The story sounds like something out of a low-budget horror movie: nine young students go on a skiing holiday in Russia’s Ural Mountains but never return. Eventually, their bodies are discovered – five of them frozen to death near their tent, four more bearing mysterious injuries – a smashed head, a missing tongue – buried in the snow some distance away. All, it seems, had fled in sudden terror from their camp in the middle of the night. Casting aside skis, food and warm coats, they dashed headlong down a snowy slope toward a thick forest, where they stood no chance of surviving bitter temperatures of around –30º C (–22º F). At the time, seemingly baffled investigators offered the non-explanation that the group had died as a result of “a compelling unknown force” – and then simply closed the case and filed it as ‘Top Secret’.
After half a century, the mystery remains. What was the nature of the deadly “unknown force”? Were the Soviet authorities hiding something? And, if so, exactly what were they were attempting to cover up? In the intervening years, a number of solutions have been put forward, involving everything from hostile tribes and abominable snowmen to aliens and secret military technology.
“If I had a chance to ask God just one question, it would be: ‘What really happened to my friends that night?’” says Yury Yudin, the 10th member of the fateful expedition and its only survivor. Yudin had become ill and turned back a few days into the trip. The fate of his friends remains a painful mystery – one which he has attempted to investigate himself.
Yudin and his nine companions had set out on their journey on 23 January 1959, their destination Otorten Mountain in the northern Urals. He and eight of the others were students from the Ural Polytechnic Institute in Ekaterinburg, located in the Sverdlovsk region, 1,200 miles (1,900km) east of Moscow.
Back then, the city was still called Sverdlovsk, and was best remembered as the place where the Tsar and his family were brutally murdered after the Russian Revolution (it was named after the Bolshevik party leader Yakov Sverdlov, who had himself played a role in the killings). In 1959, the Soviet Union was in the middle of a thaw of sorts after decades of Stalinist repression, and life under the new premier, Nikita Khruschev, was becoming somewhat freer. The 1950s saw, for one thing, an explosion of ‘sport tourism’ in Russia as the country started to move away from the austerity of the immediate post-war years. A mixture of skiing, hiking and adventure, sport tourism was more than simply a sporting activity in the Soviet Union – for the inhabitants of this closed and regimented society it was a way of escaping the repressive strictures of everyday life, of returning to nature, and of spending time with a circle of close friends, away from the prying eyes of the state. Such activities were hugely popular with students, who would set out on long trips to some of the wildest and remotest parts of the Soviet Union.
The group from the Ural Polytechnic Institute was made up of experienced members of the college’s sport tourism club, led by 23-year-old Igor Dyatlov, respected for his expertise in cross-country skiing and mountaineering. Their route to Otorten, which would see them reaching heights of 1,100m (3,600ft) above sea level, was classed as ‘Category III’ – the most dangerous for the time of year – but the combined experience of the students meant that there was nothing unusual in their undertaking such an expedition.
Aside from Dyatlov and Yudin, the group was made up of Georgy Krivonischenko (24), Yury Doroshenko (24), Zina Kolmogorova (22), Rustem Slobodin (23), Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel (24), Ludmila Dubinina (21), Alexander Kolevatov (25) and Alexander Zolotaryov (37). All were students of the Institute, except the much older Zolotaryov, who some sources suggest was a slightly strange figure whom Dyatlov was initially reluctant to take on the expedition. But Zolotaryov had proved himself a highly experienced sport tourist and came with a recommendation from some of Dyatlov’s friends.
So, on 23 January the party of 10 set off on what was meant to be a three-week cross-country trip. They travelled by train to Ivdel, arriving on 25 January, and then onwards by truck to Vizhai – the last inhabited settlement before the snow-covered wilderness between them and Otorten. They began their trek on 27 January. On the 28th, however, Yudin became ill and had to turn back, leaving the party of nine to go on without him. It was the last time he saw his companions alive. The course of events following Yudin’s departure can only be reconstructed from the diaries and photographs left by the rest of the group and retrieved from the area where they made their final camp.
Having left Yudin behind, the group skied on across uninhabited areas and frozen lakes, following the paths of the local indigenous tribe, the Mansi, for another four days. On 31 January, they reached the river Auspia, where they set up a base at the edge of the highland area, leaving equipment and food there for the return journey. From here, they began climbing the pass toward Otorten on 1 February. For whatever reason – most likely bad weather conditions causing them to become lost – they found themselves on the slopes of the mountain Kholat Syakhl at a height of just below 1,100m (3,600ft). Here, at around 5pm, they pitched their tent for the night, although by going just 1.5km (almost a mile) down the mountain they could have found shelter from the harsh elements in a forest.
Their last diary entries show that the students were in good spirits; they even produced their own newspaper – the Evening Otorten – a typically Soviet way of group bonding. The next day, they planned to continue on to the mountain, just 10km (six miles) to the north, before returning to their base camp.
The plan had been for the party to return to Vizhai by 12 February, from where Dyatlov would send a telegram to the Institute’s sports club saying that they had arrived safely. No one appeared concerned when the telegram failed to arrive as arranged – after all, these were experienced skiers. It was only on 20 February – when worried relatives of the students raised the alarm – that the Institute sent out a search-and-rescue team of teachers and students, followed by the police and army, who dispatched aeroplanes and helicopters.
The volunteer rescuers found the abandoned camp on 26 February. “We discovered that 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,” said Mikhail Sharavin, the student volunteer who found the tent. It had been cut open from the inside, with slashes big enough for a person to get through. Footprints were discovered in the metre-deep snow, left by people wearing socks, valenki (soft felt boots) or a single shoe, or who were completely barefoot. The footprints were matched to the members of the group, although there was some doubt as to whether they corresponded to eight or nine people; there was no evidence of a struggle, or of other people beside the skiers, and no sign of the students themselves.
The prints led down the slope toward the forest but disappeared after 500m (550 yards). One and a half kilometres from the tent, the first two bodies were discovered. Georgy Krivonischenko and Yury Doroshenko, barefoot and dressed in their underclothes, were found at the edge of the forest, under a towering pine tree. Their hands were burned, and the charred remains of a fire lay nearby. The branches on the tree were broken up to 5m (16ft) high, suggesting that a skier had climbed up to look for something, and other broken branches were scattered on the snow.
A further 300m (1,000ft) onwards, lay the body of Dyatlov, on his back with his face looking in the direction of the camp and with one hand clutching a branch. A further 180m toward the tent, the searchers found Rustem Slobodin, and 150m on from him lay Zina Kolmogorova; both looked as if they had been trying to crawl to the tent with their last remaining strength.
Doctors said all five had died of hypothermia. Only Slobodin bore any injuries other than burnt hands: his skull was fractured, although this was not considered to be the cause of his death.
It took two months to locate the remaining four skiers. Their bodies were found buried under 4m (13ft) of snow in a forest ravine, 75m (250ft) away from the pine tree. Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel, Ludmila Dubinina, Alexander Kolevatov and Alexander Zolotaryov appeared to have suffered traumatic deaths. Thibeaux-Brignollel’s skull had been crushed, and Dubunina and Zolotarev had numerous broken ribs. Dubinina also had no tongue. The bodies, however, showed no external wounds.
According to writer Igor Sobolyov, who has investigated the deaths, it was also apparent that some of them had taken clothes from the bodies of those who had died first in an attempt to keep warm; some of the garments had cuts in them as if they had been forcibly removed. Zolotaryov was wearing Dubinina’s faux fur coat and hat, while Dubinina’s foot was wrapped in a piece of Krivonishenko’s woollen trousers. Thibeaux-Brignolle had two watches on his wrist – one showed 8.14am, the other 8.39am.
Despite the many unanswered questions, the investigation was closed by the end of the month and the case files sent to a secret archive. Even more mysteriously, skiers and other adventurers were barred from the area for the next three years.
“I was 12 at that time, but I do remember the deep resonance that the accident had with the public, despite the authorities’ efforts to keep relatives and investigators silent,” says Yury Kuntsevich, head of the Yekaterinburg-based Dyatlov Foundation, which today is trying to unravel the mystery.
Over the years, many people have tried to understand just what happened on the night of 1–2 February on the slope of Kholat-Syakhyl. Some, like Igor Sobolyov, have become fascinated by the young skiers’ tragic deaths. “The Ural students, who have become tourist legends, bravely took part in an unequal battle on the slopes of Kholat-Syakhyl with the Unknown,” he wrote, “and they showed that they had the best human qualities in that battle.”
But what was the nature of this ‘Unknown’ with which they fought and lost? What made them run from their tent, and why were they trying to get back to it in the dark when they had made a fire elsewhere? How did the second group end up buried under 4m (13ft) of snow? There are a number of theories.
One of the first to be explored by the original investigators was that the students were killed by the local indigenous people, the Mansi, for trespassing on their holy land. There was a precedent for this, which might have been in the minds of the investigators: in the 1930s, Mansi shamans had reportedly drowned a female geologist who had climbed a mountain that the tribe considered forbidden. But in this case, although both mountains are mentioned in Mansi folklore, neither was considered a sacred or taboo site. The chilling coincidence that Otorten, the doomed party’s destination, means “don’t go there” in the Mansi language while Kholat-Syakhyl means “Mountain of the Dead” probably has more to do with practical warnings for wandering Mansi than any sort of tribal curse. Besides, the nearest Mansi village was 80–100km (50–60 miles) away; they generally enjoyed good relations with the Russians and didn’t tend to go anywhere near Kholat-Syakhyl in winter, when the weather was unsuitable for deer herding or fishing.
In the face of this lack of evidence, the Mansi theory was soon rejected. Other suggestions were that the group had simply stumbled upon a gang of criminals in the area, or had been mistaken for escaped convicts by prison guards from a nearby camp. A claim was even made that, some time later, prisoners in the camp were heard singing a song with words based on a poem by Dyatlov. The fact that Dyatlov is not known to have written poetry makes this unlikely, and the story seems to be a garbled version of the fact that during the students’ overnight stay in Vizhai they had met a group of geologists from whom they had learned a number of ‘forbidden’ songs, as Ludmila Dubinina recorded in her diary. Whether these were political songs written and sung in prisons or just ‘thief ballads’ is unclear.
In any case, all three of the theories based on human intervention foundered on the fact that no other footprints were found in the area around the tent or near the bodies. Furthermore, Dr Boris Vozrozhdenny, who examined the bodies, said he believed no man could have inflicted the injuries because the force of the blows had been too strong and no soft tissue had been damaged; “It was equal to the effect of a car crash,” he said.
But if human beings weren’t responsible for the skiers’ deaths, then what was?
Those mysterious, car crash-like injuries, according to Russian cryptozoologist Mikhail Trakhtengertz, looked “as if someone had hugged them, oh so tightly”, and a number of armchair theorists have suggested that what sent the group running in terror from their tent was the sight of a 3m (10ft)-tall monster looming out of the snows.
Sightings of ‘abominable snowmen’ and yeti-like creatures are common in Russia – after all, if such creatures do exist then the country’s vast snowfields offer plenty of places for them to hide from the eyes of man.
Trakhtengertz has also stated that in their ‘newspaper’, the Evening Otorten, the students had written in large letters: “From now on we know that the snowmen exist”. Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t read too much into this; it goes onto say: “They can be met in the Northern Urals, next to Otorten mountain.” Given the humorous tone of the ‘newspaper’, it’s quite likely that the students were jokingly referring to themselves rather than recording a genuine sighting of an almasty.
Even less likely was the suggestion made in some quarters that the party had fallen foul of subterranean-dwelling Russian gnomes.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the case files were declassified and re-opened. What they contained only served to make the events of February 1959 still more mysterious.
Medical tests had shown very high levels of radiation on the bodies and clothes of four of the skiers, as if they had been handling radioactive materials or had been in a radioactive area. The original chief investigator, Lev Ivanov, described how he took a Geiger counter with him to the campsite on the mountain slope; as he approached, the device started to click rapidly and loudly.
Ivanov also revealed that he had been ordered by senior regional officials to close the case and classify the findings as secret. The authorities had been worried by reports from many eyewitnesses, including the weather service and the military, that “bright flying spheres” had been spotted in the area in February and March 1959, with a notable concentration of accounts dating from 17 February. “I suspected at the time and am almost sure now that these bright flying spheres had a direct connection to the group’s death,” Ivanov told Leninsky Put, a small Kazakh newspaper.
The files contained testimony from another group of adventurers, geography students, who had been camping about 50km (30 miles) south of the skiers on the same night. The leader of the group said they had seen strange orange spheres, or “balls of fire”, floating in the night sky in the direction of Kholat-Syakhl on the night the students died. Another wrote that they saw “a shining circular body fly over the village from the south-west to the north-east. The shining disc was practically the size of a full moon, a blue-white light surrounded by a blue halo. The halo brightly flashed like the flashes of distant lightning. When the body disappeared behind the horizon, the sky lit up in that place for a few more minutes.”
Ivanov speculated that one of the skiers might have left the tent during the night, seen a sphere and woken up the others with his cries, urging them to run downhill toward the forest. Then, the sphere might have exploded as they ran, killing the four who had serious injuries and cracking Slobodin’s skull.
“I can’t say what those balls were – some kind of arms or aliens or something else – but I am certain that they are directly connected to the deaths of those lads.” Yuri Yudin also thinks an explosion killed his friends. The level of secrecy surrounding the incident suggests to him that the group might have inadvertently entered a secret military testing ground, a theory supported by the radiation on their clothes. Yury Kuntsevich agrees, saying that another clue was an inexplicable suntan. “I attended the funerals of the first five victims and remember that their faces look liked they had a deep brown tan,” he said. Some accounts also suggest that relatives of the students had talked about the bodies having a strange “orange tan” and grey hair. The released documents contained no information about the condition of the skiers’ internal organs. “I know for sure that there were special boxes with their organs sent for examination,” said Yudin. No traces of an explosion, however, have been found near Kholat-Syakhl.
Two years before the students disappeared, the Soviet Union had sent the first satellite into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan; two years after their deaths, in 1961, Yuri Gagarin would fly from Baikonur to become the first man in space in 1961. Could the Russian space programme have any bearing on the mystery?
While it’s true that a missile fired from Baikonur could have reached the northern Urals, there are no records of any launches at the time, said Alexander Zeleznyakov, a historian on Soviet missiles and a senior official with the Korolyov Rocket and Space Corporation Energia. The Soviet Union’s other main launch pad, Plesetsk – though closer to the Urals – only opened in late 1959; the surface-to-air missiles that could have been launched from the pads had not yet been built.
However, Yury Kuntsevich says he led a group to the area in 2007, where they found a “cemetery” of scrap metal that suggested the military had conducted experiments there at some time. “We can’t say what kind of military technology was tested, but the catastrophe of 1959 was man-made,” he believes.
Yuri Yudin’s theory is that the military might have found the tent before the volunteer rescuers. He said he had been asked to identify the owner of every object found at the scene and had failed to find a match for a piece of cloth that looked like it had come from a soldier’s coat, a pair of glasses, a pair of skis and a piece of a ski. Yudin had also seen documents that led him to believe that the criminal investigation had been opened on 6 February – 14 days before the search team found the tent.
Other proponents of the ‘military cover-up’ version of events go further, and believe the hikers could have been deliberately killed after stumbling upon some kind of military secret. Whatever the military had been testing – and perhaps it had gone disastrously wrong – they hadn’t expected anyone to be in such a remote area in the middle of winter. When they discovered the group of sports tourists, their priority was to ensure secrecy by eliminating any surviving witnesses.
But the tourists were already dead or dying. The explosion had killed three on the slope and two more by the fire. Four were still alive, but suffering from the radiation; as they slipped into unconsciousness, they were thrown into a pit, causing the injuries they were later found with. Snow was piled on top of their dying bodies.
The conspiracy theorists admit it sounds like a fantastical explanation, but point to the case of Captain Eduard Ulman, a Russian army officer who served in Chechnya in 2002. Soldiers under his command shot at a van carrying six Chechens at a checkpoint, killing one. When he radioed into his command, he was told not to leave any witnesses. The rest were killed and their bodies burnt. Ulman was later charged and convicted.
But once again, the lack of extra footprints in the area makes this narrative hard to accept.
Moisei Akselrod, a friend of Dyatlov, is one of those who take a more sober approach to the mystery of the skiers’ deaths. He believes that an avalanche hit their tent in the middle of the night. Some of the students were injured as the snow hit the tent, and with it blocking the entrance they had to cut their way out before heading for the woods and the base camp. Unfortunately, they went the wrong way. Having set up a fire, they took off their clothes to give to the injured.
Evgeniy Buyanov and Valentin Nekrasov, experienced sport tourists, also support this version of events, maintaining that the character of the group’s injuries is consistent with the impact of a large amount of snow pressing them to the skis that were used as a tent floor, and that this explains why they showed no external bruises or scratches. Thibaux-Brignolle’s skull was fractured in the impact, while Dubinina could have bitten off her own tongue.
Sceptics of this theory point out that the skiers left the camp by foot and travelled more than a kilometre (1,100 yards) in –30º C (–22º F). Thibeaux-Brignollel would have been unconscious due to his shattered skull, but his friends could have carried him (investigators couldn’t decide whether there were eight or nine pairs of footprints in the snow). Dubinina and Zolotarev could have walked with their broken ribs, though the nature of Dubinina’s injuries – one of the broken ribs had penetrated her heart, causing hæmorrhaging –would have left her with only about 10–20 minutes to live, meaning that she would have been dead by the time they approached the forest. So how could two of her male companions have frozen to death before she died? Once again, we are left with more questions than answers.
Since more details of the tragedy emerged in the 1990s, researchers have continued to search for answers. Local Yekaterinburg journalist Anatoly Guschin, one of the first people to study the original files, maintains that a number of pages – and an envelope mentioned in the case list – were mysteriously missing. In 1999, he published a book called The Price of State Secrets is Nine Lives setting out his theory concerning a military secret weapons tests and a state cover-up. Lev Ivanov added weight to this version of events when he went public with his story of being ordered to bury the case, although Ivanov – who retired to Kazakhstan and has since died – continued to believe that UFOs and alien technology were behind the whole affair.
In 2000, a regional television company made a documentary film about the incident, and local writer Anna Matveyeva published a semi-fictional account of the events in her book Dyatlov Pass. Since then, the Dyatlov Foundation has been founded in Yekaterinburg, led by Dyatlov’s old friend Yuri Kuntsevich, to honour the dead students and attempt to get the case officially reopened.
Last year, six members of the original search party and 31 independent experts gathered in Yekaterinburg for a conference organised by Ural State Technical University, the Dyatlov Foundation and several nongovernmental organisations. They concluded that the military had been carrying out tests in the area and had inadvertently caused the deaths. But “we still lack documents and ask the Defence Ministry, the Russian Space Agency and the FSB to provide us with them to obtain a full picture,” the participants said in a statement.
What really happened on the night of 1–2 February 1959 may never be known, but Dyatlov and his doomed companions are unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. The area where the group set up their last camp has now been officially named ‘Dyatlov’s Pass’.