“If I had a chance to ask God just one question, it would be, ‘What really happened to my friends that night?'” - Yury Yudin
Nine experienced cross-country skiers hurriedly left their tent on a Urals slope in the middle of the night, casting aside skis, food and their warm coats.
Clad in their sleepwear, the young people dashed headlong down a snowy slope toward a thick forest, where they stood no chance of surviving bitter temperatures of around minus 30 degrees Celsius.
Baffled investigators said the group died as a result of “a compelling unknown force” — and then abruptly closed the case and filed it as top secret.
It all began on January 28, 1959, when ten skiers set off on their expedition to Mt. Otorten (Mansi language for "Do Not Go There"), in the northern Urals Mountains. The group, led by Igor Dyatlov, consisted of eight men and two women. Most were students or graduates of Ural Polytechnical Institute (Уральский Политехнический Институт, УПИ), now called Ural State Technical University.
|Yuri Yudin hugging Lyudmila Dubinina |
as he prepares to leave the group due to
illness, as Igor Dyatlov looks on
The group arrived by train at Ivdel (Ивдель), a city at the center of the northern province of Sverdlovsk Oblast on January 25. They then took a truck to Vizhai (Вижай) - the last inhabited settlement so far north. They started their march towards Otorten from Vizhai on January 27. The next day, Yuri Yudin (the sole survivor), was forced to go back because of illness. The group now consisted of nine people.
Diaries and cameras found around their last camp made it possible to track the group's route up to the day preceding the incident.
On January 31, the group arrived at the edge of a highland area and began to prepare for climbing. In a woody valley they cached surplus food and equipment which would be used for the trip back. The following day (February 1), the hikers started to move through the pass. It seems they planned to get over the pass and make camp for the next night on the opposite side, but because of worsening weather conditions, snowstorms and decreasing visibility, they lost their direction and deviated west, upward towards the top of Kholat Syakhl (a Mansi name, meaning Mountain of the Dead). When they realized their mistake, the group decided to stop and set up camp there on the slope of the mountain even though just another 1.5km (around a mile), down the mountain, they could have seeked better shelter in the forest, from the harsh elements.
It had been agreed beforehand that Dyatlov would send a telegraph to their sports club as soon as the group returned to Vizhai. It was expected that this would happen no later than February 12, but when this date had passed and no messages had been received, there was no reaction—delays of a few days were common in such expeditions. Only after the relatives of the travelers demanded a rescue operation did the head of the institute send the first rescue groups, consisting of volunteer students and teachers, on February 20. Later, the army and police forces became involved, with planes and helicopters being ordered to join the rescue operation.
|Skiers setting up camp at about 5. p.m. on Feb. 2, 1959. |
Photo taken from a roll of film found at the camp
Between the cedar and the camp the searchers found three more corpses—Dyatlov, 23, Zina Kolmogorova, 22, and Rustem Slobodin, 23 —who seemed to have died in poses suggesting that they were attempting to return to the camp. They were found separately at distances of 300, 480 and 630 meters from the cedar tree.
Searching for the remaining four travelers took more than two months. They were finally found on May 4, under four meters of snow, in a ravine in a stream valley further into the wood from the cedar tree.
Access to the area was barred for skiers and other adventurers for three years after the incident. The chronology of the incident remains unclear due to the lack of survivors.
A legal inquest had been started immediately after finding the first five bodies. A medical examination found no injuries which might have led to their deaths, and it was concluded that they had all died of hypothermia. One person had a small crack in his skull, but it was not thought to be a fatal wound.
An examination of the four bodies which were found in May changed the picture. Three of them had fatal injuries: the body of Thibeaux-Brignolle had major skull damage, and both Dubunina and Zolotarev had major chest fractures. According to Dr. Boris Vozrozhdenny, the force required to cause such damage would have been extremely high. He compared it to the force of a car crash. Notably, the bodies had no external wounds, as if they were crippled by a high level of pressure. Dubunina was found to be missing her tongue. There had initially been some speculation that the indigenous Mansi people might have attacked and murdered the group for encroaching upon their lands, but investigation indicated that the nature of their deaths did not support this thesis; the hikers' footprints alone were visible, and they showed no sign of hand-to-hand struggle.
Though the temperature was very low (around −25° to −30°C) with a storm blowing, the dead were dressed only partially. Some of them had only one shoe, while others had no shoes or wore only socks. Some were found wrapped in snips of ripped clothes which seemed to be cut from those who were already dead. However, up to 25 percent of hypothermia deaths are associated with so-called "Paradoxical undressing". This typically occurs during moderate to severe hypothermia, as the person becomes disoriented, confused, and combative. They may begin discarding their clothing, which, in turn, increases the rate of heat loss.
Journalists reporting on the available parts of the inquest files claim that it states:
- Six of the group members died of hypothermia and three of fatal injuries.
- There were no indications of other people nearby apart from the nine travelers on Kholat Syakhl, nor anyone in the surrounding areas.
- The tent had been ripped open from within.
- The victims had died 6 to 8 hours after their last meal.
- Traces from the camp showed that all group members left the camp of their own accord, on foot.
- To dispel the theory of an attack by the indigenous Mansi people, Dr. Boris Vozrozhdenny stated that the fatal injuries of the three bodies could not have been caused by another human being, "because the force of the blows had been too strong and no soft tissue had been damaged".
- Forensic radiation tests had shown high doses of radioactive contamination on the clothes of a few victims.
Controversy surrounding investigation
Some researchers claim some facts were missed, perhaps ignored, by officials:
- After the funerals, relatives of the deceased claimed that the skin of the victims had a strange brown tan.
- In a private interview, a former investigating officer said that his dosimeter had shown a high radiation level on Kholat Syakhl, and that this was the reason for the radiation found on the bodies. However, the source of the contamination was not found.
- Another group of hikers (about 50 kilometers south of the incident) reported that they saw strange orange spheres in the night sky to the north (likely in the direction of Kholat Syakhl) on the night of the incident. Similar "spheres" were observed in Ivdel and adjacent areas continually during the period of February to March 1959, by various independent witnesses (including the meteorology service and the military).
- Some reports suggest that there was a lot of scrap metal in the area, leading to speculation that the military had utilized the area secretly and might be engaged in a cover-up
After half a century, there is still no answer. What exactly was the nature of the deadly "unknown force"? Were the Soviet military or government at the time hiding something? And, if so, exactly what? In the proceeding years, numerous solutions have been put forward, involving everyting from hostile tribes and abominable snowmen to aliens, UFOs and secret military technology.
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