Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar (Chronicle Books, 2013)
In February 1959, nine hikers died in the Ural Mountains. Seven men and two women, all except one were university students, and all were young, fit, experienced and well-prepared mountaineers. There is a bit of a mystery surrounding their deaths, the sort of thing that shows up from time to time in creepypasta forums or conspiracy theories, but the mystery isn’t about what happened to them. The what is simple: injuries and cold killed them. It took a while for the search teams to find them, but all nine bodies were eventually recovered and identified, the causes of death determined. Death by exposure and hypothermia in the Ural Mountains in winter is commonplace, not mysterious, but the story has endured.
Even the landscape carries a reminder now: The pass was later renamed after Igor Dyatlov, the young engineering student who led the trek. The original name of the location is, in fact, Dead Mountain, in the language of the indigenous Mansi people, but it’s only called that because it’s a barren peak with nothing growing on it.
The mystery about the incident is in the why. The hikers were mostly college kids, but they were college kids who knew what they were doing. They had the right gear, the right food, the right plans. But for some reason, sometime around February 1st or 2nd, 1959, all nine of them fled the warmth and safety of their tent without their outerwear, without their boots, without any preparation or gear for the mountain cold at all, and all nine died before they could make it back. Most from hypothermia, a few from injuries sustained after a tumble down a ravine. None of them were farther than about half a mile from their tent. The camp, when the search teams found it, was mostly intact, all the boots and coats and food and gear lined up and ready for use, but the tent itself had been sliced open with a knife from the inside.
That’s a little weird. Not preternaturally weird, but psychologically weird, weird in a way that doesn’t require conspiracy theories or supernatural stories, although there have been plenty of those offered up since the 1959. Weapons testing. Mass murderers. Secret radiation experiments. Aliens. (It’s always aliens.) Even the totally mundane, totally plausible theories aren’t very satisfying. The slope isn’t steep enough for avalanches. The tent would have been blown away if high winds were to blame. One person could easily have gotten lost or disoriented or swept away, but all nine? Wouldn’t the others who went to look for their friend have put their boots on first? And wouldn’t their coats and boots would have been scattered around outside rather than folded neatly inside if hypothermia had led to paradoxical undressing? Their photographs and journals show they were happy and healthy and enjoying themselves right up until the end, so even something as ordinary as a falling out or fight, while not impossible, has no evidence to back it up.
Dead Mountain is the story of how documentary filmmaker Donnie Eichar became obsessed with and investigated the Dyatlov Pass incident over the course of a few years. The book works very well in some places but drags in others, and it presents to a possible explanation that is, like all the other reasonable ideas that came before it, plausible but unproven.
The story is at its best when it focuses on the lives of the students who died: on what it meant to be a bright student in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union of the late 1950s, on how hiking and wilderness exploration were so appealing to twenty-somethings who had no expectation of ever being allowed to leave their country, on how music and poetry and forbidden radio broadcasts were used by young Soviet communists to slyly question and challenge their government. The reconstructed narrative of the group’s journey from their campus to the start of their trek through a remote corner of the Ural Mountains, home to lumber camps, an active gulag, and Mansi tribes, is also excellent and engaging. The book includes the group’s last photographs, which show a bunch of cheerful students having a grand old time in the snow, goofing off and mugging for the camera.
Also fascinating are the chapters in which the author interviews surviving family members, people from the original search teams, and the tenth member of the group who turned back early due to sickness, all of whom are still caught up in the tragedy in their own small ways.
Where the narrative falls down is when the author is talking about himself. He gets in the way of his own story too much, and his account of traveling to Dyatlov Pass is not remotely interesting enough to earn the many chapters of build-up he gives it.
I’m also not convinced his theory for what happened (paranoia and panic induced by infrasonic wind) is as much of a revelation as he seems to think it is, nor any more convincing than any other realistic (i.e., not involving mass murdering radioactive Soviet aliens) scenarios. There are a lot of tests for his explanation he doesn’t even bring up: Are there similar accounts of wind-induced paranoia from mountaineers elsewhere in the world? Is there any evidence that infrasound can cause not just discomfort or nausea but genuinely irrational and dangerous behavior? And so strongly that it would affect nine different people with the same symptoms at the same time? Can natural landscapes and natural winds even produce effects that strong? The answers to these questions might very well be “yes”—extreme mountaineers love talking about weird shit that happens to them, somebody should ask around—but they’re not addressed in the book.
I get the feeling Eichar jumped on the idea because it sounds cool, and because if you’re going to write a whole damn book about the incident, you start thinking that the story needs an answer. But after reading his account, and learning so much about the people who died and those who survived them, it doesn’t feel quite right to view the tragedy as a puzzle with an obvious solution that can be shaken out so conspiracy theorists or smug internet skeptics can pat themselves on the back. The real explanation is probably “elements of all of the above (except mass murdering radioactive Soviet aliens),” but there’s no real satisfaction in that conclusion. It’s a sad story that’s never going to get any less sad, but I’m glad I read about it—not because of the tragedy and the oddness, but because it provides a brief glimpse into a time and place I knew very little about before.