Yetis, UFOs, and How Disney’s Frozen Solved the Dyatlov Pass Incident
If you have spent any time on Twitter, TikTok or any form of social media recently, you’ve most likely heard that scientists believe they have finally uncovered what actually happened during the Dyatlov Pass Incident. We covered this in a recent podcast episode, which you can find on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and all other podcast platforms.
In this blog I’m going to break down the incident itself, some of the more outlandish explanations, and the most recent explanation for what caused the mysterious death of nine Russian hikers.
On January 23, 1959, ten members of the Urals Polytechnic Institute in Yekaterinburg headed out on a 200 mile skiing and mountaineering trip through Russia’s frigid tundra in the Ural Mountains. The group was made up of nine students and one “sports instructor” who was a WWII vet. One student decided to turn back early on in the expedition because he was suffering from joint pain, and he was the only one lucky enough to survive the journey. The remaining nine students (seven men, and two women) were led by 23 year old engineering student Igor Dyatlov, the namesake of the incident, and were never seen alive again.
We know for a fact that the group made camp on the bottom of a snowy slope of Kholat Syakhl, (also known as “Dead Mountain” in the local indigious language) on February 1st from diary entries and camera film. When the search and rescue team arrived at Kholat Syakhl, a few weeks later, the hikers' tent was found barely sticking out of the snow and appeared to have been cut open from the inside. The students' bodies were found about six miles away from their destination in a forest almost a mile away from their campsite without their skis, shoes, or coats, in approximately -30 Fahrenheit weather. Over the next few months, the Soviet’s found all nine bodies scattered around the mountain slope, some were undressed, some had cracked skulls and chests, one was missing eyes and a tongue. Once the last body was found, the Soviet government abruptly closed the case and concluded that the cause of death was “a compelling natural force.”
The swiftness with which the Soviet’s closed the cause has been the cause of much speculation, which we will get into later. For now I’m just going to present the facts. Six of the skiers died from hypothermia and three died from their injuries. They all died separately, two were found under a cedar tree near the remains of a fire while the other three were found in intervals of hundreds of feet from the tree. The last four bodies were found 250 feet away in a revine. There were only eight or nine sets of footprints in the snow which suggests no foul play from a third party. There were no signs of a struggle, and there was no evidence of animals or other humans approaching or attacking the campsite.
After the first five bodies were recovered, an investigation into the cause of death was launched and the Soviets determined the cause of death was hypothermia. This explains why some of the skiers were found naked. In around 25% of chases, when the human body experiences lethal levels of hypothermia, they experience Paradoxical Undressing, which is caused by the hypothalamus malfunctioning due to the extreme cold, making your body temperature feel like it's rising so you get undressed to cool down.
The hikers tent was badly damaged and cut open from the inside with all of their winter gear still inside the tent. This suggests that the hikers broke out of their tent in a hurry and didn’t bother getting dressed for the subzero temperatures. One of the skiers fled the camp with only his camera and no other gear. Three others died in a position that suggested they tried to return to the tent. One of the campers had a small crack in his skull but had no external wounds. The four bodies in the ravine raised more questions than they answered. Two had fractured ribs, one had a major skull fracture, and to make things even more mysterious, investigators determined that the forces necessary to cause these injuries would be comparable to a car crash. Therefore it couldn’t have been a wild animal or another human unless they ran them over with a car.
Now this is where the facts get really weird. One of the hikers was found without her eyes or tongue. To make things even more confusing, two of the skiers were wearing clothing that contained significant levels of radiation. Finally, the Soviet Government closed the case in May of 1959 because there was no guilty party. The files were archived and classified and when they were finally made public in the 1990s, parts of them were missing.
Because the Soviet Government closed this case so abruptly and it had so many strange elements, it naturally spawned some wacky conspiracy theories. There are probably more conspiracy theories than those that I included in this blog. I’m just covering all my bases for wacky conspiracies.
Three separate theories have been proposed that suggest the hikers were actually the victims of foul play. These theories are not very well supported and in some cases seem very fabricated, but it’s still worth exploring all potential explanations.
One theory suggests that some of the hikers were actually double agents, who were transporting radioactive samples to give to the CIA. This theory suggests that two of the skiers knew that there were CIA agents in the tundra and had smuggled radioactive substances to give to them. Unfortunately for the double agents and their friends, something went wrong and the agents attacked them. The major flaw with this theory is that if two of the hikers were double agents, transporting radioactive samples it’s nearly impossible that only their clothing was radioactive and nothing else. Also there were no bullet wounds or any external injuries so it seems very unlikely the CIA killed them.
Another theory suggests that the hikers were mistaken for fugitives who escaped from a nearby gulag or that they witnessed something they weren’t supposed to see. The only legs this theory has to stand on are shaky at best. The alleged evidence is that there were in fact gulags in this region of Russia and the one survivor who turned back early claimed that one of the pieces of clothing at the site didn’t belong to any of the skiers. Allegedly the article of clothing was widely used for gulag prisoners, however, in WWII, it was part of the Russian uniform and Zolotaryov was a WWII vet. It’s far more likely that the “mystery” article of clothing belonged to Zolotaryov than an escaped criminal. Also again no external wounds seems very unlikely.
There is a third conspiracy but I’m choosing to ignore it because it blames the indiginous people and is frankly pretty racist and goes with an obvious scapegoat. There was no evidence that the indigenous people were even in the area at the time.
Alright don’t get me wrong here I want nothing more than the truth to be that the campers were killed by a Yeti, but this theory has the weakest legs imaginable. In fact no one even suggested that Yeti’s were responsible until 2014 when a Discovery Channel documentary decided it must have been Yetis. I highly recommend checking out this documentary. It made me laugh a lot, but seems totally fake.
Basically, the Discovery Channel proposed that the group was killed by Yeti’s, because there is an indiginous oral tradition of Yeti’s. In fact, coincidentally enough, the one indigenous woman they happened to interview just so happened to tell them a story about a yeti who steals peoples eyes and tongue. They then used this to justify their entire documentary. It’s pretty funny. I would love nothing more than to find out they were right, but this is just not the truth.
On the other side of the coin, our good friends over at Ancient Aliens think that aliens and UFOs are responsible. Look again I would love if aliens and UFO’s we’re responsible, but probably not the case here. Look there were some strange lights seen in the sky, but I think it's far less interesting than the next conspiracy which suggests a Soviet Military coverup. I don’t want to spoil the details here I just wanted to put it out there that maybe it was aliens.
Secret Military Operation
Maybe I’m just a little biased but I think this is the most plausible conspiracy. This theory suggests that the skiers accidentally stumbled upon a military radioactive weapons test sight. Radiation burns could account for why the hikers stripped and explosive forces could account for the weird injuries. The major flaw with this is that only two of the hikers had radioactive clothing and there were no reports of radiation burns. However, the Soviet’s do have a knack for covering up the truth, just look at how they tried to handle Chernobyl. However, another group of hikers who were camped about 31 miles south of the other group saw strange glowing orbs in the sky. These sightings were corroborated by meteorological data, so we know for a fact that there were strange lights in the sky. While some people like our friends over at the History Channel insist these were UFOs, it's far more likely that the lights were actually rockets. The Soviets liked to test out their nuclear weapons in Siberia so it’s far more likely that they got nuked than killed by aliens.
Now let's get into an explanation that's actually based in reality and the Disney Cinematic Universe.
In 2019, the Russian Government decided to reexamine the Dyatlov Pass Incident, to try and put some of the outlandish conspiracies listed above to rest. They concluded that an avalanche was primarily responsible for the nine mysterious deaths. However, the Russian’s failed to explain how an avalanche could be responsible if there was no documented evidence of an avalanche. The avalanche theory was proposed in 1959, and many people still don’t think it stacks up for a few reasons. First of all, the encampment was cut into snow on a slope with an incline that was too mild to permit an avalanche. Second, there was no reported snowfall on the night of February 1st, so there was nothing that could have increased the snow burden and triggered a slope collapse. Third, the blunt force trauma and soft tissue damage the hikers sustained were atypical of avalanche asphyxiate victims. Finally, if there was an avalanche why was there a gap of at least nine hours between the team members cutting the slope for their encampment and the avalanche?
Two men set out to settle once and for all if an avalanche could have caused these deaths. Alexander Puzrin, Geotechnical Engineer at ETH Zurich teamed up with Johan Gaume, head of the Snow Avalanche Simulation Laboratory at EPFL to create an analytical model and computer simulation to try and replicate the avalanche. The researchers discovered that the skiers camp was actually not as shallow as people previously believed. The underlying topography of their campsite was covered by snowfall, which made it appear as if their camp was at a mild slope, but it was actually closer to 30 degrees which is the minimum required slope for an avalanche. Their simulations suggest that the avalanche would likely have been small and would have included a block of ice the size of a SUV. The final question the researchers needed to answer is how could a small collapse have caused such traumatic injuries?
Surprisingly, the answer to their question came from Disney’s Frozen and some crash test dummies. Back in 2013, Gaumen saw the movie Frozen, presumenly with his children, and was so impressed by how accurately the snow movement was depicted in the movie that he reached out to the animators for help. Gaumen traveled all the way to Hollywood to meet with the special effects team that worked on Frozen’s snow. They gave him their code for the snow animation and using a modified version, the researchers were able to apply it to their avalanche simulation. They combined this with data from crash test dummies to determine if a small avalanche could have inflicted the wounds found at Dyatlov Pass. They concluded that the hikers' injuries were caused by a 16 foot long block of snow hitting their ridged skis, which they placed under their bedding on top of. The impact with the unusually rigid surface caused trauma that could easily shatter ribs and skulls. The current scientifically supported theory is that the hikers were hit by a small avalanche while they slept and had to cut themselves free from the smothered tent and fled toward the treeline in a panic.
While researchers finally have a well supported explanation for what likely caused the deaths at the Dyatlov Pass Incident, it does not account for everything. There are still unanswered questions, namely why the hell did two of the hikers have radioactive clothing? While no one knows for sure we’re one step closer to finding out what actually happened.
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