Hiking is a recreational activity hundreds of thousands of people engage in. It’s usually a good time with friends or family immersed in nature. What it usually is isn’t is a death sentence. Our story today focuses on the northern Ural Mountains in Russia where the latter has, unfortunately, been the case. In 1959, Ural Polutechnical Institute student Igor Dyatlov led nine fellow students in a ski hiking expedition across the northern Ural Mountains in what was, at the time, a part of the former Soviet Union. The group totaled eight men and two women, and each of these members had the highest certification available for hikers in ski touring experience. Their route was also pre-approved by a division of the Sverdlovsk Committee of Physical Culture and Sport. Let’s take a moment to recount this––a group of experienced hikers end up dead in the mountains on a pre-approved trip. That sounds absurd, right? Not so fast — it’s not the fact that they died, but the deaths themselves, that are truly baffling.
To put the difficulty of this trail in perspective, the trip took place during February, which was considered one of the most challenging times to travel through the region. On Jan. 23, 1959, the group was given a route book that mapped out their trail and they set off. On Jan. 25 the group travelled by train to a town in the province of Svedlovsk Oblast, and then took a vehicle to Vizhai, which was one of the last spaces of civilization on their route. The hikers then proceeded onward to Gora Otorten, where one of the members of the group, Yuri Yudin, fell sick. Yudin dropped out of the trek and headed back, leaving the remaining nine to trek onward. After this point thereafter, the only record of the expedition is information found in the hikers’ notebooks, journals and cameras. These detailed that on Jan. 31 the hikers made it to a highland region where they got ready to climb and gather needed materials for the hike back. It was after this day that the hikers decided to go through the Dyatlov Pass. Their goal was to cross the pass and camp on the other side but due to worsening weather conditions that day and night, the hikers instead decided to camp out on the same side of the mountain.
This is where the case gets interesting. Originally, Dyatlov, the guide, told the sports club with whom they planned the trip that he would send a telegram when the expedition reached the region of Vizhai once again, by Feb. 12 at the latest. However, Feb. 12 rolled around and there was no communication from Dylatov or the other hikers. The families of the hikers began to get increasingly worried when Feb. 20 came around and there was pressure for military and police to begin searching for them. Days later, on Feb. 26, the hikers’ tents and campsite were found on the mountain of Kholat Syakhl. The search party’s findings baffled them, and continue to baffle people to this day. The tent that was found was badly torn up and damaged with snow covering the area. However, it seemed that the tent was torn from the inside out. Around the area footprints were found — nine sets of footprints, to be exact, but these footprints were either covered by socks or simply barefoot. This showcases a sense of urgency in the hikers’ sudden movement; this, coupled with the tent being torn inside out, was rather strange. Two of the hikers’ bodies were found near the forested edge of the mountain; both were without any footwear and in their underwear. When the scene was later examined it was found that some of the trees had branches broken near the bottom, suggesting that the hikers found there were attempting to climb up the trees. Further down along the side of the forest, three more of the hikers’ bodies were found. Their bodies lay in a position of motion; later on, it was suggested that they may have been trying to return to the campsite.
The last four hikers were not found during this time. They were instead located a whole two months after the incident on May 4. They were found covered under snow in a ravine. These four hikers were found moderately clothed, unlike the others, but a few of them seemed like their clothes had been taken off by other members suggesting they may have died at different times.
The investigation that took off after finding these bodies gets strange very quickly. The first five bodies’ cause of death was determined to be hypothermia and while one of these members had a facture in their skull, it was not fatal; however, the remaining four bodies shifted the narrative dramatically. Three of the hikers died due to major bodily damage. One of them suffered major skull damage and the other two had intense chest fractures leading to their deaths. These injuries were concluded to have an intense amount of force, a kind of force that would have to have been done with high pressure––more pressure than getting hit by a car. To make matters even more disturbing, one of the hikers was missing her eyes, tongue, lips, and a lot of facial tissue while another had his eyeballs missing and the last one had his eyebrows gone. These missing features and body parts were determined to be post-mortem injuries.
Originally the local indigenous people of the region were blamed for the hiking group’s injuries and deaths, but considering the force of the injuries and the lack of secondary footprints, this accusation was quickly put to rest. The case was concluded shortly after, attributing the cause of the accident to compelling natural force, and was sent into a secret archive. It is important to note that in 1997, it came out that one of the hikers’ cameras was kept with an investigator. This case was strange from start to finish and there was major speculation on what really happened, but there is no conclusive evidence for anything. Authorities have come up with three possible explanations of natural disasters, two of which are avalanche-related and one a hurricane. Even with these explanations, there are still major gaps. Why were the hikers scattered around and why was the tent torn inside out? What compelled the hikers to leave almost fully naked and in a rush? Why were their faces deformed post-mortem in such gruesome matters? Lastly, how did nine experienced hikers ended up dead due to a natural disaster they are trained to prepare for and notice? This case is a weird one and is still very open-ended. Speculation ranges from murder conspiracies to monster conspiracies but the true story of what happened that day is still unknown.