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.