Homebound with a 61-year-old Russian mystery linked to nine deaths near Dead Mountain

Searchers find the tent of the dead hikers at Dead Mountain
Searchers found the hikers’ collapsed tent near Dead Mountain. (Photo by Soviet authorities in 1959)

I learn so much in this world by accident—chance meetings with people, natural phenomena, and sometimes, media. Homebound to avoid the Coronavirus risk, I was cleaning our bedroom. My husband left the TV on, but I’d muted it. I caught a glimpse of old photos of young people, lots of snow, and something that looked like a Yeti or Sasquatch. Curious, I unmuted the TV.

I learned about a 61 year old Russian mystery, one of the most famous  in that country, linked to the deaths of nine students and a place called Dead Mountain.

The program was on the Travel Channel. I had a lot to do that day, so I couldn’t watch it all. I made a few notes and decided to research it more. I didn’t buy the Yeti theory. I don’t think anything that big could remain a secret in this wired, drone-laden world. I didn’t get the name of the program.

The whole puzzle began with a hike, ten bright young adult students, and a formidable landscape. The best account I found was published on the BBC website in December, 2019. It was written by Lucy Ash who set up the story this way:

“At the height of the Cold War, in the dead of winter, the group of 10 students led by Igor Dyatlov set out on a trip into the Ural Mountains – the range which divides Europe and Asia.

The skiers were all experienced, young sportsmen and women from the Urals Polytechnic Institute in Yekaterinburg, or Sverdlovsk as the city was called in Soviet times, but only one of them would survive.”

One of the hikers had turned back. Early on Yura Yudin, a student of economics, had to drop out of the expedition because he had underlying health conditions causing him too much pain amid the brutal cold.

Most of the students were studying economics or engineering.

Humans do inhabit the surrounding area despite the cold—the Mansi. Some accounts say the Mansi were suspected of harming the students, but evidence gathered at the death scenes pretty much nixed that theory. A forest warden for the Mansi, Valery Anyamov, told Ms. Ash his community’s reindeer herders “were banned from the area and hunting was not allowed for four years after the incident.”

Memorial to hikers who died near Dead Mountain at the Dyatlov Pass.
Memorial in Yekaterinburg (Russia) to hikers who died near Dead Mountain at the Dyatlov Pass. (Photo by Artur Andrzej)

This information is intriguing because elevated radiation levels were detected on some of the hikers’ clothing. Anyamov also said Dead Mountain in Russian doesn’t mean “Don’t go there.” It means “Mountain with Swirling Winds.”

That also figures into a theory about weather phenomena there and wind patterns that can create harmful pressure.

Numerous photos developed from the hikers’ camera are included with Ash’s article.

So much of this mystery is fascinating. Ash wrote:

“Lyudmila Dubinina, the ardent young communist and Semyon Zolotaryov, the oldest member of the group, had suffered multiple broken ribs. He had an open wound on the right side of his skull, which exposed the bone. There was another gruesome detail – both had empty eye sockets, and Lyudmila’s tongue was missing.”

Making things even stranger, the hikers’ tent had been slashed in places from the inside, as though they were trying to escape and couldn’t go out the front flap.

Ash provides an in-depth account of the hikers’ trek and the Dead Mountain tragedy complete with interviews and firsthand information from people involved in the situation that is now known as the Dyatlov Pass incident (or mystery). Books have been written, films and documentaries have been made, and theories have been put forth on numerous websites. Many of these products have been created by indie artists in different genres.

The Yeti seems to be a favorite theory because of one of the photos from the camera found by the search and rescue party. Much information was found, including diaries, foodstuffs, the camera, and oddly, clothing and shoes. The fact the hikers were barefoot when they fled, based on tracks in the snow, compounded the mystery but suggested they fled quickly and in fear.

What caused the fear? That’s at the heart of the mystery.

Russia reportedly re-opened the case in 2019, declaring only natural phenomena would be considered. The Yeti isn’t among those natural phenomena.

The Daily Mail has a fairly good account, citing author Keith McCloskey who did a book about the tragedy. Renny Harlin made a film based on McCloskey’s book. “‘There is no theory that makes sense,’ says Harlin, ‘only guesses.’”

My money is on some sort of military matter gone awry. Some of the hikers’ injuries were fatal, but there was an absence of injuries suggesting wild animals or even blunt force trauma from a human weapon would have caused them.

The mystery of Dead Mountain remains one of Russia’s most enduring. One of the least impressive pieces of reportage was done by The Atlantic where conspiracy theories are derided. Having lived in this technically free country for quite some time, I’d point to long established conspiracy theories that turned out to be true more or less—The Gulf of Tonkin is but one. Lies about Tonkin led to the loss of almost 60,000 American troops’ lives.

Where there’s a mystery, there’s usually a theory. Conspiracy or no, the hikers’ deaths can most logically be explained by suggesting those hikers saw something or experienced something that put them in the wrong place at the wrong time.

(Kay B. Day/March 24, 2020)

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