Greta Kooy, News Editor // Illustration by Heather Haughn
Unsolved mysteries often become the subjects of conspiracy theories, especially when the evidence is chilling and inexplicable. With all of the advancements in the field of forensic science, many unsolved cases have been reopened in the hopes that technology will provide answers to these mysteries.
Sixty years after the bodies of nine Russian hikers were found in the Ural Mountains, Russian police have reopened the notorious unsolved case. In January, on the anniversary of the Dyatlov Pass incident, authorities announced that they would re-examine the evidence of a case prosecutors call a “baffling mystery”.
On Jan. 23, 1959, at the height of the Cold War, a group of 10 experienced hikers from the Ural Polytechnic Institute embarked on an expedition through the Siberian backcountry. The group, made up of eight men and two women, began their journey towards the Ural Mountains on trains, buses, trucks and horse-drawn sleighs before setting off on foot and ski. All but one of the hikers were in their twenties, led by 23-year-old Igor Dyatlov from which the Pass gets its name. Their final destination was Gora Otorten, a mountain at the end of a 350-kilometre planned trek.
After five days one of the hikers became ill and decided to head back while the rest carried on. That would be the last time he saw his friends.
On Feb. 1, the remaining members of the group reached the foot of a mountain known to the local Mansi population as “Dead Mountain”. Although just a few hundred metres from the peak, the team of hikers set up camp for the night.
Weeks went by. After Dyatlov failed to send a telegraph, those close to the group began to feel anxious and on Feb. 20 the Institute assembled a volunteer search party made up of students and teachers. Local police and the army would later join the search, equipped with planes, helicopters and snowmobiles. On Feb. 26, the search party located the abandoned camp.
It was clear that something had gone horribly wrong. The tent had collapsed and was covered with a thin layer of snow and the hikers’ equipment and personal belongings were left behind in the disheveled tent. Most interesting to the search party were the signs of struggle from within the tent, which had been slashed open from the inside.
The volunteers located nine pairs of footprints, which were made while walking, not running, that led them down a slope towards the nearby woods. After half a kilometre they disappeared. The search party decided to follow the direction of the footprints, which lead them to a makeshift fire beside a tall cedar tree where the bodies of two of the hikers were found. Despite the weather being -30 Celsius, the hikers were found with only light undergarments and socks. The tree showed signs of damage, indicating that someone had tried to climb it.
Later, in the surrounding snowy wilderness, the bodies of three more hikers were found covered in a light layer of snow. Though they were dressed more appropriately than the previous two bodies, they were still lacking proper clothing and equipment.
All five of the hikers were found facing the direction of the tent, perhaps indicating that they were struggling to make it back. Although their autopsies showed signs of minor bodily injuries, it was concluded that they died from hypothermia.
Two months later, 75 metres from the cedar tree, the bodies of the remaining four hikers were discovered. They were covered in three meters of snow, and three of the four had sustained fatal injuries.
One of the four hikers was found with a fractured skull. Two other hikers had multiple rib fractures, both had suffered massive internal bleeding. Medical examiners concluded that their injuries were sustained while they were alive and were not each other’s doing. Two were also found with their eyes missing. One of the female hikers was found without a tongue, which medical reports never indicated was torn or cut out, simply that it was “missing”. The last of the four was found with a broken neck, but had died of hypothermia.
The last four bodies found were better dressed unlike the others, but curiously were wearing the clothing of the two men originally found near the cedar tree. Later, investigators found that three of the articles of clothing were unusually radioactive – a key ingredient in any conspiracy theory. However, it was later discovered that the clothing belonged to two men that had previously worked in fields where radioactive material was present.
On May 28, investigators closed the criminal case. Although medical examiners and investigators tried their best to explain the cause of the hikers’ injuries, there were still unanswered questions. Lead investigator Lev Ivanov concluded that “the cause of death was an unknown compelling force which the hikers were unable to overcome.”
Theories ran rampant. A KGB cover-up, aliens and the Yeti have all factored into the story of what happened to the hikers. Many believe that a threat inside the tent forced the hikers to cut their way out, but there was never any sign of a threat other than possibly a small fire that couldn’t be contained. But that hasn’t been proven either.
The 10th member of the original group of hikers identified some of the items left behind. However, some items he couldn’t account for, including a cloth, a pair of skis and glasses. He suspected the cloth to be of “military origin”, which led him to be believed that the military had something to do with his friends’ deaths. However, no evidence has ever been found to support this claim either.
Unlike other conspiracy theories, the Dyatlov Pass incident might be resolved. “Relatives, the media and the public still ask prosecutors to determine the truth and don’t hide their suspicions that something was hidden from them,” said Alexander Kurennoi, the official representative of Russia’s prosecutor general. The push from the public prompted Russian officials to reopen the cold case after 60 years of mystery, confusion and conspiracy.