In late January of 1959 a group of nine students of the Ural Polytechnical Institute and an older ski instructor departed from the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) on an expedition to Otorten Mountain in the northern Urals. Lead by Igor Dyatlov, an experienced mountaineer, the group proceeded as planned. Over the next few days, the group traveled to the city of Ivdel first by train, then proceeded to Vizhay by bus. Riding a truck they headed to “Sector 41”, a woodcutting settlement. On the next day, one of the loggers accompanied the group to the abandoned geological site “Nord 2”, the last human settlement in the area. On January 28 one of the hikers, economics student Yuri Yudin, had begun to feel quite ill. Hoping that his discomfort was just temporary, Yudin spent the whole day collecting rock samples for the Institute of Mining back at Sverdlovsk. Sverdlovsk, formerly known as Yekaterinburg after the wife of Peter the Great, was founded to exploit the mineral resources of the Ural mountains.
Yudin found some quartz and fool’s gold. Tormented by severe pain, he decided to head back while the remaining group of nine continued as planned. They proceeded on foot and skies following the Auspiya river into the mountains. Recovered photos and journal entries suggest that everything was fine, even if there was a lot of snow and the weather was bad, slowing down the hikers. Ten days into the trip, on the first of February, they set up a campsite for the night on the eastern ridge of “Height 1079”, known to the indigenous Mansi population as “Holatchahl” or the dead mountain. That evening, an unknown event caused the group to cut their way out of the tent and sent the shoeless and underdressed hikers into the freezing night, with temperatures below -22°F.
A few weeks later, friends and relatives began to worry. On February 26 a search party discovers the abandoned tent on the slope. Nine pairs of footprints lead the search team down the slope towards the nearby woods. Under a large cedar tree at the edge of the forest next to the remains of an improvised campfire, two frozen bodies were found. The next three bodies were found at varying distances between the tent and the cedar tree, covered by snow. Autopsies later revealed that all five had died of hypothermia. The last four hikers were found only in May 1959 at the bottom of a small ravine, covered by 9 feet of snow, inside the forest. Three of them had sustained lethal injuries, one had a fractured skull and two had fractured ribs. One had minor injuries and died of hypothermia. The medical examiner believed that the injuries had been sustained from a fall or from crushing by snowpack. Russian authorities quickly closed the case, noting that “the cause of death was an unknown compelling force which the hikers were unable to overcome.” Since that night what happened to the hikers at the “Dyatlov Pass” prompted wild speculation that ranges from a serial killer, avalanches, animal attacks, secret weapons, a military cover-up, gravity anomalies, a fire in the tent, killer snowmen, UFOs and temporary insanity caused either by drug abuse or infrasound.
Russian investigators were able to reconstruct part of what happened that night based on the recovered evidence. The sleeping hikers are suddenly awakened, cut the tent open with a knife and flee down the slope into the nearby woods, apparently unable or not willing to return yet to the campsite. At the cedar tree, two hikers start a fire, realizing that the fading flame will not keep the group alive the entire night. Three hikers try to find their way back to the tent, dying on the slope. Four of them, venturing deeper into the woods, trigger a minor avalanche taking them over the edge of the ravine with a drop of about 9 feet. As the bottom is covered with rocks and ice they sustain fatal injuries. However, it remains unclear why the group fled the tent.
The involvement of a third party was excluded at the time of the investigation as no traces, apart from the hikers and the rescue party, in the snow were ever found. There was no evidence found suggesting that something unexpected, like a fire or smoke (the group had a small stove in use), happened in the tent. Some authors suggest paranormal activity, like UFOs and lightening balls, to explain the death of the nine hikers, based on reports of light-balls observed in the sky over the Ural mountains in the night the hikers died. Other authors explain the reports as secret weapon tests, however, at the time Russian missiles were tested in Siberia and not in the Ural mountains. There are records of parachute mines being tested by the Soviet military in the area around the time the hikers were there, but no traces of an explosion or metallic parts of a nearby detonation were found at the campsite. Recent research suggests that a rare weather phenomenon, whirlwinds formed by the air flowing over the summit of Holatchahl, created infrasound vibrations. This sound below the range of human hearing affects directly the human nervous system, causing irrational fear in the members of the hiking group. As they flee the campsite, they realize too late that they are lost in the snowstorm.
One of the most commonly adopted explanation involves a sudden slab avalanche in the middle of the night, threatening to bury the tent. Slab avalanches, an avalanche formed by a sliding sheet of hard, dense snow sliding down the slope, are responsible for almost 90% of all avalanche deaths. On the day of the accident, the snow at the campsite was 6 feet deep and the hikers actually dig into the snow to set up the tent. Avalanches can occur on any slopes but are more frequent and common on slopes steeper than 28°. The slope immediately above the campsite was at 22-30° and the terrain on the slopes of Holatchahl is very rugged, with boulders sticking out from the ground, making an avalanche here very unlikely. There were also no signs of a recent avalanche to be found at the campsite.
The case continues to remain unsolved 60 years later.