Most helpful critical review
Examination of some mysterious deaths
on 29 November 2015
This is the second book on the Dyatlov Pass incident that I’ve reviewed on this site, the other being Keith McCloskey’s ‘Mountain of the Dead’. Inevitably, I found myself comparing them. There are some significant differences.
Like McCloskey, Donnie Eichar has spent a considerable amount of time on researching the strange case of the nine adventurers who died in Russia’s Ural Mountains in early February 1959. More than once, Eichar’s enquiries took him to Russia itself, and in the company of others he has made a winter visit to the site of the 1959 incident. His book is liberally sprinkled with black-and-white photographs, many taken by members of the ill-fated 1959 expedition. There are maps on p. 14. And at the back of the book, there are helpful sections, including a timeline pertaining to the expedition itself, and a timeline for the investigation of the incident. There’s also an index, although I noticed some gaps in it.
THE CORE STORY
Yekaterinburg or Ekaterinburg, formerly known as Sverdlovsk, is an industrial city to the east of the central Ural Mountains. On 23rd January 1959, 10 members of the Sports Club of the Ural Polytechnic Institute in Sverdlovsk departed from the city for a hiking, ski-ing and camping expedition in the northern Ural Mountains. They planned to visit Otorten Mountain (which McCloskey’s book refers to as ‘Mount Otorten’). Surprisingly, Eichar doesn’t specify its height, although McCloskey (p. 14) gives it as 1,234 metres, which equates to 4,049 feet. It is apparently about 340 miles NNW of Sverdlovsk.
On 28th January, a man called Yuri Yudin dropped out of the trip on account of severe back and leg pain. He was fortunate, because his nine companions (seven men and two women) were to perish just days later.
Judging from the ‘official’ account, on 1st February, before sunset, the nine remaining hikers pitched their tent on the eastern slope of Holatchahl mountain, which McCloskey’s book refers to as Kholat Syakhl, giving its height as 1,079 metres (3,540 feet). But Eichar himself seems to confuse the actual height of the peak with the elevation at which the party set up its tent – he states (p. 271) that they were at 1,079 metres. At any rate, something later impelled them to abandon the tent hurriedly. Eichar suggests that two of them exited from the front of the tent, with the others escaping through a hole produced by slashing through the canvas at the other end. They didn’t pause to collect the necessary items for surviving in the bitterly cold weather. Indeed, it seems that some of them, if not all, exited without shoes or boots. (According to p. 155, one of their corpses was found to be wearing a single felt shoe.) They apparently descended towards the tree line in the pass to their east, which is now known as the ‘Dyatlov Pass’, in memory of Igor Dyatlov, the leader of the ill-fated expedition.
The party were expected back in Sverdlovsk on 13th February. With no message being received, and with their non-arrival, anxiety grew about their wellbeing. Search parties were eventually organized. The group’s abandoned tent was discovered on 26th February. The next day, the bodies of four of them, including Dyatlov, were found. Another corpse was found on 5th March. In early May, the bodies of the remaining four were found.
Judging from the autopsy reports, some of the party had suffered severe internal injuries. The worst case was that of Lyudmila Dubinina: among other things, her tongue was missing, and she had broken ribs. Eichar suggests that while hypothermia itself accounts for most of the deaths, some of the party may have suffered internal injuries via falls. Eichar attributes the loss of Dubinina’s tongue to “the natural decomposition process”, probably facilitated by water-borne microfauna.
These events occurred during the Cold War. Russia was then part of a larger political entity, the USSR, and governed by an authoritarian communist regime that went to great lengths to control the information reaching its citizens. In his book, McCloskey notes (p. 119) that even as late as the 1970s, crashes of commercial passenger aircraft in “Russia” (he probably means the USSR as a whole) were seldom publicized. Therefore, if the authorities didn’t want the public to know the full facts concerning the fate of the Dyatlov group, it’s quite likely that there would have been a cover-up. However, as noted below, Eichar favours a non-conspiratorial meteorological explanation.
Like McCloskey, Eichar considers a range of possible explanations for the tragedy. For instance, the Dyatlov party may have fled from their tent thinking that they were about to be engulfed in an avalanche, although Eichar believes that’s unlikely. An anticipated avalanche might explain the lack of footwear and adequate clothing, but the tent didn’t seem to be pitched in a spot that would have been particularly avalanche-prone. And this theory doesn’t, in itself, explain the injuries that some of them, such as Lyudmila Dubinina, sustained, although they may have experienced serious falls in the dangerous and freezing terrain. At any rate, the central mystery is why the party fled their tent so ill-equipped to deal with the harsh conditions outside.
Eichar managed to discuss the case with a physicist called Alfred J. Bedard, Jr, and some of the latter's colleagues. In Bedard’s view, the wind and the dome of Holatchahl mountain may have created the right conditions for a phenomenon known as a ‘Kármán vortex’, which could have rolled over the dome of the mountain and then become a pair of descending vertical tornadoes or vortices. They could have passed, some distance away, on either side of the tent. As well as being assailed by disturbing sounds, the occupants of the tent may have been distressed by the effects of inaudible infrasound, inducing panic and a desire to escape.
McCloskey’s book, by contrast, gives greater weight to the possibility that some sort of accident occurred involving the military. Indeed, he adduces evidence for the notion that the tent, bodies and belongings of the Dyatlov group had been moved to the eastern slope of Kholat Syakhl (or ‘Holatchahl mountain’, as Eichar describes it) to help cover up something that had happened elsewhere. For example, a photograph of the tent, taken immediately after its supposed discovery, suggested that it had been set up differently from the way that the Dyatlov group would have assembled it (McCloskey, pp. 135-136). At any rate, McCloskey (p. 202) concludes that, in all probability, the deaths resulted from some sort of accident caused by the military.
PROBLEMS WITH THE BOOK
I noticed at least one or two inconsistencies in Eichar’s book. For example, on p. 276, he notes that the funerals for the first five hikers (those whose bodies were found in February and March 1959) took place on “March 9-10, 1959”. But he then goes on to say that forensic examination of one of them began on 11th March. I find it hard to believe that the autopsy occurred AFTER the funeral.
The general organization of the book is insufficiently linear for my liking. The chapters tend to jump back and forth from 1959 to the recent past. For example, Chapter 3 is headed “February 1959” and Chapter 4 is headed “2010”.