The Mystery That Wasn’t

As I’ve stated several times on this site, I write the History Blog mainly because I’m fascinated with interesting little stories that have escaped most people’s attention. At first, I wrote about tiny details of large and familiar events – like the Trent affair of the US Civil War. I then switched to smaller mysteries, like the Waldseemüller map – a map with an accurate depiction of South America, created by a man in Germany several years before Europeans had even seen the western side of the continent. Sometimes, however, “history’s mysteries” don’t quite live up to their hype. Take, for example, the case of the “Dyatlov Pass Incident”.

On January 25, 1959, a group of experienced hikers arrived at a hotel in Ivdel, a city in the northern Ural mountains of Russia. The eight men and two women were either students or alumni of Ural Polytechnical Institute, and were led by a man named Igor Dyatlov. The next morning, Dyatlov took the group by truck to Vizhai, the last inhabited place near their destination – a mountain called Otorten. At that time of year, the route the group planned to take to Otorten’s summit was considered “Category III” – the most difficult. Dyatlov and his group weren’t worried though: they all had plenty of experience with winter hiking. Although it would be difficult, the group was certain that everything would be OK.

Dyatlov had made plans to send a telegram to their hiking club at the university when the group returned to Vizhai, and it was expected that that would happen no later than February 12th. When the day came and went, folks weren’t overly worried. After all, it was a treacherous undertaking, and it wasn’t unreasonable to assume that the group might be delayed a day or two. However, when no one had heard from the group by February 20th, concerned relatives finally convinced the university to send out a volunteer search party. After a few days of fruitless searching, the police and army got involved, and within a day or two of that, Russian authorities ordered that planes and helicopters be brought in to assist the search.

On February 26th, searchers finally found the remains of the group’s campsite… and this is where things got weird. The group’s tent was found damaged beyond repair. Two of the group were found close to the camp, dressed only in their underwear. Three more bodies were found near the camp, but in a different location than the first two. These three bodies had more clothes on than the first two, but were still woefully underdressed for the -22F (-30C) weather. They also appeared to be wearing bits of clothes ripped from others that were already dead. The remaining four hikers (one of the men turned back early in the trip for health reasons) weren’t found until May 4th.

Although all of the corpses had a strange orange tint to them, most of the hikers appeared to be in good physical condition – except for one woman that was missing her tongue! At autopsy, however, one of the men was found to have massive internal head trauma, while two more had severe chest trauma. Also, authorities found high doses of radioactive material in the group’s clothing (but not their bodies). To compound the mystery even further, another group of hikers reported seeing “strange orange spheres” in the night sky in the approximate area of the doomed hikers. Some reports also mention mysterious piles of scrap metal that may (or may not) be connected to the Russian military.

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Although this sounds like a case for Mulder and Scully, the “Dyatlov Pass Incident” appears, under close scrutiny, to be a tragic accident. Although the event is held by many to be some type of alien encounter, Russian military cover-up, or some other such outlandish thing, the fact is almost everything about the incident can be easily explained.

First of all, none of the hikers’ possessions were missing, and there was no evidence of any kind of struggle. So early suggestions that the local Mansi people or Soviet military types killed the hikers can be dismissed immediately.

The lack of clothing on the victims can be easily explained. When the human body first gets hypothermia, the blood vessels constrict, limiting the flow of blood to the extremities in order to keep the internal organs warm. When a person in an advanced hypothermic state nears death, the blood vessels “give up” and relax, causing blood to again flow to the extremities. This causes most people to feel a “hot flash”, and many in this confused state take off their clothes to combat the overwhelming warmth they now feel. Although it’s not common for people in the late stages of extreme hypothermia to survive (they’re usually trapped in the wilderness, remember), enough have survived that this is a well documented phenomenon. In fact, it even has a name: paradoxical undressing.

The “orange skin” on the victims? Most of us call that “sunburn”. Although most folks think of tropical beaches when they hear the word “sunburn”, it’s actually quite easy to get a sunburn in snowy areas. The UV radiation that causes sunburn reflects off the snow and burns skin just as easily as it does on a beach. There are also indications that at least some members of the group experienced snowblindness, a condition in which the the cornea and conjunctiva are literally sunburned by the UV radiation (this is the reason that skiers wear those dorky “wraparound” sunglasses). The remains of a campfire were found at the site, and reports say that members of the group pulled damp branches directly off of trees to use as fuel, instead of using dry brushwood which was abundant in the area. This suggests that someone was using the sense of feel instead of sight to get wood for the fire.

The woman’s missing tongue? It’s most likely that it was eaten by a wild animal after her death.

The severe trauma suffered by the some of the group and the damage to the tent? Well, it’s thought by most to have been caused by a small avalanche. This might seem unlikely, given that the tent and campfire were not buried, but the four hikers that were not found until May were found buried in 13 feet of snow – far more than had fallen naturally between the time the group left Vizhai and the day the remaining bodies were found.

The tales of the mysterious “orange spheres”? Well, no one is calling the other group of hikers liars, but no one else reported such a thing, and no commercial or military aircraft were known to have been in the area at that time. It’s hard to know what, exactly, this group saw. I don’t believe in flying saucers, but I do believe that people are seeing something in the skies. Perhaps it was balls of gas, a reflection of something from miles away, or something else entirely. Given how poorly humans judge both the size and speed of things moving in the sky, the “spheres” could have simply been the lights from a commercial aircraft miles away, magnified by the night air, which was full of moisture.

And lastly… the radiation. This part is actually somewhat controversial. Many insist that the “radiation aspect” of the story was added much later, and that there’s no evidence whatsoever that radiation was found at all at the site. And, in fact, they would be right. There is no mention of any type of radiation at the original inquest. Others believe that the radiation was real, but can’t be proven thanks to the secrecy of the then-Communist government.

We’ll never know for sure what really happened on that cold Russian mountain. Although the events around the incident do seem strange – it’s not for nothing that the incident has spawned hundreds of pages at UFO and conspiracy websites – it appears that the “Dyatlov Pass Incident” is nothing more than a tragic hiking accident.

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