The Dyatlov pass accident and the fatal “unknown compelling force”
by Andy Kaiser
Article ID: 127
What was the Dyatlov pass accident?
On January 28, 1959, ten experienced cross-country skiers left for a skiing expedition. They headed for the Otorten Mountain range in the northern Urals. One skier fell ill and had to turn back. The remaining nine skiers left him behind and continued their journey. They were led by Igor Dyatlov, 23, from whom the accident and location were named:
What happened next is partially conjecture, partially reconstructed from search party evidence, and photos and journals from the deceased.
The skiers never returned from their trip. On February 26, 1959, searchers found the group’s tent “half torn and covered with snow”. While no one was in the tent, the group’s belongings, including shoes and clothing, had been left behind. Footprints were in the snow around the tent, indicating people wearing socks, one shoe or no footwear at all. Below is a picture of the tent as it was found by the search party:
Two bodies were found almost two kilometers down the mountainous slope, near a forest. Both were barefoot and dressed only in underwear. The remains of a fire were nearby. Branches on a nearby tree were broken up to five meters high, and some branches remained in the snow.
Three more bodies were found between the first two bodies and the tent. The positioning of these three was such that it seemed they’d been trying to return to the tent when they were overcome by the cold.
While these five died of hypothermia, one had a fractured skull (this was considered not fatal).
Four more bodies were found in a nearby ravine. Buried in snow, they seem to have suffered traumatic deaths: one suffered a crushed skull. Two others, multiple broken ribs. A fourth was missing her tongue. Adding to this, these bodies showed “no external wounds”, as would be seen from a physical attack by human or animal.
These latter four were dressed warmly. The first five were not, and some were wearing parts of the others’ clothes. It seems that those who died last removed clothes from those who died first.
The clothes all contained high levels of radiation. A source for this contamination was not found.
After the funerals, relatives said the victims’ skin had a “strange orange tan”, and that they were completely grey-haired.
Reconstructions of the victims’ behavior indicated that they may have been blinded. An example is that the victims broke wet tree branches to start their campfire, though there was good dry kindling nearby.
While treated as a crime scene, the investigation ceased officially in May 1959 due to the absence of a guilty party. The group was deemed to have died from an “unknown compelling force”.
During the night of this tragedy, another group of hikers 50 kilometers south reported they saw “strange orange spheres” in the northern sky. Similar spheres were seen in nearby cities during February through March of 1959. Witnesses included a weather service and the military.
On February 2, 2008 six of the rescuers and over 30 independent experts gathered together to examine the facts and look for answers. They concluded that the deaths were caused accidentally by military testing.
That’s a horribly mundane end to a frightening, confusing and exciting story. Other theories as to what happened at the Dyatlov pass accident include encounters with UFOs, Yeti, “mountain madness” or a group of murderous natives in the area.
One of the points of this article is to illustrate that, while the above pseudo-scientific explanations may sound better or make a better movie, scientific analysis can and does prove them wrong, or far less probable. In addition, there are many explanations as to the “unexplainable” facts from the Dyatlov pass accident. These make far more sense than assuming the Dyatlov pass accident was supernatural.
Summarized, here’s a list of the Dyatlov pass accident facts:
The victims’ tent was “cut from the inside”.
Five in the group exited the tent wearing little or no clothing. Four others were dressed normally.
There were many internal injuries and broken bones, but little or no external damage was found.
One person was missing her tongue.
The victims had a “strange orange tan” and grey hair at their funeral.
High levels of radiation were found at the scene of the accident and on the victims’ clothes.
Some of the victims may have been blinded.
There were “strange orange spheres” in the sky during the time of the Dyatlov pass accident.
Now let’s examine each fact:
The victims’ tent was “cut from the inside”: Here are a couple of photos taken by the search party, showing the cuts or tears in the tent material:
Two things strike me:
1) How can you tell this material was “cut from the inside”? It looks like a thin fabric, even degraded and worn, and not thick enough to indicate from which side an incision came from.
2) The tent itself looks like canvas. If you try to tear canvas, you’ll get a tear that goes in a straight line, similar to what you see on the topmost photo.
It seems just as probable that the “cutting” of the tent was due to the tent being physically abused or stressed in some way. And even if people were truly cutting the tent from inside, remember that there were nine people in this expedition: if you wanted to leave a nine-person tent as quickly as possible (as evidence seems to point) and you were number eight or nine, would you want to wait for everyone to shuffle through? If you had a knife handy (and seasoned outdoors-men and women certainly would) and thought this was a life-or-death issue, why not cut your way out?
Summary: The tent being torn or even cut from the inside is unremarkable given the situation.
Five in the group exited the tent wearing little or no clothing. Four others were dressed normally: Again, all evidence seems to point to a hurried, panicked exit. Being in a tent full of nine people would get pretty warm, and the skiers may have been sleeping. If this was something like missile testing being performed nearby, I too would try to get away as quickly as possible, regardless of how much I was wearing. I was not able to find how cold it was during the Dyatlov pass accident. But it was warm enough for the skiiers to survive for a time outside the tent. If it was bearable for a time, and I was in a panic, I could easily understand wanting to leave immediately, and find shelter after the immediate crisis is finished.
Finally, there is an established connection with victims of hypothermia being naked or undressed.
Summary: The partial nudity of the victims is unremarkable given the situation.
There were many internal injuries and broken bones, but little or no external damage was found: It’s difficult to analyze this without knowing more about the situation. Did the victims with broken ribs show any skin bruising? When you break bones and suffer internal injuries, there is hemorrhaging. Were there bruises but no breaks in the skin? Finally, depending on the weather and the condition of the bodies (most of who died from exposure), was the search party experienced enough to make a proper medical diagnosis with weathered and frostbitten bodies?
Summary: Due to the age of the accident and the lack of information, this probably can’t be answered conclusively.
One person was missing her tongue: The tongue could have been removed from a scavenging animal. It also could’ve been bitten off due to the panic, related physical accident, or death throes.
Summary: The removed tongue is not surprising when you consider this was a horrible accident and a panic situation.
The victims had a “strange orange tan” and grey hair at their funeral: Consider that all the bodies were physically damaged and suffered from frostbite and exposure for weeks. And yet the funerals were open-casket. I would think the “strange orange tan” could easily be one of two things:
1) A mortician doing the best job possible to make the deceased look presentable, when dealing with skin that was previously frostbitten, bruised and exposed to the elements.
2) When I go skiing on a sunny day, I get a sunburn if I don’t wear sunscreen. I don’t think sunscreen was as prevalent in the 1950s as now, and this group was skiing for weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised if all had heavy tans or sunburns.
The grey hair may have again been the mortician trying to do the best job with the remains he/she had. If fake hair or powder was used for coloring or styling, and the fake hair color didn’t match the original, this is one of those tales that could easily grow with the telling. In addition, it is a myth that someone’s hair can turn white from a shock or fright. It doesn’t, but claiming something similar here could add to the mystery of the Dyatlov pass accident. The story, after all, has had half a century to develop.
Summary: The “strange orange tan” is explainable. The grey hair is most likely a misinterpretation of the mortician’s work or a gradual exaggeration of the facts.
High levels of radiation were found at the scene of the accident and on the clothes of the victims. Some of the victims may have been blinded. There were “strange orange spheres” in the sky during the time of the Dyatlov pass accident.
All these facts can be explained by weapons testing.
Summary: The high radiation, blinded victims and orange spheres in the sky can be explained by military-grade weapons testing. The secretive nature of a 1950s USSR makes this impossible to confirm.
The Dyatlov Pass Accident is truly a horrible accident, and a fascinating story. But one doesn’t need to look at influence from UFOs, Yeti, or other supernatural explanations, or even an “unknown compelling force”. A bit of critical thinking and skeptical analysis tells the story: A group of very unlucky people stumbled into some weapons testing. The Dyatlov Pass Accident was a terrible event, but hardly a mystery. Those nine people just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
References and more information about the Dyatlov Pass Accident:
Wikipedia article and more detail about the Dyatlov Pass Accident
“The Deadly Case of 9 Fleeing Skiers“, by By Svetlana Osadchuk
Russian-language Journal of Youth Engineering by Ivan Sobolev
Pictures used without permission from the following links: