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 -30°C. 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. The mountain pass where the accident occurred has been named Dyatlov Pass after the group’s leader, Igor Dyatlov.
The mysterious circumstances of the hikers deaths have inspired much speculation. Investigations of the deaths suggest that the hikers tore open their tent from within, departing barefoot in heavy snow; while the corpses show no signs of struggle, one victim had a fractured skull, two had broken ribs, and one was missing her tongue. The victims clothing contained high levels of radiation. Soviet investigators determined only that a compelling unknown force had caused the deaths, barring entry to the area for years thereafter. The causes of the accident remain unclear.
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.
On February 26, the searchers found the abandoned camp on Kholat Syakhl. The tent was badly damaged. A chain of footsteps could be followed, leading down towards the edge of nearby woods, on the opposite side of the pass, 1 mile north -east, but after 1650' they were covered with snow. At the forest edge, under a large old pine, the searchers found the remains of a fire, along with the first two dead bodies, those of Krivonischenko & Doroshenko, shoeless, & dressed only in underwear. Between the pine and the camp the searchers found 3 more corpses, Dyatlov, Kolmogorova & Slobodin, who seemed to have died in poses suggesting that they were attempting to return to the camp. They were found separately at distances of 985', 1575' & 2067' from the pine tree. Searching for the remaining 4 travelers took more than two months. They were finally found on May 4, under 13' of snow, in a valley further into the wood from the pine tree.
An examination of the four bodies which were found in May changed the picture. Three of them had fatal injuries, the body of Thibeaux Brignollel had major skull damage, and both Dubunina & Zolotarev had major chest fractures. The force required to cause such damage would have been extremely high, with one expert comparing it to the force of a car crash. Notably, the bodies had no external wounds, as if they were caused by a high level of pressure. A woman was found to be missing her tongue. There had initially been some speculation that the native Mansi people may have attacked & murdered the group, for encroaching upon their lands, but investigation indicated that the nature of their deaths did not support this theory, only the hikers footprints were visible, and showed no sign of any struggle.
There was evidence that the team was forced to leave during the night, as they were sleeping. The dead were dressed only partially, and certainly inadequate for the conditions. Some of them had only one shoe, while others had no shoes or just socks. Some were found wrapped in bits of torn clothes which seemed to be cut from those who were already dead.
Journalists reporting on the available parts of the inquest files claim that:
Six of the group died of hypothermia, 3 of fatal injuries.
There were no indications of other people nearby, apart from the nine in the group on Kholat Syakhl, nor anyone in the surrounding areas.
The tent had been ripped open from within.
Some of the victims showed signs of premature aging
All had died 6 to 8 hours after their last meal.
Evidence from the camp showed that all group members, including those who were found injured, left the camp of their own accord, on foot.
After the funerals, relatives of the deceased claimed that the skin of the victims had a strange orange tan.
One doctor investigating the case suggested that the fatal injuries of 3 three bodies could not have been caused by another human being, owing to the extreme force to which they had been subjected. Forensic radiation tests had shown high levels of radioactive contamination on the clothes of some victims.
The final verdict was that they all died because of an unknown compelling force. The inquest closed officially in May 1959, due to the absence of a guilty party. The files were sent to a secret archive, and the photocopies of the case became available only in the 1990s, with some parts missing, or blacked-out.
Some researchers point out the following facts which were missed, perhaps ignored, by officials:
A former investigating officer said, in a private interview, 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, some 30 miles south of the accident, reported that they saw strange orange spheres in the night sky to the north, likely the direction of in Kholat Syakh l on the same date as the accident happened. Similar spheres were observed in Ivdel and adjacent areas continually during the period of February to March 1959, by various independent witnesses.
Some reconstructions of the victims behavior suggest that they were blinded. The rescue team had seen that the victims broke thick, green pine branches for the fire, even though there was good dry brushwood around.
Some reports suggested that scrap metal was located in the area, leading to speculation that the military had utilized the area secretly and might be engaged in a cover up.