On January 27, 1959, nine Russian graduate students set off on a skiing trek through the northern Ural Mountains. The group, all experienced mountaineers and hikers, deviated from their path in their first days of hiking. This would not normally have been a problem, since they were able to set up a decent camp to wait out a snowstorm. They had even managed to cache some food in expectation of their return trip. No one from the group was seen alive again.
By February 20th, when no one had seen or heard from the hikers, their family members convinced the head of their school to start a rescue mission. The army later joined in the search.
The first bodies were found on February 26th. No one would have been surprised if the students had perished from exposure or avalanche. What the search party found did not allow for either of these possibilities to fully explain what happened.
The remains of a tent were found first, at a location that would come to be known as the Dyatlov Pass, after the leader of the doomed group of students. Inside, everything was left as though the hikers were going to return soon. The tent was even buttoned up, but there were large knife slashes in its sides, through which the students seemed to have escaped. The first two bodies found were located in the snow about a mile from the tent, next to what appeared to be the remains of a campfire. Despite the below-freezing temperatures, these two were wearing only underwear. They had also managed to scrape most of the skin off their hands in an apparent attempt to climb a nearby tree. Five bodies were discovered in this first search, found all in a line as though they had been following each other while crawling back to the tent.
Two months later, a second search led to the discovery of the remaining four hikers. They were found in what appeared to be a den they had dug out to escape the cold. All of these bodies had severe internal injuries. One had major skull fractures, and the rib cages of two thers had been crushed. There was no external evidence as to what had caused these injuries, though. Lyudmila Dubinina, one of the female hikers, was missing her eyes, lips, and a piece of her skull. Her tongue had also been cut out at the base. Upon testing, the clothing of all the hikers was found to contain abnormally high amounts of radiation.
To this day, there is no good explanation for the deaths of the Dyatlov group. The bone-crushing injuries were too severe to have been caused by a human or animal, and there was no evidence of the presence of any other living thing in the area. An avalanche might have explained the reason for the apparently panicked escape from the tent, but there was no snow cover that would have indicated such an event. In some cases, severe hypothermia can cause its sufferers to remove their clothing due to the skin-burning sensation that the freezing causes. Six of the hikers did die of hypothermia, but that would not explain the broken bones or the gruesome butchery of Dubinina’s face.
The fact that there was some obvious cover-up of the incident by the government has led to the development of some wild conspiracy theories, from aliens to yetis. There has also been speculation that the group accidentally wandered into some sort of KGB or military testing ground, and were then unintentionally killed by some powerful weapon or murdered on purpose to hide something. One newer theory even suggests that a weather phenomenon, called a Karman vortex street, which can induce panic attacks and breathing problems in people, caused the group to panic and flee their tent without adequate clothing. This does not explain the injuries, either.
Since none of the hikers survived, and since the later cover-up caused so much confusion, we will probably never know what happened at the Dyatlov Pass. The official government report states that an “unknown compelling force” killed the hikers, but no one really knows what that means. Several groups exist that are devoted to finding the cause of the Dyatlov Pass incident, but in the absence of any new evidence, any new theories can only be based on conjecture.