How did nine Russian hikers lose their lives in the Dyatlov Pass incident?

A man crouches next to a destroyed tent on the side of a snowy mountain
Investigators found the tents had been slashed open from the inside and most of the hikers' possessions were left behind | Image: Wikimedia Commons

On 1st February 1959, nine Russian hikers on the trek of a lifetime through the Ural Mountains pitched a tent and settled in for the night. Hours later, all nine fled the safety of the tent and perished in the freezing, snowy conditions. Some in the party succumbed to hypothermia, but others were found with grisly injuries. The Dyatlov Pass Incident, as it came to be known, has inspired so many dark and often outlandish potential explanations. Before delving into the most prominent theories, let’s consider the facts of the matter.

The group originally consisted of 10 highly experienced hikers who were – with one key exception – all students and recent graduates from the Ural Polytechnical Institute. The odd one out was Semyon Zolotaryov, a last minute addition to the group and, at 37, conspicuously older than the others.

In the early stages of the trek, one member of the group dropped out due to ill health. The rest carried on, taking photos of each other larking about and recording diary entries that expressed their excitement about the adventure to come. “I wonder what awaits us in this trip?” one wrote. “What will we encounter?”

Weeks later, a search party sent to locate the missing hikers found the remains of their tent on the side of a mountain called Kholat Syakhl. Inside were the hikers’ boots, clothes, and maps, along with some food laid out, seemingly for a meal. The side of the tent had been slashed open from the inside – a sign of just how desperate they’d been to get out.

Footprints made it clear the group had left the tent without any shoes. At the base of a nearby tree, next to an extinguished campfire, lay the corpses of

21-year-old Yuri Doroshenko and 23-year-old Yuri Krivonischenko. Both had seemingly frozen to death but also exhibited burn marks and multiple abrasions.

Not far away, lying in the snow, were the bruised bodies of the group’s leader, 23-year-old Igor Dyatlov, and 22-year-old Zinaida Kolmogorova. It looked like both had been trying to return to the tent when they died. Some days after this, the body of 23-year-old Rustem Slobodin was also discovered. He had a fractured skull.

The remaining hikers were found in a ravine near a shelter they’d attempted to carve out of the snow. Nikolay Thibeaux-Brignolle, a 23-year-old graduate, had a caved-in skull, while 24-year-old Aleksander Kolevatov had a deformed neck and was missing his eyebrows. The oldest hiker, Semyon Zolotaryov, and 20-year-old Lyudmila Dubinina had crushed chests with multiple broken ribs. Both were missing their eyes, and Lyudmila’s tongue was gone.

A criminal investigation was carried out by a prosecutor named Lev Ivanov, but it came to a cryptic conclusion. “The cause of their demise,” the report said, “was an overwhelming force which the hikers were not able to overcome.”

The Mansi Theory

Early on, it was theorised by Soviet authorities that the Dyatlov party may have been killed by the Mansi, an indigenous people of the region. The idea that the hikers were slaughtered for straying onto sacred land, or perhaps as part of a shamanic ritual, persisted for some time. Much was made about the presence of a Mansi chum, or dwelling, in the vicinity of the hikers’ tent.

“We often see Mansi signs on the trail, I wonder what they write about?” Zinaida Kolmogorova noted in her diary, while one of her fellow hikers – identity unclear – also recorded that “Mansi writings appear on trees… all sorts of obscure mysterious characters.”

This has been roundly debunked as a baseless theory rooted in a misunderstanding of Mansi culture and rituals. And, if they were indeed rounded up and murdered, why were the bodies found in different locations, some more injured than others?

The Espionage Theory

Two members of the Dyatlov group have been the focus of particular speculation. Why was Semyon Zolotaryov, a 37-year-old veteran of World War Two, attached to this group of young students and graduates? Furthermore, is it significant that, a few years earlier, Yuri Krivonischenko helped clear up a radioactive leak at a secret Soviet nuclear facility – an incident which has since been compared to the Chernobyl disaster?

According to one theory, Zolotaryov and Krivonischenko (and potentially a third hiker) were working for the KGB and had joined the Dyatlov trek to rendezvous with CIA agents in the Ural Mountains. While handing over radioactive materials and fake nuclear secrets, the Russians were supposed to take photos of the American agents. The theory goes that the CIA men got wise to what was going on, leading to a fight breaking out and the eventual massacre of the Dyatlov party.

The UFO/Military Weapons Theory

In 1990, Lev Ivanov – the man who lead the initial investigation into the incident – published a sensational article claiming he’d been ordered to censor some of his key findings. In particular, the unusual char marks on trees near where the bodies were found, which in Ivanov’s view “confirmed a source of heat ray” that had been purposefully aimed at some of the helpless hikers.

His article also alleged that floating balls of light and other weird phenomena had been reported over the Ural Mountains in February. Ivanov doesn’t mince his words, saying that, “based on the evidence gathered, the role of UFOs in this tragedy was quite obvious”. Whether these supposed UFOs were of alien origin or were experimental Soviet weapons, depends on which version of this theory you believe.

The Yeti Theory

The idea that the group was killed by a Yeti rests on a few pieces of dubious evidence. The first is a photo taken by one of the doomed hikers which shows a dark humanoid figure seemingly skulking by a tree. But was this a fearsome figure from the annals of cryptozoology, or simply a blurry image of another hiker?

The second item cited by pro-Yeti theorists is a parody newspaper the hikers wrote during the expedition, which contained the line “the Yeti lives in the Northern Urals, near Mount Otorten”.

While this was clearly intended as a joke, other stories in the parody newspaper were exaggerated accounts of things the hikers really did. So, according to this theory, the satirical entry on the Yeti was inspired by a real sighting of the creature which stalked and eventually killed the entire group.

The Slab Avalanche Theory

The most widely accepted theory is also the most mundane: the group fled the tent because of a slab avalanche, then succumbed to the harsh conditions. A slab avalanche is where a compacted block of snow slides down a slope when the underlying, weaker snow layer gives way.

According to this theory, a combination of factors, including mountain winds (known as katabatic winds) and a weakening of the mountain snow during the pitching of the tent, led to the catastrophic avalanche.

The thinking goes that once the avalanche hit, the group slashed their way out of the tent in a panic, with some of them severely injured by the impact (explaining the broken ribs suffered by Zolotaryov and Dubinina, for example). The ones who escaped with mild cuts and abrasions helped the others flee what they assumed was the danger zone for a full-scale avalanche – only for the whole group to perish from the intense cold or their injuries.

Alternatively, all nine hikers may have escaped the crushed tent without serious injuries, which would explain why there were no tracks in the snow suggesting people had been assisted or dragged. Thereafter, two succumbed to the cold by the tree, three froze to death trying to get back to the tent, and four others died by the ravine – some being badly injured or killed while trying to create a snow shelter. The gruesome facial damage could have been the result of animal scavengers and decomposition.

Many Dyatlov commentators are sceptical, and the finer details of the slab avalanche theory are hotly debated. Ultimately, though, it remains perhaps the most plausible explanation of what befell the explorers that cold, bleak night in 1959.