The Dyatlov Pass Incident: El Nasty Did It
This episode was originally meant to be our live Christmas Special, however, due to a series of personal events over the past couple of weeks - we had to skip it. We will still be releasing the Christmas Special, just as a bonus episode on Christmas Day, so instead - today we will be talking about one of my favorite conspiracy theories: The Dyatlov Pass Incident. Have you ever heard of it, Bryson?
Yeah, so the Dyatlov Pass Incident is really interesting to me, so here’s a little backstory for you. In 1959, between February 1st and 2nd, nine experienced Russian hikers died under very unusual circumstances in the northern Ural Mountains. Theories range from the usual aliens, nuclear testing by the Russian military, military involvement in general, el nasty - which is Russia’s bigfoot, and many more that we’ll get into. The released report says that six died from hyperthermia and the other three showed signs of physical trauma - one victim had a fractured skull, two had major chest fractures, one body was missing both its eyes, and one was missing its tongue. The released cause that the military has put out for the incident is; “a compelling natural force.” It’s a fucking wild ride, so let’s dig right in.
I’m going to start out by saying there’s a lot of Russian in this episode, so be prepared for me to done fuck up even more words than usual. So originally, the group was meant to consist of 10 members. Most members of the group were from Ural Polytechnical Institute, now Ural Federal University, and the expedition was named for the 21st Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Put together by 23 year old Igor Dyaltov, who the pass would later be named after, the team consisted of eight men and two women - and each member was a Grade II-Hiker with ski-tour experience and was meant to be certified as Grade-III upon their return. At the time, this was the highest grade achievable in the Soviet Union. So, they knew their shit.
The route was designed for the team to reach the northern regions of Sverdlovsk Oblast and the upper-streams of the Lozva river. The goal of the expedition was to reach Gora Otorten, a mountain 6.2 miles north of the site where the incident occurred. This route in February was considered the most difficult time to take it, as category III.
On 23 January 1959 the Dyatlov group was issued their route book which listed their course as following the No.5 trail. At that time, the Sverdlovsk City Committee of Physical Culture and Sport listed them for approval, plus an extra person was listed. Semyon Zolotaryov, who was previously certified to go with another expedition of similar difficulty. The team left the Sverdlovsk city. which today is known as Yekaterinburg, on the same day they received the route book.
On January 27th, the group started their trek towards Gora Otorten. Not even a day later, one of the members turned back due to health issues and the other 9 continued on. Cameras and diaries were found near their last campsite that made it possible to track their route. On 31 January, the group arrived at the edge of a highland area and began to prepare for climbing. In a wooded valley, they stored extra food and equipment that would be used for the trip back. The next day, the hikers started to move through the pass. It seems they planned to get over the pass and make camp for the next night on the opposite side, but because of worsening weather conditions—snowstorms and decreasing visibility—they lost their direction and deviated west, toward the top of Kholat Syakhl. When they realised their mistake, the group decided to set up camp there on the slope of the mountain, rather than move less than a mile downhill to a forested area that would have offered some shelter from the weather. It was speculated that they didn’t want to lose the altitude gained, so they decided to practice camping on a slope.
This is where they would, unfortunately, meet their end. The investigation was slow, as they weren’t expected to be heard from again until at least February 12th, though Dyaltov expected it to be longer, so nothing came until February 20th when the families of the hikers demanded a search and rescue party be sent out. Originally, the search parties’ consisted of only volunteer students and teachers but the military and soviet police would very shortly get involved.
On February 26th, the searchers found the teams abandoned and badly damaged tent on Kholat Syakhl. The student who found the tent was left baffled by the state it was in, here’s what they had to say about it: “the tent was half torn down and covered with snow. It was empty, and all the group's belongings and shoes had been left behind.” The investigators noted that the tent was cut open from the inside, and nine sets of footprints could be followed outside - all a mix of barefoot, only socks, one shoe, etc. - leading many people to believe they left in a hurry, trying to escape something.
Eventually, the tracks would be covered by snow but the investigators would find the remains of a small fire where they found the first two bodies, shoeless and dressed only in underwear. The branches of a tree nearby were broken up to 16 feet, leading some to believe one of the hikers fell attempting to look for something, possibly the campsite - while it led others to believe that something… big broke it.
Between the fire and the camp, the investigators found three more bodies who died in poses suggesting that they were attempting to trek back to the tent. It would take them an additional four months to find the rest of the travelers. They were found on May 4th, under 13 feet of snow. Three of the four were better dressed than the rest, and there was evidence that they took the clothes off of the less fortunate first, before succumbing themselves.
After the first five bodies were found, an immediate investigation was initiated to find out the exact causes of death. One of the five had a small fracture on their skull, but it was not thought to be a fatal wound - and all were suggested to have died from hypothermia. However, when the next four bodies were found, it shifted the narrative.
Three of the four bodies were found to have fatal injuries. One of them had major skull damage, and the other two had major chest fractures. Now, here’s one of the weirdest parts about that. The amount of force required to create the amount of damage to these people would be similar to that of a car crash, however there were no external wounds that correlated with the fractures that could indicate the cause.
All four of the bodies did have soft tissue damage, however. One was missing her eyes, tongue, and part of her lips, as well as missing facial tissue and skull fragments - another had missing eyeballs, and another had missing eyebrows.
The initial theory for the cause of death was that the local Mansi people, reindeer herders in the area, had murdered the group for intruding in their area. Several Mansi were interrogated, but the theory just didn’t hold up. Even though the victims had fatal injuries, no signs of human involvement could be found. For starters, there was only the groups’ footprints in the area, and there were no signs of hand-to-hand struggle.
So before I get too much into the theories, I’m going to go over the events and some known facts discovered about the case to really drive home the weirdness of it:
Six of the group members died of hypothermia and three of fatal injuries.
There were no indications of other people nearby on Kholat Syakhl apart from the nine travellers.
The tent had been ripped open from within.
The victims had died six to eight hours after their last meal.
Traces from the camp showed that all group members left the campsite of their own accord, on foot.
Some levels of radiation were found on only one victim's clothing.
To dispel the theory of an attack by the indigenous Mansi people, Vozrozhdenny stated that the fatal injuries of the three bodies could not have been caused by human beings, "because the force of the blows had been too strong and no soft tissue had been damaged"
Released documents contained no information about the condition of the skiers' internal organs.
There were no survivors.
Twelve-year-old Yury Kuntsevich, who later became the head of the Yekaterinburg-based Dyatlov Foundation, attended five of the hikers' funerals. He recalled that their skin had a "deep brown tan".
Another group of hikers 31 miles south of the incident reported that they saw strange orange spheres in the sky to the north on the night of the incident] Similar spheres were observed in Ivdel and adjacent areas continually during the period from February to March 1959, by various independent witnesses (including the meteorology service and the military). These sightings were not noted in the 1959 investigation, and the various witnesses came forward years later.
Do you remember the random guy who joined the group last minute? Yeah, so on 12 April 2018, Zolotarev's remains were exhumed on the initiative of journalists of the Russian tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. Contradictory results were obtained: one of the experts said that the character of the injuries resembled a person knocked down by a car, and the DNA analysis did not reveal any similarity to the DNA of living relatives. In addition, it turned out that Zolotarev's name was not on the list of those buried at the Ivanovskoye cemetery. Nevertheless, the reconstruction of the face from the exhumed skull matched postwar photographs of Zolotarev, although journalists expressed suspicions that another person was hiding under Zolotarev's name after World War II.
Many people remained silent for thirty years before reporting new facts about the accident. One of these people was the former police officer, Lev Ivanov, who led the official investigation in 1959. In 1990, he published an article that included his admission that the investigation team had no rational explanation for the incident. He also stated that, after his team reported that they had seen flying spheres, he then received direct orders from high-ranking regional officials to dismiss this claim.
So, the final verdict was the group had died of “compelling natural causes.” The case was shut in 1959 and all official documents about the case were locked up in the archives and nobody was allowed access to them.
Now, let’s go over the theories for the cause of the incident.
In 2019, the case was reopened by the Russian government, most likely to try to stop the conspiracy theories about the incident, but this had the opposite effect. This resparked the conversation on an international level, and they made a list of 75 of the theories, and narrowed it down to only three being quote unquote “possible.”
The first and most widely accepted of these theories is an avalanche. An author by the name of Benjamin Radford disliked the more supernatural theories and wrote this speculating about the avalanche theory:
“the group woke up in a panic (...) and cut their way out the tent either because an avalanche had covered the entrance to their tent or because they were scared that an avalanche was imminent (...) (better to have a potentially repairable slit in a tent than risk being buried alive in it under tons of snow). They were poorly clothed because they had been sleeping, and ran to the safety of the nearby woods where trees would help slow oncoming snow. In the darkness of night, they got separated into two or three groups; one group made a fire (hence the burned hands) while the others tried to return to the tent to recover their clothing since the danger had passed. But it was too cold, and they all froze to death before they could locate their tent in the darkness. At some point, some of the clothes may have been recovered or swapped from the dead, but at any rate, the group of four whose bodies was most severely damaged were caught in an avalanche and buried under 4 meters (13 ft) of snow (more than enough to account for the 'compelling natural force' the medical examiner described). Dubinina's tongue was likely removed by scavengers and ordinary predation.”
A review of the 1959 investigation's evidence completed in 2015–2019 by experienced investigators from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (ICRF) on request of the families confirmed the avalanche with several important details added. First of all, the ICRF investigators (one of them an experienced alpinist) confirmed that the weather on the night of the tragedy was very harsh, with wind speeds up to hurricane force, 45–67 mph, a snowstorm and temperatures reaching −40°. These factors weren't considered by the 1959 investigators who arrived at the scene of the accident three weeks later when the weather had much improved and any remains of the snow slide settled down and had been covered with fresh snow. The harsh weather at the same time played a critical role in the events of the tragic night, which has been reconstructed as follows:
On 1 February the group arrives at the Kholat Syakhl mountain and erects a large, 9-person tent on an open slope, without any natural barriers, such as forests. On the day and a few preceding days, a heavy snowfall continued, with strong wind and frost.
The group traversing through the slope and digging in the tent into the snow weakens the snow base. During the night the snowfield above the tent starts to slide down slowly under the weight of the new snow, gradually pushing on the tent fabric, starting from the entrance. The group wakes up and starts evacuation in panic, with only some able to put on warm clothes. Since the entrance was blocked, the group escapes through a hole cut in the tent fabric and descends the slope to find a place perceived as safe from the avalanche less than a mile down, at the forest border.
Due to some of the members having very incomplete clothes, the group splits. Two of the group, only in their underwear and pajamas, were found at the Siberian pine tree, near a fire pit. Their bodies were found first and confirmed to have died from hypothermia.
Three hikers, including Dyatlov, attempted to climb back to the tent, possibly to get sleeping bags. They had better clothes than those at the fire pit, but still quite light and their footwear was incomplete. Their bodies were found at various places ranging 1,000-2,000 feet from the campfire, in poses suggesting they fell of exhaustion while trying to climb in deep snow in extremely cold weather.
The remaining four, equipped with warm clothes and footwear, were trying to find or build a better camping place in the forest further down the slope. Their bodies were found 230 feet from the fireplace, under a thick layer of snow and with traumas indicating they fell into a snow hole formed above a stream. These bodies were only found after two months.
According to the ICRF investigators, the factors contributing to the tragedy were extremely bad weather and lack of experience of the group leader in such conditions, which led to the selection of a dangerous camping place. After the snow slide, another mistake of the group was to split up, rather than building a temporary camping place down in the forest and trying to survive through the night. Negligence of the 1959 investigators contributed to their report creating more questions than answers and inspiring numerous conspiracy theories.
However, as with all of these theories and reports, nothing lines up perfectly. There’s quite a bit of evidence disproving the avalanche theory as well.
The location of the incident did not have any obvious signs of an avalanche having taken place. An avalanche would have left certain patterns and debris distributed over a wide area. The bodies found within a month of the event were covered with a very shallow layer of snow and, had there been an avalanche of sufficient strength to sweep away the second party, these bodies would have been swept away as well; this would have caused more serious and different injuries in the process and would have damaged the tree line.
Over 100 expeditions to the region were held since the incident, and none of them ever reported conditions that might create an avalanche. A study of the area using up-to-date terrain-related physics revealed that the location was entirely unlikely for such an avalanche to have occurred. The "dangerous conditions" found in another nearby area (which had significantly steeper slopes and cornices) were observed in April and May when the snowfalls of winter were melting. During February, when the incident occurred, there were no such conditions.
An analysis of the terrain and the slope shows that even if there could have been a very specific avalanche that found its way around, its path would have gone past the tent. It had collapsed from the side but not in a horizontal direction.
Dyatlov was an experienced skier and the much older Zolotaryov was studying for his Masters Certificate in ski instruction and mountain hiking. Neither of these two men would have been likely to camp anywhere in the path of a potential avalanche.
Footprint patterns leading away from the tent were inconsistent with someone, let alone a group of 9 people, running in panic from either real or imagined danger. All the footprints leading away from the tent and towards the woods were consistent with individuals who were walking at a normal pace.
The last one especially sticks out to me, as though they seemed to have walked away in a calm demeanor, they had cut open the tent from the inside.
The next theory is Katabatic winds. In 2019, a Swedish-Russian expedition was made to the site, and after investigations, they proposed that a violent katabatic wind is a possible explanation for the events. Katabatic winds are somewhat rare events, and can be extremely violent. They were implicated in a 1978 case at Anaris Mountain in Sweden, where eight hikers were killed and one was seriously injured in the aftermath of katabatic wind. The topography of these locations were noted to be very similar according to the expedition.
A sudden katabatic wind would have made it impossible to remain in the tent, and the most rational course of action would be for the hikers to cover the tent with snow in an attempt to weigh the tent down and seek shelter among the treeline. There was also a torch left turned on on top of the tent, possibly left there intentionally so the hikers could find their way back to the tent once the winds calmed down. The expedition proposed that the group of hikers constructed two bivouac (beigh-voo-ack) shelters, a temporary shelter made without a tent, one of which collapsed, leaving four of the hikers buried with the violent injuries observed.
Another theory popularised by Donnie Eichar's 2013 book Dead Mountain is that wind going around Kholat Syakal created a Kármán vortex street, which can produce infrasound capable of inducing panic attacks in humans.
According to Eichar's theory, the infrasound generated by the wind as it passed over the top of the mountain and was responsible for causing physical discomfort and mental distress in the hikers. Eichar claims that, because of their panic, the hikers were driven to leave the tent by whatever means necessary, and fled down the slope. As they went further down the hill, they would have been out of the infrasound's path and would have regained their composure, but in the darkness would be unable to find their tent.
The traumatic injuries suffered by three of the victims were the result of their stumbling over the ledge of a ravine in the darkness and landing on the rocks at the bottom.
Now here’s my favorite theory. Speculation exists that the campsite fell within the path of a Soviet parachute mine exercise. This theory alleges that the hikers were woken to loud explosies and fled the tent in a shoeless panic and found themselves unable to find their tent.
After some members froze to death attempting to endure the bombardment, others took their clothing only to be fatally injured by subsequent parachute mine concussions. There are actually records of parachute mines being tested by the Soviet military in the area around the time the hikers were there. Parachute mines detonate while still in the air rather than upon striking the Earth's surface and produce signature injuries similar to those experienced by the hikers: heavy internal damage with comparably less external trauma.
The theory coincides with reported sightings of glowing, orange orbs floating or falling in the sky within the general vicinity of the hikers and allegedly photographed by them, potentially military aircraft or descending parachute mines. This theory (among others) uses scavenging animals to explain the soft tissue damage. Some theorize the bodies were unnaturally manipulated due to characteristic livor mortis markings discovered during an autopsy, as well as burns to hair and skin. Photographs of the tent allegedly show that it was erected incorrectly, something the experienced hikers were unlikely to have done.
A similar theory alleges the testing of radiological weapons and is partly based on the discovery of radioactivity on some of the clothing as well as the bodies being described by relatives as having orange skin and grey hair. However, radioactive dispersal would have affected all of the hikers and equipment instead of just some of it, and the skin and hair discoloration can be explained by a natural process of mummification after three months of exposure to the cold and winds.
The initial suppression of files regarding the group's disappearance by Soviet authorities is sometimes mentioned as evidence of a cover-up, but the concealment of information regarding domestic incidents was standard procedure in the USSR and therefore far from peculiar. And by the late 1980s, all Dyatlov files had been released in some manner.
There’s also a theory that their last minute addition to the party had been a soviet spy, possibly hired by another part of the soviet union to check on the happenings in the area, or even was just attempting to find something in the area. He was very determined to make this expedition, even joining a group that he knew none of the members of just to be able to make it when his previous plans had fallen through. He had strange tattoos that weren’t in any known language, and had requested to go by a different name than his legal name, and was much older than the rest of the group - approaching his 40’s when the rest of the group was in their early 20’s.
His body was found a significant distance away from the rest of the bodies, with a camera with film that was beyond repair. The reason he was so far away from the rest of the party photographing something is unknown, especially with being unable to view what he had photographed. The official theory kind of goes like this:
Zolotarev had left the tent in the middle of the night, photographed whatever he had needed, and one of the other party members had witnessed this and either felt that they needed to put a stop to it, or Zolotarev caught them and a fight ensued. The only evidence backing this up and Zolotarev having a broken nose, and another party member having bruised knuckles and on top of the storm, panic between the group followed, they ended up split up, and one of the weather events killed them.
Or, the military testing was the case. Except they had noticed the hikers and after the initial parachute bomb test had happened, they deployed ground troops to follow up on the events. Due to the secrecy of the Soviet Union at the time, and finished the job. The only evidence to back this up is they were trained in ways of killing that reduced external evidence of human involvement, such as physical pressure to the abdomen that would kill somebody, ways to snap necks that, etc. Initially just wiping the evidence of them being there, they then framed it as some natural cause. Then they found out that one of the men they had killed was their own, wiped all evidence, and shut down the case as quickly as they could.
There’s also just the theories involving supernatural involvement, such as aliens or the yeti - or el nasty. The yeti theory doesn’t have any backing to me, as fun as it is, and the alien theory has very little. The strange lights in the sky and the radiation.
The only thing we know for sure, is that every possible theory has some sort of hole in it. None of them hold up 100%. The likelihood of a supernatural event is the slimmest, and it likely is just a freak force of nature that caused it. I could very well see the Soviet Union being involved in some way. I really don’t have a solid conclusion to this one, so I’m just gonna say… aliens. Because why the fuck not.