by Donnie Eichar, 2013
The first time I heard of the Dyatlov Pass incident was in an episode of Stuff You Should Know. I was immediately intrigued by this strange tale of nine Russian hikers who mysteriously perished during a hike in the Ural Mountains in 1959. It wasn’t just that all nine highly experienced hikers died, but the state in which their bodies were found. They were spread out from their camp, not fully clothed, without shoes, some even barefoot. While six were determined to have died from hypothermia, one had a fractured skull and two others had major chest trauma. One of the hikers was missing her tongue and the bodies exhibited traces of radiation. When the search party found the camp, it appeared almost undisturbed. Though the tent had blown over, food was still nicely arranged, as if waiting for the hikers to return and enjoy a meal, and all of their belongings, including their shoes, remained. Most mysteriously, there was a large rip in the tent that was determined to have been cut from the inside. Someone – or something – caused the hikers to flee in a panic and meet their deaths. When I found out that a book had been written on this incident, I immediately knew I had to read it and learn more about this real-life X-File.
Donnie Eichar began his own investigation of the incident in 2012, after having learned about it merely two years prior. He writes that his fascination with the case started out innocently, but his desire for more information soon began to consume him. As a documentary filmmaker, his job has always been “to uncover the facts of a story and piece them together in a compelling fashion for an audience.” That’s precisely what he attempts to do here, travelling to Russia himself and hiking the very same mountain on which the group of nine perished. This fascination is understandable. In 1959, the lead investigator for the case concluded that the hikers had died as a result of “an unknown compelling force,” hardly an explanation for this disturbing event. Alas, even fifty years of technological advances have failed to provide any clarification on the happenings of that night, and Eichar’s concluding theory remains little more than that, but his discoveries are as captivating as the mystery itself, and the resulting book is an enthralling piece of journalism of the bizarre.
The book alternates between two timelines – that of Eichar’s piecing together of what might have happened during the hike led by Igor Dyatlov, whose name has been synonymous with the stretch of land, and his own travails to follow the same path and find the missing pieces that had eluded investigators for so long. We see images from the group’s cameras and follow their journey from Ural Polytechnical Institute up the mountain and over a route that was considered to be a Category III, which would earn the Grade II hikers a Grade III certification – the highest available. Eichar not only speaks to some of the victims’ surviving family members, but he is especially fortunate to be able to make contact with Yuri Yudin, the tenth member of the trip who survived only because he had to turn back early due to chronic pain. All have their own theories as to what happened, whether it was government men with guns who punished the group for seeing something they shouldn’t have to more natural phenomena, like an avalanche or strong winds. However, each theory seems weak: Why would the government construct such a scene of madness? How would a weather event sweep the hikers off the mountain but leave the contents of the tent at peace? What would have frightened the experienced hikers so much that they abandoned their only place of safety in such an obvious rush?
Eichar’s theory for all of this is both mundane and highly peculiar. It appears to be the most plausible, though it’s not something that I’ve ever heard of before and still don’t quite understand. More importantly, it situates the event as something naturally occurring, not the result of a Yeti attack or government conspiracy. Each reader will have to come to their own conclusion as to what happened on that February night, but it’s clear that we may never know what spooked the group so dramatically. Eichar’s book is a solid dive into this mystery and, if it doesn’t provide any sound answers, is at least an absorbing look at this tale of the unknown.