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Exactly 64 years ago, a group of students were trekking through the Ural Mountains as part of a cross-country skiing trip when disaster struck. The group had joked that in the Northern Urals, abominable snowmen were said to lurk. Little did they know, as they headed towards Peak 1079, known by the indigenous Mansi people as “Dead Mountain” and pitched up their tent, their hours were numbered. The deaths of the seven men and two women then became known as the Dyatlov Pass mystery, causing intrigue and conspiracy theories for decades.
Letters, photographs, and personal diaries found at the scene established that the group, led by 23-year-old engineering student Igor Dyatlov, had set up camp on February 1, 1959 in an exposed area.
The group consisted of students in their early twenties as well as one outlier: Semyon Zolotaryov, a 38-year-old sports instructor who fought in World War Two.
After setting up camp on the slopes of northern Russia’s mountain Khloat Syakhl in the bitter cold, the seven men and two women were never heard from again. Their loved ones grew worried as they had not heard from the group and consequently raised the alarm.
Weeks after the incident had taken place, a search party arrived, only to make a grim discovery. It appeared as though the tent the hikers had slept in had been cut open from the inside. It took almost three months for all nine bodies to be discovered dotted over the mountain slope.
The injuries the victims suffered were horrific. Some of the group’s skulls and chests were smashed open and ribs were broken. One student, Yuri Krivonischenko, had bitten into his own knuckle. In some truly awful cases, the victims’ eyes were missing and one had lost their tongue. Strangely, several of the group were in varying states of undress.
Mikhail Sharavin was part of the rescue mission and found the tent himself. He told the BBC in December 2019: “We approached a cedar tree and when we were 20 metres 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.”
Officially, the deaths were recorded as being caused by hypothermia and frostbite. But some of the injuries suffered and how they were inflicted were puzzling.
The mystery went on for some 60 years, with several theories emerging, including that the skiers were killed by yetis, UFOs, Soviet nuclear experiments, the Mansi people, and even the military.
The latter was believed by some of the students’ parents. But Igor’s sister, Tatyana Perminova, told the BBC that the family was told: “You will never know the truth, so stop asking questions.”
A criminal investigation conducted at the time concluded that an “unknown natural force” had caused the tragedy. But decades later, in 2019, the case was reopened by the Russian authorities.
However, only three possible scenarios were considered, all of which were related to extreme weather. A spokesperson for the prosecutor general told a press conference that year: “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.”
Some were skeptical of the avalanche hypothesis: the slope the group slept on was thought of as too small for one to occur with the injuries being inconsistent with that caused by a natural occurrence.
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In terms of the injuries, researchers found that as the group had slept on their skies, the impact of the 16ft long block of snow could have caused the likes of broken skulls and ribs.
The state of undress some of the dead were in remains somewhat a mystery with the missing eye and tongue thought to be attributable to wild animals finding the bodies before the rescuers.
For the victims’ loved ones, the tragedy is far from closed as their heartbreak lives on. It is likely that exactly what happened on that fateful day in February will never fully be known.
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