BOCCONI DI STORIA: L’incidente del Passo di Djatlov

🇮🇹 Per la versione italiana clicca qui.

Today we are going to tell about the Dyatlov Pass incident, one of the most disturbing and mysterious cases in world mountaineering.

It all began on 2 February 1959, when nine Soviet hikers undertook the ascent of Kholat Syakhl (‘mountain of the dead’ in Mansi language), in the northern part of the Ural range.

The group consisted of ski instructor Aleksandr Zolotaryov, three engineers Rustem Slobodin, Yuri Krivonishchenko and Nikolaj Thibeaux-Brignolles, five students from the Ural Polytechnic Institute Yuri Doroshenko, Zinaida Kolmogorova, Lyudmila Dubinina, Aleksandr Kolevatov and Yuri Yudin, and expedition leader Igor Dyatlov. Yuri Yudin was the only member of the group to survive as he had to abandon the expedition due to a sudden illness.

The expedition aimed to reach Mount Otorten, but a storm forced the group of experienced hikers to move towards Kholat Syakhl and camp on an icy slope. From subsequent investigations, we know that they set up camp at around 17:00 and had dinner at around 19:00, before lying down in their tent. Temperatures outside reached -30 °C.

Let us start with the facts we know for certain, namely how the bodies of the alpinists were found by the rescuers. After Dyatlov did not send a telegram to the families of the expedition members, the authorities began searching on 20 February in the hope of finding some survivors. On 26 February, an empty and destroyed tent was found, ripped open from the inside, from which a series of footprints led to a grove where rescuers found traces of a fire under a cedar tree together with the bodies of the first two hikers (Yuri Krivonishchenko and Yuri Doroshenko) wearing only their underwear. On the path between the tree and the base camp, the researchers found Dyatlov, Kolmogorova and Slobodin. Nothing was known of the remaining four hikers for over two months, until the bodies of Thibeaux-Brignolles, Dubinina, Zolotaryov and Kolevatov were found on 4 May 1959 in a crevasse dug by a small river in the forest about half a kilometre away from the cedar.

On the first five corpses, there were clear signs of death by hypothermia. On Slobodin’s skull, a small fracture was found (too slight to cause death), but it was the four bodies found in the crevasse that greatly complicated the investigation. Dubinina and Zolotaryov were severely wounded with several ribs fractured by an impact doctors described as violent as a car accident; Thibeaux-Brignolles showed signs of a potentially fatal skull fracture; and Dubinina was found with part of her jaw, her eyes and her tongue missing.

All the clothing and equipment collected had high levels of radioactivity. Mysterious metal fragments were also found at the scene of the accident, with another group in the area claiming to have seen strange orange orb-like objects passing overhead. The authorities later claimed that these were R-7 ballistic missiles.

With little certainty, the investigators tried to hypothesise a scenario of what happened: an unknown danger, but one that the nine hikers considered fatal, forced them to decide to leave their tent in -30 °C without the appropriate equipment. The group moved towards the forest where they tried to light a campfire, while Doroshenko and Krivonishchenko tried to climb the tree, exposing themselves more to the freezing wind that only hastened their deaths. Dyatlov, Slobodin and Kolmogorova attempted to return to the tent but died on the way from hypothermia. The four remaining hikers abandoned their companions and sought shelter in the gorge in which they were found but died in the crevasse.

The investigations were not exactly carried out to perfection and many details remain unknown and unclear. The most accredited hypotheses are:

“Paradoxical undress”: it occurs in 25% of deaths due to hypothermia and consists of a false sensation of superficial heat that leads the subject to tear off his clothes.

“Paranoia about the avalanche”: the nine of them heard an avalanche roar and ran away, seeking refuge in the trees. Amidst the usual conspiracy theories (Yeti, UFO, military secrets, and KGB…), an article in Nature dated 28 January 2021 by researchers Johan Gaume and Alexandre Puzrin seems to support the hypothesis that an avalanche took the group by surprise (this would explain the injuries) and that the uninjured people then sought refuge in the trees, carrying the injured to help them. But all of them ended up dying of hypothermia.

The mystery of the incident at Dyatlov Pass remains unsolved and leaves us with many questions, especially regarding the traces of radioactivity. In 2018 Vladimir Nagaev, a former KGB agent who headed the Institute of Military Medicine, published a trilogy on the death of the Dyatlov group. Nagaev claimed that special radio probes containing gas with short-lived radioactive isotopes were being tested in the area. Meteorological rockets were known to be used in the Mount Otorten region, so it is possible that one of the rockets damaged one or more of the probes, releasing the radioactive content. Certain toxic elements can only be detected if their intake rate is very high, making it likely that no traces of the substance were found in the body during the autopsy. Furthermore, the search for Dyatlov’s group was deliberately delayed; the first bodies were found almost a month after the death. This period corresponds to two half-lives (the period an isotope needs for its radioactive charge to be halved) of Phosphorus-32. In support of this theory, the skin of the corpses was found to have a dark brown colour, characteristic of phosphorus poisoning.

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