One of the most extraordinary stories I’ve ever come across is the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Nine experienced backpackers mysteriously lost their lives on the night of February 2, 1959 in the northern Ural Mountains under what can only be described as the most bizarre of circumstances.
The mystery surrounds a group of students, led by Igor Dyatlov, from the Ural Polytechnical Institute’s Sports Club, who were cross-country ski backpacking and had set up camp on the slopes of a mountain named Kholat Syakhl (pronounced koh-la see-ah-kul). Days later when the group failed to return, searchers found that the skiers had torn their tent from the inside out.
They fled the campsite in different directions inadequately dressed, even barefoot, during a severe snow storm in subzero temperatures. Six of the nine were later determined to have died from hypothermia while others showed signs of trauma. One victim had a fractured skull. Another was found with brain damage but no signs of head trauma. Two had burned hands. Additionally, one woman’s tongue was missing.
Five of the students’ bodies were discovered three weeks after they went missing. The remaining four were not found until May when the snow had melted. Autopsies and an official inquest determined the following:
- Six of the group members died of hypothermia and three of fatal injuries.
- There were no signs of other people nearby on Kholat Syakhl apart from the nine students.
- The tent was cut open from within with all of their belongings still inside.
- The victims had died 6 to 8 hours after their last meal.
- Traces from the camp showed that all group members left the campsite in a great hurry but of their own accord, on foot.
- Two of the students dressed only in their underwear had tried to build a small fire out in the elements before they died.
- One student had climbed a tree.
- Three bodies were found 300-600 metres away in positions suggesting they were trying to get back to the camp.
- Dr. Boris Vozrozhdenny dispelled initial speculation, that the local, indigenous Mansi people (think Finnish Laplanders who herd cattle instead of reindeer) attacked the group for encroaching on their lands, stating that the fatal injuries of the three bodies were not caused by another human being, “because the force of the blows had been too strong and there was no soft tissue damage.” The trauma was similar to the force of a car crash.
- Forensic radiation tests had shown high doses of radioactive contamination on the clothes of a few victims.
- There were no survivors of the incident.
Unable to solve the mystery, Soviet authorities concluded that an “unknown compelling force” had beset the students causing their death. They sealed the reports as top-secret but released them in 1990. But this added little to what was already known.
The lack of concrete information led to a variety of theories:
- Kholat Syakhl was a secret test site for new Soviet weaponry.
- The Soviet secret weapons theory led to speculation of UFO involvement which in turn spawned paranormal discussions.
- An avalanche was a possible cause, but many dismissed it for a lack of physical evidence in the immediate area.
- Hypothermia in its last stages can cause a person to lose their sensibilities and feel hot causing them to undress. But it is doubtful this would happen to all of them at once and it wouldn’t explain the physical trauma three of them experienced.
- As often done when there is no understandable explanation, some turn to mythological stories and folk tales such as the Yeti or vengeful ancestral spirits. Even if the Yeti does exist, there were no tracks or other signs of anything else present in the immediate area.
- The idea that one of the members had lost their mind and attacked the other students driving them suddenly into the night was also dispelled for lack of any weapon found. If this was the case, it is doubtful one person could overcome the other eight who would have been able to restrain him or her.
- Another hypothesis is that wind going around Kholat Syakhl created a Kármán Vortex Street, which can produce infrasound capable of inducing panic attacks in humans because it is sound below the human range of hearing but is physically felt.
The Kármán Vortex Street is a relatively new idea and can best explained something like this: You’re sitting in your car waiting for the light to change. A car pulls up behind you with his sub-woofers booming. You feel the deep notes ripple through your chest more than you hear any music. Your dangling car keys jangle, your mirror vibrates and anything even a little loose on his car is rattling like it’s suddenly coming to life.
Like my nephew who is obsessed with subs explains to his flummoxed uncle, “It’s about the feel, not the sound.”
Now removed the music, but keep the effect. Instead of a 16-inch box in the trunk of a car, the sub-woofer is the size of a mountain. I’d freak out. So would you. Looking back on the meteorological records, conditions were favorable for a Kármán Vortex Street.
You’re in your tent. Its a good trip, away from school, away from home, away from Nikita Khrushchev’s invasive and oppressive regime. For a couple weeks, you’re free to speak, laugh and live. Suddenly the tent begins billowing, your gear is jangling and your hand goes to your chest. Looking around, your wide-eyed companions feel it too. Seized with panic, somebody slashes at the tent wall to get out …
Igor Dyatlov and his eight comrades are experiencing something but have no idea what the heck it could be because the science to explain it hasn’t been developed. When something is beyond our understanding, we explain it with myth, folklore and religion. When the natural world displays an exhibition beyond our comprehension, we default to the supra-naturale (beyond-natural) i.e. the supernatural.
Back in the days of yore, before the known world was the known world, cartographers would carefully draw their maps according to the explorers’ reports. In the empty spaces beyond the boundaries they wrote, “There be monsters.” Today in a different way, we still believe in monsters outside of our grid of understanding.
But then again, just because a Kármán Vortex Street explanation makes the most sense to me, doesn’t make it so. I could be wrong, and that’s fair because I’m only looking at the parts that fit into what I want it to be. The Dyatlov Pass Incident quite possibly is something else completely and we may never know. Maybe it is supra-naturale.
Nine great Mansi warriors went hunting on Kholat Syakhl, died mysteriously and are now revered in tribal folklore.
Nine passengers, everyone on board, were killed in 1991 when their plane crashed on Kholat Syakhl.
Yuri Yudin was heading out to Kholat Syakhl with a group of friends when a foot problem caused him to stay behind at the last stop (last stop!) before entering the wilderness. His departure reduced the group, Igor Dyatlov’s group in 1959, to … nine.
Like it just has to be … nine.
Finally, in the Mansi tongue, Kholat Syakhl means “Dead Mountain.”
You can read more of Doug’s writing at intothewilderness.net