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What you don’t suspect, can kill you

An excellent reputation lets you get away with a lot.

Take Sherlock Holmes.  The world’s most famous detective’s best-known line is one you probably hear every couple of months — often by guys like me who like to wow you with oddball factoids:

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Technically, Sherlock isn’t wrong — but he’s sweeping aside the fact that we almost never have a full list of conjectures we can move through to sort the impossible from the as-yet-unclassified, ending up at the Truth.  He invites us to imagine a world less like our real one and more like detective fiction, where although the bad guy might be an extremely minor character, we can be confident that at least he’s been introduced.

Apologies for the gender-specific pronoun in the previous paragraph and to any bad girls who may feel overlooked for their contributions to the field of villainy.

Back to Sherlock: We can eliminate impossibilities all day long.  But if we haven’t first identified all the key possibilities, then instead of being left with the Truth, we’ll be left at the end with a gnawing, maddening Nothing.

And when you’re in the detective business, nothing doesn’t denote a bland lack of substance.  (“What’s in the trunk of your car?” “Oh, nothing.”)

An unsolved crime creates a Nothing with a vacuum-like force that pulls at the world around it, looking for anything — any theory — to fill in the psychic void.

So it was with the “Dyatlov Pass Incident,” a real-life story featuring nine dead hikers that, while tragic, has been remembered for more than fifty years not because of its tragedy…but because of its mystery.

“An unknown, compelling force.”

This was the official finding as to what had killed nine young, strong, experienced hikers in the Ural mountains of Russia in 1959.  A full investigation had taken place, initiated by a team of rescuers…whose role slowly morphed into recoverers as it became clear that none of the missing hikers would be found alive.

Needless to say, the hikers’ surviving friends and family wanted an explanation that was a little more specific.

They wouldn’t get it.

What they got instead were copious clues — but nothing indicating anything that would coalesce into a coherent story.

Within weeks of the fateful night when the deaths occurred, the Russian authorities had recovered the frozen bodies.  They found the campsite, including the hikers’ tent and even their snowy footprints.  Autopsies had been performed*.

The autopsies weren’t as fast as the rescue team’s leader would have liked.  A helicopter pilot refused to transport the bodies until he was provided with zinc-lined coffins to prevent “contamination.” Contamination from what, exactly?  Questions like this fueled decades of speculation.

A cottage industry of homespun theories grew up around the Dyatlov Pass Incident: theories involving government cover-ups, paranormal contact, aliens, and permutative mash-ups.  All were fostered by the basic inability of anyone — even the chief investigators — to accept the forensic facts of the case without some missing x-factor.

These experienced hikers had been killed by bad weather.  That much seemed clear.  But they’d fled into the deadly weather from inside a warm tent, slicing their way out from the inside, and leaving in such a hurry that they didn’t get dressed — not even putting on their shoes.

It didn’t make sense.

Not at the time, and not fifty years later.

Trust no one.

The Dyatlov Pass Incident took place deep within the Soviet sphere during the frozen core of the Cold War, so despite decades of notoriety in Russia, it is a story that’s largely unknown in the West.

And this is sad — if you’re an unsolved mysteries fan — because the tantalizingly awful pieces of this mystery make it probably the best real-life horror head-scratcher this side of Jack the Ripper.  The Russian police’s official [non-]explanation only threw fuel on the fire, prompting “they know more than they’re letting on” talk from a deeply distrustful public.

This really should have been a movie co-directed by Oliver Stone and Eli Roth.  Just look at the highlights…

Spooky Facts Highlight Reel

  • Nine healthy young people (eight guys, one girl) killed in the prime of their lives.
  • The mountain where they died was named “Dead Mountain” by the indigenous people of the region.
  • Evidence of violence on several corpses.  The coroner’s report described one victim as having five fractured ribs plus serious hemorrhaging — wounds inflicted “by a large force, while the victim had been alive.”
  • Infighting among the official investigators.  Said one: “It’s disgraceful.  I and fourteen other comrades brought corpses by hand to the helicopter.  Despite my compelling request, they wouldn’t take the bodies aboard.”
  • Radioactive isotopes on the victims’ clothing.  A sweater found among the bodies had “levels of radioactive material higher than what would be allowed among radiation workers.” (This was after lying in snowmelt for over a week, which should have reduced radiation levels.)
  • The victims’ parents were refused an open-casket funeral, despite their requests to the authorities.
  • The girl’s body— and only the girl’s — was found with her tongue missing.

According to almost everyone, exposure to the elements was the group’s ultimate killer.  But the proximate cause — whatever really killed them — was something inside the tent.  As one surviving friend said:

“Only a threat of death can make people run barefoot at night from the only warm shelter.”

They believed staying the tent meant certain death — apparently in less time than it would have taken to lace up their snowboots.

Yet the tent was still standing, waiting for the rescuers weeks later.  The only hint of violence inside the tent was the slashed hole from the hikers’ own escape.  (The injuries on their bodies had come later.)

How could they have been so wrong…?

And so convinced they were right?

Possible, invisible, and imperceptible — until it’s not.

In 2013, American author Donnie Eichar published Dead Mountain, a nonfiction book documenting the lives and fates of the Dyatlov Pass hikers…and offering a previously unconsidered suspect as the guilty party in their deaths.

It’s the type of possibility Sherlock Holmes’ maxim wouldn’t have excluded…but might never have seen.  In over fifty years since the tragedy, no one else had.

I won’t give away the suspect’s identity here.  (It’s Halloween, after all; you might want to enjoy the spine-tingles a while longer.) But I will tell you that I find Eichar’s theory both persuasive and amazing.

It’s a resolution that doesn’t diminish the terror of imagining the hikers’ final hours — if you’re the type who relishes a good scary story.

In Episode #204 of Smart Drug Smarts, I interviewed Donnie Eichar, getting a synopsis of his book and his investigative approach to discovering the Dyatlov Pass story.  If you’d like to mix in some unusual science with your Halloween (and science can certainly be a scary subject), give it a listen.

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