Dyatlov Pass…The strange fate of a group of hikers in the Ural Mountains has generated endless theories, notions and even a few decent movies. The Dyatlov Pass incident was an event in which nine Russian hikers died in the northern Ural Mountains between 1 and 2 February 1959, in uncertain circumstances. The experienced trekking group from the Ural Polytechnical Institute, led by Igor Dyatlov, had established a camp on the eastern slopes of Kholat Syakhl. During the night, something caused them to cut their way out of their tent and flee the campsite while inadequately dressed for the heavy snowfall and subzero temperatures.
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When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, in 1957, Igor Dyatlov constructed a telescope so that he and his friends could watch the satellite travel across the night sky. By then, the tinkerer, an inventor, and a devotee of the wilderness was an engineering student at the city’s Ural Polytechnic Institute. One of the leading technical universities in the country, U.P.I. turned out topflight engineers to work in the nuclear-power and weapons industries, communications, and military engineering. During his years there, Dyatlov led a number of arduous wilderness trips, often using outdoor equipment that he had invented or improved on. It was a time of optimism in the U.S.S.R. Khrushchev’s Thaw had freed many political prisoners from Stalin’s Gulag, economic growth was robust, and the standard of living was rising. The shock that the success of Sputnik delivered to the West further bolstered national confidence. In late 1958, Dyatlov began planning a winter expedition that would exemplify the boldness and vigor of a new Soviet generation: an ambitious sixteen-day cross-country ski trip in the Urals, the north-south mountain range that divides western Russia from Siberia, and thus Europe from Asia.
He submitted his proposal to the U.P.I. sports club, which readily approved it. Dyatlov’s itinerary lay three hundred and fifty miles north of Sverdlovsk, in the traditional territory of the Mansi, an indigenous people. The Mansi came into contact with Russians around the sixteenth century, when Russia was extending its control over Siberia. Though largely Russified by this time, the Mansi continued to pursue a semi-traditional way of life—hunting, fishing, and reindeer herding. Dyatlov’s group would ski two hundred miles, on a route that no Russian, as far as anyone knew, had taken before. The mountains were gentle and rounded, their barren slopes rising from a vast boreal forest of birch and fir. The challenge wouldn’t be rugged terrain but brutally cold temperatures, deep snow, and high winds.
Dyatlov recruited his classmate Zina Kolmogorova, and seven other fellow-students and recent graduates. They were among the élite of Soviet youth and all highly experienced winter campers and cross-country skiers. One was Dyatlov’s close friend Georgy Krivonishchenko, who had graduated from U.P.I. two years before and worked as an engineer at the Mayak nuclear complex, in the then secret town of Chelyabinsk-40. Jug-eared, small, and wiry, he told jokes, sang, and played the mandolin. Two other recent graduates were Rustem Slobodin and Nikolay Thibault-Brignoles, of French descent, whose father had been worked nearly to death in one of Stalin’s camps. The other students included Yuri Yudin, Yuri Doroshenko, and Aleksandr Kolevatov. The youngest of the group, at twenty, was Lyuda Dubinina, an economics major, a track athlete, and an ardent Communist, who wore her long blond hair in braids tied with silk ribbons. On a previous wilderness outing, Dubinina had been accidentally shot by a hunter, and survived—quite cheerfully, it was said—a fifty-mile journey back to civilization. A couple of days before the group was due to set off, the U.P.I. administration unexpectedly added a new member, much older than the others and largely unknown to them: Semyon Zolotaryov, a thirty-seven-year-old veteran of the Second World War with an old-fashioned mustache, stainless-steel crowns on his teeth, and tattoos.
The party left Sverdlovsk by train on January 23rd. Several of them hid under seats to avoid buying tickets. They were in high spirits—so high that on a layover between trains Krivonishchenko was briefly detained by police for playing his mandolin and pretending to panhandle in the train station. We know these details because there was a communal journal, and many of the skiers also kept personal journals. At least five had cameras, and the pictures they took show a lively and strikingly handsome group of young people having the adventure of their lives—skiing, laughing, playing in the snow, and mugging for the camera.
After two days on trains, the party reached Ivdel, a remote town with a Stalin-era prison camp that, by then, held mostly criminals. From there the group travelled another day by bus, then in the back of a woodcutter’s truck, and finally by ski, guided by a horse-drawn sleigh. They slept in an abandoned logging camp called Second Northern. There Yuri Yudin had a flareup of sciatica that forced him to pull out of the trip. The next day, January 28th, he turned back, while the remaining nine set off toward the mountains. The plan was to end up at the tiny village of Vizhai around February 12th, and telegram the U.P.I. sports club that they had arrived safely. The expected telegram never came.
At first, the U.P.I. sports club assumed that the group had just been held up; there had been reports of a heavy snowstorm in the mountains. But, after several days passed, families of the group began placing frantic phone calls to the university and to the local bureau of the Communist Party, and, on February 20th, a search was launched. There were several search parties: student volunteers from U.P.I., prison guards from the Ivdel camp, Mansi hunters, local police; the military deployed planes and helicopters. On February 25th, the students found ski tracks, and the next day they discovered the skiers’ tent—above the tree line on a remote mountain that Soviet officials referred to as Height 1079 and that the Mansi called Kholat Syakhl, or Dead Mountain. There was no one inside.
The tent was partly collapsed and largely buried in snow. After digging it out, the search party saw that the tent appeared to have been deliberately slashed in several places. Yet, inside, everything was neat and orderly. The skiers’ boots, axes, and other equipment were arranged on either side of the door. Food was laid out as if about to be eaten; there was a stack of wood for a heating stove, and clothes, cameras, and journals.
About a hundred feet downhill, the search party found “very distinct” footprints of eight or nine people, walking (not running) toward the tree line. Almost all the prints were of stockinged feet, some even bare. One person appeared to be wearing a single ski boot. “Some of the prints indicated that the person was either barefoot or in socks because you could see the toes,” a searcher later testified. The party followed the prints downhill for six to seven hundred yards, until they vanished near the tree line.
The next morning, searchers found the bodies of the mandolin player Krivonishchenko and the student Doroshenko under a tall cedar tree at the edge of the forest. They were lying next to a dead fire, wearing only underwear. Twelve to fifteen feet up the tree were some recently broken branches, and on the trunk bits of skin and torn clothes were found. Later that day, a search party discovered the bodies of Dyatlov and Kolmogorova. Both were farther up the slope, facing in the direction of the tent, their fists tightly clenched. They seemed to have been trying to get back there.
The four bodies were autopsied, while the search for the others continued. The medical examiner noted a number of bizarre features. Krivonishchenko had blackened fingers and third-degree burns on a shin and a foot. Inside his mouth was a chunk of flesh that he had bitten off his right hand. Doroshenko’s body had burned hair on one side of the head and a charred sock. All the bodies were covered with bruises, abrasions, scratches, and cuts, as was a fifth body, that of the recent graduate Slobodin, which was discovered a few days later. Like Dyatlov and Kolmogorova, Slobodin was on the slope leading back to the tent, with a sock on one foot and a felt bootie on the other; his autopsy noted a minor fracture to his skull.
By now, a homicide investigation was under way, led by a prosecutor in his mid-thirties named Lev Ivanov. Toxicology tests were done, witness testimony taken, diagrams and maps made of the scene, and evidence gathered and forensically analyzed. The tent and its contents were helicoptered out of the mountains and set up again inside a police station. This led to a key discovery: a seamstress who came to the station to do a uniform fitting happened to notice that the slashes in the tent had been made from the inside.
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Something had happened that induced the skiers to cut their way out of the tent and flee into the night, into a howling blizzard, in twenty-below-zero temperatures, in bare feet or socks. They were not novices to the winter mountains; they would have been acutely aware of the fatal consequences of leaving the tent half dressed in those conditions. This is the central, and apparently inexplicable, mystery of the incident.
Four bodies remained missing. In early May, when the snow began to melt, a Mansi hunter and his dog came across the remains of a makeshift snow den in the woods two hundred and fifty feet from the cedar tree: a floor of branches laid in a deep hole in the snow. Pieces of tattered clothing were found strewn about: black cotton sweatpants with the right leg cut off, the left half of a woman’s sweater. Another search team arrived and, using avalanche probes around the den, they brought up a piece of flesh. Excavation uncovered the four remaining victims, lying together in a rocky streambed under at least ten feet of snow. The autopsies revealed catastrophic injuries to three of them. Thibault-Brignoles’s skull was fractured so severely that pieces of bone had been driven into the brain. Zolotaryov and Dubinina had crushed chests with multiple broken ribs, and the autopsy report noted a massive hemorrhage in the right ventricle of Dubinina’s heart. The medical examiner said the damage was similar to what is typically seen as the “result of an impact of an automobile moving at high speed.” Yet none of the bodies had external penetrating wounds, though Zolotaryov’s was missing its eyes, and Dubinina’s was missing its eyes, tongue, and part of the upper lip.
A careful inventory of clothing recovered from the bodies revealed that some of these victims were wearing clothes taken or cut off the bodies of others, and a laboratory found that several items emitted unnaturally high levels of radiation. A radiological expert testified that, because the bodies had been exposed to running water for months, these levels of radiation must originally have been “many times greater.”
On May 28th, Ivanov abruptly closed the investigation. His role was to determine whether a crime had been committed, not to clarify what had happened, and he concluded that homicide was not a factor. Ivanov ended his report with a non-explanation that has bedeviled Dyatlov researchers ever since: “It should be concluded that the cause of the hikers’ demise was an overwhelming force, which they were not able to overcome.”
In classic Soviet style, a number of officials who had little to do with the tragedy were either punished or fired, including the director of U.P.I. and the chairman of its sports club, the local Communist Party secretary, the chairmen of two workers’ unions, and a union inspector. The investigative files, photographs, and journals were classified and the area around Dead Mountain was placed off limits to skiers and outdoor enthusiasts for years. The tent was stored but eventually became moldy and had to be thrown out. The saddle in the mountains which the skiers were heading for but never reached was named the Dyatlov Pass.
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The victims’ families were left deeply dissatisfied. Many of them wrote to officials, including Khrushchev, demanding a more thorough investigation. But nothing more was done, and the mysterious deaths of the nine skiers subsided into relative obscurity.
In 1990, the prosecutor Ivanov, who had retired, published an article in which he claimed that, while compiling his 1959 report, he’d been pressured not to include his views on what happened. The article, titled “The Enigma of the Fireballs,” said that the skiers had been killed by heat rays or balls of fire associated with U.F.O.s. In his original examination of the scene, Ivanov had found trees with unusual burn marks, which “confirmed that some kind of heat ray, say, or a powerful force whose nature is completely unknown (to us, at least) acted selectively on specific objects”—in this case, people. The last photograph in Krivonishchenko’s camera showed flares and streaks of light against a black background.
By then, the official files had been released and, in the decades since, the case has become one of the most celebrated mysteries of the Soviet era. It has generated dozens of books and documentaries, along with a slew of Web sites and message boards on which Dyatlov obsessives trade scores of theories—the official count of the Russian Prosecutor General’s office lists seventy-five—about what happened. In 2000, relatives and friends of the victims established the Dyatlov Group Memorial Foundation, whose purpose is to honor the memory of the skiers and seek the truth. Its president is Yuri Kuntsevich, who, as a twelve-year-old boy, attended the funerals of some of the victims. He went on to study and teach at U.P.I. (which has since become the Ural State Technical University) and to join its sports club. Now in his mid-seventies, he still leads tours to the Dyatlov Pass. Kuntsevich told me that Russians generally favor one of two theories: the skiers died because they had stumbled into an area where secret weapons were being tested; alternatively, the party was “killed by mercenaries,” probably American spies.
Kuntsevich insists that the first of these theories is the correct one, and it’s also what the families tend to believe. The idea is that a missile launch of some kind went disastrously wrong, inflicting severe injuries on some of the skiers and forcing the group to flee their tent, at which point they either froze to death or were killed by military observers. Yuri Yudin, whose sciatica compelled him to abandon the trip, likewise maintained that the deaths were not natural. Not long before he died, in 2013, he declared that his teammates had been taken from the tent at gunpoint and murdered. Dubinina, he said, may have had her tongue cut out by the killers because she was the most outspoken of the group.
Proponents of the weapons-test theory cite claims from people in the region that they had seen flashes of light or moving balls of fire in the direction of the mountains. In 2008, a three-foot-long piece of metal was found in the area; according to the Dyatlov Foundation, which took possession of it, the metal is part of a Soviet ballistic missile. Military tests would explain the radioactivity of recovered clothing. Yevgeny Okishev, Ivanov’s supervisor in the Prosecutor General’s office, gave an interview to a newspaper in 2013, in which he recalled finding it suspicious when he and his colleagues were instructed to test recovered items for radiation. He sent a letter to his superiors asking why radiation was relevant. In response, the Deputy Prosecutor General met with the team. Okishev said that the official dodged questions about weapons testing and ordered them to tell people that the deaths were accidental. “The victims’ parents came to my office, some screamed and called us Fascists for hiding the truth from them,” Okishev recalled. “But the case was closed, and not on our orders.”
The theory, however, is not consistent with what was found at the site. There was no evidence that other people had been there. Snow does not lie: it would have been close to impossible to erase signs of the people and equipment involved in killing the group and re-staging the scene. Besides, why make the staging so elaborate and bizarre? Why scatter the bodies around the landscape, cut off the clothing of some and dress others in it, build a snow den, bury four bodies in ten feet of snow, light a fire, and climb a tree to break branches, leaving skin on the bark? The theory would also suggest that there was a secret weapons base in the area, or that an errant missile had exploded over it. Yet, despite the mass declassification of documents from the Soviet era and the diligent searches of Dyatlov enthusiasts, no such evidence has emerged.
The K.G.B. theory centers on Zolotaryov, the man who was foisted on the group at the last minute. A book published in Russia claims that he and two other skiers were K.G.B. agents on an assignment to meet with a group of C.I.A. operatives, to furnish them with deliberately misleading information. Samples of clothing contaminated by radioactive isotopes were to be offered as bait; the C.I.A. agents discovered the deception, killed them, and staged the scene. It is certainly possible that Zolotaryov had a K.G.B. link. His service record in the Second World War had holes and inconsistencies, and his sudden inclusion certainly seems suspicious. Still, a K.G.B. connection, even if proved, wouldn’t mean much; many people were low-level informants at the time. And the idea that the C.I.A. would have chosen a place like Dead Mountain for a rendezvous strains credulity.
Another class of theories considers a variety of natural disasters. An avalanche, perhaps, struck the tent, causing the crushing injuries to three of the victims and forcing the whole group to cut their way out and head to the forest for shelter. But no avalanche debris was found—a ski pole holding up the front of the tent was still standing—and the original investigation determined that the slope was too shallow to generate an avalanche. Besides, the injuries to the three victims found in the stream-bed were totally incapacitating. They could never have made it there unassisted—it was more than a mile from the tent—but the tracks leading downhill showed no signs of anyone being dragged. There were eight or nine separate sets of footprints, so the fatal injuries must have come after everyone had left the tent. A 2013 best-seller by the filmmaker and writer Donnie Eichar suggests that high winds passing over the mountain created infra-sound‚ vibrations below the range of human hearing, and that this induced such terror that the skiers fled. Much about the book is excellent—Eichar conducted many interviews in Russia and traveled to the Dyatlov Pass in winter—but his thesis would require all nine people to have been so terrified of a sound they couldn’t even hear that they ran to certain death, not grabbing their coats or boots, and slashing their way out, when the tent door would have made for a far easier exit.Advertisement
Various hypotheses considered in the 1959 inquest have also been raked over: carbon-monoxide poisoning from the heater; sudden madness caused by consuming bad alcohol or hallucinogenic mushrooms that the Mansi sometimes hung on trees to dry; or even murder by the Mansi themselves, if, for instance, the party had strayed onto sacred land. But the autopsies ruled out the first two of these, and when the original investigators interviewed the local Mansi they found them “well disposed toward Russians,” and believable. The Mansi had provided valuable help in the search, and they told the investigators that the area was not sacred; on the contrary, it was considered windy, barren, and worthless.
By far the most entertaining theory is that the party was attacked by a yeti. The final photograph found in Thibault-Brignoles’s camera has become famous: a dark figure advancing through the snowy forest, hunched and menacing, with no facial features. The Discovery Channel built an entire show, “Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives,” around the image. The skiers actually had been joking about yetis a few hours before they died. A spoof propaganda leaflet was found in the tent. Alongside such items as “Greeting the XXI Congress with increased birthrate among hikers” was the following: “Science: In recent years there has been a heated debate about the existence of the Yeti. Latest evidence indicates that the Yeti lives in the northern Urals, near Mount Otorten.” Still, the photograph, though blurry, pretty clearly shows a member of the group. Similarly, the Krivonishchenko image of streaks of light, which has been used to bolster the U.F.O. and weapons-test theories, is typical of the end of a film roll.
All the Dyatlov theories share a basic assumption that the full story has not been told. In a place where information has been as tightly controlled as in the former Soviet Union, mistrust of official narratives is natural, and nothing in the record can explain why people would leave a tent undressed, in near-suicidal fashion. For decades, the families and the Dyatlov Group Memorial Foundation pressed for a new investigation; two years ago, elderly relatives of several victims finally succeeded in getting the case reopened.
A young prosecutor in Yekaterinburg, Andrei Kuryakov, was put in charge. In 2019, he organized a winter expedition to the site. His team took measurements, surveyed, photographed, and conducted a variety of experiments. Using photogrammetry of the pictures taken in 1959, they tried to establish the precise location of the tent. The spot they settled on was several hundred feet from a cairn marking the previously accepted location, on a steeper section of Kholat Syakhl’s slope. Combing through historical data, the investigators determined that weather conditions on the mountain that night were even more extreme than had been thought. The skiers were engulfed in a storm with winds of up to sixty-five miles an hour and temperatures around minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit. As evening fell, they were probably unsure of their precise location.
From the outset, Kuryakov adopted an intentionally narrow scope, dismissing seventy-two of the seventy-five explanations for what may have happened. “A large class of these seventy-five versions are conspiracy theories alleging that the authorities were somehow involved in the incident,” he said, when announcing the investigation. “We have already proved that this is absolutely false.” This left the investigation with three natural occurrences to consider: an avalanche, a hurricane, and a slab of snow sliding over the tent. Last July, Kuryakov held a televised press conference in which he told his audience that the last of these was the definitive explanation.
Two photographs taken by the Dyatlov party at around 5 P.M., while they pitched the tent, show that they cut deeply into the snowpack at right angles to the slope, forming a hollow. They had picked a spot where the mountain peak offered some shelter from the strongest winds. Later in the evening, Kuryakov said, a snow slab detached from the slope above and buried most of the tent, pinning down the occupants and possibly causing injuries. Fearing that a full-scale avalanche was imminent, the skiers cut their way out of the downslope side of the tent and fled to a rock ridge a hundred and fifty feet away, which Kuryakov termed a “natural avalanche limiter.” But the big avalanche didn’t come, and, in pitch darkness, they were unable to find their way back to the tent and took shelter in the woods, a mile away. Kuryakov tested this theory by blindfolding a man and a woman and leading them ninety feet downhill from a tent. Asked to find their way back, they quickly went astray. The task would have been even more difficult in a blizzard, with most of the tent buried in snow.
Analyzing 1959 photographs, many Dyatlov researchers had calculated that the tent was pitched on a slope of some fifteen degrees, which is not steep enough to sustain the movement of snow in cold conditions. The new position of the tent as determined by Kuryakov’s topographical experts was therefore crucial, because the gradient here was between twenty-three and twenty-six degrees, enough for avalanche formation. A paper corroborating much of Kuryakov’s explanation was published in January by two Swiss engineers in the journal Communications Earth & Environment. Creating a mathematical model of the snow structure that night, the researchers showed why the slab didn’t release immediately when the group cut into it, but only hours later: additional loading of snow during the storm was responsible.
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I reviewed the hypothesis with Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, who has a Ph.D. in the physics of heat and mass transfer in snow. He suggested that the party’s decision to pitch the tent in the wind shadow of the peak made it likely that they were cutting into a so-called wind slab—an accumulation of hard snow even more dangerous than a typical snow slab. Compacted by the wind, this kind of snow is several times denser than directly deposited snow and, according to Greene, can weigh as much as six hundred and seventy pounds per cubic yard. Furthermore, the clear conditions preceding the storm could have led to the formation of a layer of light, feathery frost, known as surface hoar. When buried in fresh snow during the storm, this layer forms a hazardous stratum that provides poor support to the snow above and often releases, resulting in avalanches. By removing the support on the lower edge of the slab while digging to set their tent, the skiers likely caused it to fracture higher up.
If the wind slab had simply slid over the tent and halted, without developing into a full-fledged avalanche, the evidence, Greene said, might not be visible twenty-five days later. Even the fissure in the snowpack would probably have been erased by the elements. If a three-foot-thick slab moved over the tent, each skier’s body would have been covered by more than a thousand pounds. The massive weight prevented them from retrieving their boots or warm clothing and forced them to cut their way out of the downslope side of the tent.
The two Swiss researchers believe that the snow slab probably caused the terrible injuries to three of the skiers found at the snow den, but this remains unlikely, given the distance of those bodies from the tent. Kuryakov’s explanation was more ingenious. The nine skiers retreated downhill, taking shelter under the cedar tree and building a fire. Because the young trees nearby were icy and wet, someone climbed the cedar to break branches higher up—hence the skin and scraps of clothing found on the trunk. The fire they built, in these extreme conditions, was not enough to save them, however. The two most poorly dressed of the group died first. The burned skin on their bodies came from their desperate efforts to seek warmth from the fire. This would suggest that the piece of flesh Krivonishchenko bit from his finger was probably a result of the delirium that overtakes someone who’s dying of hypothermia, or perhaps from an attempt to test for sensation in a frostbitten hand.
The surviving skiers cut the clothes off their dead comrades and dressed themselves in the remnants. At some point, the group split up. Three skiers, including Dyatlov, tried to return to the tent and soon froze to death as they struggled uphill. The other four, who were better dressed, decided to build a snow den to shelter in overnight. They needed deep snow, which they found in a ravine a couple of hundred feet away. Unfortunately, the spot they picked lay above a stream, a tributary of the Lozva River. The stream, which never freezes, had hollowed out a deep icy tunnel, and the group’s digging caused its roof to collapse, throwing them onto the rocky stream-bed and burying them in ten to fifteen feet of snow. The pressure of tons of snow forcing them against the rocks caused the traumatic injuries found in this group. The gruesome facial damage—the missing tongue, eyes, and lip—probably resulted from scavenging by small animals and from decomposition.
Kuryakov’s reconstruction of events made a single plausible narrative out of previously mystifying anomalies. But what of the radiation? This detail, the most enigmatic of all, might be the easiest to explain. For one thing, the mantles used in camp lanterns at the time contained small amounts of the radioactive element thorium. Even more pertinent, the expedition took place less than two years after the world’s third-worst nuclear accident (after Chernobyl and Fukushima), which occurred at the Mayak nuclear complex, south of Sverdlovsk, in September of 1957. A tank of radioactive waste exploded and a radioactive plume some two hundred miles long—later named the East Urals Radioactive Trace—spread northward. Krivonishchenko had worked at the facility and helped with the cleanup, and another skier came from a village in the contaminated zone.
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Kuryakov closed his press conference by declaring, “Formally, this is it. The case is closed.” Given how freighted the case is in Russia, this was too optimistic. For many people, nature alone cannot explain a tragedy of this magnitude; perpetrators must be identified and the state and its dark past invoked. Sure enough, the conclusions were greeted with scorn, especially by the families of the dead. The Dyatlov Group Memorial Foundation sent a letter to the Prosecutor General declaring that, in its view, the skiers’ deaths were caused by “the atmospheric release of a powerful toxic substance” when a secret weapons test went wrong. Natalia Varsegova, a Moscow journalist, who has covered the subject for many years, also rejected Kuryakov’s conclusions. “Two years ago I thought that the prosecutor Andrei Kuryakov really wanted to know the truth,” she wrote to me in an e-mail. “But now I doubt it. I don’t believe in an avalanche.” After the Swiss report came out, she published an article rejecting it as well. “These theoreticians’ conclusions are supported by mathematical calculations, formulas, and diagrams, but the local Mansi, numerous tourists, and organizers of snowmobile tours, who have never seen avalanches on this slope, are unlikely to agree with them.”
A month after the press conference, Kuryakov was reprimanded for holding it without authorization, and in October he was removed from his post. (The prosecutor’s office has claimed that he resigned, and he did not respond to requests for an interview.) Early this year, he was appointed a deputy minister of natural resources in the Sverdlovsk region, which is a major timber producer. As Kuntsevich wrote to me sarcastically, Kuryakov was shunted off to “felling trees.” Meanwhile, the Prosecutor General declined to be interviewed for this article, and his office has issued no official report. Kuntsevich believes that a report may never be released, even to the families. The foundation is now calling for yet another investigation. Any clarity that Kuryakov’s solution might have brought was quickly occluded amid an atmosphere of murk and mistrust.
The most appealing aspect of Kuryakov’s scenario is that the Dyatlov party’s actions no longer seem irrational. The snow slab, according to Greene, would probably have made loud cracks and rumbles as it fell across the tent, making an avalanche seem imminent. Kuryakov noted that although the skiers made an error in the placement of their tent, everything they did subsequently was textbook: they conducted an emergency evacuation to ground that would be safe from an avalanche, they took shelter in the woods, they started a fire, they dug a snow cave. Had they been less experienced, they might have remained near the tent, dug it out, and survived. But avalanches are by far the biggest risk in the mountains in winter, and the more experience you have, the more you fear them. The skiers’ expertise doomed them.
At the end of 1958, as the date of departure approached, Krivonishchenko wrote a letter to Dyatlov firming up various logistical matters, and he enclosed a poem addressing New Year’s greetings to the entire group:
Here’s wishing you
Camps pitched on mounts afar,
Routes to hike over ranges untamed,
Packs that, as ever, rest lightly on your backs,
And weather that smiles upon your quest. . . .
And let your footprints
Trace winding tracks across the map of Russia.
Today, the Dyatlov Pass is a popular hiking and tourist destination. Hundreds have visited Height 1079, and followed Dyatlov’s route on foot, snowmobile, or skis. People come from all over the world to see the place where the tent once stood, the streambed where bodies were found, and the cedar tree, its broken branches still visible. Others come to take measurements, photographs, and videos to support their pet theories. The windswept heights of Dead Mountain have become a site of pilgrimage. Long after their deaths, Dyatlov and his friends did indeed leave their footprints across the map of Russia.
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