“An unknown, compelling force.”
This is what was officially described as having killed nine strong, healthy, young hikers in the Ural mountains of Russia in 1959.
Needless to say, the loved ones who survived them would have liked an explanation that was a little more specific.
They wouldn’t get it.
In the more than five decades since the tragedy occurred — despite having recovered all the bodies, despite having significant forensic and even photographic evidence, and despite the ongoing attention of all manner of sleuths (both official and decidedly amateur) — no consensus has emerged as to what killed these hikers.
Or, to restate that a bit: We know what killed the hikers. Exposure to frigid temperatures in inadequate clothing in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere. In some cases, combined with blunt trauma that almost certainly arose from injuries sustained while scrabbling over broken terrain while fleeing something.
But fleeing from what?
They’d been warm in their tent. And they cut their way out from the inside — fleeing into the frozen Russian night.
This is the essential gist of the “Dyatlov Pass Incident,” a tragedy that has spawned decades of controversy, whispers, accusations, and speculation.
It happened in Russia during the frozen core of the Cold War and has been largely unknown in the West since that time — despite it’s having been, in many people’s estimation, one of the best real-life horror head-scratchers this side of Jack the Ripper.
While it’s easy to say “this story has it all”–let’s look at some of the elements:
- Healthy young attractive people (eight guys, one girl) killed in the prime of their lives.
- The mountain they died on was named “Dead Mountain” by the local indigenous people.
- Mysterious reticence on the part of the authorities to do their job. i.e. A helicopter pilot in the Russian Air Force refused to move the recovered bodies until zinc-lined coffins were provided to prevent “contamination.”
- High levels of radioactive isotopes found on the victims’ clothing. A sweater found among the group had “levels of radioactive material higher than what would be allowed among radiation workers.” And this was after having laid in snowmelt for a week or more.
- Parents who were refused an open-casket funeral, despite their requests.
- The girl — and only the girl — was found with her tongue missing.
This is one spooky, spooky story.
But Smart Drug Smarts is a show about neuroscience.
We like unsolved mysteries as much as the next guy…but it’s not our subject matter.
So — even though it is Halloween in just a couple of days — what is this story doing here?
Well, it just so happens that after over 50 years (and theories ranging from aliens to government-tests-gone-awry to psychotic lovers’ quarrels), an American author might have figured out what really happened.
And it’s more about neuroscience than you’d ever expect.
Certainly enough to merit a spot for our Halloween episode.
So turn on your flashlights, bolt the door, and be ready for anything.
by Donnie Eichar
Nine healthy young hikers died suddenly, tragically, and mysteriously in 1959 in the Ural Mountains of Russia — spawning five decades of questions and theories. Almost six decades later, the author retraces their steps…and pulls answers out of thin, howling air.
Karman Vortex Streets
If you haven’t listened to the episode yet, don’t look at the photos below yet. This means you!
Episode introduction: The Sense of Dread.
This Week In Neuroscience: Caloric significance of Paleolithic human cannibalism.
5-Star review shoutouts.
SDS news and updates.
Guest introduction: Donnie Eichar.
The man who turned back.
Was there a consensus on the most likely explanation for what happened prior to Eichar's involvement?
How Eichar began putting the pieces of the puzzle together.
Retracing the hikers' steps.
Estimates of when the hikers left their tent and where their bodies were discovered.
How the hikers left their tent.
But why did the hikers leave the safety of their tent in the state that they did?
The conclusion Donnie Eichar reached.
Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: Vampires you should be worrying about!