Have Swiss researchers solved the mystery of the tragedy on "Death Mountain"?

In 1959 in the Urals, Russian hikers died a terrible death. Since then, numerous, sometimes wild, theories circulate about the incident. Swiss researchers have also been involved for years. Now they are reporting new evidence.

April 15, 2023. All rights belong to 20min.ch. Author Fairy Anabelle Riebeling

It has been more than 60 years since a group of hikers died on the Dyatlow Pass in Russia under circumstances that are still unclear to this day. Investigations by Swiss researchers are bringing more and more light into the darkness of what happened on "Mountain of Death".

What we know so far: Eight men and two women wanted to hike to Mount Otorten in the Urals in 1959. However, they did not get there. But the group - here together with loggers from district 41 - had no idea of this before the expedition started.

Instead, the group led by Igor Alexeevich Dyatlov was later found dead, some victims of a tremendous trauma. The circumstances remain unclear to this day.

Although the route was considered very difficult at the time due to the weather and the high snow at this time of year, none of the expedition participants had any reason to worry. They were all experienced and excited about the adventure ahead.

When Yuri Yudin gave up after a short time due to injury, the nine of his friends moved on. However, due to poor weather conditions, they quickly deviated from the planned route.

They actually wanted to cross the Dyatlow Pass on the first day, ...

...but instead they set up camp at Mt Kholat Syakhl (Mountain of Death) - a fatal mistake, as none of them survived the night. (Pictured: the last photo of the hikers)

When the bodies of the students were found on the icy mountainside, they showed incredible injuries.

The bodies of the dead were partially unclothed, their skulls crushed, their ribs broken. One victim is said to have been missing a tongue and eyes.

The search party did not find any traces of foul play or signs leading to the camp. Tests showed high levels of radioactive contamination in the clothes of the victims, who turned gray overnight.

What happened to the nine hikers is still unknown today, fueling speculation.

While the official bodies still insist that the students died of natural causes, others suspected the indigenous Mansi people, biological phenomena such as the so-called hyperthermic dementia, lightning or the Russian Yeti.

Others are convinced that the massacre was the work of extraterrestrials. But there is also the theory that the group was killed by a top-secret Soviet weapon.

Researchers from ETH Lausanne and Zurich are now providing new evidence for the avalanche theory, for which they had to take criticism last year. With the help of drone images, they created a 3D model that shows that the slopes on site were quite steep enough for avalanches - "and not just in places, but consistently". Finding a flatter spot to camp was not possible at all. Communications Earth & Environment: A. Puzrin and J. Gaume (2022)

Photo and video recordings from expeditions to the regions also show that avalanches can very well occur in the region – contrary to what was previously claimed. Communications Earth & Environment: A. Puzrin and J. Gaume (2022)

Kholat Syakhl


What we know

  • Even after more than 60 years, the circumstances surrounding the death of nine Russian students at Dyatlov Pass are still unclear.
  • According to sources, the nine froze to death.
  • Because that does not explain the abnormalities on the corpses, various theories are still circulating today.
  • Swiss researchers have also been involved in the discussion for years.
  • Now they are again providing evidence of what they believe happened back then.

Their destination was Mount Otorten in the Ural Mountains. But the Russian students never got there. Instead, the young men and women who set out on January 25, 1959 died under mysterious circumstances on the night of February 2, 1959, around ten kilometers from their actual destination, on Kholat Syakhl (in English: Mountain of Death, see photo gallery above).

The place where the nine perished has since been called the Dyatlov Pass. It is named after Igor Alekseevich Dyatlov, the 23-year-old leader of the group whose death is still unknown. According to official sources, the nine froze to death. But there have always been doubts about the cause of death. Because it doesn't explain why the bodies were partially naked, their skulls crushed and their ribs broken.

Conspiracy theories and hard evidence

Instead of evidence, however, a multitude of alternative explanations were found over time. According to this, either aliens, the Yeti or high-altitude winds are to blame. Secret military experiments and weapons as well as a condition called hyperthermic dementia have also been used to explain this, as have freak weather conditions accompanied by lightning, ballistic missiles or nuclear weapon tests.

Finally, in 2021, researchers from the Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH in German) in Lausanne and Zurich, based on data published in the journal "Nature - Communications Earth & Environment" published model calculations supporting the avalanche theory (see video below), which has also been around for a long time. But it met with little approval, especially in Russia. In 2022, the team led by Alexander Puzrin from ETH Zurich did it again and refuted the criticisms from the Russian side with new evidence. According to the researchers at the time, these showed that there was a risk of avalanches on the night of the tragedy.

Johan Gaume from ETH Lausanne and Alexander Puzrin from ETH Zurich published this video in 2021. Video: 20M/EPFL


Has the mystery of the Dyatlov Pass been solved?

Observations from 2023 support the conclusion at that time: "On January 7, 2023, the same mountain guides from the Urals who took part in last year's expedition took a photo of another slab avalanche," Puzrin told us in an email. "This time even on the same mountain where the Dyatlov group died, about 700 m from their tent!"

This means that new slab avalanches have been documented in each of the last three winters - "and they are getting closer and closer to the location of the tent."

Photo below is taken by Dmitriy Borisov from Ural Expeditions & Tours on January 7, 2023.

Photo from January 7, 2023 by Dmitriy Borisov, Ural Expeditions & Tours
Gaume and Puzrin avalanche theory

The new observation confirms "that slab avalanches are not only possible in the area around Dyatlov Pass, but also on Kholat Syakhl, where the destroyed tent was found," says Puzrin. This is a completely new observation that has not been seen since 1959. So has the mystery of what happened on "Death Mountain" been solved? No, according to the ETH researcher: "Only Igor Dyatlov and his comrades could confirm whether it really was an avalanche that led to their death."

The horror genre has also taken on the subject: in the film "Devil's Pass" (2014), a group of US students want to get to the bottom of the deaths at Dyatlov Pass - and die themselves. Video: Ascot Elite Entertainment



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