Spooky things are fun, especially this time of year. Unless the story is true and the creepy strangeness is undeniable. Keith McCloskey reintroduces the American public to a truly scary story which is familiar to many Russians. In his Mountain of the Dead, McCloskey retells and re-examines the Dyatlov Pass Incident, a tale from the Cold War era which reveals that real spooky is not that fun at all.
A recap for those unfamiliar with the case: In late January, 1959, after some planning, nine twenty-somethings, seven men and two women, go for an extended winter excursion in a very remote and rugged region of the Urals in the Sverdlovsk Oblast. Most of them are students at the nearby Ural Polytechnic Institute and all of them are very fit, experienced hikers, campers, snow trail breakers and, most importantly, officially loyal Soviet citizens. Other than a few interesting brief tangles with local police as they pass through rural villages, nothing unusual happens to them.
They record their progress in diaries and take pictures of each other on their way to summit Mount Otorten. They have promised family and friends that the expedition leader, Igor Dyatlov, who is pretty familiar with these parts, having guided others through them on occasion, will send a telegram around February 12, signalling that they have completed their mission and are headed back home.
Well, as you may have guessed, since this is a scary story, the telegram was never sent. At first no one worried; after all, it is winter in the Ural mountains. But then a week passed, and ten days passed. It became clear that something was wrong. On February 22 the search began and what was found has passed into legend and even myth in those parts of Russia. At first the tent was located and it was clear something strange had happened. Investigation indicated that it had been sliced open from the inside and that the inhabitants rushed out into the cold, many without their outer clothes and in stocking feet.
They ran for over a mile, in blistering cold (-22-27 F), breaking through 4 ft deep snow, before stopping at a cedar tree. Some of them had climbed into the tree, but two were found dead at the bottom of it, clad only in their underwear. Three more were found, in a direct line from the tree, apparently on their way back to the tent, before succumbing to the cold themselves. One of them had suffered some kind of chest or head injury. Diary entries indicated that the "event" which led to their deaths had occurred somewhere between February 1-2.
The remaining four were not found until the spring thaw, some four months later. They had taken, or had been taken, to a rough shelter dug into a ravine behind and below the cedar. One of them had frozen to death, the other three had died, not so much of the cold, but of extensive head and chest injuries which broke bone, but did not bruise the flesh. Since they'd been out longer, their deterioration greatly affected the search and recovery teams. Many of the members had known these individuals in life, so the circumstances of the deaths of these young people was very important.
However, the authorities were not helpful. The KGB stood guard over the autopsies and forced medical examiners to sign non-disclosure forms. The Soviet dignitaries in the region admonished their underlings for allowing such "untoward things" to happen to the youth and wrote off the incident as a tragic misadventure. Locals couldn't figure out why secret intelligence or the military would even be interested unless they had something to do with the deaths, or at least knew something about what had happened.
For many years the common understanding among most individuals connected with the tragic story was that the Dyatlov party were unwitting witnesses to some kind of secret weapons testing and either became victims of the weather by being frightened out of their shelter because of the tests, or were eliminated in some fashion due to their proximity to such testing.
Additional theories have ranged from fear of avalanche to attacks by Mansi hunters (the indigenous people in the area), aliens and/or Yeti. To McCloskey's credit, he details them all, after carefully reviewing the physical evidence that has finally been declassified and released after all this time. Unfortunately, some of the details are difficult to square. A relatively recent Russian documentary that focuses on the case provides a slightly different take on some of the autopsy details and what was actually found at the campsite.
However, it may also be that the information provided to either McCloskey or the film makers was deliberately incomplete. One does get the sense that either there is more to this story than some authorities might acknowledge, or that there was a basic incompetence in the original investigations to begin with. It's really difficult to say.
McCloskey does uncover one particularly fascinating storyteller in the person of Yury Yakimov. Yakimov became obsessed with the Dyatlov incident after encountering, what for him was a strange and eerie light phenomenon in the forests not too far, as the crow flies, from where the nine unfortunates died. McCloskey lets Yakimov tell his own story, and it was quite sufficient to keep this reader up for part of a night, just thinking about it. It doesn't help that the Mansi have maintained their own stories about these lights and this region. They told Yakimov not to return to the forest where he saw the lights.
After finding another individual, a retired forest ranger, who had reported a similar experience to his superiors, Yakimov became convinced that it was something like this light phenomenon, which he refers to as "light sets," that was responsible for scaring a group of experienced campers sufficiently that they left their safety behind and perished in the cold. He also believes that the "light sets" were responsible, in some way, for the injuries sustained by some of the campers, although this is speculation on his part, since he didn't experience such himself.
Of further interest, for those who find the cultural impact of events like this fascinating, is McCloskey's interaction with another individual, Shimon Davidenko, who insists that he was a tenth member of the group that survived the disaster. There was an original tenth member, Yuri Yudin, who ironically died just this last April (2013). Yudin became ill on the first leg of the journey and had to turn back, and thus, survived when his friends did not. He has spent the remainder of his life perpetuating their memory. However, Davidenko, despite all evidence to the contrary, and a great of testimony that contradicts many of the most obvious facts, such as who was injured, maintains that he was present and managed, somehow to escape through the elements and bitter cold to tell the truth.
That McCloskey includes Davidenko's narrative at all is interesting. Here is a guy who has been so impacted in some fashion by the Dyatlov incident that he must insert himself into it for his own life to have meaning. It's really a cautionary tale about how people identify with and adopt/adapt events into their own lives. This has profound implications for anything around which rumors might swirl, from conspiracies to religious miracles. It doesn't help, of course, in the rumor mill department, that this exact region experienced a "real life" disaster when weapons grade anthrax was accidentally released into some population sectors near Sverdlovsk in 1979, resulting in the reported death of up to some 60 or so people.
McCloskey's, Mountain of the Dead: The Dyatlov Pass Incident, is a good introduction to a genuinely scary modern mystery. There are some portions of the book that appear to have been hastily written and/or edited, although other parts are done very well. If the interested reader wants more information about the incident, it is possible to access several online sources, including one that includes many more photos of the Dyatlov party while alive, and then later, after they were found, including some autopsy photos (some are graphic). These are useful additions to McCloskey's text, since he apparently could only gain the rights to use certain photos in his book.
So seriously, if you want a good "ghost" story, with a strong X-Files component, that just happens to be true, although true in what way it's hard to tell, read Keith McCloskey's account of the Dyatlov Incident. Give the movie, The Devil's Pass (2013), supposedly based on these same events, a pass. It's really stupid. After reading McCloskey's account, this reviewer had dreams about it afterward, and even generated a theory about what might have happened to the Dyatlov 9. The Dyatlov story is as creepy as they come.