Book Review – Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident

4 stars. In winter 1959, nine Russian hikers, mostly college students, died at Holatchahl Mountain in the Urals under mysterious circumstances. The experienced group, led by Igor Dyatlov, was attempting a demanding winter ascent of Otorten to become Grade III hikers, a meaningful certification of ability. On the night of February 1, the seven male and two female hikers all fled from their shelter into sub-zero temperatures. A search party located the tent, finding that it had been sliced open from the inside. Their bodies were scattered several hundred meters or more from the tent. They were almost all lightly dressed, lacking the proper footwear and gear to survive in such a climate. The official inquest showed that six died from hypothermia and three from chest and/or skull fractures. Some radiation was found on the clothing of two victims. The investigation was unable to determine what made them flee their tent, citing an “unknown compelling force” as the cause of the incident.

With the mysterious circumstances, the deaths captured popular attention. Many theories have been proposed, from the unlikely (avalanches, Soviet missile tests) to the crackpot (yeti). The internet abounds with sites about the Dyatlov Pass mystery, yet provides few answers.

Film producer Donnie Eichar found himself caught up in the Dyatlov obsession, taking two trips to Russia and doing phenomenal amounts of interviews and research. Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident is his story of his research efforts and his reconstruction of the group’s travels and death, and the subsequent investigation. He paces that recounting with a chronicle of his trips to Russia and research in formerly secret Soviet files. His prose has a compulsive readability to it, and he gives lucid detail without being overwhelming. Best of all, his narrative of the nine unlucky hikers (and their tenth member, who was forced to turn back for medical issues) paints them as vibrant, intelligent, and energetic people who are worth knowing and caring about.

The volume is enriched by lots of pictures, both from the expedition itself and from the investigation.

While I don’t believe that the term “spoiler” applies to investigative nonfiction, if you do not wish to know the author’s conclusion, please go no further in my review.

Eichar makes a solid refutation of several of the pet internet theories regarding the hikers, including governmental conspiracy, avalanche, military weapons testing, and attack by the indigenous Mansi. He gives no credence to far-afield theories such as aliens or the supernatural. What he does arrive at is a theory of sub-audible sound waves called infrasound causing fear that motivates the hikers’ flight from their tent.

Eichar’s theory of infrasound-induced panic attacks requires me to accept three separate assertions:

1) The flow of wind over the domed summit of Holatchahl created a Kármán vortex street around the tent.
2) The Kármán vortex street created an infrasound event that was felt by the group members.
3) The infrasound event caused such panic in nine different people that they fled their shelter.

Eichar makes an informal case (based on the casual observation of site pictures by an NOAA scientist who is an expert in the field) that the first is possible, though I would have liked to have seen more rigorous analysis such as calculating the Reynolds number range of the site and using that to determine wind velocity that would generate the Kármán vortex street, the expected vortex velocity, vortex frequency, etc. (Math and science, YAY!) The second is certainly plausible, based on information that the author presents and a quick glance at the internet for verification.

The third assertion feels the least plausible. Eichar cites a 2003 infrasound study by UK researchers that found 22% of those exposed to an infrasound wave reported anxiety, chest pressure, nervousness, etc. He purports that the Israelis use an infrasound technique that creates nausea and dizziness to assist with crowd dispersal. However, it’s a great leap of faith to go from a feeling of unease or nausea to nine people fleeing in abject terror without a moment’s preparation for the environmental conditions. The author did not cite, and nor was I able to locate, any research indicating that complete irrational panic can be induced by infrasound. Given that Eichar explicitly describes the vortices around the tent as mini-tornadoes, I’d think there would be some evidence of people reacting with panic to infrasound generated by tornadoes, but I was unable to locate any.

Given that the group was entirely composed of experienced hikers with lots of previous exposure to hostile mountain environments, I find it highly unlikely that they all broke from reality so completely as to exit the tent without even donning shoes. It simply doesn’t seem sufficient explanation that these competent hikers went into such total and absolute panic as to flee from the tent like they did.

The evidence available is sufficient to support these conclusions:

-The hikers felt immediate mortal danger from remaining in the tent even for such a short time as would be needed to put on boots, gloves, etc.
-The group all evacuated the tent at once, as shown by the fact that another exit was made by slicing through the wall to facilitate the quick egress.
-The evacuation from the tent was directed and purposeful; all members of the party proceeded in the same direction rather than scattering in a panic.
-The purpose of the evacuation was not simply to be out of the tent. They continued to some distance from the tent, to the extent that some sustained injuries from falling into an unseen ravine that was quite a distance away.

What would make them flee from their tent under such conditions? Here’s my theory, which seems at least as credible as the infrasound theory:

The group is mostly settled in their tent for the evening, sheltered from the howling winds and bitter conditions. Someone–likely Thibeaux-Brignolles or Zolotariov, as they were in appropriate clothing for the elements–heads outside to answer the call of nature, or check the weather, or make sure the tent is secure. The bitter wind blows the snow across the slope above the tent. By limited light, the hiker outside catches sight of the roiling snow moving toward the tent. The worst case scenario instantly comes to mind, and believing they are soon to be swept away, the hiker yells, “AVALANCHE! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!” The party flees pell-mell downslope, becoming disoriented and separated. Dubinina, Kolevatov, and Thibeaux-Brignolles fall into the ravine, suffering traumatic injuries. By the time the panicked flight ends, they have covered so much ground and become so disoriented that returning to the safety of the tent is impossible given the conditions. Careful, reasoned study that an avalanche was highly unlikely in the terrain, as well as confidence in the skills of seasoned leaders such as Dyatlov and Zolotariov, could not match the split-second, terror-fueled belief that they were about to be buried under tons of snow.

Regardless of my skepticism about the author’s “Untold True Story”, Eichar’s book is a great read that balances the spooky facts of the incident with a narrative that makes the reader care about the Dyatlov group hikers and feel their deaths keenly. Dead Mountain isn’t a book that I will soon forget, and is well worth a read.

4 thoughts on “Book Review – Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident

    1. Hey Paval, it’s been a few years since You & I last spoke. I was then and still am now captivated by Two mysteries, this one, Dyatlov Group & the other. San Francisco Bay;s infamous very own, Zodiac Killer.

      I got pulled away more toward Zodiac Case as I could at least read the reports, witness statements etc and talk to other members of its amateur community because Zodiac and the case occured in English Speaking United States. Anyway, i you haven’t already read the article I wrote several years ago you ca do, if you wish at My wordpress site:

      Anyway, I came looking for You specifically to ask about any developments or updates on the Dyatlov Incident? You being the person who I always felt found and published the facts of the case etc I was hoping you’d have a few new details maybe? Recently, the fact that I have seen a resurgence in the No.1 suspected cause of Dyatlov Groups Demise the good old Avalanche theory that I kinda got to me because this is a favorite of them who say there is no mystery here, not at all & suggest the Hikers were victims of a huge Avalanche Blah Blah Blah.

      If these people took ten minutes to look at the autopsy findings of just two of the Group, George ‘Yuri’ Kriveonchenko & Igor Dyatlov as both were found at Autopsy to have had badly bruised hands, damage to the joints & muscles in & around their hands with both also showing badly bruised and discolored knuckles which the coroner specifically noted in His finding that, “These injuries are consistent and commonly seen in hands of individuals who have been involved in fist fights.”

      I mean, unless Igor and George see this Avalanche thats thundering down a Mountain side straight toward them & both decide they are going to have a fist fight with snow this snow wall hoping the avalanche will stop dead in it’s tracks…..then:

      The Avalanche Theory . . , . . ??

      is now:

      The ‘Av-A-Laugh Theory!’

      Avalanches do not bite the tip of noses off people faces. The Group clearly had both Offensive wounds as they clearly ere fighting someone or something up there that the Hikers clearly were aware & knew was a literal fight for Life and Their own survival. Those like Igor & George who seem to show signs of trying to fight valiantly py punching over and over whatever was attacking them they, as the rest of the group, had sustained massive internal injuries by something so strong that as you know, the coroner compared their crushing internal & fatal injuries to that of many deceased individuals he had autopsied who had been killed by being hit by a vehicle at high speed.

      Anyway Paval, Be nice hearing from you after so many years. 🙂

      1. Pav. . , A quick second Question. . .

        If I was looking to find a good a book to read about the Nine Hikers themselves, backstories etc as well as the actual recointing the actual Pass incident in detail, which would you recommend +written in English obviously, but stays as close to the Russian Known facts & details as best possible.

        Basically I don’t want a read where there is an agenda bias because the author is pushing his/her own Theory of the cause, the how it happened,,who did it etc etc etc. I’m far more interested in finding books that don’t rehash the telling of How The Nine Hikers Died, but rather how they lived. Their Hobbies, Interests and likes and dislikes. Maybe it’s the way to find answers to how they died even, go back & look at how each,lived?

        Anyway I really would appreciate your recommendations on which book iis best to read based on the criteria I have just mentioned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s