By Matthew Wendler
Mikhail Sharavin and Boris Slobtsov trudged the surface of the Northern Ural Mountains in the Soviet Union Feb. 26, 1959. The two young men were students at the Ural Polytechnical Institute, assisting in a search for nine hikers that didn’t return from an expedition. They were on the eastern slope of an area called Height 1079, known as Kholat Syakhl by the local Mansi tribe. In English, this translates to Dead Mountain.
During the search, the students stumbled upon a tent, partially standing and covered in light snowfall. Inside were the missing hikers’ belongings. Large holes had been cut into the tent’s side. The hikers were nowhere to be found.
The missing hikers consisted of seven men and two women. They were led by a radio engineering student named Igor Dyatlov. He assembled the group to lead on an expedition through the Northern Urals. Completing this expedition would allow for the participants to receive their Grade III hiker certification. Their goal was to reach Otorten Mountain.
The group departed from Sverdlovsk by train Jan. 23, 1959. They reached the town of Serov Jan. 24 and took another train to Ivdel, where they arrived Jan. 25. From there, the group went further north by truck to the village of Vizhay. On Jan. 26, they spent the night in an area named Sector 41. The next morning, they began their hike and reached an abandoned geological site known as the 2nd Northern.
On the morning of Jan. 28, one of the group members, Yuri Yudin, made the decision to turn back. He had chronic rheumatism and conditions were agitating his illnesses. It would be the last time he saw his friends.
The group continued on for four more days, documenting their hike with photographs and journal entries. It is believed a blizzard caused the group to deviate from their planned course Feb. 1. As a result, the decision was made to set up camp for the night and wait for the conditions to subside.
They planned to return from their trip Feb. 12, 1959; however, Dyatlov mentioned to Yudin that they may take a few additional days. Families and friends of the group members became worried after not receiving any telegrams, resulting in a search team to be formed Feb. 20. Their tent was found six days later.
Sharavin and Slobtsov brought the remainder of the search party to the site of the tent. Forensic tests later revealed that the tent was cut open with a knife from the inside. The footprints of all nine hikers were found leading down the slope. They weren’t sporadic, but instead showed the missing hikers had walked at a normal pace in single file order. The prints indicated most of them were either barefoot or only wearing sock.
The search team rested for the night and followed the prints downhill the next morning. It led them to a tree line about 1.5 kilometers from the tent, where the remains of a make-shift campfire were found next to a cedar tree. Branches from this tree were broken up to five meters up the trunk, indicating someone had attempted to climb it.
The bodies of Yuri Doroshenko and Yuri Krivonischenko were found at the base of the tree. Both men wore little clothing and it appeared something rolled them over after their deaths.
Doroshenko, age 21, was covered in many scrapes and bruises. His upper lip had internal bleeding and his head was covered in burn marks. Blood covered parts of his face and a strange gray fluid was seeping out of his mouth.
Krivonischenko, age 23, was found with minor burns and bruising around his body, as well as bleeding in his right temple. The tip of his nose was missing and a chunk of his own knuckle was found inside his mouth. The cause of death for both men was later determined to be hypothermia.
On the same day, two more bodies were discovered lying within the range between the tent and the treeline.
One of these bodies was Dyatlov. The 23 year old was found only a short distance from the tree. His body was lying face up in the snow with clenched fists. His face and limbs were covered with cuts and bruises, and a part of his jaw was missing. Once again, the official cause of death was hypothermia.
Zinaida Kolomogorova, age 22, was found further up the slope from Dyatlov. The young woman’s body, like the others, was covered in many cuts and bruises. A long bright red graze wound was found on the right side of her torso, as if she was hit by a batton. The cause of death was again determined to be hypothermia.
The body of Rustem Slobodin was discovered Mar. 5, 1959. Slobodin, age 23, was found lying in the distance between Dyatlov and Kolomogorova. He had cuts and bruises like the rest, as well as a large skull fracture. He was also determined to have died of hypothermia.
Two months later, a Mansi tribesman found a man-made shelter after following a trail of cut branches. Pieces of the missing hikers’ clothing were found on the trail leading to this structure. The remaining four bodies were discovered in a nearby ravine May 5, 1959.
Lyudmila Dubinina, age 20, was found on her knees against a small ledge. She was missing her eyes, lips, tongue, and chunks of her face. Her body was destroyed, having suffered 10 broken ribs and severe heart damage. Officials determined her death to be caused by internal bleeding.
Semyon Zolotaryov, age 37, was found with five broken ribs. His eyes were missing and there was also a deep gash on the back of his head. The gash was so deep that it exposed his skull. The official cause of death was internal bleeding.
Alexander Kolevatov, age 24, was found lying on top of Zolotaryov. He was missing his eyebrows and the soft tissue around them. He had a broken nose, a deformed neck, and an open wound behind his right ear. His death was determined to be due to hypothermia.
Nikolay Thibeaux-Brignolle, age 23, was found next to Zolotaryov and Kolevatov with his skull fractured. He was also covered in gashes and abrasions. It was believed that his head injury was the cause of death.
Trace amounts of radiation were detected on some of the victim’s clothing. It is unknown as to where the radiation came from, or why officials were testing for it.
Another hiking group close to the area reported seeing mysterious orange lights in the sky on the night of Feb. 1, 1959. The lead investigator of the case claimed years later that he was ordered to classify these sightings and keep them out of the official report.
Many theories were developed to try and explain the group’s demise. One prominent theory believed by many is that an avalanche caused the group to flee their tent in panic, but certain aspects of this idea doesn’t make sense. The tent wasn’t covered in much snow when it was found and the footprints of the hiker’s were not covered over. In addition, the slope they were on, sitting at an angle less than 30 degrees, wasn’t steep enough for one to occur. It also doesn’t explain much about their injuries.
Another theory is that the Soviet military deployed mine explosives in the area by parachute for tests, something they’ve been known to do previously there. The effects of the mine could have spooked them and made them flee. This could also explain the radiation and mysterious lights. There were; however, no traces of any impact zones. This also doesn’t explain the injuries the hikers sustained. Ideas also surfaced that the hikers were killed by KGB agents or Russian Special Forces. This was a strong belief held by Yudin, the hiker who left the expedition early.
Some people hold the belief that infrasound was generated by the wind in the area. Infrasound is ultra low frequency sound waves that could result in nausea, panic attacks, and hallucinations. When it comes to the psychological effects from natural phenomena, people react in different ways. It wouldn’t make sense for all nine hikers to succumb to the same effects and leave the tent.
One final theory is that katabatic winds formed and forced the group away from their tent. While it seems to be a likely scenario, the footprints indicated they walked calmly down the slope. It also doesn’t explain why nine experienced hikers would trudge down the snowy slopes of the mountain without even grabbing their shoes.
The case was closed by the Sverdlovsk Region prosecutor’s office May 28, 1959 due to the absence of a guilty party. The official investigation concluded that the hikers had died as the result of an overwhelming force they were unable to overcome. The documents of the case weren’t released to the public until the 1990s.