Every Halloween, I look at mysterious topics, such as books on international folklore, or the story of the strange ghost ship called the Baltimore. This year I want to review a book on one of the strangest mysteries in Russian history, the Dyatlov pass incident. The book is written by Donnie Eichar, and is titled Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident.
On the night of February 2, 1959 a large group of hikers disappeared in the northern Ural mountains. They were experienced campers in winter conditions, and when they did not return, people were not initially worried. After eight days, however, an expedition was organized to find this group, all of whom were university students at the Ural Polytechnic institute. After a great deal of effort, their tent was found on the side of Dead Mountain (Halatchahl mountain). Everything inside the tent was in order -there was even food set out waiting to be eaten, although the stove had not yet been set up- but the nine students were not there. The tent itself had been damaged, and there was a cut in the back, which would later lead to speculation that perhaps someone had tried to cut their way into it. Investigators later determined that the tent had been cut from the inside, probably because people were rushing to get out. The searchers were able to follow a trail of footprints that led away from the tent, and soon came upon the bodies of two of the students, who were only partly dressed. Three other bodies were then found nearby, also in a state of partial undress. It was not until May that the remaining bodies were found, at the bottom of a ravine.
While the Soviet government undertook a careful investigation, the final cause of the disaster was never determined. The lead investigator, Lev Ivanov, stated that the skiiers had died as a result of “an unknown compelling force.” The investigation had not been haphazard; indeed, Eichar’s research makes it clear the amount of manpower and focus that Soviet authorities had brought to the case. But it now seems that the government did not conceal the truth; in the end, it was as mystified as have been many others by the case. This enduring mystery has fascinated those interested in the supernatural and UFOs, which was natural given the case’s eerie details: the tent that was cut from the inside, three of the bodies had evidence of traumatic injuries, and there were no survivors to offer any explanations. One of the bodies was missing its tongue, while other stories circulated that they bodies had turned deep brown or orange, which only further fanned speculation of radiation or Soviet secrets. Despite questions about the details, however, one fact was clear: expert hikers had fled while undressed into a Russian winter night. But why?
Eichar’s book is a well-written study of the event, based on two trips to Russia. Eichar did not speak Russian and he describes the awkwardsituations that resulted when translators were not available. With local help from the head of the Dyatlov Foundation (led by Yuri Kuntsevich) in Yekaterinburg, however, he was able to review a great deal of material, and to travel to the mountain itself. The resulting work is a reasoned account of what happened to the climbers, based on the surprising amount of material that has remained. The climbers kept a journal, which documented their daily life. They also took frequent photos. The daughter of the lead investigator in the case had donated the photo archive to the Dyatlov foundation in 2009. The book’s cover itself has a black and white image of the group skiing into the distance, where they vanish into the drifting snow. It almost looks as though the friends were traveling into oblivion in that shot. The final photograph in the camera was of a strange light, which added to the sense of mystery around the group’s disappearance. Other haunting images from the hikers’ travels are interspersed with the narrative throughout the book. These images bring the dead to life, and it is painful to view the images of the people when one knows that they died days after the pictures were taken. One of the most evocative photos is a picture of the hikers’ footprints, as they ran from the tent.
Eichar’s book falls into the genre of narrative non-fiction. He weaves together the story of the group as they travel towards the mountain, with his own travels into the Russia. Although the reader knows what ultimately happens -the opening scene in the book is the investigator’s discovery of the abandoned tent- this approach contributes to the reader’s tension and engagement. Eichar’s previous work as a documentary film-maker perhaps contributed to his careful staging of the book’s content. Despite the fact that he did not speak Russian, Eichar also managed to obtain help from key figures, including Yuri Yudin, the tenth member of the group, who turned back part way through the trip because of a bad back. This man was haunted by the loss of his friends, and did not know any more than others about what ultimately killed them. But he could share a great deal of information about the group members and their dynamic. Based on all these sources, Eichar was able to create a surprisingly detailed account of the student’s travels up to the day they went on to the mountainside. This was a close-knit group of students, who spent their time discussing the meaning of love, reciting poems, and listening to the mandolin. At the head was Igor Dyatlov, a charismatic (and perhaps dictatorial) leader, whose name ultimately came to be used not only for the incident, but also for a local pass. Amongst the people whom Eichar interviewed was Tatiana, Igor’s surviving sisters. She remembered her brother’s body at the funeral, with its hair white and it’s skin strangely darkened. She also had no answers for what had happened to him.
Eichar is able to eliminate a number of mysteries and hypotheses based on his travel to the mountain, as well as reasoned analysis. The dark skin color was not unexpected given that the bodies were outside for an extended period, and sunlight can penetrate a thin cover of snow. The missing tongue was likely the result of bacterial decomposition, because one body’s face had been exposed to a rivulet of water under the snow. The severe injuries to some bodies were not mysterious, as they were found at the bottom of a ravine, a detail left out of many accounts. Sadly, the friends had probably fallen over the ravine’s edge in the swirling snow as they ran in the darkness.
Eichar’s work also raised some new questions. For a long time, the most plausible explanation for why people suddenly fled the tent was that they heard an avalanche and were trying to flee its path. Eichar found, however, that the slope at above the tent was much too shallow for this to be a likely cause. There were also many other explanations that he discarded, from a group of outside attackers, to the fear created by an unknown Soviet rocket launch or weapon’s test. In the years after the event conspiracy theories had multiplied, which was fed by the fact that the Soviet authorities had tried to keep the publicity around the funerals to a minimum. In the end, however, Eichar created a new hypothesis, based on the nature of the mountain itself. Without giving away his argument, I found it to be intriguing but not fully persuasive. It is difficult for me to see how this idea could be proved, without a great deal of work. Still, Eichar has at least created a new hypothesis, based on careful analysis. And his carefully researched, respectful and well-written book provides an outstanding account of an old mystery. In the end, what lingers from the book is not the mystery, but rather how this group of students and graduates cared for each other, even in the face of catastrophe. I am uncertain that we will ever now what happened on that mountain, but Eichar’s work is an outstanding work of narrative nonfiction, which is likely to keep readers up late into the night. Highly recommended.
Eichar, D. (2013). Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Chronicle Books.
Update, January 1, 2015: I’ve just watched a movie on Netflix, the Devil’s Pass, which is based on the Dyatlov Pass Incident. In the film five Americans set out to recreate the hike of the lost campers. The first half of the movie is slow, and the film changes some historical facts. Writers and directors have also overdone the “found footage” genre of horror movies in the years since the Blair Witch project, as others have noted. Still, the final thirty minutes of the film is scary, and it ends with a surprising twist, which I won’t reveal. If you’re particularly interested in this case, and enjoy horror movies, you’ll want to watch this film.