The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident

Aimee Heidelberg - May 25, 2023

The Dyatlov Pass Incident sounds like something out of a movie. Nine skilled young hikers set out with leader Igor Dyatlov to reach the summit of Mount Otorten. They were experts in outdoor survival and serious about their sport, but not so serious that they wouldn’t stop and mug for a camera. They set out on trains, trucks, carts, and eventually skis to earn the highest hiking certification. Just as they were about to achieve their goal, disaster struck. Searchers found the bodies of all nine hikers over the next three months, some sporting severe injuries and missing clothes. The tent was slashed open from the inside for a quick escape. But there is no record of what could have panicked the group so much that they would run outside. They fled despite dangerous outdoor conditions, dying of hypothermia and injury. The night the hikers died was the night a mystery was born.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Igor Dyatlov, leader.

The Dyatlov Group Comes Together

On January 23, 1959, ten hikers left Sverdlosk on a train for a fun winter adventure. The group planned to hike to Mount Otorten to earn their Grade III hiking rating, the highest level of difficulty and expertise in outdoor certification. Igor Dyatlov the leader, was a radio engineering student, skilled equipment builder and member of the Ural Polytechnic Institute (UPI)’s Tourist Society. He 16 hikes on his record, leading nine (including the fatal hike). He planned a hike that would take 16 to 18 days, routed along through the cities of Serov and Ivdel, stopping at the Vizhai camp. The route then took them into the wilderness, along the Lozva River and to Mount Otorten. The Sverdlosk city route commission approved the plan. Dyatlov recruited nine of his friends for the expedition, students or recent graduates of Ural Polytechnic Institute (UPI).

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Kolevatov and Thibeaux-Brignolle having a laugh.

The Dyatlov Group from Ural Polytechnic Institute (UPI)

Among the group was Zinaida “Zina” Kolmogorova, a popular fellow student of radio engineering and, along with Dyatlov, a member of the UPI Tourist Society. Joining them was Yuri Doroshenko. Doroshenko, Zina’s ex-boyfriend and a radio engineering student, served on the board of the UPI sports club. Fellow student Aleksandr Kolevatov, a physics and technology student at UPI, was a serious sort, but pictures show him smiling and jovial with the group. Civil engineering student Lyudmila “Lyuda” Dubinina, like Kolevatov, Lyuda tended toward the serious side, but she was tough. On a 1957, a hunter accidentally shot Lyuda in the leg, but like a trooper, she kept going with her group. Yuri Yudin, an economics and geology student, rounded out the UPI group. Yudin was a quiet student of economic s and geology, and despite his chronic health problems.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Dubinina stands with Krivonischenko, Thibeaux-Brignolle and Slobodin.

Dyatlov’ s UPI Alumni Friends Join the Group

Not all of Dyatlov’s party were UPI students. There were recent graduates among them. These included Nikolay Thibeaux-Brignolle, the funny, fun-loving outdoorsman, whose family endured difficulty while his father served time in a Gulag during the Stalin regime. His tall, floppy hat, and lopsided grin lets makes him stand out in all the photos of the hikers. There was Rustem “Rustik” Slobodin, son of a professor and despite being the quiet sort, had a good sense of humor and was skilled at the mandolin. Georgy Krivonischenko, who, like Slobodin and Thibeaux-Brignolle, recently graduated UPI, was friends with Dyatlov and invited on the adventure. He was an engineer at the Mayak nuclear complex, but an artist at heart, playing the mandolin and writing poetry.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Thibeaux-Brignolle (left) and Zolotaryov (right) ham it up for the camera.

…And, Mysteriously, So Does a Random Older Guy

At the last minute, Dyatlov was informed they would be joined by Semyon Zolotaryov. Zolotaryov was an outsider. He was older than the rest at thirty-seven, and a veteran of World War II. His tattoos and mustache visually set him apart from the group. None of the other hikers knew Zolotaryov, but photographs show he was able to match the rest of the group in humor and stamina. He and Thibeaux-Brignolle became close friends during the trek, a camaraderie that can be seen in the group’s photos. Zina’s diary from 24 January 1959 said of Zolotaryov, “With us is sr. instructor of the Kaurov sport base Aleksander [one of Seymon’s other names] Zolotaryov. He knows a lot of songs, it’s just happy somehow that we are learning new songs.”

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Doroshenko, Yudin, Dyatlov, Thibeaux-Brignolle, Dubinina, Zolotaryov, Slobodin. Kolmogorova in front.

The Journey

The group began their journey in Sverdlosk on January 23, 1959, leaving the comforts of their homes for the outdoor adventure. They made the stop at Serov and Ivdel along the way toward the Auspiya River toward their end goal, Mount Otorten. During the trek, the hikers documented their trip in a journal and in photographs, recording the jovial journey of a group who sang, played, skied, argued, and mugged for the camera. Ten days after they left Sverdlosk, they made their way up the slope called Kholat Saykhl Mountain, and decided to make camp at elevation 1079. They dug a shelter to create a level, solid foundation for their tent that would protect them from the poor weather conditions. And that began the most horrific night of their short lives.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
The group heads up the slope, pictured by Krivonischenko.

Lost and Found

The students were due to return on 12 February 1959 and send notice to the UPI sports club. There was no notice. Their worried families appealed to the authorities to search for the students. Search parties began looking for the hikers on February 20. They found the abandoned tent on the slope February 26, with food laid out, Dyatlov’s stove left disassembled, and a cup of hot chocolate prepared but not consumed. UPI, Mansi people, and Soviet officials searched the area. They found Krivonischenko and Doroshenko under a cedar tree 1.5 kilometers (.9 miles) from the tent, dead of hypothermia despite the small campfire they made. Searchers found Dyatlov, Kolmogorova, and Slobodin at various points up the slope, as if they were trying to make their way back to the tent.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Dubinina, Zolotaryov, Thibeaux-Brignolle, and Kolevatov were found in a ravine.

The Group in the Ravine

Searchers found the remaining members of the group in May of 1959 in a ravine. Dubinina, Zolotaryov, and Thibeaux-Brignolle had fatal injuries, including broken ribs and a fractured skull. Dubinina and Zolotaryov’s eyes were missing. Dubinina’s tongue was missing, having been in contact with running water before her discovery. Kolevatov had minor injuries, dying of hypothermia instead. The condition of the ravine bodies would be the cause of speculation and theories; they were in far worse shape than the bodies found in February after being exposed to warmer temperatures. The bodies lay in melting ravine water, aiding the decomposition process, leaving them in considerably worse shape than the first five of the hikers the searchers previously found.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
The cedar and remains of a campfire, where Doroshenko and Krivonischenko were found.

The Official Story of the Cedar and Slope Groups

In late May of 1959, Sverdlosk prosecutor Lev Ivanov closed the criminal case on the Dyatlov tragedy. The Russian investigation found that an “unknown compelling force which the hikers were unable to overcome” made them cut the tent open to flee as fast as they could. They ran into the nearby forest in below-freezing temperatures. At a cedar tree, some of the hikers, probably Doroshenko and Krivonischenko, started a small fire, but it wasn’t enough to keep the group alive for the night. They fled the tent too fast to grab their winter weather gear, so Kolmogorova, Slobodin, and Dyatlov, attempted to get back to the tent, but froze to death on the slope, exposed to the elements and possibly unable to see the tent in the dark. Doroshenko and Krivonischenko died next to the fire at the cedar tree (WARNING: Link contains images of human remains).

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
The group found in the ravine tried to build a shelter.

The Official Story of the Ravine Group

Zolotaryov, Dubinina, and Thibeaux-Brignolle died as they tried to build a shelter, not knowing they were digging a perch of snow over a ravine. As they dug, the snow shelf collapsed into the raving, causing them to drop about nine feet onto rocks, fatally injuring them. Kolevatov was found in the ravine as well, but did not sustain the crash injuries of the other three. The official cause of death was hypothermia for most of the hikers, with Thibeaux-Brignolle, Zolotaryov, and Dubinina sustaining fatal injuries similar to a car crash. But the official story has a major hole. What was that “compelling natural force” that drove the students from the protection of their tent? For over sixty years, this has been a puzzle for amateur sleuths, case experts, and scientists.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Kolevatov, Dorshenko, Kolmogorova, Dubinina on the trail.

The Rise of Dyatlov Theories

The official Russian investigation said there was no third party involved in the incident, that the hikers ran out of their tent for their own reasons. But lingering questions haunt the case: What would make nine hikers, high level hikers with significant experience, suddenly flee their tent in deadly temperatures? Especially without their winter gear – even boots – and leaving a meal uneaten?? What was the “compelling natural force” that resulted in the death of nine young, healthy, fun-loving hikers in the Ural mountains? It is unlikely that these questions will ever be answered with 100% certainty, but over the years some compelling theories, over 75 of them, have tried to explain the events at elevation 1079 on February 1, 1959. The theories run from the fantastical to the criminal to nature’s wrath.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
The image that sparked the Yeti theory.

The Yeti Theory

“Science: In recent years there has been a heated debate about the existence of the Yeti. Latest evidence indicates that the Yeti lives in the northern Urals, near Mount Otorten.” These words were found written in a satirical newsletter the hikers wrote on their last day. But these flippant words have sparked the interest of cryptozoologists. This theory is the subject of a show, Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives that aired on the Discovery Channel in 2014. They point to the image above, found on Thibeaux-Brignolle film roll. The image shows a human form (head, arms, walking on two legs). But the image also resembles one of the hikers at a distance, wearing the standard thick jacket with a hood that most of the hikers wore on the trail. There is a clear difference in the upper half of the person in the photograph, right where a jacket would lie.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
The frame before the ‘Yeti’ picture. Thibeaux-Brignolle wearing his tall hat and winter jacket.

Arguing the Yeti

Aside from the lack of verifiable, peer-reviewed scientific evidence to support the existence of a Yeti, the theory does not stand up to scrutiny. There were no non-human or unaccounted footprints around the tent. A Yeti rampaging through a barren mountainside would leave at least a minimal impression in the snow (unless the beast is capable of levitation, too, although this would be where the ‘Aliens’ theories could step in). Also, the group’s newsletter was entirely satirical, poking fun at members of the group, of the expedition, and their surroundings. Had they seen something to fear, and managed to photograph it, it would not have been a joke, nor would they have continued to go deeper into its territory. Yet Thibeaux-Brignolle’s camera took the “Yeti” image well before they reached the mountain slope. The Yeti theory is a grand tale, but that’s about it for this theory.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Zolotaryov (left), with Doroshenko (middle) and Dyatlov (right).

Embedded KGB Agents

The Embedded KGB Agent theory could be the plot of a good Cold War spy novel. It suggests Zolotaryov, Kolevatov, and Krivonischenko, were KGB agents. The other hikers did not know of their secret mission. They were to root out an American CIA cell. The three would deliver radioactive materials to CIA agents, pretending to be cooperate with the USA. But the three were to photograph the agents so the KGB would be able to identify them, double-crossing the CIA. The meeting went wrong, the U.S. CIA agents figured out the betrayal, and killed the group in a melee worthy of an action movie. This is why there was radiation on some of the hiker’s clothes and perhaps why the Russian officials had a technician measure the site with a Geiger counter to measure radiation levels. Friends and family of the hikers do not support this theory.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Eastern Urals State Reserve, near Mayak Kystym nuclear disaster. Ecodefense, Heinrich Boell Stiftung Russia, Alla Slapovskaya, Alisa Nikul

There is a much more mundane explanation for radiation.

In 1957, having graduated UPI, Krivonischenko was an engineer at the Chelyabinsk-40 (Mayak) nuclear weapons facility on the cleanup of a storage disaster that contaminated 23,000 square kilometers (9,000 square miles) of land in the southern Ural region. According to Krivonischenko’s brother, there was “a fairly large emission of radiation.” In 1958, Krivonischenko tried to quit due to “complete unwillingness to work in the system.” His clothes tested positive for radiation, as did Zina’s, who had lived in the contaminated zone. Krivonischenko’s clothes could have picked up radiation during his work on the cleanup site. His parents kept a suitcase of his things, with mittens, a hat, a sweatshirt, and other items. His siblings were afraid of the suitcase, thinking the items inside might be radioactive. They buried the suitcase after their mother died. Krivonischenko could have reasonably brought some of his contaminated clothing on the Dyatlov hiking trip.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Cold war era missle. foundin_a_attic (2019)

Rocket Weapons Testing

On March 2, 1959, a radiogram was sent to search headquarters, saying, “…the main mystery of the tragedy remains the exit of the entire group out of the tent…The reason could be any extraordinary natural phenomenon, such as the flight of a meteorological rockets, observed on the 1st of February in Ivdel, and by Karelin’s group.” The theory is that the Dyatlov group witnessed a top-secret rocket experiment or weapons test. The military killed the group to keep the program quiet. They staged the bodies around the slope at elevation 1079 to create a different story. The military, then, staged the crime scene to make it look like a “compelling natural disaster” with no known origin. They edited the hiker’s journals to support the staged crime scene. The whole rescue effort was a show to soothe the families and to put on a show for the public.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Lyuda Dubinina hugs Yuri Yudin, as he departs the group. Igor Dyatlov looks on.

Military Involvement – Believed but No Hard Evidence

In 2008, a joint conference between the Ural State Technical University (formerly Ural Polytechnical Institute) and the Dyatlov Group Memorial Foundation lay the blame on military testing. According to Igor Dyatlov’s sister Tatyana, Dyatlov’s parents, along with other families of the nine hikers, believe this theory. So does Yuri Kuntsevich, director of the Dyatlov Foundation and lifelong case researcher. Yuri Yudin, the Dyatlov hiker who left the group early for health reasons, also believed his friends were killed on purpose. Despite being an ardent Communist and Soviet patriot, Yudin felt there were government forces at work. But other researchers claim rocket and missle tests were based in Siberia, not the Ural mountains. There is no known evidence that the military was allegedly testing parachute mines in the area. No reported evidence of metallic shards from nearby weapons testing were found in the area.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
The last image on Krivonischenko’s film roll taken on or after the day of his death.

Balls of Light. Light Orbs

Indigenous Mansi who lived in the area at the time saw a phenomenon they could not explain. A Mansi woman who saw it said to BBC reporter Lucy Ash, “We were coming back from the forest and we could see the village ahead of us. This bright, burning object appeared. It was wider at the front, and narrower in the back, and there were sparks flying off it.” She says village elders warned that it was a bad omen. Vladislav Karelin, a member of the 1959 search party, says the search team saw a fireball move from east to west, with other witnesses saying it moved from south to north, indicating some sort of object that had control of its movement, like a missile. Oxidizer and debris from the rockets, raining down on the tent, would have caused “confusion and pain” that drove the hikers out of their tent.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Search party probes the ground for the missing hikers.

Can something so big remain a secret?

Dyatlov’s sister Tatyana tells the BBC, “The families were told, ‘You will never know the truth, so stop asking questions…Don’t forget, in those days if they told you to shut up, you would be silent.” Contrary to the belief of Dyatlov families, Yudin, and other people who have studied the ‘military involvement’ theory, Natalia Varsegova, a researcher with “biggest selling newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, has a different take on the matter, “If the young people had been killed by an experiment, there is no way the military would have allowed ordinary civilians, friends of the students, to join the search party on that mountain…one of the soldiers would have let it slip before he died – someone would have said something in drunk company. We live in a country where nobody can keep any secrets.”

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Vortex seen in cloud formation, off cost of Jeju, South Korea. NASA, Public Domain

Natural Event – Infrasound

Researcher Donnie Eichar, a filmmaker who traveled to the Dyatlov Pass in 2013, subscribes

to the infrasound theory. Infrasound, in this case, was from a natural flow of wind moving down the slope toward the hikers. It produced vortex, creating small tornadoes. While these tornados were far enough away from the Dyatlov tent to avoid damage, the sound (both audible and inaudible) impacted the hikers. Infrasound produces vibrations that humans cannot hear, but react to physically. It also causes nausea, confusion, delirium, and may have reached a point where the hikers could not stand being confined to a tent. Working with a NOAA, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Eichar suggests infrasound drove the hikers from their tent, and once out, they couldn’t find their way back in. It was too dark, too stormy, and the cold was already affecting them.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
The Dyatlov tent, showing cuts.

Infrasound counterarguments

All nine hikers would have had to reach a frenzied point from the infrasound that they evacuated as fast as they could without grabbing outdoor gear. They would have known the dangers. And the physical impact of infrasound that would cause a panic to get out of the tent would have had to reach such a pitch that they felt the need to cut their way out of the tent instead of using the entryway. The entryway had several layers and closed with toggles. The entryway would have required some extra seconds to open, but the hikers would also have known that cutting open their tent would damage it severely. To be useful for the rest of their trip, the tent would have needed extensive repair. And the panic would have to happen to all of them nearly simultaneously.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Krivonischenko looks at Mansi markings on a tree. The markings indicate hunting conditions.

Indigenous Mansi

The hikers wrote several journal entries and took photographs of Mansi markings on the trees. Indigenous Mansi in the area led a semi-traditional way of life, hunting, fishing, and herding reindeer. Despite their hold on tradition, they adopted some of the modern technology and lifestyle of Russian and Soviet culture. This theory suggests the hikers crossed into Mansi territory. The Mansi were known to have been in the region; a Mansi chum (a temporary shelter) was found 61 meters (200 feet) from the Dyatlov camp. Perhaps the hikers stumbled into a religious, sacred area, or Mansi-claimed hunting areas. Or maybe some Mansi wanted to rob the hikers and steal their gear, given the difficulties of living in the Kholat Syakhl region. Mansi would have known how to assault the hikers and cover their tracks, using their advanced hunting skills.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Rustem Slobodin examining Mansi markings.

Mansi Theft Theory

Investigators quickly disproved the idea that the Mansi wanted to rob the hikers. The group’s valuables were still in the tent, including cameras, alcohol, boots, clothes, and food. There were 1,685 rubles, the group’s budget for the trip. Rustem Slobodin alone had 310 rubles, found later in his pockets. There would have been plenty of time for the Mansi to loot the site. They would have been free to take anything they could use and dispose of the remaining items, including the tent and personal effects. They could have erased any evidence of the hiker’s presence in the area. Blaming the Mansi was an easy route, and there were Mansi arrested and questioned, but the Soviet investigators found no evidence against members of the Mansi tribe.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Krivonoschenko’s photo of Mansi tree markings.

Mansi theory: Unlikely

The Mansi were not violent people. They were “well disposed toward Russians” after living with Russian and Soviet influences for generations. In addition to their nonviolent nature, Mansi hunters participated in the search party. But one of the main theories, that the hikers had wandered into sacred territory or into areas protected by Mansi, was disproven quickly. The Dyatlov hikers were not on sacred Mansi property. There was no known Mansi religious significance to the area at all. In fact, Mansi didn’t much care about that area at all. It was useless for hunting because it was so barren and windy. In 2019, journalist Lucy Ash of the BBC met with members of the Mansi tribe. Valery Anyamov, whose father helped search for the missing hikers, made it clear that the name Mount Otorten, long believed to mean “Don’t Go There,” actually means “Mountain with Swirling Winds.”

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Wet slab avalanche near Tenmile Range, Colorado, USA. Runningonbrains (2019)

2019 Snow Slab Theory

In 2019, Russian authorities, led by prosecutor Andrei Kuryakov, looked at the Dyatlov Pass incident again. Kuryakov’s study found that the “compelling natural force” was a snow slab avalanche. In a snow slab avalanche, the surface layer of snow is compact, dense, and heavy. This snow beneath this crust is weaker. When the crust breaks free from the underlying weaker snow, it forms a slab that moves down a slope. The theory says digging out the upper layer snow around the tent to make a level place to camp weakened the snow crust. As the winds blew (possibly 104.6 kph, or 65 mile per hour katabatic winds), it could have destabilized. If additional snow had blown onto the slab and added weight, or strong winds pushed on the slab, it could have forced a slab avalanche.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident

Questions about the 2019 Snow Slab Theory

The report couldn’t explain, scientifically, how an avalanche could happen without leaving any evidence around the tent site. They dug into the snow on the side of a slope. The angle of the slope wasn’t steep enough to trigger an avalanche. Additionally, the hole the Dyatlov group dug for the tent had been created at least nine hours before the supposed avalanche. If the snow were unstable, it would have collapsed soon after it was dug out, not nine hours late. Nor was there any reported snowfall in the area. Snowfall could have added weight to the snow on the top of the slope and cause an avalanche. Nor did the footprints around the tent indicate a panicked, rapid exit, possibly assisting injured friends. But the 2019 findings inspired the next avalanche theory.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Puzrin and Gaume theory of snow strata after Dyatlov group dug out tent site. Image, Puzrin and Gaume (2021)

2021 Avalanche Theory of Puzrin and Gaume

Geotechnical engineer Alexander Puzrin of the ETH Zürich and Johan Gaume of the Snow Avalanche Simulation Laboratory at EPFL tackled the question of why an avalanche wouldn’t have happened until well into the night when the hikers dug the tent site in the evening. They found the shallow slope was, actually, not too shallow for an avalanche. The slope is close to 30 degrees, enough for an avalanche. The appearance of the snow layers make it appear shallower than it is. Snow conditions made avalanche even more likely. There was no snow the night of the Dyatlov tragedy. As with the 2019 snow slab theory, the dense top layer of snow slides over a weaker underlayer. When the Dyatlov group dug the pit for their tent, it destabilized the crusty layer. It held for a while, then slid. The slab slid down over the weak underlayer and toward the tent.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
The group digs out the snow for their final campsite.

Small Avalanche Hides its Own Evidence

The destabilization happened when extra snow piled on the destabilized layer. Even though there wasn’t snow that night, Katabatic winds, could have carried snow to just the wrong place. Katabatic winds are winds that blow down hills as gravity pulls higher density air downward, letting the lower density air rise. That snow would have accumulated just enough over time (hours, event) to cause a slab to roll down the hill. Puzrin and Gaume ran simulations, finding the avalanche might not have been much more than a rush of snow and ice about 4.9 meters (16 feet). This was just enough to fill the pit dug by the Dyatlov group. It was covered by fresh snowfall before the search parties discovered the tent site 26 days later. The avalanche would have ‘disappeared’ without a trace.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Ice sculpture of Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. Steven Lek (2015)

Anna and Elsa Contribute to Dyatlov Research

The computer snow animation used in the movie Frozen impressed Puzrin and Gaume. They connected with Disney’s snow effects specialist, who shared the movie’s code. The research team changed the code to simulate the impacts of a small avalanche on the human body. They applied General Motor’s seatbelt safety cadaver crash test results. These tests revealed different scenarios about heavy snow impact on the hikers as they were in the tent. They found cadaver test results that most resembled the tent setup, where the hikers lay their skis under the tent to create a rigid platform to sleep on. This allowed the team to run scenarios about how the tent and the hikers would have held up under even a smaller avalanche, one that would hit the tent and fill the pit, but not have much impact to the surrounding area.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Puzrin and Gaume’s theory of how a snow slab could cause injury to the human body. Image, Puzrin and Gaume (2021)

How Puzrin and Gaume’s Theory Causes Injury

As the hikers slept, the mound of dense snow, possibly a slab, rolled down the slope and onto the rigid surface. This held them in place, and caused severe injuries like broken ribs and skull fracture. It can take time for these injuries to kill someone. The hikers would not have known whether the first avalanche was the whole incident. It could have been followed by a larger, more deadly avalanche. This could, feasibly, have prompted them to flee the tent as fast as possible. Professional mountaineer Freddie Wilkinson, speaking with National Geographic magazine said, “Some slabs can be quite hard, and it’s very plausible they can result in blunt trauma wounds.”

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
The Dyatlov group in their full winter weather gear.

Puzrin and Gaume: Dyatlov group did NOT take unnecessary risk

Puzrin and Gaume recognizes the expertise of Dyatlov and the other eight hikers. They say even professional guides and mountaineers can be caught off guard by nature. Gaume says to National Geographic, “People don’t want it to be an avalanche. It’s too normal.” He notes that nobody will ever know completely what happened to the Dyatlov hikers. But the testing offers a reasonable explanation of the “compelling natural force” that drove the hikers out of the tent without proper gear for the freezing night, and toward their death. The researchers attempt to only address the cause of the “compelling natural force” behind the evacuation. They do not look in to the other controversies such as the traces of radioactivity on some of the hiker’s clothes, what happened after the hikers left the tent, the state of their bodies at the site, or autopsy findings.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
The tent as searchers found it, with vertical elements intact and partially buried.

Avalanche Counterargument

The science of snow slab or small avalanche could logically explain the “compelling natural event” that forced the sudden evacuation. Fear of another, possibly larger avalanche would explain why they would want to get far away from the site even though they lacked proper protection against the elements. A small snow slide could explain how some of their skis and an ice axe (the small, swordlike item between the vertical skis in the photo) remained upright after the event. If there wasn’t much snow, but enough to frighten the group, the hole dug for tent may have absorbed the most of the snow and impact. But Puzrin and Gaum are very clear that their research focused exclusively on the science of snow movement itself, and did not try to explain what happened afterwards. This leaves more questions.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Dr. Vladimir Borzenkov discusses his theory.

Researchers Don’t Claim to have Solved the Dyatlov Pass Mystery

Puzrin and Gaum do not investigate motives or post-evacuation events. Even if their theory of the “compelling natural event” is correct, it doesn’t fully solve the mystery of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Their version of the “compelling natural event” has been scrutinized further by Dr. Vladimir Borzenkov of the Moscow State University of Aeronautics. He notes the sample site visited by the researchers, and where avalanche was observed, is 3 km (1.8 miles) from the Dyatlov site. This is far enough for conditions to be slightly different. He argues, point by point, the Puzrin and Gaum theory. Borzenkov provides a critical analysis of their research methods and findings. Like every other Dyatlov Incident theory, there are arguments that poke holes in the research. This scientific debate and discussion is good for critical thinking and analysis. But this is also why the case will never be absolutely solved.

The Grim Theories Behind the Dyatlov Pass Incident
Dyatlov memorial, Mihaylovskoe Cemetery.

Presenting theories does not mean ‘solved.’

Theory and speculation about the Dyatlov case is a creative and scientific puzzle, one that will likely never be solved. Theories about the Dyatlov Pass incident have one thing in common. They assume there are things that haven’t been disclosed about the case. This indicates distrust in the official story and evidence released by the former Soviet Union. The families of the hikers Yuri Yudin, the tenth member of the Dyatlov group, disputes the idea of a natural disaster. Even scientific analysis of the case stirs debate and argument, like the slab and avalanche theories. As Gaume and Puzrin tell Nature, “Mysteries are more attractive while unsolved, or at least not solved with boring scientific explanation.”

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources

Borzenkov’s Analysis of Puzrin-Gaume Avalanche Theory. (n.a.) 1079: The Overwhelming Force of Dyatlov Pass, (n.d.)


Dyatlov Pass Incident. David Emery,, 29 January 2021.

Has an old Soviet mystery at last been solved? Douglas Preston, The New Yorker, 10 May 2021.

Have scientists finally unraveled the 60-year mystery surrounding nine Russian hiker’s deaths? Meilan Solly, Smithsonian Magazine, 29 January 2021.

How did nine Russian hikers lose their lives in the Dyatlov Pass incident? (n.a.) (n.d.)

Mechanisms of slab avalanche release and impact in the Dyatlov Pass incident in 1959. Johan Gaume and Alexander Puzrin, Nature, January 2021.

Mysterious balls of light aren’t UFOs, says science. Sarah Gibbens, National Geographic, 27 October 2017.

Mysterious deaths at Dyatlov Pass may finally be solved after 62 years thanks to a computer simulation. David Bressan,, 28 January 2021.

Mystery at Dyatlov Pass. David Bressan,, 1 February 2019.

Russia’s ‘Dyatlov Pass’ conspiracy theory may finally be solved 60 years later. Brandon Specktor, LiveScience, 28 January 2021.

There were nine…Lucy Ash, BBC News, December 2019.