It was 1959, and normally, unmarried women didn’t travel with unmarried men.
But this was the Soviet Union, the women Lyudmila Dubinina and Zinaida Kolmogorova were, along with the male travelers, students at Ural Polytechnic Institute, and very experienced hikers and skiers. The group had Grade II hiking certification and would be certified Grade III upon their return.
They never returned.
Nine students led by Igor Dyatlov planned a journey through the slopes of Kholat Syakhl in the Ural Mountains. Their planned path was through terrain that would be considered brutal to most, but was an anticipated, welcome challenge to these seasoned lovers of the outdoors.
They began their adventure on Jan. 25, 1959, when in the early morning hours a train delivered them at Ivdel, a town at the center of the northern province of Sverdlovsk Oblast. They then traveled by truck to Vizhai, a village that is the last inhabited settlement to the north.
This far north the weather is never accommodating, but in January the weather was a treacherous companion that could turn on the group at any moment. Much of the trek was done through a blizzard, which eventually drove the group more than a mile off course. This meant that all the planning, the maps that they were using, even the plotted course left with friends in case of emergency were all worse than useless.
On Jan. 27, one member of the group, Yuri Yudin, had to turn back because of ill health. It’s easy to picture the other hikers feeling sorry for Yuri, thinking him unlucky to have to miss the trip.
Only Yuri turned out to be very lucky. Yuri died in his bed at age 75.
On Feb. 1, amid worsening weather and visibility that was practically nil, the group realized they were hopelessly off course. Instead of turning back and making camp within the shelter of the tree line, Igor and the rest made camp in an exposed position where temperatures in the winter regularly dipped to -20 degrees.
On Feb. 20, relatives of the student adventurers demanded a search commence. They were eight days past the date of their intended return.
On Feb. 26, the group’s badly damaged tent was found. The student who first spotted it later reported, “The tent was half torn down and covered with snow. It was empty, and all the group’s belongings and shoes had been left behind.”
What’s not in dispute is that the footprints of the students were found, leading away from the campsite. Chillingly and bafflingly, none of the students were wearing heavy shoes. They were clad in socks, barefoot, or in one case, wearing only one shoe.
Downslope, among the trees, the searchers began to find bodies. The first five were found in various states of undress, even dressed only in their underwear.
Tragic, yes, and even odd. But clearly the group had died from hypothermia.
And then, in May the last four members’ corpses were discovered. And with them, horror and confusion.
They were found in a running stream. Three died from massive injuries; two with traumatic chest fractures and one from major skull damage. Only there was no outward signs of the mortal injuries,
There were visible injuries, though.
One of the females was missing her tongue, eyes, part of the lips, as well as facial tissue and a fragment of skull bone, while one male had his eyeballs missing, and another his eyebrows.
Soviet officials moved in to investigate.
The ensuing files were sent to a secret archive.
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