Nine Russian students, experienced hikers – seven men, two women –massacred by an unknown force in the early morning hours of February 2nd 1959 on the high slopes of Kholat Syakhl, a mountain peak in the Northern Ural range.  No one alive knows what happened.

That is, no doubt, a familiar narrative to most readers.  That’s the condensed version of the famous Dyatlov Pass Incident.  The story’s been told over and over; blogs, books, memes, and even movies have explored all that’s known about the Dyatlov party and the events of that mysterious night.  Yet none of us is any closer to knowing what happened to them than were the original search party and investigators.  Fifty-six years on and the best of us are still scratching our heads.

Was it an avalanche?  Infrasound induced delirium and panic?  A fight amongst the group?  An attack by a Mansi raiding party?  A government conspiracy?  Aliens?  Time-travelling Zombies?  Yeti?

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Mike Libecki’s Dyatlov Yeti photo

I kid you not, every one of those ideas – and more – has been considered as a possible cause for their tragic deaths. Some more seriously than others, but all seriously enough.  The official cause of death for all nine hikers is listed as severe hypothermia (they froze-to-death), while the official cause for the incident itself is “a compelling natural force”, and your guess about what that means is as good as mine.  Unofficially, the avalanche theory is most widely accepted; for many people it seems to answer the most questions.  Why did they leave their camp, and without clothing and shoes?  Why did they not immediately return to the camp?  Why did they scatter, instead of sticking together?  It’s a plausible theory, as avalanches in that region are common, and the weather at the time was conducive to such an event, or so we’re told.  It also makes sense that they would have run, in any direction, to avoid being buried alive in their tents.

There’s problems with that theory though, not the least of which is the complete absence of any evidence to indicate that an avalanche had taken place in the area of their camp between February 1st and February 20th (the day the search parties first arrived on scene).  In fact, several footprints from the group were found in the snow within and around the camp, undisturbed.  That’s actually how their bodies were found.

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A topographical map of the Dyatlov Pass area

Each theory above has, understandably, been shot full of holes by researchers and investigators (professional and amateur alike), and at this point we’re left with only one choice…accept the original Russian Interior Ministry’s conclusion that, well we just don’t know what happened.

Not all among us are willing to let it go though.  Especially not the more conspiratorial people who populate the program lineup of The Discovery Channel.

Last summer, the Discovery Channel aired a two-hour special titled Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives, starring avid outdoorsman and self-titled American Explorer Mike Libecki.  The show was the perfect platform for Libecki’s assertion that the Dyatlov party was slaughtered by a crazed Yeti, offering us a smoking gun, as it were, to prove that nothing but an enraged wild-man with super-strength could have inflicted the wounds documented in the official autopsy reports.  Surprisingly, and somewhat credulously, they also presented a photo of the yeti, apparently taken by one of the Dyatlov group, and an original diary entry citing “[they] now know that the snowmen exist”.  (You may be seeing a short promotional video clip of this circulating in your social media feeds.)

Let your mind spin with that information.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  People have been searching for exactly that evidence of a Yeti for decades, perhaps even a century, and The Discovery Channel has provided!

Unfortunately, it’s all nonsense.

Benjamin Radford, of MonsterTalk, the Skeptical Inquirer, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry has provided a blow-by-blow debunking, if you will, of the killer Yeti theory.  He points out the many flaws in Libecki’s reasoning:

  • The wounds inflicted on the Dyatlov party members are consistent with those one would expect to find on a person who had spent two weeks hiking and skiing in the rugged conditions of the Ural mountains, and had then been forced to hurriedly flee their camp in the middle of the night, without clothing or supplies, ultimately falling into a ravine (where the party members who suffered the most grievous injuries were found) and being buried by several meters of snow.
  • The journal entry cited by Libecki is, in light of other evidence, most likely a joking reference to the Yeti as a popular culture icon.
  • The photo, which may or may not be real, provides so little detail that the figure – pointed to by Libecki as direct proof that the Yeti exists – may as well be attributed to one of the hikers themselves.

Radford references a Fortean Times magazine article several times, wherein the authors have provided what can effectively be called a definitive examination of the case (Osadchuk and O’Flynn 2009, 35). Interestingly, they present information which disagrees with Radford on some key points, such as the nature and extent of some of the injuries, the presence of radiation contamination on the hiker’s clothing and equipment, eye witness testimony of strange lights in the area, and the conclusions of the Dyatlov Foundation via the Yekaterinburg Conference in 2008.

A statement issued by the conference committee, which included six members of the original search party and 31 independent experts, blamed the incident on secret military rocket tests conducted by the Russian government in collusion with the Russian Space Agency.  And though – as with all the other theories that exist for The Dyatlov Pass Incident – we lack any direct evidence for the idea, it does seem to be circumstantially valid.

So it seems, even after more than a half-century of close examination and deliberation by many experts and investigators, we still don’t really have any idea what happened that night.  The story remains exactly as it was…

Nine Russian students, experienced hikers – seven men, two women –massacred by an unknown force in the early morning hours of February 2nd 1959 on the high slopes of Kholat Syakhl, a mountain peak in the Northern Ural range.  No one alive knows what happened.

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