Mystery at Dyatlov Pass
A look at one of the most bizarre cases in Russian cross country skiing history.
by Brian Dunning
July 8, 2008
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Also available in Chinese | Russian
By Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast
Episode 108, July 08, 2008
February, 1959, the Ural Mountains in Russia - Ten young cross country skiers from the Ural Polytechnical Institute, eight guys and two girls led by Igor Dyatlov, set out for two weeks of adventure. One became ill and turned back: Little did he know he would be the only one to return alive. Weeks later, searchers found one of the most bizarre scenes in modern lore. The bodies of the nine victims were scattered over a wide area of the frozen landscape. Some were wearing only their underwear. Some were wearing each others' clothes. Two had head injuries. One had no tongue. Two had severe internal chest injuries. None had any visible external signs of trauma. Some of their clothes were found to be radioactive. Circumstances suggested that some the victims may have been blind. Various other witnesses in the region reported bizarre orange spheres in the night sky; and strangest of all, the bodies had orange skin and gray hair.
This was the Soviet Union in the middle of the cold war, and few details other than what I just gave were reported. Journalists attempting to give more information found their books and articles censored. Independent investigators found official records to be missing or classified. Many fingers have pointed at military testing. Did radioactivity from some secret weapons test drive the group insane? Some people think UFOs are responsible for the deaths, citing the reports from other skiers in the region who saw the orange spheres in the night sky in the direction of the Dyatlov party. Russian authorities closed the case, called the cause of death a "compelling unknown force", and classified it top secret. The mountain was renamed Dyatlov Pass. And that's about all that anyone's ever been able to learn about the case.
I found some translated articles from Russian media and some western articles, and although the case offers some really compelling mysteries, it also offers an elephant in the room: The possibility of avalanches being the culprit. I wanted to see how likely avalanches would have been in that area, so I looked it up on Google Earth. Turns out it's hardly the type of place you'd expect avalanches. The hills are low and rounded, much better for cross country skiing than for avalanches, at least according to my personal informal assessment from looking at the terrain on Google Earth. And, obviously, the group felt comfortable enough with any potential danger to make camp where they did. But I also found a Russian tourism brochure for the area that warns of avalanche danger on slopes steeper than 15°. According to the police reports, the slope immediately above the campsite was at 22-23°, and 50 to 100 meters above the campsite it increased to 25-30°. That's quite steep. There was a cornice, and the snow at the campsite was 2 meters deep. There has also been much discussion in the Russian press about the possible role of avalanches in the Dyatlov Pass incident. So I'm going to go ahead and call avalanches a plausible factor in the tragedy.
A number of skeptics have addressed the question of radioactivity by pointing out that the mantles used in camping lanterns contain thorium, which emits alpha particle radiation, to the point that there is actually a radiation warning on the packaging. These mantles, if you're not familiar with them, are little fabric bags that serve as the wick in a burning lantern. They're quite fragile and easily turn to dust that gets everywhere, like onto the clothes of everyone in the tent, when you replace them, which you need to do pretty regularly. Thorium gas mantles were invented in 1891 and were manufactured in many countries for a long time. Coleman, the largest US manufacturer, only phased them out in the 1990's. I found a blog comment signed "Igor", a guy who says he's Russian and went to the same college as the Dyatlov Pass victims, and he states in his comment that thorium gas mantles were not available in Russia in 1959. That doesn't sound consistent with general articles on the subject, plus I found a Russian WWII lantern on eBay that was kerosene fueled, and all the kerosene lanterns I could find details on do use thorium gas mantles. It's a question mark, and remains a plausible possibility in my book.
Here is my proposed explanation of what happened. It's wrong, of course, because it's done from my armchair 50 years after the fact and with no firsthand knowledge of the region, but it's completely reasonable and does adequately satisfy the facts as we know them. Nine skiers set up camp in an area with potential avalanche danger, but no more or less danger than would have been found if they set up anywhere else they could have reached before nightfall. Sometime during the night, a loud noise, either from a nearby avalanche, a jet aircraft, or military ordnance, convinced at least five members of the group that an avalanche was bearing down on them. They burst out of the tent wearing whatever they happened to be sleeping in and ran. At some point one of them fell and struck his head on a rock. They became lost in the dark and poor visibility, or simply found themselves stranded with their injured friend, and finally built a fire. They quickly got hypothermia and probably shouted themselves hoarse for their friends. Two of them lost consciousness and the others made a desperation decision: To take what little clothes their two unconscious buddies had and risk it all to try and make it back to camp. One made it 300 meters, the second made it 480, and the third a full 630 meters before all five were dead from hypothermia. Back at camp, the four who didn't panic and run away in the night got dressed, collected provisions, and began to search for their friends. They searched for hours, circling high and low, until at some point either through a slip or just bad luck, they were caught in a real avalanche. During the resulting turmoil one received a fatal skull fracture, one received twelve broken ribs, and one bit her tongue off, all perfectly plausible injuries during such a traumatic death. Their bodies remained buried until the spring thaw, as is so common with avalanche victims. At the open-casket funeral for the first five victims, relatives saw the combination of five days of winter sunburn in those days before sunscreen, and the mortician's effort to cover up frostbite and a full month of exposure to the elements, and described it as a strange orange color; though others described it simply as a deep tan, which is consistent with reasonable expectations. And who knows what hair would have looked like after all that exposure and who knows what kind of treatment done by the mortician, so I can't assign too much significance to what amounts to a few anecdotal reports from some funeral attendees, and not even all funeral attendees. Plus I'm quite certain that if UFOs had turned all of their hair really gray, don't you think the cold war Russian authorities would have had it colored back to normal for an open casket funeral? Their bodies had been exposed outdoors for weeks. Of course they looked terrible.
What of the radiation on their clothes? Well, there is at least as much uncertainty about what the Russians were doing with their atomic and thermonuclear weapons in that area in those days, as there is about exactly what type of radiation and how much was found on the Dyatlov pass victims. Since we don't know anything about either, we can't say that any explanation is inconsistent with what was found. And, the thorium lantern mantle question quite probably makes the entire radiation issue a moot point. Assuming they'd changed a lantern mantle sometime during the trip, which nearly always has to be done, there's every reason to expect to find low-level alpha radiation on the clothes of anyone who participated.
How about those UFO reports? Well, people all around the world report UFOs every day, and whether anything happened to the Dyatlov party or not, it's not especially surprising that skiers in the Ural Mountains saw UFOs that night. What did that have to do with the Dyatlov party? We have a statistically insignificant correlation, with a sample size of one, and no reason to suspect that one thing had anything to do with the other. Human psychology encourages us to think anecdotally and assume a causal relationship, but for my money, I consider the UFO question irrelevant. Maybe if the UFOs were identified, and known to have some specific physical capability, then we'd have something to talk about.
The Russian newspaper reports stating that the victims may have been blinded appears to be pure speculation, based only on two observations: first, that some of them were wearing the wrong clothes; and second, that when they built their campfire they didn't use some dry wood nearby. Is it really necessary to conclude that blindness, ostensibly caused by UFOs, is the most likely explanation for the choice of firewood? Five panicked young people, underdressed, in subzero temperatures in near-zero-visibility darkness, were lucky to get a fire built at all. I think we can cut them a little slack on what firewood they were able to find.
Summary: I'm still looking for something in the Dyatlov Pass mystery that lacks a simple and mundane explanation.
© 2008 Skeptoid Media
References & Further Reading
Adams, C. "Are Camp Lanterns Radioactive?" The Straight Dope. Creative Loafing Media, Inc., 5 Dec. 2003. Web. 12 Jan. 2010. <http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2482/are-camp-lanterns-radioactive>
Angelo, J. Nuclear Technology. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004. 230.
Giesbrecht, G., Wilkerson, J. Hypothermia Frostbite and Other Cold Injuries, Prevention, Survival, Rescue, and Treatment, Second Edition. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 2006. 38-56.
Maynard, C. The Ural Mountains. New York: PowerKids Press, 2004.
Osadchuk, S. "Mysterious Deaths of 9 Skiers Still Unresolved." The St. Petersburg Times. 19 Feb. 2008, Issue 1349, Number 13.
Wedin, B., Vanggaard, L., Hirvonen, J. "Paradoxical Undressing in Fatal Hypothermia." Journal of Forensic Science. 1 Jul. 1979, Volume 24, Number 3: 543-553.
Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Mystery at Dyatlov Pass." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 8 Jul 2008. Web. 4 Sep 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4108>