#204: The Sense of Dread

October 27, 2017

“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.


Dyatlov Pass hikers - alive, and recovered bodies

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.

In Episode #204, we’re talking with New York Times Bestselling author and filmmaker Donnie Eichar about what he learned researching — and visiting — Dead Mountain.

Dead Mountain book

Dead Mountain
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!

Karman Vortex Streets

Show Notes
  • 00:00:31

    Episode introduction: The Sense of Dread.

  • 00:02:15

    This Week In Neuroscience: Caloric significance of Paleolithic human cannibalism.

  • 00:05:15

    5-Star review shoutouts.

  • 00:05:46

    SDS news and updates.

  • 00:07:27

    Guest introduction: Donnie Eichar.

  • 00:10:49

    Interview begins.

  • 00:12:15

    The man who turned back.

  • 00:14:20

    Was there a consensus on the most likely explanation for what happened prior to Eichar's involvement?

  • 00:17:05

    How Eichar began putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

  • 00:18:55

    Retracing the hikers' steps.

  • 00:22:00

    Dead mountain.

  • 00:23:30

    Estimates of when the hikers left their tent and where their bodies were discovered.

  • 00:25:00

    How the hikers left their tent.

  • 00:26:09

    But why did the hikers leave the safety of their tent in the state that they did?

  • 00:27:10


  • 00:30:35

    The conclusion Donnie Eichar reached.

  • 00:38:44

    Interview wrap-up.

  • 00:40:33

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: Vampires you should be worrying about!

  • 00:43:00

    Episode wrap-up.

One comment

  1. ben says:

    Whenever driving with only one window open, perhaps that wicked annoying sound is infrasound at work! Definitely more effective that binaural beats at inducing a headache.

    Regarding the Dyatlov Pass theory, not sure if the avalanche hallucination accounts for the fact that if they panicked to get out of the tent, why did they walk and not run after getting out? And why did some not leave the tent area at all?

    Also, there’s a lot of conflicting details, but one that seems very strange if true, is that the clothes of the naked hikers were found to be worn on the other hikers.

    The explanation that I find most probable (aside from aliens of course) is a malfunction of the fire stove in the tent caused them to evacuate it. There’s a great analysis of it here:

    Finally, for a spooky episode next year, how about one on parasites and all the crazy zombie like things they induce (ex. Justin Jackson’s favorite toxoplasma gondii). There’s a great Ted Talk by Ed Yong on the subject.

    There’s also an interesting book called Cannibalism by Bill Schutt… with tons of surprising examples of all the different animals that eat their own kind!

    Also, not exactly spooky, but very mysterious, is the “Most Mysterious Star in the Universe” (KIC 8462852)!

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