The Spookiest Soviet Unsolved Mystery

Book review: Mountain of the Dead, by Keith McCloskey
Book Depository

What is this trouble that wanders the Taiga at night? Who can give an answer?

If you don’t already know the story of the Dyatlov pass incident, I envy you, because the Google rabbit hole you’re about to fall down is a marvelous one.

But to tip-of-the-iceberg this high strangeness story from Soviet Russia: In January 1959, nine hiker/skiers, students at the Polytechnic University, set off on a group expedition through the northern Ural Mountains, led by Igor Dyatlov, who would lend his name to the soon-to-be-infamous expedition.

Their target was to reach the 1,234m Mount Otorten (translated as ‘don’t go there’ in the local Mansi language), but they ended up on the slopes of the 1,079m mountain named Kholat Syakhl (translated as ‘Mountain of the Dead’ in the local Mansi language).” If there’s a warning about a place from the local indigenous tribes, it seems best not to test it, regardless of where you fall on the superstition scale.

After failing to make contact on schedule, search parties began combing the back country in February. They found the hikers’ tent, crushed under snow and raggedly, hurriedly slashed from the inside out. Eventually the bodies of all nine hikers were recovered, some as far as a mile away from their campsite. There were no other footprints in the snow beyond the nine sets expected, most of which had been in socks or barefoot. And it gets stranger.

Two were missing their eyes, one was missing her tongue and parts of the muscles of her mouth. Several were wearing scant clothing – mostly only underwear, and no shoes despite the severe temperatures. Others had bad internal injuries, likened to what would be expected from a car crash, but very few external ones beyond some bruising and missing bits like eyebrows and soft tissue of the face (attributable to frostbite).

It appeared a few had tried to climb a tree and a fire had been built, but for whatever reason they hadn’t returned to their tent, which would’ve provided the necessary shelter from the elements. Something had scared them away from it too badly. There are countless more eerie, unsettling details to this whole story, but I’ll leave something for you to discover. It’s all undeniably chilling.

What actually happened remains a mystery. Theories of government cover-ups abound, helped by their location being near a military testing facility. And that the government sealed some of the files relating to the investigation, and continues to make researching the Dyatlov incident notoriously difficult. Obviously conspiracy theories are going to spring up in order to fill conspicuous gaps.

Some kind of government involvement, like possibly witnessing something they shouldn’t near that facility, seems likelier however in light of the theories that came next, and which still hold strong sway – those of supernatural or extraterrestrial involvement. These primarily include yetis and aliens, rounded out by non-paranormal but still unrealistic suggestions, like an attack by the region’s indigenous Mansi people.

This started out strong. McCloskey tells a detailed, clear story of how the trip progressed with background about the region, people, and culture. It’s accessible and well explained. It’s a bit dry in parts when he relates passages from official documents and autopsy reports, or certain scene-setting minutia, but it’s informative and exhaustive above all. And despite having traveled in Russia, he doesn’t make himself a part of the story and keeps things very just-the-facts-ma’am, which I appreciated and thought was effective here.

Where it goes off the rails is when he devotes a chapter to an off-the-wall theory from a miner in the region, who claims to have been…targeted, I guess? by an attacking cluster of lights (I’m struggling so hard to even explain this) that he thinks may have caused the initial panic and subsequent deaths of the hikers.

He witnessed these lights himself and suffered the same disorientation and panic that the hikers are assumed to have experienced in some way, precipitating their flight from the tent and the unusual behavior that followed. The man espousing this theory has somehow compiled a list of traits and behavioral patterns of these lights, primarily that they “display aggression against man”.

I was even willing to entertain this theory at first (VERY briefly), imagining the possibility of something like the lights that appear from swamp gas. Especially because in the first book I read about the Dyatlov Pass, the author proposed a theory about infrasound, which may explain their frenzied reaction and accounts for some of what seems strange about the scenario. Infrasound, however, has scientific evidence to back it up, and is actually a proven thing that exists, whereas an angry light set does not and is not.

I’m not sure why the author gave this theory page space, because otherwise he comes across as meticulous and scientific almost to a fault – every number, measurement, and detail is included sometimes to the detriment of smooth narrative flow.

Unfortunate light theory aside, it’s informative if a little straightforward, and the author doesn’t include himself in the story which was a bit of a criticism I had with Dead Mountain. McCloskey dedicates space to setting cultural context, both of the Soviet Union on the world stage and simply what it was like to be a student in those days, especially one outside major metropolises like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Including what exactly “tourism” meant to them:

This was a wide term that covered organised outdoor activities and included hiking, camping, rock climbing and skiing. Ski tourism […] was very popular among students. It meant a group of friends or like-minded individuals could have the chance to get away from the day-to-day grind of their lives and enjoy themselves while participating in an officially sanctioned activity, as it involved group participation that promoted solidarity. It should not be viewed that this was an excuse for a bunch of guys and gals to grab a stash of booze and head into the mountains for a two-week orgy. [ed. note: I wasn’t thinking it, but ok]

What the Dyatlov group were attempting to do demanded the highest levels of fitness and orienteering skills, but one main reason it was popular is that it gave them the chance to let their hair down and relax without being watched or listened to constantly.

He includes evocative details of the students and their trip, as they’d kept diaries and even made a satire newspaper chronicling their journey – like music they played on mandolins while camping, their entertainment of engaging in group discussions about love, and that at one point their rations were “garlic bread without water.” A perfectly romantic accompaniment to deep discussions about love, I’m sure.

This book gives a little more tolerance to the woo-woo aspects of this story than Dead Mountain, but I think they still complement each other well. This is undoubtedly one of the most curious spooky true stories I know, and unfortunately even after reading two books about it, I don’t feel any closer to knowing what happened. McCloskey sums it up well:

Perhaps the answer is a mixture of more than one theory. There is, however, a fairly overwhelming agreement among the theorists that, whatever theory they hold, there has been an official cover-up of some kind.

That’s really about the best you can do with this one, but it’s still such an engrossing, spooky and sinister rabbit hole to get lost in. 3-ish/5 (better than the cheesy cover illustration would indicate, but lost me at the aggressive-towards-humans lights)

Mountain of the Dead: The Dyatlov Pass Incident
by Keith McCloskey
published October 1, 2013 by the History Press
Book Depository

11 thoughts on “The Spookiest Soviet Unsolved Mystery

Add yours

    1. I know, it’s irresistible! There are some short documentaries or shows too, I think at least one is still on YouTube. It’s just so bizarre that no explanation they come up with can explain everything that happened, and sometimes one possibility cancels out another being possible at the same time, etc. So perplexing!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, incident is too mild but I didn’t want to type “horrific inexplicable nightmare” each time! It is just so creepy, you should definitely look into it if you’re intrigued because there are even more bizarre details and layers to it.

      Liked by 2 people

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