How Science May Have Solved The 62-Year-Old Dyatlov Pass Mystery

by Kristen Mae

It’s 1959, a frigid February in Soviet Russia. At the base of the Ural mountains, a team of investigators surveys a grim, tragic scene. A hiker’s tent lies partially buried in the snow, a gash in the fabric revealing that its inhabitants had apparently cut themselves out from the inside. A short distance from the tent, spread about in the snow, are the bodies — nine of them — several of them in a state of partial undress. Some with only underclothes, some with socks but no shoes, some even with bare feet. More horrifying is that several of the bodies have broken bones, or skulls or chests cracked open. Some are missing their eyes. One is missing a tongue.

The nine young hikers, seven men and two women, had set up camp at the bottom of a gentle slope. Overnight, a blizzard hit, dropping the temperature to a painful minus 19 degrees Fahrenheit. Sometime in the night, for some reason, the hikers cut their way out of their tents and fled out into the driving snow.

Anonymous/Soviet investigators/Wikipedia

A search party was sent out when the hikers didn’t return, discovering their bodies nearly a month after the night of the blizzard. Investigators couldn’t understand why the hikers would exit their tent in that much of a hurry, during a blizzard, without first getting dressed. There was no evidence of an avalanche, and the slope was not considered steep enough to make an avalanche possible. And what of the desecrated bodies? What had happened to these young people?

At the time, it was determined by Russian investigators that all nine hikers died of hypothermia, after rushing out into the freezing night “under the influence of a compelling natural force.” For many years, the public didn’t know much about the incident. Only the hikers’ close friends and family knew what had happened. But in 1990, when a Russian official retired, details of the tragedy became more widely known, arousing public curiosity.

Lacking specifics as to the cause of how the nine hikers died, the incident, known as the Dyatlov Pass mystery, has become a topic of obsessive interest in the Russian zeitgeist, captivating the Russian public in the decades since and generating an array of conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories ranged from failed government experiments to extraterrestrial involvement to Yeti attack. In response to the increasingly wild theories, Russian authorities reexamined the case and determined in 2019 that an avalanche was the primary cause of the hikers’ deaths. But the report left out certain crucial details: most notably, scientific evidence that an avalanche had occurred. Given that the government was not known for its transparency and trustworthiness, accusations of government involvement or some kind of cover up continued to swirl. It’s reminiscent of the American obsession with Area 51, but more intense, as the theories were more commonly believed by Russian citizens.

The conspiracy theories may soon have reason to be laid to rest, though. Finally, a thorough, scientific explanation via a detailed study has been put forth by engineers from Switzerland who study geotechnical, snow, and avalanche forces. Johan Gaume, head of the Snow and Avalanche Simulation Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, told Live Science, “We do not claim to have solved the Dyatlov Pass mystery, as no one survived to tell the story, but we show the plausibility of the avalanche hypothesis [for the first time].”

Boy, do they, and with actual math. The average non-mathematical person would likely experience heart palpitations and cold sweats looking at the equations in this study, but even without being able to understand the complicated chicken scratch, it’s clear that these scientists have put forth a plausible explanation in favor of an avalanche having occurred.

One by one, the scientists address the previous objections to the avalanche hypothesis. Using digital avalanche models, scientists determined that though the slope of the area where the hikers pitched their tent was less than usual for an avalanche, the conditions of that night would have allowed it. The snowfall that was already present, combined with the additional snowfall, high winds, and low temperatures, indeed could have triggered a small avalanche. The hikers had carved out a flat surface in the snow so they could pitch their tent, a common practice at the time. That act also likely contributed to the instability of the snow on the slope above them, even though it was not steep enough to have been cause for concern.

The scientists also determined, in grim detail, how some of the hikers’ blunt force trauma injuries could have been caused by the force of an avalanche hitting the tent. Some of them sustained unusual injuries for an avalanche, but given the group was hit while in a prone position, lying down and without warning, their injuries would not look like the typical injuries that a standing person, likely running away, likely putting hands up over their head, would sustain. It also explained why the group needed to cut themselves out of the tent as opposed to exiting through the tent’s normal opening. The scientists were able to offer a solid, scientific rebuttal to every argument against an avalanche.

Not only did these scientists offer a plausible explanation to solve the Dyatlov Pass Mystery, but through their use of mathematical modeling, they were able to demonstrate the danger of carving cuts in the slope to set up camp. In recent decades, hikers have adopted the practice of carving out snow caves instead, an apparently safer choice.

And, perhaps best of all, with the mystery having been mostly solved, these nine hikers may at last be remembered in the context of a terrible natural disaster, rather than shrouded in conspiracy theories that trivialize what in reality was a tragic loss.