The long-dead ashes of a hastily built fire swirl around the boughs of a cedar tree, under which two human bodies lie inert in the snow. These are the first remains to be found of the nine-strong hiking expedition led by Igor Dyatlov into the Ural Mountains in January 1959. As the rescue party finds more evidence of the hikers’ whereabouts, though, things only get stranger.
It all began in 1959 when Igor Dyatlov, then 23, was studying engineering at Ural Polytechnic in the Soviet Union and he decided to organize a hiking trip with his friends from college. Like him, his buddies were all well-versed in skiing and mountaineering.
Rightly confident in their own abilities as mountaineers, then, they set themselves the challenge of getting to Mount Otorten from the village of Vizhai. Sadly, however, they would never complete their journey.
Nevertheless, things started well enough. Indeed, although conditions were harsh, the group skillfully navigated the difficult terrain. At one point the friends even skied over a lake that had frozen solid.
Certainly, the friends didn’t let the sub-zero conditions dampen their spirits. With typical Soviet industriousness, they even created their own newspaper to document the expedition – The Evening Otorten.
“From now on, we know that the snowmen exist,” the first headline read. But the hikers’ jubilant mood was to be cut short by a terrifying and endlessly mysterious episode.
On the evening of February 2, a snowstorm hit the higher reaches of Kholat Syakhl, the mountain where the group had set up camp. Locals referred to it as “Mountain of the Dead” – and for good reason.
This was the evening when the group’s diary entries stopped. How they met their end, though, remains shrouded in obscurity.
What we do know, however, is that the first thing that the subsequent rescue party found was the hikers’ tent, which was propped up by ski poles. It had huge slashes along its sides; had its occupants cut the holes from the inside?
After all, the hikers had likely been in a hurry when they exited their shelter. Why else would many of their essentials have been left there, completely intact? In fact, the hikers had ventured out without warm clothes, jackets or even shoes.
Indeed, the rescuers found something that no one expected to see in the harsh Siberian wilds: barefoot human footprints. The hikers, then, were not in a position to consider the unforgiving landscape when they fled from their tents.
Inevitably, the footprints led to the first of the dead bodies, which had fallen about a mile from camp beneath a cedar tree. Strangely, though, their hands were burned. And approximately 350 yards from them was Dyatlov’s frozen corpse.
Not long afterward, a sniffer dog found the frozen remains of Rustem Slobodin and Zina Kolmogorova. The remaining four friends, however, were nowhere to be seen. In fact, months would pass before their bodies were found.
Certainly, it wasn’t until early summer, when conditions had slightly improved, that the outstanding bodies were discovered in a hastily built den that had been consumed by 15 feet of snow. Their efforts to escape the cold had, then, been in vain.
Did all nine hikers simply die from hypothermia? It seemed the obvious conclusion at first; the hikers didn’t have coats on, after all. But why had they been so scantily clad?
Investigators reckoned that their decision to shun warm clothing was down to “paradoxical undressing.” When hypothermia sufferers experience this strange phenomenon, it feels as though they’re getting warmer rather than even colder.
However, there was something stranger still about the four latterly discovered bodies. Two had suffered fractured skulls; two more had fractures in their chests. As for Lyudmilla Dubinina – well, her eyes and tongue had been gouged out.
What’s more, if the footprints gave away the hikers’ location, the lack of any others showed that no one else had got to them. Further, there were no indications of any struggle. One investigator suggested that the fractures were caused by a force similar to a vehicle collision.
Lev Ivanov, the senior investigator, meanwhile, concluded that the hikers’ deaths had been caused by “an unknown elemental force which they were unable to overcome.” There was one further thing that warranted explanation, however: some of the deceased’s clothes showed high radiation levels.
Naturally, when the inquest into the hikers’ deaths was declassified in the ’90s, amateur sleuths were understandably intrigued – not least because some inclusions had been omitted. Was the radiation anything to do with the party’s peculiar demise?
One person is still searching for an answer. Yuri Kuntsevitch was 12 when he attended the funerals of the hikers in the late ’50s. He said that their bodies had a “deep brown tan,” which is just one reason why he’s called on Russia’s government to once again look into their deaths. Whether they will, nobody knows.