The Dyatlov Pass Incident: A Tragic Mystery With Lots of Loose Ends
The Dyatlov Pass incident is one of the most enduring mysteries of the twentieth century. In 1959, nine young explorers perished in Siberia’ s northern Ural Mountains. Ink has been spilt, books published, films shot, conspiracy theories hatched, and recent headlines claim to have finally solved the enigma. But have they? The questions arise from the vexing circumstances of the scene: the bodies were a far distance from their camp, they were mostly undressed, and some had bizarre, traumatic injuries. Clues might be found in the recent anthropological discoveries made in this most desolate and frigid wasteland.
The Dyatlov Pass Incident: Death from Cold and Exposure
The explorers’ camp was at the foot of their intended destination: Mount Kholat Syakhl, translated as “dead mountain,” or “mountain of the dead.” This place is a true wilderness, beyond the reach of modern, industrial civilization. The one exception to this is the rugged yet humble Mansi tribe, who endure unimaginable temperatures and sub-arctic conditions, sustaining themselves by reindeer herding and hunting.
A view of the tent as the rescuers found it on Feb. 26, 1959. The tent had been cut open from inside, and most of the skiers had fled in socks or barefoot. Photo taken by Soviet authorities at the camp of the Dyatlov Pass incident and annexed to the legal inquest that investigated the deaths. (Soviet investigators / Public domain)
Above the tree line, at the base of this ominous mountain, the Dyatlov camp was discovered in disarray. The tent was lightly powdered with fresh snow, contained all of their possessions, and strangest of all, had been torn open from the inside. Nine sets of bare footprints led the investigators to three different locations where remains were found.
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About 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) from the camp, at the edge of the tree line, the first two bodies were uncovered. They were wearing only underwear, had no shoes on, and had apparently attempted to build a fire. There was also evidence that one of them had climbed a tree, most likely, in an attempt to get a better vantage point from which they could relocate the campsite. These two victims had no internal or external trauma and died of hypothermia.
The Dyatlov Pass Incident: Death from Strange Injuries
Another set of prints led the team to three more bodies, and the position of the remains indicated these three had made a heroic attempt to return to the tent but had succumbed to the bitter cold before reaching it. They too had no external or internal trauma and died of exposure.
Over two months passed before announcement came regarding the discovery of the remaining four adventurers. But they were found, buried deep in the snow, about 75 meters (82 yards) from the tree line in a ravine. Three of these four were slightly more clothed and all had extreme, and yet very odd, trauma.
One had severely a fractured skull for example, another two had fractures in their chest cavities and rib cages. It should be noted that according to the forensic investigator, this was caused by a force beyond the physical capabilities of a human being, on par with that of a car accident impact. Strangest of all, each of these four victims had peri or postmortem injuries to the soft tissue of their face and or heads. One was missing both eyeballs, another their lips and tongue, one had a section of skull fragment removed.
One of the theories regarding the incident was that a secret Russian military operation was being carried out in the area when the event took place. (Wirestock / Adobe Stock)
A Conundrum of Conclusions & Conspiracy Theories
The official conclusion of the authorities at the time was that “the members of the group had died due to a compelling natural force.” This conclusion is obviously and deliberately vague, as any conceivable human death could be attributed to “a compelling natural force.” Needless to say, this explanation left much to be desired, and many researchers have sought to solve the mystery.
The most commonly accepted version of events attributes the deaths to either an avalanche, or paradoxical undressing (an irrational distress behavior in which hypothermic individuals experiencing frost bite paradoxically undress in an attempt to relieve burning sensations), or a combination of both.
There are three frequently suggested, alternative theories: One, that the travelers witnessed secret Russian military testing of some kind, were exposed to something toxic, and were either deliberately killed to silence them, or the tests themselves caused their deaths. Two, that they had an encounter with otherworldly life forms, and this disturbed them so much, that they fled, resulting in their death by exposure. Three, that they were attacked by the “snow-man,” a controversial, hairy, human-like creature, equivalent to the Asian Yeti and or the Native American Sasquatch.
The other primary explanation of the event was a slab avalanche, like this one just north of Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado, USA. (Runningonbrains / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Contradictions and Cover-Ups
Given the hostile conditions of the region, amplified by their location where deadly weather shifts occur frequently, it is easy to accept that perhaps, they were startled that night by an imminent rush of loose snow. Then they cut holes in the tent so that they could dash immediately to escape it, then when their fears were realized, and they did evacuate, they did so in such a panic, that they were undressed and then perished. This theory goes on to suggest the trauma was the result of being buried under the wave of snow, and the rest was the trace of scavenger wildlife predation.
Russian authorities did in fact, reopen the entire investigation in February of 2019, and the only possible conclusions they were willing to entertain were an avalanche, slab avalanche, or hurricane. The previously referenced, recent headlines are the result of this reinvestigation which insists a slab avalanche (a micro avalanche in which a slab or snow breaks off from a deeper layer, sliding down the hill in a large frozen chunk) is the explanation.
The majority of the public, including families of the victims, reject this hypothesis based on the numerous, glaring contradictions. The tent was only slightly buried, undoubtedly from the snowfall from the time elapsed from abandonment to discovery; furthermore, footprints would never have survived intact to be followed if the very path they fled had been covered by an avalanche.
There has also been evidence that the Russian authorities knew of the incident in advance and tried to cover it up. (Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock)
Conclusions & Contradictions Continued
Some very determined researchers have devoted themselves to the study of the original report documents, and what they found was disturbing. To begin with, the original report, in May of 1959, was immediately locked away in the bowels of a restricted government archive. It was only decades later, a descendant of one of the original investigators (the daughter of Lev Ivanov) came forward, that these reports were donated to the Dyatlov Foundation.
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These documents included journals of the explorers, photographic negatives and all the evidence accumulated. The starkest element was documentation that revealed the authorities discovered the scene weeks before officially announcing it. Why, with such a national tragedy, and families grieving, would the government sit on the discovery of the site? Why, if nothing other than explorers perishing in the wilderness occurred, would they whisk away film negatives, reports, and journals to a secret archive? Why, would they be so adamant about a theory that is so clearly contradictory to their own reports?
Three Mansi people members in a drawing from 1873. The idea that the “killer” was a member of the Mansi tribe was also offered as an explanation for the Dyatlov Pass incident. (Н. Сорокин / Public domain)
The Mansi Were Originally Suspected
Like many indigenous people worldwide, the Mansi have been thoroughly disenfranchised by the Russian industrial civilization machine and this has led to tension between the Mansi and Russian authorities. And when the Dyatlov expedition was first discovered dead, with these odd traces of trauma, the Mansi were immediately suspected and interrogated.
It was found that the expedition team had encountered the Mansi at one of their final checkpoints, and not only that, but an argument had erupted. But after intensive scrutiny (which would have been intense in 1959 Russia) the Mansi were cleared of any wrongdoing. But what was this argument about if not irritation due to the expedition impeding on their territory? According to more recent investigations into the matter, and from the lips of the Mansi themselves, they insisted the young adventurers not travel to this place because it is, to this very day, the home of the Menk.
The Mansi people have long believed in a “supernatural” being called the Menk, a kind of Yeti snow man with immense powers. This image of a Yeti was imagined by the artist Philippe Semeria. (Philippe Semeria / CC BY 3.0)
The Menk & Mansi Lore
The Mansi are such an introverted culture, living on the very edge of civilization, even ethnologists know little about their traditions. But there are fragments of Siberian oral tradition recorded in the Khanty (a related, slightly more well-known culture) Epics. These accounts recall that early, Russian Orthodox Christian Princes rid the land of the Menk, who are an ancient race of human-like, supernatural, forest dwellers, hostile towards regular humans. They are said to have beyond human capabilities and live in a realm parallel to the forest environment.
Mansi hunters tell of hearing inhuman whistles while out herding their reindeer. They interpret these whistles as warnings by the Menk when the herders come too close to Menk territory. Mansi shamans tell of Menk capable of out running horses and ripping open bears with only their hands. It is also said that the Menk drinks the blood and eats only soft flesh of their prey, lungs, eyes, tongues, heart, etc.
Folklore is easy for Western minds to dismiss as just that, lore; however, recent anthropological expeditions to this region have made some very interesting finds that may connect to the Mansi folklore regarding the Menk.
Early man archaeological finds found at the Byzovaya Site, which was located not far from where the 9 men mysteriously died. (Terrae Antiqvae)
Recent Anthropological Revelations
A stone’s throw from the infamous Dyatlov scene, is the controversial, early man archaeological find known as the Byzovaya Site. This site has been studied (curiously, and perhaps not coincidentally) since the early sixties, and since its original discovery, several different European and Russian teams have been debating the ramifications of it. Over the years, three-hundred-and-thirteen, extremely ancient, stone artifacts have been recovered, along with over four-thousand animal bones belonging to an extinct, Ice-Age species.
The debate is fueled by the fact that these artifacts, due to their construction and time period, are almost certainly Neanderthal. But this is highly problematic because it flies in the face of academic dogma: that Neanderthals never lived that far north, and that they had gone extinct some seven-thousand years prior.
But the majority of the scientists involved in the study stand firm that these are absolutely Neanderthal tools. Their opponents fire back that no Neanderthal remains have been found; therefore, they cannot definitively prove that these are Neanderthal artifacts.
Slimak’s team has a very well-fortified argument that Neanderthals likely made the Byzovaya tools. (Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock)
Neanderthal Or Not?
In 2011, professor emeritus in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bergen and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, Dr. Jan Mangerud, defended their case stating “We consider it overwhelmingly probable that the Mousterian technology (named after the site of Le Moustier in southern France, where they were first identified) we describe was performed by Neanderthals, and thus that they indeed survived longer, that is until 33,000 years ago, than most other scientists believe.”
According to project leader Ludvic Slimak, modern human tool-crafting methods associated with the Upper Paleolithic (between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago), on the other hand, "were generally focused on the production of what we call blade or bladelet technologies." The Byzovaya humans apparently did not make such "blades," which were often crafted from organic materials such as bone and ivory. So Slimak’s team has a very well-fortified argument that Neanderthals likely made the Byzovaya tools.
Neanderthals did indeed manipulate fire, their tool-construction methods were very sophisticated, they had music, art, culture, and of course, they could verbally communicate. (Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock)
Neanderthal No Nos
These kinds of conceptual upheavals are not uncommon when it comes to the subject of hominin species, especially the Neanderthals. Initially, Neanderthals were believed by leading authorities to be only a notch above apes. They were said to be knuckle walkers, who couldn’t manipulate fire or communicate, far inferior to glorious and mighty Homo sapiens. Nothing could be further from the truth and science has proven it with blinding certainty.
Neanderthals did indeed manipulate fire and their tool-construction methods were very sophisticated. They had music, art, culture, and of course, they could verbally communicate. Not only were early researchers wrong about all this, but as it turns out, Neanderthals lived much closer to Homo sapiens in both time and space and interbred with us. Moreover, the chronology for Neanderthal existence is being continually pushed closer to the present.
Portrait of an extinct hominin. The problem with extinction is that sometimes it's not true. Meaning some may have survived! Could this be the explanation behind the Dyatlov Pass incident? (York / Adobe Stock)
The Tricky Business Of Extinction and Exceptions
The gold standard of scientific reasoning is that a hypothesis must be testable by experimentation and observation. This makes hard science regarding the extinction of a species virtually impossible. Reasonable presumption of a species’ extinction is understandable, but these presumptions have a way of becoming perceived facts. Several other species have been presumed extinct, only to appear alive and well.
In some cases, the presumed extinction was thought to have occurred hundreds of millions of years ago. Goblin Sharks, Tree Lobsters, Arakan Forest Turtles, Coelacanths, Night Parrots, Chacoan Peccary, New Guinea Big-Eared Bats, New Guinea Singing Dogs. All these species were adamantly believed to be extinct by scientific authorities.
Other species, like the Giant Squid, were for ages, believed to not exist at all, except in the minds of voyagers and storytellers. Overall, our species has a habit of overestimating our awareness of the environment and is quick to jump to biased conclusions regarding the potential extinction of a species.
The Russian University of Kemerovo has recently opened their own Yeti Institute, directed by Dr. Igor Burtsev, who is pictured here. (Siberian Times)
The Yeti Theories of Russian Scientist Dr. Igor Burtsev
Believe it or not, the Russian University of Kemerovo has recently opened their own Yeti Institute, directed by Dr. Igor Burtsev. Burtsev has stated publicly that in his expert opinion, (which is perfectly credible, academic black sheep though he may be) the so-called Yeti (and by extension, the Menk) is very real, and is a relic population of Neanderthal hominins.
It is easy to cast stones at Dr. Burtsev who may very well be another in a long line of scientists who are tarred and feathered for proposing theories that upset the academic applecart and the peddlers whose reputations are so heavily invested in it.
The tomb of the nine (in Mikhajlov Cemetery in Yekaterinburg, Russia) who died under mysterious circumstances in the Dyatlov Pass incident . (Дмитрий Никишин / Public domain)
Objectively, the weird compression injuries could be explained away by the heavy weight of compacted snow piled onto the four victims found in the ravine. However, anthropologists are also well aware that Neanderthal skeletons are quite robust, indicating a very muscular and powerful frame. Their incredible physical strength is also evident from the species of bones that were discovered in the nearby site. In other words, hunting woolly rhinos with spears and atlatls required great physical strength, much greater than that of Homo sapiens.
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Also, it is virtually impossible that scavengers would have picked away at these specific targets of soft flesh, leaving no gnaw marks. It is also impossible that the supposed micro avalanche would not completely cover the tent and or tracks. What was it Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so famously wrote? “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Top image: This stone cairn and flag marker sits on the very location of the Dyatlov Pass incident tent spot where in 1959 nine experienced hikers died under mysterious circumstances. Source: irinabal18 / Adobe Stock
By Mark A. Carpenter
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Hatto, Arthur. (2 February 2017). “The World of the Khanty Epic Hero-Princes: An Exploration of a Siberian Oral Tradition.” Cambridge University Press. pp. 243.
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