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The unopened box: The chilling Dyatlov Pass mystery

When 9 skiers mysteriously died on a mountain in Siberia, investigators didn’t know what to think. As the conspiracies grow in absurdity, we tear them down.

COVER ILLUSTRATION BY LARRY

CONTENT WARNING: Disturbing and graphic details.

Click on the link to listen to the podcast. The transcript follows below:

TRANSCRIPT:

Just a warning that this episode may have some graphic descriptions. Viewer discretion is necessary.

Have you heard of Schrodinger’s cat? Erwin Schrodinger, a 20th century theoretical physicist presents the scenario where a cat is locked in a box. As a result of a random subatomic event that may or may not have occurred, we do not know whether or not the cat is alive. We will continue not knowing until the box is opened and we can observe the state of the cat.

Now you may be wondering how this relates to a crime podcast. Well, when a mysterious event happens, and there aren’t any people around to observe it, or no valuable evidence to clearly tell us what happened, then couldn’t everything possible have happened?

This is “The unopened box”, a show discussing all the weird explanations that people come up with to explain mysterious occurrences. Today’s episode will be discussing Dyatlov’s Pass, a case likely never to be solved. It’s conspiracy community has only been growing, along with the madness of their theories.

Now, let’s start with the facts. The day was February 2nd, 1959. 10 skiers left for a ski trip to the Otorten Mountains in Siberia. At the beginning of the trip, a skier named Yuri Yudin got sick so had to stay back, but the other 9 went on, though it might have been better if they hadn’t. Yuri Doroshenko, Lyudmila Dubina, Alexander Kolevatov, Zinaida Kolmogorova, Yuri Krivonischenko, Nikolai Thibeaux-Brignolles, Rustem Slobodin, Seyon Zolotaryov, and the head of the group, Igor Dyatlov. These were all experienced skiers, and so they knew that the conditions at this time of year weren’t the safest. Still, it shouldn’t have been this deadly.

The trip was supposed to last 10 days. They were to return by February 12th. When they didn’t come back, people weren’t too concerned. Ski trips aren’t normally expected to end on time, but by the 21st of February, the parents were getting worried about their kids, so it was decided to send out a search party.

What they found was terrifying.

Now the whole discovery took place over a few months but the first thing that was found, on February 26th, was a tent. It was set up on the slope of Mount Kholat Syakhl, which in the native Mansi language means Dead Mountain. The mountain itself wasn’t scary, as it only had a 30 degree slope and the tent was pitched 300 m from the top. What was scary was the condition of the tent. It was completely cut up to pieces. Later, the forensics team concluded the cuts on the tent were made from the inside, as though the skiers were trying to escape as fast as possible. A lot of the supplies were still in the tent, such as clothing, food and skis. However, none of the skiers were inside, but 9 mildly indented footprint paths were found to be leading down the slope in an orderly manner, as though they were walking calmly. This brings up a big question: why were the skiers willing to cut the tent and then simply walk down the slope?

The next day, the search party found out that the fear in the back of their mind was true. 1500m down the slope from the tent was an old cedar tree, and right underneath that tree were the bodies of Doroshenko and Krivonischenko. Death is terrible on its own, but it’s worse when the death is slow and painful. They were only wearing their underwear and it was concluded that the two poor men died of hypothermia. Later that day, the body of Dyatlov was found another 300 meters from the tree. He was better dressed than the previous 2 corpses but wasn’t wearing any shoes or winter clothing, and was ruled dead from hypothermia as well. At 630 meters from the tree was the body of Kolmogorova. She was in a similar state as Dyatlov, completely frozen. No more bodies were found that day. In fact, none were found until the 5th of March, when Slobodin’s body was found between Dyatlov’s and Kolmogorova’s. Since 5 people were found, dead, the search for the rest became more vigorous. Could the rest possibly still be alive? Well, that was simply too much to hope for.

It took two months for the rest of the 9 bodies to be found, but when it happened, the case turned around completely. On May 5th, Kolevatov, Zolotaryov, Dubina and Thibeaux-Brignolles were dug up, buried under 4 feet of snow 75 meters from the cedar tree. This is where the case reached its weirdest point. The 4 of them apparently were doing all they could to preserve themselves before death. They dug out a snow den, laid it with branches and twigs, and were found wearing the clothing of the previous 5 skiers that died of hypothermia.

But they didn’t survive, and the state in which the bodies were found wasn’t at all what the investigators expected. They were found in a ravine of 4 square meters in dimension not far from their makeshift den. Kolevatov had been ruled dead from hypothermia like the previous 5 although he did have a deformed neck, a broken nose and missing eyebrows. Thibeaux-Brignolles had a fatal skull fracture. Zolotaryov and Dubina both had crushed ribs and missing eyes. And Dubina was actually missing her tongue. The autopsy team proved the 4 were alive during their injuries. Curiously, there wasn’t any other outer trauma to the bodies either than the missing eyes and tongue. All of the injuries were internal, as there weren’t any cuts or severe bruises. Investigators said that no human could be powerful enough to cause such harm, leading to the unofficial term “inhuman trauma”. To add to the mystery, the clothing they were wearing had very strong radiation.

The case was never solved. The head investigator, Lev Ivanov, ended up resigning. Conspiracists claim that he was ordered by Soviet officials to close the case. In the end, the deaths were ruled to be caused by “hypothermia and an unknown compelling force.”

Well that’s the facts, that’s what we know for sure. The investigation left many questions and few answers. What I’m now going to discuss is simply speculation, trying to find answers for a wide range of questions. Why did the skiers leave the tent? What caused their weird injuries and where did the radiation come from? What happened altogether on that fateful night?

With all the strange evidence that was found, conspiracists went to work. And boy did they out do themselves.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most common theories involves aliens. I can actually say this holds some logic. During the time the skiers were in the Otorten Mountains, the locals in the nearby village, as stated on the official Dyatlov Pass website, reported seeing some flying glowing orange orbs. Say that 10 times fast. Even Lev Ivanov, the lead investigator said, “I suspected at the time and am almost sure now that these bright flying spheres had a connection to the group’s deaths.” Now let’s say these were UFO’s, and the aliens ended up abducting the skiers, doing some research with their bodies, killing them in the process and disposing of their bodies back on the mountain. Well then the radiation on the clothes would easily be explained by the long trip the aliens took through space. Since the forensics team at the time said the injuries could not have been caused by humans and required the minimal force of a speeding car, then surely the technology of aliens could have caused such harm, since it’s safe to say they are far more advanced than us.

But that there is unfortunately all the evidence supporting UFO’s.

Now before I start discrediting this theory, I should say I believe in aliens. I think that based on the vastness of the universe, the possibility of us being the only life form is improbable, but I don’t think there is proof to say they’ve visited earth. Of course, we don’t exactly know what extraterrestrial contact would look like, so it’s still possible, but once again, there’s virtually no proof.

If we are to say that aliens have come to our planet from light years away, killed a few skiers, and left, then there should be a ton of evidence for it. With what we have, why would this case lead to aliens? Radiation and inhuman trauma can be caused by so many different factors. Radioactive elements can be naturally found, or a sample could have been taken to the mountain by someone. Inhuman trauma could have been caused by a hard fall, or a heavy object. That should not be considered evidence supporting this theory alone. My logic here is based off Occam’s Razor, the idea that the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one. So although the involvement of aliens makes the case more interesting, no such conclusion can be pulled from our evidence.

Let’s move into theory number 2: the Mansi. Within the area of the Otortan Mountains, there is a group of Siberian natives called the Mansi. The theory goes like this: the 9 hikers trespassed into the Mansi native territory, and so the Mansi got mad and decided to kill them. Then they covered their tracks so authorities wouldn’t be suspicious.

Skeptics point out that the Mansi’s don’t have a violent history. Some even helped the search party look for the bodies. The most they do is sacrifice roosters. To this the theorists have an answer: reindeer pee. The natives got high on reindeer pee to get them in a killing mood. Stay with me here, it’s got science to back it up.

The explanation is that a highly poisonous mushroom called “amanita muscaria” grows in the area. It contains hallucinogenic compounds which have no effect on reindeer but give humans psychedelic trips. Humans cannot consume these mushrooms directly, but after the reindeer eat the mushrooms, it’s safe to drink their pee, while still receiving that high. So this theory supposed that after a Mansi tribe drank some reindeer pee, they found the 9 skiers walking all over their sacred territory as if they owned it. Anger filled them, and they decided some revenge was in order. Still high off the pee, they didn’t have their usual morals and logic supporting their decisions and killed the skiers in their sleep.

But let’s take a deeper dive into the logistics of this theory. Would people who were so high that they were sluggish and in a state of euphoria have been able to cover all the tracks? Also, how would they have killed the skiers, since the deaths were ruled as both hypothermia and inhuman trauma. This theory is likely the result of conspiracists who enjoy the idea of murder. It has no evidence to support it and should therefore be discredited.

Not Mansi natives? Huh. Well how about Yeti? Yeti is a mythological creature that lives in the northern Asian mountains. He resembles a large, hairy human, much like the American Bigfoot. Standing at around 6 feet tall and weighing 300-400 pounds, he sure is portrayed as powerful. Believers have long argued about whether he is good natured or a ruthless monster, but some of those who believe the later claim that he killed the skiers in the most graphic way possible. Now the first piece of evidence for this case is all the injuries the 4 skiers were found with. Many Yeti enthusiasts claim the internal traumas such as the crushed ribs and fractured skulls could have easily been caused by the strength of Yeti. The second piece of evidence is a mystery of its own. Once the belongings of the perished skiers were retrieved, a few cameras were found. Once the films were developed, we could see that most of the photos were of the skiers looking happy and excited for their big trip. However, there was a photo on Thibeaux-Brignolles camera that caught the attention of theorists. The photo shows a woodland trail covered in snow. In the background of this photo, there in a blurry black silhouette that looks eerily similar to a conventional abominable snowman.

Unfortunately for the cryptozoological crowd, this theory can be undermined easily. The injuries were to need the minimal strength of a speeding car to be caused. Even the strength of a 400 pound creature couldn’t have caused this harm. As for the frame with the blurry photo, well it seems more probable that that was a photo of a member of the group. Especially since there is a trail leading into the woods where the figure is seen, meaning that it wasn’t necessarily some creature who just popped out and scared them.

The Yeti theory is a notably far-fetched one, so let’s take a break from the crazy.

One of the theories that is based more firmly in established knowledge is an avalanche. This theory feels quite plausible since the skiers were camping on a mountain during February. If an avalanche were to happen, they all would have woken up in panic due to the sound. The tent would have been covered in snow, so the only way to get out would have been to cut through it. Afterwards, the skiers, not quite dressed properly for the weather, will have freezed to death. Avalanches could have also caused many of the injuries.

Unfortunately, that too can be discredited. Their tent was pitched on a slope at an angle of 30 degrees from the top of the hill, 300 meters away. Avalanches don’t tend to happen at these measures–it simply isn’t steep enough. Also, there were no geological signs of an avalanche in the area, since no trees seemed to be broken and there was no buildup of snow at the base of the hill.

Now, most of these explanations, except for the alien theory, ignored the fact that the area was radioactive. Well, the next two are solely based on this fact.

The first is that the hikers were caught in a Soviet missile test launch. This theory was largely popularized due to the fact that the incident happened at a time when Russia was in the middle of the Cold War, so they were trying to improve their weaponry as much as possible. If this were the case, it would explain why some of the clothes were radioactive, as missiles often use radioactive elements like plutonium and uranium, and thus cover the area targeted with radiation. As well as that, all the inner trauma could have been caused by a missile, as many theorists claim. This would also explain why they left their tent without supplies, as they would have been terrified and trying to get as far from the missile as possible. To further support this theory, Yuri Yudin, the sole survivor of the trip, was helping the investigators identify items, but there were some he couldn’t identify, like a facecloth, skis and goggles that did not belong to any of the skiers. He said they appeared to be of military origin. This would also explain why Soviet officials tried to close up the case as quickly as possible.

Then again, there was no other evidence of a missile launch in the area. Although some of the clothes were radioactive, the region itself wasn’t, rendering this theory physically impossible.  

The second radiation theory is pretty interesting. Alexei Rakitin wrote a book titled Dyatlov Pass in which he suggests the idea that some of the members of the group were, in fact, KGB agents. They were out on a mission to deliver radioactive samples to the CIA, but this was actually a mission meant for spying on the Americans and taking photos of them. Something went wrong during the mission and the Americans found out what was going on and killed the group.

This is the most common theory used to explain the radioactivity. However it completely ignores the other evidence, such as deaths by hypothermia, traumas not caused by humans, the tent cut from the inside and no signs of anyone else in the area.

Now as you can see, this case has been sensationalized far beyond what the evidence can reasonably prove.

I know that I have been casually discrediting theorists all over the place, and I have said many times that they are romanticising this case and the deaths of the 9 skiers, all of which still may have living family members. However, I must bring up my own theory simply to show that there are far most possible explanations for the case at hand.

It’s possible that the skiers ran out of the tent because they got scared by what they thought may be an avalanche. In actuality, it could have easily just been strong wind. There is evidence to support this as Kolmogorova’s last journal’s last entry reads, “It is difficult to imagine such a comfort on the ridge, with shrill howling wind hundreds of kilometers away from human settlement”.

This isn’t just hyperbole. Donnie Eichar, a scientist who spent 5 years researching this case brought up a phenomena called “the Karman vortex street.” This wind phenomena “produces a terrifying, powerful sound which is proven to induce irrational fear in humans”. So this might explain their urgency to cut their way out of the tent and flee with no supplies. As soon as they cut their way out of the tent, they would have come back to their senses, realizing it was a mistake as it was freezing cold outside and the tent was their main source of shelter. The reason they were only walking and not running (based of the orderly footprints down the hill) is because they had to walk against the wind. When a few of them felt they wouldn’t make it, they passed on their clothing to the others. Those died of hypothermia.

The rest kept searching for a shelter from from the wind and cold. They managed to survive in their makeshift den for a few days, but they fell into a ravine not long after, broke some ribs and skulls, and they all died. As for Dubina’s tongue, well unfortunately, it is possible to bite off your tongue. It’s actually a common suicide technique in Chinese literature and has been recreated many times. On average, humans have 120 pounds of bite pressure, which is enough to shatter your own teeth. Nobody had to have pulled out Dubina’s tongue, she could have bit it off herself (not necessarily to commit suicide, maybe just accidentally).

And as for the radiation? Perhaps during the search for the remaining four skiers, some cosmic dust got onto their clothing. Cosmic dust is a cluster of small radioactive particles that occasionally fall from space. This theory isn’t far fetched, as cosmic dust can be found all around earth. The reason it would only have shown up on the clothing of those in the ravine could be because that’s where it could have been when they fell in. If that wasn’t the cause of the radioactivity, then possibly one of the skiers could have been carrying a radioactive sample on them that spilled. They were all engineering students after all, so it is entirely possible that one of them wanted to do some research in the frozen Siberian climate.

I am definitely not sure this is how it happened, but in my eyes, it’s highly more probable than some of the crazy theories I’ve mentioned.

The case of the Dyatlov pass hasn’t been solved in the last 60 years and no new evidence has been brought up since the year of the incident. The lack of evidence lead to many theories based off of no more than the imagination. In the end, it’s safe to say that this case will likely live on forever as a mystery.

This was “The Unopened box”, written and produced by TheAlienNextdoor for 8forty. Feel free to visit our website at 8forty.ca. Come back in 3 weeks for episode number 2. Thanks for listening.

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