Crime Corner

Hell on ice


Photo: public domain
In 1959, a group of nine Russians headed out on a government-sanctioned expedition to ski across the Ural Mountains in western Russia, never to return home again.

Brought to you by Jerry Holt

As surely as the beautiful city of Bergen has its enduring Isdal Woman mystery, Norway’s neighbor to the north, Russia, has dark tales of its own. One that has been getting a lot of multimedia play recently is the Dyatlov Pass incident from 1959. It’s a mystery as chilling as the snowy mountains where it took place—and even more chilling is that despite the exhaustive sleuthing efforts of the past 60 years, to this day, nobody seems close to discovering the dark truth of what happened up there in the deep and treacherous ice.

Here is the story as we know it: 

In 1959, a group of nine young Russians formed a government-sanctioned expedition to ski across the Ural Mountains in western Russia. By any standards, this would be an arduous adventure.  These mountains are wild and rough to navigate—and of course if blizzard conditions were to set in, the difficulties would exacerbate accordingly. But Igor Dyatlov, the 23-year-old student who had organized the journey, had handpicked fellow students who were experienced hikers and skiers. Originally the group was comprised of two women and eight men, but one of the men dropped out early in the trek because he was ill. A particularly ominous photograph taken around Jan. 31, 1959, shows them trudging into the face of what appears to be a snow apocalypse, one that would completely engulf them at the top of Kholat Syakhl, where they would first set up camp—and then be lost forever.

A search party was dispatched on Feb. 20, after Dyatlov had failed to check in as he had promised to on Feb. 12. What that search party discovered was indeed terrifying. All of the hikers were found dead, the tent that they had pitched abandoned but still standing. There were footprints in the snow, some of bare feet. There was a large tear in the tent—from the INSIDE—that looked as if the hikers were trying to get out of there in a hurry. Most disturbing was the condition of some of the bodies: two of the group had suffered severe chest trauma, as if they had been attacked and another one had skull trauma, also suggesting an attack. One female hiker was missing her tongue, eyes, and part of her lips. This was the one who had also experienced chest trauma. And the male who had suffered chest trauma had lost his eyeballs.

What a horror story. And what really happened? Clearly, these people encountered something major and deadly. From the start, the Russian government made it clear that the less it heard of this tragedy the better. Then and even now, the official government position is that the group was hit in the night by an avalanche, although there is no evidence to support that. In fact, the still-standing tent seems to fly in the face of that convenient theory. So … what?


Photo courtesy of the Dylatov Memorial Foundation
Soviet investigators examine the tent belonging to the Dyatlov Pass expedition on Feb. 26, 1959.

Over 60-plus years of speculation, theories abound and then some. Was the group attacked by the local tribe called the Mansi? That seems very unlikely since the Mansi are a friendly people who even assisted in the search for the hikers. Was the Dyatlov group attacked by wild animals? No tracks—and, had there been such a threat, why would they have evacuated their tent? Was there some kind of internal conflict—perhaps romantic—that combusted into violence? No evidence of that, either. 

In fact, the conduct of the group seems to have been nothing but professional in all aspects. Beyond these primary theories, the possibilities advanced by researchers range from death by a photoflash bomb dropped by the U.S. military, a mysterious magnetic field that created unbearable, madness-inducing sound waves, UFOs (natch), a secret Soviet operation based deep in the mountain that had to be covered up—and so on. I did a partial search of the many, many attempts to render the story in print and film, and here are three that were most interesting.

Don’t Go There: The Mystery of the Dyatlov Pass, by Svetlana Oss (2015): An investigative journalist, Oss has done an excellent job of summarizing the story to this point. Her book also offers a truly haunting series of photographs of the hikers, the locations—and the death scenes that I promise will haunt you into the night—particularly of the extremely photogenic Lyudmila Dubinina, whose body was savaged. The book also makes skillful use of Dubinina’s diary, which offers insight into the dynamics of the group. The author comes very close to pinning what happened on the Indigenous Mansi, who may have been angry over the invasion of the hikers of tribal lands but finally does not commit. 

Dead Mountain (2020) is an eight-part Russian-produced dramatic series that tells the Dyatlov Pass story in parallel narratives—one that follows the hikers and one that follows the efforts of a KGB officer (Aleksey Kirsanov) to solve the mystery of what really did happen out there in the ice. The officer has demons of his own (not to mention a tacked-on love interest), but material that could have gotten pretty sloggy is saved by fine location filming and some very good performances from those playing the doomed hikers. This series is quite sympathetic to the Mansi—and not so sympathetic to the USSR. There is such a thing as Soviet Noir—of course there is—and this series is a very fine example. No real answers—but a brilliant posing of the questions.

And then for your guilty pleasure, there is the feature film from the semi-notorious Renny (“Cliffhanger”) Harlin, who has never shrunk from sensationalism’s very limits. In Devil’s Pass, which he produced in 2013, a group of American students take it upon themselves to follow the trek of the Russian hikers in the hope of solving the mystery. This is another “found footage” film, a la The Blair Witch Project—and it sort of works for a while, nicely shot as it is. But, soon enough, we are inside the mountain itself, where shadowy things are darting before our eyes in images that defy credibility, not to mention sanity. Don’t get me wrong—you’ll get a scare or two out of this one, but as far as learning something new about the Dyatlov mystery—you won’t. This story is one where what you don’t see is far more compelling than what you do. But any version will ensnare you because this whole episode is just too creepy. Something happened out there in the ice—and its terror cannot be denied.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 18, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.