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paranoid theory of the week :: did the soviet army accidentally kill nine hikers in 1959?

stretching from the arctic islands of vaygach and novaya zembla down to the edge of kazakhstan, the ural mountains are the dividing line between europe and asia. it is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, although its craggy peaks rise unexpectedly high above sea level for their age. despite the remoteness of the region, its wealth of mining resources gave rise to the industrial centre of yekaterineburg. in 1979, a military accident resulted in the release of anthrax spores that killed at least one hundred people, but many believe that this was the second accident in the region. the rumour was that twenty years earlier, nine people died during a secret weapons test that remains a protected secret to this day.

in late january 1959, a group of ten mountain climbers and skiers, most of them students in their early twenties, planned to make the ten-kilometre trek from vizhai to otorten mountain. at the time, it was considered to be a hiking challenge of the highest level of difficulty, but even by those standards, the fate of the team was shocking. a single lucky member became ill and had to abandon the expedition, while nine others died in the snows of kholat syakhl, known locally as "the mountain of the dead". [this is a misinterpretation of the mansi name, however, since the word for "dead" can also mean "barren" and refers in this case to the mountain being devoid of game and wildlife. so that's one myth cut down already.]

the mystery of what happened to the nine victims remains unsolved, but one theory is that they died as a result of injuries sustained from a new form of weapon being tested by the soviet army. [other theories include that they were attacked by a yeti, or even by hostile extra-terrestrials.] it is the most compelling type of mystery: the vast majority of the facts are well-established and undisputed; the movements of the group are meticulously documented, save for the crucial period just before they died; there are elements of the case that are difficult to explain given what is known; and finally, there is no official explanation, even after more than fifty years.

so this week, we take a look at a possible reason for the deaths of nine people in an area now named after the leader of that expedition: the dyatlov pass.

happier times
the theory ::
the members of the dyatlov expedition died as a result of exposure to weapons being tested in the vicinity.

the origin ::
it's not entirely clear who first voiced the theory, but because of the way in which the inquest into the deaths was conducted and the inability of any of the officials to explain certain evidence found on the scene, many people suspected a government cover-up almost immediately.

the believers ::
lots of people believe lots of different things about what happened at dyatlov pass. film director renny harlin, whose film devil's pass deals with the incident and its legacy, is one high profile believer that the government was at least connected to the deaths. yuri kuntsevich, whose fascination with the case dates from seeing the bodies at their funerals, started a foundation to lobby the government to reopen the investigation into the deaths and to reveal what they know [although he has not backed any specific theory as to what brought about their deaths].

the bad guys ::
the soviet government and military.

the evidence :: 
how is it possible that we know so much about this case and be left feeling like we know nothing? the mountaineers recorded the progress of their expedition in meticulous detail through diaries and photographs but that doesn't help us make any more sense of what happened to them. the facts of the situation seem to conspire against any rational explanation, but that's part of what makes this such a great mystery.

skipping straight to the night of february 1/2, when our unfortunate heroes met their horrible end, it seems that bad weather had slowed the team's progress and taken them about a mile and a half off course. straight away, the behaviour of the team seems a little odd. away from their path and with night descending, they had no choice but to stop and set up their camp. however, they did so on the exposed mountain face, rather than the treed area a short distance away, which would have offered some protection against the elements. the group's lone surviving member the one who fell ill and was forced to stay behind] has posited that, on the mountain face, the group had gained more altitude and that dyatlov, as group leader, was unwilling to sacrifice that, given that they were already somewhat behind schedule and that getting themselves back to their planned route was going to take even more time.

the team had their supper together and retired to their tent but a couple of hours later, in the black of night, something roused the team from their sleep. and that's where it gets weird.

it's clear that the team fled the tent in a state of panic: rather than exiting through the door flap, they slashed it open from the inside and ran off into the night without even bothering to put on their coats and boots. the footprints that were found leading away from the camp indicated that at least one member of the team ran off barefoot, while others were found in their underwear. these were experienced climbers and they had to know that rushing out into the frigid -15c air [with mountain winds making it feel even colder] was a death sentence, especially without proper clothing.


stranger still is the manner in which the bodies were found. the first two to be located [approximately four weeks after the incident], had been frozen to death, huddling close to a fire they had built, near a large tree. broken branches indicated that one of the team members had climbed the tree, presumably to try to see something. between the fire site and the camp, three more bodies [including that of dyalov] were found, with their positions indicating that they had been headed back in the direction of the camp when they died, one by one, from exposure. one of the three sustained a significant, but non-fatal skull fracture but there was no exterior wound and no physical injuries to explain what caused it.

the team setting up camp
it took more than two months to find the remaining four bodies and the condition of those deepened the mystery still further. unlike their friends, only one of these four had died from hypothermia. the others all died from massive internal injuries, two from chest fractures and one from a skull fracture. they were found at the bottom of a ravine, barely 75m from the cedar tree where two of their team-mates and frozen to death and were better dressed than the others. [oddly, one of the men was wearing the coat of the woman found alongside him.]

the coroner who attended the bodies was clear that their injuries could not possibly have been made by another human being, that the force required to cause them would have been comparable to being hit by a car. perhaps the injuries came because the hikers, freezing and disoriented, fell into the ravine. however, that doesn't explain how they all fell into the ravine [unless they were skipping through the forest hand-in-hand, wizard of oz style], why one of the bodies in the ravine died of exposure with no injuries and why none of the bodies showed any signs of external injuries related to a fall. but that's not to say there weren't external injuries.

perhaps the most horrifying aspect of this story was the condition of lyudmilla dubinina's body, one of those found in the ravine. aside from her fatal chest fractures, her eyes, tongue and a chunk of her lips were missing. the grotesque nature of her injuries fueled reports of an attack by the local mansi people, but this was quickly dismissed by investigators, pointing out that there was no evidence of any other people in the area. pruning on her hands has caused some to theorize that she simply collapsed into a stream that ran beneath the snow and that her injuries were a natural result of tissue damage. alternately, it's possible that a scavenger inflicted the damage post mortem.

the camp as it was found nearly four weeks later
so how does all this point to the involvement of the russian military? well, there's the testimony of yuri kuntsevich, who swears that when he saw the bodies, they showed a dark brown tan. the testimony of a twelve-year-old needs to be taken with a grain of salt, however, a few of the bodies were found to have radioactive residue. radioactive materials are found in nature and residue can be the result of natural transfer. but to be mentioned in the official report, the levels would presumably fall above what would be considered "normal". possibly more significant are the internal injuries suffered by four of the team members. if they were the result of external trauma, one would expect to find the signs of that trauma on the body, but there were none. this doesn't always happen, but the odds that there could be four different bodies with massive fractures and that none of them showed external signs of the cause of injury is slim indeed.

and that is where the military theory comes in. it's been alleged that the military was doing tests of so-called blockbuster bombs, which explode a metre or two above the ground and are known to cause massive internal injuries from the pressure of the blast wave, with few external signs. however, this explanation requires us to believe that these bombs injured the humans present, without causing any damage to the landscape. not only were none of the trees flattened, but the surface was so pristine that searchers found footprints weeks after the incident. and that still wouldn't explain the radiation.

there were some reports [although only after the fact] that people in the area [although not the immediate area] saw orbs of light in the sky. it's even alleged that the final photo the group took shows this phenomenon [although it could also just be an over-exposed photo]. could the military have been using this remote location to test some new kind of weapon? something that never got past the development stage, but that could have been responsible for the deaths of the nine hikers?

another military-related theory is that there might have been mig jets doing flying exercises overhead. the low-pitched roar of the mig engines could have made the team believe that there was an avalanche- clearly an emergency. but would it explain why they didn't even pause long enough to grab their clothes when they ran away from the camp? and why did four of the team strike out into the woods, knowing that there were no settlements for many miles where they might find help? [they had left the northernmost settlement in the region almost five days before.]

the soviet government inquiry officially returned a verdict that an "unknown compelling force" caused the team to run, panicked from the camp in the middle of the night and scared them so badly that more than half of them dared not return to the comparative safety of the campsite. this is a deeply dissatisfying answer and even the man who oversaw the commission of inquiry knew it. [he later told people he believed they'd had an encounter with a ufo] something caused a series of inexplicable injuries to four of the nine [three of which were fatal] without a corresponding external wound. and something left radioactive traces on some of the victims.

the secrecy with which the case was treated after the inquiry makes the motives of the government look suspicious, but the soviet government was often secretive for no greater reason than that they liked keeping secrets. and if there were seriously a military accident at fault, why publicize the fact that there were elevated levels of radiation on the bodies? or why not say that the levels were explainable through natural sources of exposure? [just to make things worse: if the government was obsessed with hiding something, there is no guarantee that the "facts" we have are even accurate. or complete.]

the most recent theory to gain currency is that the hikers were thrown into a state of madness through infrasounds caused by a wind phenomenon known as a kàrmàn vortex sheet, which is so powerful that it can tear buildings apart and which could have whipped up tornado conditions on the mountain slope. infrasounds can cause accelerated heartbeat and panic in humans, which could explain the bizarre conditions in which they fled the camp, but it doesn't explain why they then had the presence of mind to start a fire, or how their injuries occurred. [nor is there significant evidence that such a  phenomenon even occurs in the ural mountains.]

likelihood :: 5/10
there's no specific evidence linking the deaths of the nine mountaineers to any military exercises but it seems as viable an answer as anything else that's been advanced. smart money chases the science and assumes that there's a good chance that the most obvious answer is also the most likely. but in this case, there is no obvious answer and the science seems to trump every viable-sounding theory while offering none of its own. as a result, a lot of theories- or even a combination of them!- could be equally acceptable. in those cases, it makes sense to just split the odds down the middle. something awful happened. it's very possible that someone knows something. there is one correct answer. and there's an equal chance that the mystery will or won't be solved at some point.


Iron Toad said…
Thanks, Kate! Excellent review of the long standing mystery. There was also a runaway criminals theory, which would have been plausible (including the radiation - there were uranium mines, worked by prisoners, though not quite in the vicinity), if only there had been any escapes reported from any camps in the area at the time.
Kate MacDonald said…
Ooh! I hadn't heard that one! I do think that there's at least enough evidence to reopen the investigation, because there's no theory thus far that accounts for everything.

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