Trekking the Urals for a Soviet Mystery

Book review: Dead Mountain, by Donnie Eichar

In February 1959, nine experienced hikers died under mysterious circumstances on a cross-country ski trip in the Ural Mountains. They were university students, longtime friends, and accustomed to the harsh conditions and remote, exerting atmosphere of hiking and skiing during winter at the border of Siberia.

When search parties were dispatched to the region, some distance from Yekaterinburg (then Sverdlosk, according to Soviet nomenclature) they found the hikers’ destroyed tent buried in snow. Five bodies were recovered, the remaining four found in a nearby ravine after another few months of searching and waiting for snowmelt. All had sustained major injuries like fractured ribs or skulls, one had missing eyes, one a missing tongue, and all were clad bizarrely considering the viciously frigid temperature.

They were in socked feet and sweaters, some worn clothes appeared to have been cut off of their friends. All were determined to have died of hypothermia, but they had purposely cut themselves out of their tent, seemingly in a panic, leaving all of their gear and much of their clothing suited for the freezing conditions behind.

The Communist government, clearly at a loss, ultimately attributed the deaths to an “unknown compelling force”. There was enough mystery just in those words to fuel speculation around the incident for decades. And with so many mysterious details and so few solid explanations, speculation ran wildly rampant: running the gamut from attack by the indigenous Mansi people to yetis, UFOs and aliens (orbs and strange lights were reported seen in nearby skies by other hiking groups during the same time period) to the students stumbling upon nuclear government testing experiments and being killed for what they witnessed.

As the author reminds us, referencing the oft-debunked legend of the allegedly escaped Anastasia Romanov, “Russian conspiracy fabulists never let facts get in the way of a good story.”

I think I first read about the case on Atlas Obscura. The details are eerily captivating. The hikers also left copious records of their trip up until the very day they died, in the form of photographs and diary entires, which rather than helping much usually only adds to the mystery.

Filmmaker Donnie Eichar becomes obsessed with the case and travels from his Los Angeles home to Yekaterinburg, where a guide and one ‘survivor’ from the Dyatlov party accompany him to the major sites of the group’s journey. Yuri Yudin was the tenth member of the group who fell ill during an early leg of the journey and turned back, thus making him the group’s only survivor.

He does succeed in debunking some of the prominent mythology associated with the Dyatlov incident, like the presence of higher than normal radiation levels in some of the hikers’ clothing, their skin discoloration and the government’s possession of the case files. He also presents a fairly believable explanation for what could of happened, including a recreation of the events in a narrative. It’s not completely infallible, but it rang truer than, for example, alien attack.

“I was learning that everyone had his or her own ideas as to what happened to the hikers, and none seemed to match the others. I was told tales of runaway murderous prison guards, top-secret military tests gone awry and a tale about mythic arctic dwarves. One man even alleged that the survivor Yuri Yudin had something to do with his friends’ deaths-after all, wasn’t it convenient that Yudin had gotten sick in the middle of the trip and had been forced to turn back? Might he have been complicit in a larger plot? Arctic dwarves aside, nearly all of these theories involved a deep distrust of the Soviet government and a belief that the euphemistic conclusion that the hikers had died of an “unknown compelling force” had been used to paper over a darker truth.”

And yet, something is missing. I don’t know what I expected, this case is famously unsolved and apparently unsolvable. Eichar admits his own surprise at this: it’s fascinating enough to prompt him to drain his savings and travel to the Russian wilderness even being a new parent, seeming proof at the magnetism of this incident. And in 2012, when he undertook this journey, already more than 50 years had passed. Often with new technologies or scientific understandings, cases like this are solved with the passage of so much time and its related advancements. Time has provided more theories in this case, but still no concrete explanation.

It’s unclear why Eichar thought himself so suited to be the one to crack the case, and he’s asked about this repeatedly by locals and those helping him. He does seek out some scientific backup about a few key points and that was certainly helpful, but also inadequate. His personal insights from his travels were interesting for the most part, but even accompanied by figures so closely connected to the incident, I didn’t find that his trip contributed that much to the understanding of what transpired. Yes, of course it helps to see and experience the place where something happened, but in this case, he himself didn’t have any background in what he was researching, so it was just more guesswork and process of elimination when possible.

A nice bonus was the glimpses of Soviet life and culture, both in the historical chapters relating the hikers’ journeys and as Eichar gains insight into the time as he tries to uncover more. I love Russian history, especially from the Soviet era, and there was a lot here that was fresh for me. For example, when I first read about the case I wondered why they were even being so adventurous during the brutal Russian winter. The trip sounded like my idea of a nightmare even before a single thing went wrong. Here’s some light shed on their motivation:

“‘After Stalin died,’ [Yudin] said, ‘things opened up more, and students could go almost anywhere within the country. But we still couldn’t go abroad.’ To Yudin and his friends, the next best thing to international travel had been escaping into the wilderness, which held a romance all its own. Yet at the same time, domestic tourists were providing a useful service in helping to map out uncharted regions of the country, particularly Siberia and the Ural Mountains.”

And the tidbit that Soviet government intercepted black-market rock and roll records and implanted their own “Fuck you, anti-Soviet slime” (their words, not mine) message in the middle of the recording. It’s not difficult to see why so many swore the devious government was somehow involved or responsible.

It’s an interesting take on a freaky case that’s sure to keep ensnaring people in its bizarreness for years to come as well, and despite some disappointment I did learn a lot more from it than I’d gleaned from internet articles, so I’d always say that’s a plus.

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident
by Donnie Eichar

published October 22, 2013 by Chronicle Books

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