Deep in the Ural Mountains of Russia is a place called Kholat Syakhl. In the indigenous Mansi language of the region, the rough translation is “Dead Mountain”. The name of this mountain pass simply stems from “lack of game” for Mansi hunters. However, in 1959, a group of ski hikers led by Igor Dyatlov met a grisly end there. This gave a whole new chilling aspect to the mountain pass. Their death is also a mystery that has never truly been solved.
The group of 10 ski hikers were all Komsomol students from in and around the city of Yekaterinburg. All of them were Grade II experienced hikers, the second to the highest level in the USSR. They possessed sufficient experience for the 110-mile hike and set off on the 23rd of January, 1959. All but one of them would never be seen alive again.
Two days later, the group had reached the last inhabited village to the north: Vizhai. From here on out, they were in the wilderness. After loading up on bread the following day, one member of the group was unable to continue due to several health problems and returned home. The 9 remaining team members pushed on.
From diaries found at their final campsite, we’re able to tell that the remaining hikers reached the highlands and made plans to get over the mountain pass to set up camp on the opposite side for the following night. However, the weather took a turn for the worse. Russian snowstorms limited the group’s ability to navigate and instead, they ended up going the wrong way. Eventually, they accidentally headed to the top of Kholat Syakhl, the Dead Mountain.
Likely exhausted, the group set up their camp on the slopes of Kholat Syakhl rather than head back down to a forest below and lose the altitude they’d climbed. Despite promising to send a telegram to the hiking club when they returned to the village of Vizhai, delays were common. So when the telegram never came, nobody reacted. But when a week had passed, a rescue operation was launched.
On February 26th, the campsite of the group was discovered by search and rescue teams. The group, however, were not there. Instead, the empty campsite chilled those who found it to the bone. They know for certain that something terrible had happened. In the words of Mikhail Sharavin, the man who found the group’s tent, the scene looked like this:
“the tent was half torn down and covered with snow. It was empty, and all the group’s belongings and shoes had been left behind. The tent had been cut open from inside. Nine sets of footprints, left by people wearing only socks or a single shoe or even barefoot, could be followed, leading down to the edge of a nearby wood, on the opposite side of the pass. Further down, these tracks were covered with snow. At the forest’s edge, under a large Siberian pine, the searchers found the visible remains of a small fire.”
Here at the remains of the fire is where the first two corpses of the group were found. shoeless and dressed only in underwear. A nearby tree had its branches broken up to five meters high, meaning that one of the group had climbed up to look for something. Between the pine and the camp, the searchers found three more corpses who died in poses suggesting that they were attempting to return to the tent.
To find the remaining four hikers took two more months. Eventually, their bodies were discovered under 13 feet of snow in a ravine. It was clear that some clothing of the group members who had died first had been removed for use by the others. Dubinina was wearing Krivonishenko’s burned, torn trousers, and her left foot and shin were wrapped in a torn jacket. Traces of radiation were also found on some of the clothes.
After the group’s bodies were discovered, an investigation by Soviet authorities determined that six had died from hypothermia while the other three had been killed by physical trauma. One victim had major skull damage, two had severe chest trauma, and another had a small crack in the skull. Two of the bodies were missing their eyes, one was missing its tongue, and one was missing its eyebrows.
Released documents contained no information about the condition of the skiers’ internal organs. Local Mansi people, who were initially suspected of murdering the group, were quickly ruled out. The inquest officially ceased in May 1959 due to the absence of a guilty party. The files on the incident were sent to a secret archive.
The investigation concluded that a “compelling natural force” had caused the deaths. Numerous theories have been put forward to account for the unexplained deaths, including animal attacks, hypothermia, avalanche, katabatic winds, infrasound-induced panic, military involvement, or some combination of these.
The hiker’s diaries were made available to the public in 2009 and in 2019, Russian authorities reopened the investigation into the incident, although only three possible explanations were being considered: an avalanche, a slab avalanche, or a hurricane. The possibility of a crime had been discounted. With the reopening of the case and new evidence, came some bizarre reports that only added more mystery and speculation to the incident.
12-year-old Yury Kuntsevich attended five of the hikers’ funerals and recalled that their skin had a “deep brown tan”. Additionally, Another group of hikers who were about 31 miles from Kholat Syakhl reported seeing strange orange spheres in the sky on the night of the incident. Similar spheres were observed in Ivdel and adjacent areas continually during the period from February to March 1959, by various independent witnesses (including the meteorology service and the military). These sightings were not noted in the 1959 investigation, and the various witnesses came forward years later.
The Dead Mountain of Kholat Syakhl was later renamed the Dyatlov Pass in memory of the group and their leader. Whilst many suggestions for explaining the incident have been put forward, there are countless people who refuse to believe them. It is unlikely that the incident at Kholat Syakhl will ever be solved.
For more articles on the bizarre stories of the Soviet world, be sure to check out our other articles on the Young Pioneer Tours blog.