years later, her tour guide Alexander told her this was an unusual place to set up camp.

As Ash wrote, the area was very exposed to the elements, adding, “The swirling winds sting our faces and clouds descend quickly, limiting vision to only a few meters.” Alexander theorized, “Maybe they had climbed up this far and didn’t want to lose any height.”

The hikers fail to check in

Dyatlov’s plan was to telegram the UPI from a village named Vizhai on or around February 12, to let them know the party was safe and sound. When that date came and went, the sports club didn’t panic, reasoning that the group had been held up, but there was no real cause for alarm.

As the days without contact stretched toward February 20, though, the group’s families went from worried to frantic. A search team was mounted featuring police, students, local prison guards, and even Mansi hunters.

Finding the tent abandoned

Mikhail Sharavin was one of the student volunteers flown in by helicopter to search the mountain. He told the BBC, “We had gone about 500 meters when on the left I saw the tent. Part of the canvas was poking out, but the rest was covered in snow. I used an ice pick lying nearby to uncover the entrance.”

Inside, they found rucksacks, blankets, and other pieces of equipment neatly arranged on either side of the entrance — but not a single member of the group. They were all gone.

From weird to worrying

Next to a pile of boots nestling in the corner was a full plate of “salo” — a dish of white pork fat which was considered a delicacy in Russia at the time. Because of its high fat content, outdoorsmen often ate it on hikes to keep their calories up.

Dyatlov and his pals had even sliced it up as though they were about to cook it for their supper. This was unnerving enough, but then Sharavin noticed the tent had a large slash in it which looked like it had been made with a knife.

Downright unsettling

A further 100 feet down the hill, the scene got even stranger. The footprints of eight or nine people were found in the snow; it looked very much as though the hikers had been walking toward the treeline.

Chills must have crawled up the searchers’ spines, because none of the prints appeared to have been made by boots — except one, which was from a single shoe. As one of the party later testified, “Some of the prints indicated that the person was either barefoot or in socks, because you could see the toes.”

Pondering the unnerving implications

Later that night, Sharavin sat around a campfire with the other volunteers as they all wondered what could have happened to Dyatlov’s group. Why would they have abandoned their supper to go out into the freezing cold barefoot? And who — or what — had sliced open the tent?

The searchers all sipped from a vodka flask found in the tent, with Sharavin admitting, “We were about to drink it when one guy turned to me and said, ‘Best not drink to their health, but to their eternal peace.’”

The first bodies are discovered

The next day, those words proved prophetic. Sharavin explained, “We approached a cedar tree, and when we were 20 meters away, we saw a brown spot — it was towards the right of the trunk. And when we got closer we saw two corpses lying there. The hands and the feet were reddish-brown.”

The bodies — both wearing underwear and nothing more — were Doroshenko and Krivonischenko, and they were lying beside the remains of a fire. Horrifyingly, it appeared that Krivonischenko had torn off a part of his own knuckle with his teeth.

The next two quickly follow — including Dyatlov

Later that same day, the bodies of Dyatlov and Kolmogorova were discovered higher up on the mountain. Dyatlov had been wearing clothes, but was barefoot, while Kolmogorova was bruised on her right torso — almost as if she had been struck by a long baton.

Both of them had their fists clenched tightly in the snow, and the distraught searchers believed this meant the poor souls had been desperately trying to crawl their way back to the safety of the tent.

The condition of the bodies

When the four bodies were sent for autopsy, the medical examiner found they all had little bruises, cuts, and scrapes all over. Krivonishchenko’s fingers were black, while his shin and foot had sustained third-degree burns. Doroshenko’s sock was burned, and the hair on one side of her head had fire damage, too.

Then, when the fifth body — Slobodin — was found on March 5, it was found that his skull was fractured. Bizarrely, he hadn’t been semi-clad, like the rest. He was wearing a sweater and undershirt, two pairs of pants, and four pairs of socks.

A police seamstress notices something troubling

By this point, the Dyatlov Pass Incident was being treated as a murder inquiry. The tent was taken to the police station to be processed, and this is when a seamstress who was in the building to fit new uniforms noticed something odd.

She told the police that the large slice in the tent hadn’t been made from the outside: it was cut open from inside. What could have made the group willingly cut their way out and face certain death in the freezing cold?

Months pass before the rest of the bodies are found

It wouldn’t be until almost three months later that the final four bodies were found by a Mansi hunter. By this point, the mountain’s deep blanket of snow had started to melt, and it revealed the remains of a snow den 250 feet from the cedar tree where the first two bodies had been discovered.

Tatters of clothing were found in the den, and when it was excavated, the remaining members of the group were unearthed, buried under 10 feet of snow in a streambed.

More horrifying injuries

Once again, each body exhibited ghastly injuries that couldn’t have been caused by simply freezing to death. Thibault-Brignoles’s skull had been fractured in such a brutal way that shards of bone were lodged in his brain. Kolevatov’s neck had been twisted to an unnatural angle.

Dubinina and Zolotaryov’s ribs were crushed, with the medical examiner saying the injuries resembled “the result of an impact of an automobile moving at high speed.” Most frighteningly of all, their eye sockets were hollow and empty, while Dubinina’s tongue and upper lip were also gone.

Traumatized families hold funerals

Due to the upsetting nature of Dyatlov’s injuries, his little sister had been forbidden from attending his funeral. Yet she told the BBC, “I saw a photo of him in the coffin afterwards. It was just terrible. He looked completely different… My mum said that she only recognised him from the gap between his teeth. His hair was gray.”

All the families were traumatized, but they still wanted to know what had happened on that mountain. This was Soviet Russia, though, where asking questions was discouraged from within the highest corridors of power.

More questions than answers

Perminova admitted, “The families were told, ‘You will never know the truth, so stop asking questions.’ So, what could we do? Don’t forget, in those days if they told you to shut up, you would be silent.”

This distrust of the government wasn’t helped by the investigation being criminally short-lived. In fact, prosecutor Lev Ivanov officially closed it on May 28, 1959. In his report, he wrote, “It should be concluded that the cause of the hikers’ demise was an overwhelming force, which they were not able to overcome.”

The Soviet Union closes ranks

This ambiguous, perplexing statement — which didn’t in any way give a satisfying reason for the group’s deaths — has fueled anti-government sentiment to this day. The Russian people were positive they weren’t being told the whole truth, and the series of firings surrounding the case only added fuel to that fire.

The UPI’s director and head of the sports club lost their jobs, as did the secretary of the local Communist Party, a union inspector, and the chairman of not one, but two workers’ unions.

Wall of silence provokes conspiracy theories

On top of this, all of the materials surrounding the investigation — photographs, statements, journals — were classified ‘top secret’, and the area where the group had died was declared a no-go for years afterward. The families wrote to Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev to try to convince him to reopen the investigation, but this never happened.

A wall of silence had been established, and nothing could break through it. In the absence of answers, though, a number of conspiracy theories sprung up surrounding the incident, ranging from the plausible to the outright deranged.

Were the Mansi the culprits?

The first theory — one which had been explored by the authorities — was that the Mansi people had murdered the group, potentially because they’d strayed onto sacred land. A 2015 book even suggested some Mansi hunters had consumed magic mushrooms during a shamanic ritual, and this is what caused them to kill the group so violently.

A Mansi man named Valery Anyamov rubbished this idea to the BBC, though, saying, “If any of our people had been involved in that crime, they would have thrown us all into prison, because it was a cruel time.”

Soviet investigators certainly explored the possibility

Anyamov revealed, “Soviet investigators were convinced we Mansi must have killed them. So many people around here were arrested and a woman from another village, who is no longer with us, used to say that the secret police tortured them. I don’t know if that is true, but they were certainly interrogated for weeks.”

In truth, though, a Mansi being the culprit makes little sense. After all, they helped the investigation, and a Mansi had been responsible for the final four bodies being found. It just didn’t add up.

The Mansi’s burning object theory

Intriguingly, the Mansi tribe has their own theory. Anyamov’s mother Sanka had been a little girl back in 1959 and she told the BBC that she — and the village elders — had witnessed something peculiar in February of that year.

She claimed, “We were coming back from the forest, and we could see the village ahead of us. This bright, burning object appeared. It was wider at the front, and narrower at the back, with a tail, and there were sparks flying off it.” The elders were shaken, believing it to be a bad omen.

The weapons-test theory

What was this burning object, though? Was it a comet hitting the Earth or, as Anyamov speculates, an indicator of something manmade streaking through the sky? And if this was the case, how did it result in such strange deaths?

Well, it all plays into the core conceit of one of the other popular conspiracy theories — that Dyatlov’s group accidentally stumbled into an area where the Soviet military was testing an experimental weapon, and paid for it with their lives.

The Enigma of the Fireballs

Fascinatingly, in 1990 Ivanov — the man who curtailed the investigation — wrote an article claiming he had been forced to leave the truth out of his report. He titled his article “The Enigma of the Fireballs” and claimed he had witnessed odd burn-marks on trees in the area.

He believed this “confirmed that some kind of heat ray, say, or a powerful force whose nature is completely unknown — to us, at least — acted selectively on specific objects.” Compellingly, the final photo snapped by Krivonishchenko did show streaks of light in the night sky.

Had the truth become a state secret?

Yuri Kuntsevich, president of the Dyatlov Group Memorial Foundation, wholeheartedly believes in the weapons-test theory. He’d attended several of the group’s funerals when he was a child, as he’d lived across the street from the Mikhailovskyie cemetery.

He told the BBC, “The coffins were open, and I could see that the skin on their faces was a weird color — the color of bricks. There was nothing in the newspapers, but everyone was talking about it. We thought it must be some kind of state secret.”

Radiation on the victims’ clothes

An unsettling aspect of the case which may back up the weapons test theory is that some items of the group’s clothing — tested back in 1959 — were found to be radioactive. Interestingly, Ivanov’s superior Yevgeny Okishev felt it was odd that his people were even told to test evidence for radiation.

When he asked questions about it, though, Okishev was visited by the Deputy Prosecutor General. He claimed the general had danced around the issue of weapons-testing, and then simply told him to report the deaths as accidental.

Irregularities with the autopsies

In later years, author Oleg Arkhipov had been given access to Ivanov’s personal papers, and he found something unusual in the autopsy reports. Pieces of the internal organs of the first five bodies had been chemically analyzed, but when the results came back, the samples and any corresponding paperwork had been removed from the laboratory.

Arkhipov also discovered that a huge barrel of alcohol had been delivered prior to the autopsies. In those days, people working with radiation rubbed their naked bodies with alcohol in a bid to prevent themselves from coming to harm.

Weapons-test theory not ruled out

Considering all the evidence, Arkhipov wouldn’t discount the weapons-test theory, although he doesn’t believe it explains everything. He told the BBC, “I don’t exclude the possibility that the problem fell from the sky. Meaning there was an explosion. It’s impossible to say whether it was a military rocket.”

He continued, “But why did the young people leave their tent in such a hurry and cut their way out? Because they couldn’t breathe, perhaps?” Maybe this is a viable line of inquiry: were the group breathing in poisonous rocket fuel, and that’s why they’d left the tent?

The KGB theory

Then there is the KGB theory, which is built around Zolotaryov, the odd man out in the group. Many struggle to fathom why he had been tagging along with a much younger group, and over time this turned into the idea that he had been a KGB agent on a clandestine mission to rendezvous with CIA representatives in the mountains.

In this scenario, Zolotaryov’s mission was to give the Americans false information about the Soviet Union, but they figured out the ruse and killed everyone in retaliation. While the theory is certainly possible — Zolotaryov’s WWII service record is reportedly incomplete — it seems unlikely.

Was it a Yeti?

Undoubtedly the most outlandish theory — even though it’s supported by “evidence” — is that Dyatlov and his friends were murdered by a Yeti. Yes, that’s right — the inhuman ape creature of myth and folklore!

This wild claim comes from the fact that Thibault-Brignoles’ last photograph captured a tall, shadowy figure in the background walking through the forest. It’s certainly spooky to look at, but most theorists agree it’s more than likely that the menacing figure is actually one of the group.

The official line

Amazingly, in 2019 the case was officially reopened — but the prosecutor general’s office would only investigate three theories. A spokesman said, “Crime is out of the question. There is not a single proof. It was either an avalanche, a falling slab of hard-packed snow, or a hurricane.”

Indeed, a natural disaster has long been put forward as a potential culprit for the Dyatlov Pass incident — including writer Donnie Eichar’s theory that high winds had created a sound vibration below the usual human hearing range, and this shaking is what had scared the group out of their tent.

Some of the families don’t buy it

Perminova doesn’t believe this, though. She reasoned, “What kind of avalanche could there be when their tent was almost intact?” before adding, “As for a snow slab which crushed their tent — that doesn’t explain the injuries they had.”

She added, “And if it was just an ordinary hike which went wrong because of extreme weather conditions, well, those happen all the time, so why did it worry the highest authorities in the country?” Sadly, for Perminova, the extraordinary mystery of her brother’s death and his colleagues will probably always remain unsolved.