The northern Ural Mountains of the former Soviet Union were a cold, unforgiving place in 1959. They remain so today, and had been for centuries prior to the first days of February in the aforementioned year, when nine hikers from the Ural Polytechnical Institute were found dead, their bodies strangely under-dressed for the bitter February cold sweeping down off the slopes of nearby Kholat Syakhl.
Known today as the Dyatlov Pass incident, the location where the group had been camping was a place of fear and superstition among the local Mansi, who called it the “Dead Mountain.” The name was tragically fitting, as a series of events which remain unexplained to this day caused the hikers to cut their way out of their tents, fleeing into the February cold and, ultimately, to their deaths.
Although a variety of theories about the ultimate cause behind the deaths of Igor Dyatlov and his companions have been offered over the years, there has yet to be one offered that can account for all of the odd factors the case presents. In equal measure, countless articles have been written on the subject over the years, and several books, documentaries, and films have also lend to the mill of rumor and speculation that surrounds the case; some of the tenuous conclusions offered by such media have done more harm than good, so far as coming to any logical determinations about what might have actually happened.
The case, in short, continues to fascinate after the passing of many decades, and hence why I often receive emails and messages about it from others who are perplexed by it. My good friend Billy Clark, and Englishman now residing in Berlin, Germany, took time to write to me about the case, where he shared a number of frustrations with the way the incident is treated in popular writing. Namely, this involves the dismissal of the idea that some kind of aerial phenomenon might have been involved, whether it had been of a manmade, natural, or perhaps some other variety.
“Whatever happened, it’s totally baffling!” Billy wrote. “That it would claim all nine of them and that none were able to provide any kind of clue as to what happened in their final moments is hard to accept. Perhaps the investigators were not looking for something like that? A couple of words hastily carved into some wood could be easily missed. Perhaps we don’t have all the available facts.”
“The behaviour of the Russian authorities during the case is very peculiar,” Clark noted. “The strange change of manner of the lead investigator trying to hush up talk of lights in the sky and murder during the case, to later in life insisting that the lights in the sky were directly responsible in some way.”
“Then there are those zinc lined coffins…” he added.
Indeed, as Billy notes, there are a lot of bizarre aspects to the Dyatlov Pass case which strains the idea of there being any single, “simple” explanation. I have always been intrigued by the reports of “lights in the sky,” which are one element of the case that inevitably foments sensationalism in the sense that it would seem to insinuate that something akin to UFO phenomenon might have been involved.
“If something ‘out of this world’ were happening outside [the tent] as a result of some kind of interaction with that light, it might be one of the few things that would explain such a desperate scramble to escape,” Billy offered in our recent correspondence. “It seems the radiation on the bodies may not have actually been that strange in terms of level strength, but radiation effects are certainly consistent with some UFO encounters.”
Billy raises an important point here, in that many of the explanations that have been offered over the years (ranging from the tenuous idea of infrasound, to absurdities such as a “Yeti attack”) completely fail to account for minutiae like the radiation question. In other words, many would discount any and all implications that something akin to “lights seen in the sky” around the time of the incident could have had anything to do with the deaths of the Dyatlov group. Meanwhile, they completely discount certain pertinent facts about the case, as they churn out their own pet theories… theories which are incomplete, at very best.
I am not of a mind to think that this long-standing mystery has been “solved” in any sincere sense of things. Ideas that have been put forth in the past, like infrasound causing sudden disorientation which led to the hiker’s strange nighttime behavior is, while perhaps a little more tenable than certain other theories, simply not capable of accounting for all of the facts.
Same with the poor folks who want to believe it was a “Russian Wildman,” although it does allow for a peculiar little addendum to all of this: the Dyatlov group actually did joke about the “Abominable Snowman” in some of their private correspondence with each other. However, there is not a shred of evidence that the group ever encountered such a creature, as proposed in a Discovery Channel documentary a few years ago (unless, of course, Yetis are capable of emanating non-ionizing radiation from their bodies, hence explaining how some of the hikers appeared to have been exposed to an energetic source of some kind… figure that one out).
As far as reasonable speculations go, there are at least two ideas that I would not rule out in relation to what might have happened at the Dyatlov Pass in 1959. While each of these is speculative, I offer them here because I do feel that these possibilities—unproven though they are, like the rest of the “solutions” proposed about this case over the years—nonetheless may be able to more effectively account for the variety of peculiarities about the incident. They are as follows:
- 1) a Russian weapons test (for which there is actually a surprising amount of evidence),
- 2) some variety of natural phenomenon (certain aspects of the case actually ARE consistent with ball lightning and similar natural luminous phenomena, as we will see shortly).
If I had to put my money on either of these, I would say that the second possibility, involving something like ball lightning, is the most likely to have had something to do with the incident. Without any further elaboration, this may seem like an equally tenuous supposition: what, apart from alleged reports of “lights in the sky,” could the Dyatlov Pass incident have to do with ball lightning?
To that point, I would like to bring the reader’s attention to a very curious report I found in the British Journal of Meteorology from 1984, which tells the story of a group of Russian hikers in the Caucasses that were “attacked” by what was deemed at the time to have been “aggressive ball lightning.”
The details of that incident were related by a Mr. Victor Kavunenko, who had been one of four mountaineers that were camped in the Caucasus Mountains at an altitude of 12795 feet. The date was on or around August 17, 1978, and Kavunenko gives the following account of what transpired with his companions in their encampment one evening:
“I woke up with the strange feeling that a stranger had made his way into our tent. Thrusting my head out of the sleeping bag, I froze. A bright yellow blob was floating about one metre from the floor. It disappeared into Korovin’s sleeping bag. The man screamed in pain. The ball jumped out and proceeded to circle over the other bags now hiding in one, now in another. When it burned a hole in mine I felt an unbearable pain, as if I were being burned by a welding machine, and blacked out. Regaining consciousness after a while, I saw the same yellow ball which, methodically observing a pattern that was known to it alone, kept diving into the bags, evoking desperate, heart-rendering (sic) howls from the victims. This indescribable horror repeated itself several times. When I came back to my senses for the fifth or sixth time, the ball was gone. I could not move my arms or legs and my body was burning as if it had turned into a ball of fire itself. In the hospital, where we were flown by helicopter, seven wounds were discovered on my body. They were worse than burns. Pieces of muscle were found to be torn out to the bone. The same happened to Shigin, Kaprov and Bashkirov. Oleg Korovin had been killed by the ball — possibly because his bag had been on a rubber mattress, insulating it from the ground. The ball lightning did not touch a single metal object, injuring only people.”
This story, if true (keeping in mind that it was reported in a respected British scientific journal) bears undeniable similarities to the Dyatlov Pass incident. The primary similarities include 1) the presence of “mysterious lights” (which were not reported by the Dyatlov hikers, but which were allegedly observed in the same area around the time of the incident), 2) the presence of something inside the tent with the campers, 3) the presence of burns on the camper’s bodies, 4) damage to muscles and tissue of the survivors after their interactions with the phenomenon, 5) the death of one of the campers after his interaction with the light or object.
Note that at no time was the light observed by Kavunenko and his company referred to as anything more extraordinary than “ball lightning.”
I would argue that the “ball lightning” theory as an explanation for what the hikers encountered at Dyatlov pass in 1959 would be more no more likely than any other speculative theory, if it were not for the details provided about the separate incident above. There is little (if anything) else about this case that can be found, whether online, or in related literature, apart from its inclusion by the late William R. Corliss in his Science Frontiers publications, where he noted that “Ball lightning has often been called inquisitive, but this is one of the few reports where it deliberately (?) seemed to attack people. Some Russian English-language publications verge on the sensational, and one must always have some salt on hand.”
Salt-in-hand, therefore, the report is certainly interesting. If true, it may very well shed some light—perhaps of a natural luminous variety, and yet which remains little-understood—on this long-standing and enigmatic Cold War-era case.