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Forensic News and Education Blog

The Dyatlov Pass Incident: Fact versus Fiction

The quiet solitude of the mountains is matched by few environments on the planet and the harsh and unforgiving beauty they offer in wintertime is the reward of the stalwart and hardy folks who enjoy winter mountaineering and ski-hiking. Many people would look at anyone suggesting such a trip as though they had sprouted a second head. When one is raised in areas around mountains however, such activities are the purview of people in your own community and thus seem less ludicrous.

The stereotype of Russians as generally rough and ready folks able to tolerate the rigours of their native land does not spring from nothing. The hardiness that allowed Zhukov’s army to halt and then crush the Wehrmacht and SS columns in and around Stalingrad despite the most effective weapon in the Soviet arsenal- “General Winter”- giving no quarter to either side is legendary. That same spirit and determination manifests itself in outdoor activities even in the darkest times of a Russian winter. The case of the Dyatlov expedition and its fate involves several bright, talented and driven young Russians who exemplified exactly the stereotypes and were the personification of the beating heart of the Russian nation’s love for its landscape.

The nine ski-hikers struck out in the northern Ural Mountains in late January 1959. The expedition and, later the area, came to be named after the group’s leader, Igor Dyatlov. All were experienced in the mountains and most were students at Ural Polytechnic Institute which is now Ural Federal University.

The victims were:

Igor Dyatlov, age 23

Yuri Doroshenko, age 21

Lyudmila Dubinina, age 20

Yuri Krivonischenko, age 23

Alexander Kolevatov, age 24

Zinaida Kolmogorova, age 22

Rustem Slobodin, age 23

Nicolai Thibeaux-Brignolles, age 23

Semyon Alexander Zolotaryov, age 38

 

A tenth member of the team, Yuri Yudin, age 21 left the expedition several days before the events in question due to becoming ill. He survived to the age of 75 dying in April 2013.

The goal of the expedition was to reach a mountain about six miles (10 kilometres) north of the place where the victims would meet their end. To hike this in January or February is considered to be among the most difficult treks possible being rated as a “Category III” in the standards of the day. All of the group- aside from Yuri Yudin- were fit, healthy and experienced. All were experienced and certified hikers and had ski tour experience. They were due to be upgraded to the top level of certification available in the Soviet Union upon the completion of the fateful trip. It is important to remember that even highly trained and experienced persons make silly, stupid or careless mistakes. Overconfidence may have played a role in setting the stage but we have all experienced this to one degree or another so I advise listeners not to judge too harshly.

Our intrepid team established a camp on the eastern slopes of Kholat Syakhl some time on the first of February. That night would be their last and would make the area the subject of speculation and fear for years to come. The name of the mountain, which is a Russian transliteration/ loan word from the local Mansi language, and the original name of the pass- simply means “lack of animals” or “lack of prey” indicating that it was not a good place to hunt. Kholat translates as either “meagre”, “scarce” or “dead” with most people reporting on this case latching onto the latter definition since it helps impart a sense of mystery and of something sinister. It is worth pointing out that the word is commonly used by the Mansi to describe places it is the name of no less than three other terrain features.

The desire to rely upon the power of certain words is also behind the other common Russian name for the mountain Myortvaya gora- "death mountain"- although it is unclear if this term was in use before the incident or as a result of it. The fact that there is another common name- the formal name for the location- argues that it is likely a post-incident sobriquet meant to garner attention.

During the night, something caused the group to tear or slash their way out of the tents and to flee the campsite while inadequately dressed amid a heavy snowfall and temperatures below zero Fahrenheit.

When the group failed to return from the trip by February 12 as planned and send a telegram to their sports club to let them know everyone was safe, a search was commenced and the campsite was located along with the frozen remains of five of the expedition members. There was no immediate deployment of search forces under the presumption that a few days of delay was not unheard of when people went trekking under similar conditions. The families rallied and demanded a search which commenced on the 20th of February.

The search initially consisted of volunteers including students and teachers from the the university most of the missing attended. The use of volunteers in a search is not uncommon so it is important to not read too much into it. If you go missing in the United States for example, the lead organisation for inland search and rescue is the Civil Air Patrol, the volunteer auxiliary of the United States Air Force. Of which I am a member by the way for the sake of full disclosure. Likewise, the vast majority of other search and rescue teams are composed of volunteers.

In the Dyatlov case, the Soviet army and police became involved as well. The involvement of law enforcement is pretty much the norm everywhere in missing persons cases as most listeners are aware of from other podcasts. The involvement of the military is less common in the US- aside from Air Force Pararescue...:

...and the US Coast Guard- but is common in many countries it is simply how it is done. From what I have read and from talking to Russian colleagues, this sort of military involvement was the norm in the Soviet era because the Army was a ready source of large numbers of well-equipped and trained personnel.

The team searching Kholat Syakhl found the abandoned campsite on the 26th of February. The student who found the tent described it as “half torn down and covered with snow. It was empty.” I presume he is referring to the absence of persons because he went on to say “all the group’s belongings and shoes had been left behind”. Investigators later determined that the tent had been cut from the inside.

Eight or nine sets of footprints were found tracking towards the a nearby treeline on the opposite side of the pass. This was roughly nine-tenths of a mile (1.5 kilometers) from the campsite. After about 1500-1600 feet (500 meters) the tracks became difficult to impossible to follow due to the intervening snowfall had covered them. Upon reaching the treeline, under a large tree that is described alternatively as a “cedar” or a “pine”, the remnants of a small fire were located. Two things to point out here: the discrepancy of the type of tree may stem more from a known colloquial use in that area to describe pine trees as “cedar” and not be the result of inaccurate documentation.

The second point is that the fact that these folks managed to get ANY fire going in the middle of a blizzard, let alone with only the items they might have had in their pockets, is testament to how well trained and experienced they were. My fish fur hat is off to them.

Around the site of the fire, the first two bodies were located. These were Krivonischenko and Doroshenko. They were located without their shoes, clad only in their underwear. This brings up a subject that needs to be discussed in the context of hypothermia and the physiology and psychology of it. The lack of clothing may be the result of the remaining persons stripping the bodies after death in hopes of gaining additional insulation. This is backed up by the fact that when located, Dubinina’s foot was found to be wrapped in part of Krivonishenko’s wool trousers. The other option- which might still have happened even with postmortem commandeering of clothing- is that these victims were subject to a seemingly bizarre behaviour called paradoxical undressing.

There are a few possible mechanisms to explain why people who are critically hypothermic commonly take off their clothes. One potential explanation holds that there is an inhibition of the nerve impulses that regulate vasoconstriction- the narrowing of blood vessels which in hypothermia is a way to conserve body heat- which results in vasodilation, flushing of the skin and a sense of overwhelming warmth. Ever felt your “ears burning” or overheated due to blushing? That is due to sudden vasodilation in the vessels of the face and scalp.

An alternative is that the reflex vasoconstriction designed to counter environmental heat loss overwhelms the vasomotor centre- which is not a discrete brain structure by the way….it is actually a neuronal network within the medulla oblongata, a part of the brainstem, with common purpose- and causes a paralysis of its function. This triggers, again, a sense that the body temperature is higher than it actually is. Either way, the response in many people is to undress.

Personally, I go with the first of these two hypotheses as the more likely. The other functions of the vasomotor center are largely tied to maintaining and regulating blood pressure which is to a substantial degree the result of striking the proper balance between vasoconstriction and vasodilation. If you have something cause it to go offline, there is a good chance that it would precipitate a devastating drop in blood pressure which might render a person incapable of undressing. That said, it is possible that vasomotor centre suppression may play some role in the terminal events of hypothermia immediately before death...such a shutdown or impairment may actually be a candidate for what trips a person into cardiac arrest.

I should point out that paradoxical undressing does not happen solely in cases of hypothermia. It has been documented in cases where you have bleeding between the brain and the thin arachnoid membrane that covers it (hence “subarachnoid haemorrhage”). One such example was documented by Descloux et al in the April 2017 issue of the International Journal of Legal Medicine. The paper actually suggested another possible mechanism for paradoxical undressing which is dysregulation of the hypothalamus which plays a major role in regulating body temperature.

The tree below which Krivonischenko and Doroshenko were located was noted to have some damage to branches extending a few meters off the ground. It was posited that the broken and scuffed branches were the result of someone climbing to look for something- perhaps trying to establish a bearing back to camp. Given something I will get to below, I personally think this might have been Slobodin.

A continued search yielded an additional three of the missing persons: Dyatlov, Kolmogorova and Slobodin. The position and location of the bodies- between the tree and camp- suggested that they met their end in a hopeless bid to get back to the tent. The victims in this instance were not found clustered together but at various points over a span of about 1100 feet (330 meters) of the scene.

I am going to pause here with the discussion of the recovery as to keep the case discussion in line with how the case played out. The search had failed to turn up four of the expedition members. We will get to their cases shortly.

 

Autopsy findings

I really dislike not having access to the actual reports when doing these sorts of reviews. It makes assessments more difficult since you have to deal with other people’s versions of the findings which can vary. I am simply going to work from the descriptions of the injuries and the scene that are available and will revisit the case amending findings when and if any new evidence or copies of the autopsy protocol are made available to me.

Slobodin was found to have a small fracture- described by most sources as a “crack” which is probably a reference to an non-displaced linear fracture- in his skull although I have not been able to find information on the location of this. This was the only significant injury noted. Likewise, there is a lack of data on associated information which would help to narrow down the mechanism and timing of the injury. All of the reports I can locate simply state that it was not a fatal injury.

Why does it matter if it was not a fatal injury? Well, there are a couple of reasons but the most pertinent one is simply that it potentially helps to indicate a sequence of events. For example, if you have a fracture without haemorrhage associated with it argues for a postmortem injury. It is what is known as an “artifact” which can result from a body being dropped or banged into something…..like….say when being transported over rough terrain or in the back of a truck. The presence of haemorrhage argues for a perimortem injury- one happening at or close to the time of death- and this is where my earlier comment about the damaged tree comes full circle. If I were presented with this in a case, I would seriously question whether Slobodin fell out of the tree and hit his head in the process. The damage to the tree to me sounds more consistent with someone falling through it than with someone simply climbing it.

It is also interesting to note that you can get fractures of the skull in some cases involving refrigeration or freezing of a body (see Liang et al: Refrigeration induced skull base fracture: three autopsy cases. Romanian Journal of Legal Medicine 2010)

These five deaths were ruled to be the result of hypothermia. I think this is a good point to give some physiological background as to what hypothermia is in the medical sense. Simply being “cold” as a subjective measure does not cut it. To be clinically hypothermic, a person has to have a body temperature below 35 Celsius or 95 Fahrenheit. There is then a classification scheme for rating it. Mild is between 35-32 C, moderate falls within 32-28 C and severe is anything below 28 C which is about 82 degrees F.

Certain groups are at higher risk from hypothermia. Children are due to the higher body surface area to mass ratio. The elderly are subjected to an increased risk due to impaired vasoconstriction which can result from medications (such as for high blood pressure) or from atherosclerotic changes. They also tend in many cases to have lower body fat percentages and lower muscle mass which impairs heat retention and production respectively.

As an aside, it is possible to become hypothermic without environmental exposure to cold or cool temperatures. If a person is at elevated risk, is dressed in wet clothes, intoxicated, has concomitant serious medical conditions or exposure is extremely prolonged, you can see systemic hypothermia in settings as warm as 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Likewise, immersion in water that is seemingly “too warm” to “freeze” someone to death is another scenario where this can happen.

This can happen when you have a condition or injury that involves or affects the hypothalamus which is the part of the brain that regulates temperature. Certain hormonal disorders can produce hypothermia as a finding that, to a clinician who has his ears up, can clue them in as to the cause. The classic example is myxedema which is potentially fatal form of hypothyroidism.

Death by hypothermia is what is referred to as a diagnosis of exclusion- basically you have someone found dead without any traumatic, toxicological or medical explanation in an environment conducive to systemic hypothermia- although there are some findings at autopsy that can point to it although there are often cases that have none of them. One researcher into hypothermia, Wischnewski, famously summed up one of his papers with “The diagnosis of lethal systemic hypothermia can be made on the basis of this sign, providing no competing causes of death are present’’ thus reinforcing the nature of diagnosis by exclusion.

The first is an external finding which is known as either Keferstein or “frost” erythema. This is simply a reddening of the skin which is usually most pronounced over the extensor surfaces of large joints such as the hips, front of the knees and over the elbows. It also is common on the nose, ears, cheeks and other exposed skin. A pathologist I know refers to one form of this as “stoplight kneecaps” when it is present even though it is usually a duskier red colour rather than the bright red of a stop sign. The color can actually vary from brownish red to a purplish tinge. This is probably the most common and reliable finding and it is present in at least three quarters of hypothermia deaths.

Some cases have been noted where the blood is a brighter red than is normally seen at death- it is normally a deep red-black or red-purple colour due to lower oxygen levels- and this is in keeping with a physiological quirk. There are a number of things that change the affinity of haemoglobin for oxygen. Affinity is simply the tendency of haemoglobin to hold onto oxygen that is bound to it. There is a chart used in medicine and physiology that is known as the oxyhaemoglobin dissociation curve.

Just as carbon monoxide produces carboxyhaemoglobin when it binds with haemoglobin, you get oxyhaemoglobin when oxygen binds and deoxyhaemoglobin when there is no oxygen bound. The easy way to remember this is to think of oxyhaemoglobin as the bright red “arterial” blood and deoxyhaemoglobin as the darker and less oxygen laden “venous” blood. However, I want to point out that there is oxyhaemoglobin in venous blood as under nearly all circumstances the cells do not strip away all of the oxygen from the red blood cells as they pass through the capillaries and this is where the brighter colour of the blood in some hypothermia deaths comes from. Be sure to take notes here….there will be a quiz afterwards.

As I said, there are a number of things that influence the affinity of haemoglobin for oxygen- for example, the pH of the blood and the level of carbon dioxide in the blood. Carbon dioxide is a large factor in the pH of it since when you put carbon dioxide into any water based solution you produce carbonic acid...yes, what they put in Coke and other soft drinks. There are a couple of cellular metabolites (2,3 DPG for those of you who care...is the big one), carbon monoxide (which really just blocks oxygen binding), the presence of another abnormal form of haemoglobin (methaemoglobin) and changes in temperature.

Hypothermia produces what is called a “left shift” in the dissociation curve. This increases the affinity of haemoglobin for oxygen which means that there is generally- all other things being equal- going to be more oxygen in the blood which induces a more vermilion tinge to the blood even postmortem. The coloration, of course, requires one to rule out carbon monoxide exposure which is surprisingly common in tents because of people trying to cook inside during inclement weather.

Another finding that is sometimes associated with lethal hypothermia is what is known as Wischnewski spots. Oddly enough, these were first described by a Russian physician in 1895 which he reported being present in 91% of the hypothermia victims he had autopsied. Now….the definition of a Wischnewski spot has changed a bit. Originally, he described them as small- less than a centimetre or roughly a third of an inch- round or dot like haemorrhages on the gastric mucosa or more simply the lining of the stomach which are slightly raised above the surface. If you pick at them with your finger or the edge of a scalpel blade you can scrape them off leaving normal looking mucosa. Nowadays, we think of them more as some mix of raised, erosive or ulcerated lesions that are the result of the action of stomach acid on the areas of haemorrhage Wischnewski originally described. The moniker “leopard skin” has been applied to the finding since the normal mucosa (which can have a yellow gray pink color) becomes spotted. For an example of what this looks like, you can check out Bright, Winskog and Byard’s paper on the subject. (available here: www.researchgate.net/profile/Fiona_Bright/publication/224958182_Wischnewski_spots_and_hypothermia_Sensitive_specific_or_serendipitous/links/0c96052dc5e63e07a1000000/Wischnewski-spots-and-hypothermia-Sensitive-specific-or-serendipitous.pdf )

No one is exactly sure why these spots happen but it could be due to faltering gastric perfusion at a microscopic level, amine release or something else entirely. The actual frequency in hypothermia varies from study to study from 0% to 90%. It is important to note also that they occur in victims of other issues as well. Deaths associated with alcohol and drug use, victims of electrical shock, lightning strike, burns and persons who were subjected to a protracted and/or painful deaths have all demonstrated the sign. Research has show that stress probably plays some role in the development of the spots.

We can also see haemorrhage into some areas of larger skeletal muscles- such as in the back or the things- as a finding. Some reports of focal, in other words microscopic, areas of degeneration of the myocardium which is the musculature of the heart exist in the forensic literature. Hemorrhagic changes of the pancreas can be seen sometimes. When I say “haemorrhage”, I don’t want anyone to get the idea that this is “bleeding” in the sense that most people think. It is not associated with “blood loss”.

Probably the most dramatic finding is bloody discoloration of synovial fluid in the knees and similar joints along with haemorrhages in the synovial membrane. This is one I have not seen personally at autopsy though. Lacking access to translations of the actual autopsy reports, I cannot say which if any of these findings were present in the Dyatlov victims. This brings us to the pause in the case from the conclusion of the inquest for the first group of victims until the remainder of the bodies were located by continued searches.

The other four victims remained missing until early spring- the fourth of May specifically. According to some sources, the recovery of these victims “shifted the narrative” as to what happened. I find this to be a gullible and credulous statement. Let me explain why.

These bodies were found about 75 meters (250 feet) further into the woods beyond the tree where the first two victims were located. It was noted that they were more substantially dressed than the other victims. The location where they were found was in a ravine that contained four meters (about 13 feet) of snow. Different sources give different accounts of the recovery with some stating that they were recovered out of the snow and others stating that they were found at the bottom of the retreating and thawing snow pack. To me, the latter seems more plausible although it remains possible that the victims were located by probing with poles which is a common technique for finding avalanche victims. Three of these expedition members died of either blunt trauma or a combination of blunt trauma and hypothermia. The fourth died of hypothermia.

The idea that the “narrative” shifted hinges largely upon the nature of the injuries and how they could have been inflicted says more about the views of the person who is interested in the “narrative” fitting their idea of something specific happening. Saying the “narrative has shifted” is simply an attempt to say “SEE! Something more had to have happened!”.

At autopsy, Thibeaux-Brignolles was noted to have “major” skull damage and Dubinina and Zolotaryov were noted to have multiple fractures of the ribs and sternum. Dubinina was noted to have massive facial trauma. There is also the claim that the bodies had “no external wounds related to the bone fractures, as if they had been subjected to a high level of pressure”, quoting from the Wikipedia article on the incident. This has been used to argue that these were deaths due to a shock wave such as from an explosion. I hope anyone who argues that seriously has a field in need of fertilising because that is one big steaming pile of bovine faeces.

There are two kind of fractures- closed and open (previously known as compound)- and the difference is the presence of a laceration or avulsion at the fracture site. The lack of pronounced contusions is explainable by two mechanisms which one or both of may have been involved. The first is that these persons fell off a freaking cliff. It’s entirely plausible that they died upon impact or very shortly thereafter. A flat impact chest and abdomen after a fall of several meters is more than sufficient to either transect the aorta or rupture one or more chambers of the heart either of which would interrupt circulation. There was simply little to no time for a contusion to develop since that requires blood flow.

The other is the fact that the victims were already hypothermic- remember the AIR TEMPERATURE was -25 to 30 C (-13 to -22 F) with high winds from the storm- so blood flow to their extremities would be massively reduced by vasoconstriction as their bodies desperately tried to maintain a survivable core temp. Quite simply put, there may not have been enough blood going to their extremities to allow the development of contusions in the likely extremely short interval between the infliction of the injuries and the cessation of cardiac function (in other words, death).

The injuries described for three of the victims- those who did not die of hypothermia straight away- are completely consistent with a fall of several meters. Thibeux-Brignolles likely stumbled or tripped as he went over the lip of the ravine resulting in a head low impact. The other two impacted in a flat attitude with at least Dubinina doing so face down. The “force required to cause such damage would have been extremely high” said one pathologist likening it to the level associated with a car crash. That is exactly the sort of force you get with long falls such as would be necessary to put them in a position to be recovered from under 4 meters of snow.

We’re talking a fall of between 13 and 15 feet probably which would take about nine-tenths of a second to complete. So picture taking a giant step off of the roof of a one story house and, at least in the case of Dubinina and Zolotaryov based upon what has been described of their injury pattern, belly flopping onto the driveway. That is the sort of impact that we are concerning ourselves with at a minimum. That assumes that the ravine they plummeted into was filled to the brim with snow at the time of recovery. It’s quite plausible if not likely that the drop was even more substantial. In that instance the impact would be even more violent since unless you have a drop of about 1500 feet or more- at which point you will reach terminal velocity- the force increases with each foot further you fall.

Doing some off the cuff maths here, I can explain why the pathologist described the forces in relation to a car crash. A fifteen foot fall results in an impact velocity of about 22 miles per hour. Twenty feet, twenty five miles per hour. A forty foot drop will give you the impact velocity of many car crash tests: thirty-five miles per hour. That is pointed out with the caveat that the forces on the body in the fall will be greater since you have a much shorter deceleration distance.

There are no “crumple zone” or airbags to attenuate the impact. Even falls of over fifty feet- readers are referred to Hugh de Haven’s “Mechanical analysis of survival in falls from heights of fifty to one hundred and fifty feet” (War Medicine 1942; 2:586–96; reprinted and available as open access from Injury Prevention at http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/injuryprev/6/1/62.3.full.pdf )- there is no Wile E. Coyote style impact mark. Normally only you get a three to six inch depression on even soft soil. Even in the case of skydivers whose chutes fail to deploy properly it would be unusual to see an impact mark deeper than eight to twelve inches in hard packed soil.

As de Haven points out in the first case he discusses in his paper- a 42 year old woman who attempted suicide by jumping out of a window 55 feet off the ground- the impact force in her case was about 140 G (force equivalent to 140 times that of gravity) for a couple hundredths of a second. Amazingly, this woman survived with no detectable injuries and in fact greeted the first person to reach her by raising up on an elbow and commenting: “Six stories and not hurt”.

So….continuing the back of a cocktail napkin calculating…. assuming 15 feet (4.55 meters) and a deceleration distance of two inches (5.08 centimetres) which seems likely given a solid surface like frozen soil or rock. Hitting an unyielding surface, most of that distance is going to come from the compression or fracture of structures like the ribs, etc. A free fall velocity in that scenario is going to be about 31.1 feet per second. Given that deceleration distance….you get something around 85-90 G. That’s the sort of deceleration loading we see in aircraft crashes. For some reference, the regulations only require an airline seat to stay attached to the floor at about 26 G (which is well below the actual survival threshold but that is a topic for another day).

The “compelling natural force” in this case was gravity. It fits perfectly with no need for any outside involvement in the cause of death. The rather clunky wording- which may simply be a result of the way it was translated rather than the actual choice of words by the pathologists and other investigators- is simply a verbose way of saying how deaths due to long falls and so forth would be described. For example, to use the example of a case I am familiar with: “The cause of death in this case is determined to be blunt force trauma to the head, trunk and extremities secondary to massive impact and deceleration forces as a result of a fall onto a concrete sidewalk.” Now, with the Dyatlov Pass wording: “The cause of death in this case is determined to be blunt force trauma to the head, trunk and extremities secondary to compelling natural forces as a result of a fall onto a concrete sidewalk.” See how that works?

So….the “narrative” only shifts if you fail to understand injury patterns. Honestly, anyone using the word “narrative” to describe the explanation of a case like this is probably indicating more about their own biases than they are about the facts. Nothing changed for any investigator who does not have a problem with keeping from drooling on himself or who is not trying to position himself for a book deal. You find bodies at the bottom of a ravine with trauma consistent with a fall….the autopsy and investigation reveals no indication of foul play. Exactly how has the “narrative” shifted from “accidental deaths”?

This brings us to the aspects of the case that are most interesting to me from a professional standpoint: the oft misinterpreted apparent soft tissue “trauma” to Dubinina which is simply the result of postmortem change and really should be described as “artifact”. In other words, nun mein lieber Kinder, repeat after me: decomposition and taphonomic change. She was found prone (lying face down but not necessarily with her face inaccessible) in a wet area sometimes described as being a stream draining the melting snow pack. Her hands were described as “macerated” which is simply a way of implying skin breakdown. This is a common enough finding in bodies from wet environments that it has its own name: "washerwoman’s hands". By the way, chances are probably better than equal that all of the ravine victims had this to some degree.

The fact that her eyes and tongue were reportedly absent is not unusual. Scavengers- crows, ravens, other birds, small mammals like foxes and so forth- all will go after these areas. Absence of the lips is attributable either to decomposition or from scavenging. There is also the possibility- given the impact injuries to her skull and face- that her eyes were traumatically disrupted and her lips and other facial structures were lacerated or avulsed upon impact with decompositional and taphonomic change superimposed over that.

I would argue the scavenging scenario seems more likely but that is dependent largely upon how long the bodies were exposed and to what temperatures following the spring thaw prior to recovery Human decomposition slows to a practical halt once you get down to the range of 34-36 F (a couple of degrees above zero Celsius) and even with an enzyme heavy, bacteria rich area like the human mouth I would be surprised if the decomposition was advanced that quickly in a couple of days. If the interval was longer, decomposition resumes with a speed that is temperature dependent (the faster the temp, the faster the destruction of tissue as a general rule) and thus this becomes a more plausible scenario. Likely there was some interplay between the two but there’s no way at this point to be 100% certain.

A conspiracy theorist who was a child at the time and alleges to have attended the funerals of the initial five victims. He stated that their skin had “deep brown tan”. These were all persons who spent large amounts of time outside. Combine that with the well known reflective effects of snow when it comes to UV light and I do not doubt that these bodies probably had dark tans- at least for the latitude they lived at- simply as a matter of course. This was likely enhanced simply due to drying- desiccation...windburn- commonly seen in mountaineers exposed to high arctic or alpine conditions and high winds. It would become more pronounced with prolonged exposure to cold and wind. Example:

Likewise, bleaching of hair and staining of fingernails is also reported as being present. These are commonplace taphonomic- in other words postmortem- changes secondary to exposure to the elements. Anyone who has experienced their hair lightening in the summer due to ultraviolet light exposure is familiar with a mild form of this effect.

The investigation concluded that a “unknown compelling force” caused these deaths and trekking, skiing and hiking in the area was restricted for safety reasons for three years. This closure has been played up in the “horror/paranormal” community as signs of a government cover-up. It is nothing of the sort. Closures and restrictions of access are common on public lands even in countries that weren’t recently ruled by Joseph Stalin.

If you have someone get killed in an area where camping or hiking permits are required, you may be out of luck if you want to get one. Ever seen a closed ski run? A closed hiking trail in a park? Same concept. It amuses and frustrates the hell out of me that people make something sinister out of the mundane just to make a story more sensational.

Several explanations for why the group fled their tent- and, in some cases, explain the injuries- have been hypothesised over the years including hypothermia, an avalanche, infrasound induced panic, military weapons testing or some combination of these. There are also the almost comically obligatory theories involving aliens and the Russian version of Sasquatch. Those last two are so ludicrous that I am not even going to bother reviewing them.

 

Infrasound Hypothesis

Contrary to what is often mentioned on websites discussing the case, I have not been able to find an independently verified report showing a conclusive case of “panic” induced by infrasound. Infrasound, simply sound that is at or below the normal human threshold of human hearing, is common in nature. Many animals produce it as do musical instruments and many different forms of machinery including fans. It is to a degree responsible for the ethereal or “spooky” feeling associated with many religious sites or locations of events mistaken for “hauntings” or other allegedly “paranormal” events. If you’ve felt a vibration that you couldn’t hear that’s infrasound. Not so scary now is it?

The supposed mechanism behind this “panic” that induced these experienced alpine hikers to flee their campsite, half dressed, in the middle of the sub zero mountain snow storm was something properly called a “Karman vortex street” although it commonly gets the word “wave” added in by people who want to make it sound like it is some huge and unstoppable force. What is it is simply the oscillation of airflow around a cylindrical or other blunt object. You get a “flapping motion” as the air on one side pushes the air on the other side and then it switches to the other side to prevent formation to balance things out.

Karman vortex street

By Jürgen Wagner - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37610334

It is a very common occurrence in nature and in man-made structures. Anyone who has said inside on a blustery night and listened to the wind make the power lines “sing” or “vibrate” or has heard a hum from a car antenna at certain speeds or others has experienced the effect that supposedly led a veteran team of outdoor enthusiasts to make a suicidal charge into a blizzard. It’s even been featured in one of the most famous folk tunes of the 20th century:

“The wind in the wires made a tattle tale sound

and a wave broke over the railing

and every man knew as the captain did too

that it was the 'Witch of November' come stealin’”.

This is a sound that anyone who has spent time in the mountains or at sea- or gone to college in Michigan- is going to recognise instantly even if they might not understand the aerodynamic principle at play and not give a second thought to. Even when you scale it up to something produced by airflow around a mountain or an island….once again, not uncommon and still no cases of panic.

So much for the hypothesis of a novelist would like to paint this as something mysterious and other worldly. By the way, the same person was an executive producer of the first season one of the best true crime series in the past decade in my opinion- The Killing Fields- so I would like to point out that we all make mistakes and people have to be careful to examine their own suppositions even more critically. He was forensically two strikes down after the Dyatlov Pass story and his attempt to cover the death of Kurt Cobain but he knocked it out of the park on the third pitch.

Moving on.

 

Air Mine Hypothesis

The air mine hypothesis is probably one of the more misunderstood aspects of this case. Many descriptions of this case- none of which are primary sources but rather vague mentions of “there are reports that…”- the military was using the area to test “parachute mines”.

Usually there is some mention of something to the effect of “produce similar damage to those experienced by the hikers, heavy internal damage but very little external trauma”. There is also an attempt to link reports- once again, no primary sources beyond the possibly word of a single investigator who only brought this up when media interest started to focus on him- of “glowing orbs” in the area to these tests. I found no documentation of him saying this on any site that was not affiliated with such quack fields as cryptozoology and paranormal “research”. There are several points come to mind about this hypothesis or rather gaping holes you could drive a Soviet T-34 tank through.

First of all, yes, the pressure wave of an explosion can produce damage to internal organs without significant external damage. By “significant external damage”, I mean open wounds on the skin like lacerations or avulsions. You still have findings that a pathologist- especially one in a militaristic dictatorship not even fifteen years after the end of the largest armed conflict this planet has ever witnessed- would recognise as the classic findings of blast over-pressure. There are three kinds of injuries that can result from an explosion commonly referred to as primary, secondary and tertiary mechanisms of trauma.

The easy way to remember them and the way I teach students to recall them is: primary is the “shock wave” or more accurately “blast over-pressure” (referred to by its acronym “BOP” or for the physics nerds out there delta-p (Δp)); this is trauma resulting from the change in air pressure from the explosion.

Secondary and tertiary effects are basically the reverse of each other. A secondary blast injury is what happens when you get hit by shrapnel or fragments of the device or other debris picked up and hurled by the air flow associated with the explosion. Remember that Ron White joke about hurricanes? “It ain’t THAT the wind is blowing, it’s WHAT the wind is blowing” that matters.

A tertiary effect is where YOU get thrown against something and get injured as a result. There’s also probably a Yakov Smirnoff joke in there somewhere too….

However, in an open environment like the shoulder of a mountain 50 miles east of Nowhere-grad, that shock wave does propagate very readily. If you are a considerable distance (which would depend upon the size of ordnance) from it, you might get your eardrums burst but the real threat is going to be shrapnel and pieces of the weapon’s casing. These would cause very obvious. Blood trickling out of the ears, haemorrhages under the mucosae of the gastrointestinal tract, haemorrhages in the brain tissue in severe cases as well as contusion, haemorrhage or oedema- an accumulation of fluid- in the lungs. The latter is commonly referred to as "blast lung: because it is such a well-described associated phenomenon. These primary effects are some of the things that most often kill people who initially survive an explosion. By the way, for those of you playing the home game along with us, external haemorrhage from secondary or tertiary trauma is another. These characteristic injuries which are absent here. The explosion hypothesis simply does not fit.

Just so you have some frame of reference here, there’s a rule in crudely gauging the degree of blast over-pressure involved in an event called the “2/4/10 rule”.

2 lbs per square inch (about 15 kPa) over atmospheric pressure), it will hurt a lot of people in the area, it might kill a few people, it knocks down brick walls and it demolishes wood frame structures.

4 psi (roughly 30 kPa), you hurt EVERYONE around it. Deaths are pretty common and about the only thing that is going to still be standing is reinforced concrete.

10 psi (about 70 kPa for anyone not reading this in the US, Myanmar or Liberia) and you get massive damage to internal organs. It can actually rupture the heart in some people. Externally, this is where you start seeing people who are blown into pieces or where there are limbs or heads torn off.

The other thing that a shock wave would have impacted is the snow pack on this mountainside. If there wasn’t an avalanche before, there sure as hell would have been if you let loose a large enough explosion to kill nine broadly spread out young people. Modern ski resort avalanche safety procedures use artillery rounds (yes, I said artillery rounds) and small explosive charges to trigger avalanches at times when it is safe to do so.

Not only is this quite possibly the most hella balls to the walls bad ass thing you can do with artillery that does not involve raining the several thousand degrees of "F*** you" that is white phosphorus upon terrorists....

....but is also a good example of why if the several magnitudes larger explosion necessary for this theory to work. you would have disrupted the appearance of every bit of snow in the area, probably buried the campsite and wiped away the tracks that helped to locate the bodies.

There also would have likely been branches and even bark stripped from the surrounding trees. Strike...uh...whatever number we’re up to. I’ve stopped counting at this point.

Another argument against this is that when you test a weapon for whatever purpose it is intended, you kind of want to observe it. You want sensors and data. You use an area you have tight control of so your enemies don’t get wind of what you’re working on. You don’t do it at night, in an area where the Soviet equivalent of the gang from Scooby Doo happens to be camping. If you do mess up and wipe out a group of civilians by mistake, you’re a totalitarian regime….why leave the bodies to be found by a search party? This was the height of the power of the KGB who knew more about making their own people vanish into thin air than anyone else in modern history. Another strike against the idea of military involvement.

The coup de grace to this idea is that the same people who claim that the air mines “produce similar damage to those experienced by the hikers, heavy internal damage but very little external trauma” also like to point out that there must be a cover-up because all the released medical documents supposedly contain no information about the presence or absence of trauma to the thoracic and abdominal organs. This may be simply the result of privacy laws. I work with autopsy data in some of my projects and some jurisdictions do not release anything but a basic description of injuries or heavily redact the report.

”Radioactive” clothing has been pointed to by some internet sources...I’ve never seen anything that I would swear to in court so I am not going to put any stock in these claims as they are typical paranormal or “ufology” type conspiracy crap. If this were the case, the ENTIRE site and everything on it would be radioactive. It would likely have been taken up by the trees which would be a testable source through bored samples. Show me some independent scientific test from a reputable dendochronology lab and we’ll revisit this. Until then...it’s idle speculation and probably best viewed as dubious fodder with little to no basis in evidence.

So...why did they flee the tent? It could have been an argument or it might have involved booze. Many accidental hypothermia deaths involve death have alcohol involved and with the postmortem interval here, even if toxicological analysis was performed, it might be difficult to differentiate decomposition induced bacterial production of ethanol from that from ingestion given the state of analytical techniques available at the time. It is worth noting that the only alcohol reported to have been found on site was a small flask of “medicinal alcohol”.

It might have been a minor snow slide burying the tent mistaken by sleeping individuals as the harbinger of a much larger avalanche to come. If I had to put money on a triggering event, this would be it.

It might have been something else completely benign. It may have been that one of the team fled for whatever reason and his or her friends were lost in an ill-conceived rescue attempt.

It honestly doesn't really matter. What matters is that they DID. The end result is the same. The evidence points to no foul play without exception. It was simply a foolish and tragic decision likely made in a blink of the eye. All these years on, why nine good and bright young people did something that got themselves killed will likely never be known. All we can say is that the speculation as to cause has done nothing but disrespect the names of people who probably don’t deserve it. What should happen is simply to learn from them: NEVER make a rash decision in a situation where the environment around you can kill you in a matter of minutes. Plan your actions and act out your plan. Balance each other out if necessary. Checks and balances.

A popular Russian comedy, The Caucasian Prisoner, from preciously close to the time of the Dyatlov Pass tragedy involves a protagonist who is collecting stories and drinking toasts. One of them is: "And so when the flock of birds headed south for the winter, one small but proud bird said, I will fly straight to the sun! She flew higher and higher, but very soon she burned her wings and fell to the very bottom of a deep gorge. So let us drink to this: let not a single one of us ever break away from the collective, no matter how high he flies!"

That seems wise advice (ignoring the communist propaganda overtones), and the drunken protagonist’s response of starting to sob before explaining that “I’m so sorry for the bird!” has become a popular expression in Russian used to break the tension of a situation. When faced with danger or the potential loss of one of our own, we must stick together but we must not be rush in and risk losing more than we are reasonably able to save.

To each and every member of the Dyatlov expedition, let us raise our glasses in toast- but not to clink them as that is not the Russian custom when speaking of the departed- and say “Vechnaya pamyat”. Let him or her always be remembered.