Has Science Solved One of History’s Greatest Adventure Mysteries?

Robin George Andrews, reporting for National Geographic: A 62-year-old adventure mystery that has prompted conspiracy theories around Soviet military experiments, Yetis, and even extraterrestrial contact may have its best, most sensible explanation yet — one found in a series of avalanche simulations based in part on car crash experiments and animation used in the movie Frozen. In an article published this week in the journal Communications Earth and Environment, researchers present data pointing to the likelihood that a bizarrely small, delayed avalanche may have been responsible for the gruesome injuries and deaths of nine experienced hikers who never returned from a planned 200-mile adventure in Russia’s Ural Mountains in the winter of 1959.

In what has become known as the Dyatlov Pass incident, ten members of the Urals Polytechnic Institute in Yekaterinburg — nine students and one sports instructor who fought in World War II — headed into the frigid wilderness on a skiing and mountaineering expedition on January 23, 1959. One student with joint pain turned back, but the rest, led by 23-year-old engineering student Igor Dyatlov, continued on. According to camera film and personal diaries later found on the scene by investigators, the team made camp on February 1, pitching a large tent on the snowy slopes of Kholat Saykhl, whose name can be interpreted as “Dead Mountain” in the language of the region’s Indigenous Mansi people. The nine — seven men and two women — were never heard from again.

When a search team arrived at Kholat Saykhl a few weeks later, the expedition tent was found just barely sticking out of the snow, and it appeared cut open from the inside. The next day, the first of the bodies was found near a cedar tree. Over the next few months, as the snow thawed, search teams gradually uncovered more spine-chilling sights: All nine of the team members’ bodies were scattered around the mountain’s slope, some in a baffling state of undress; some of their skulls and chests had been smashed open; others had eyes missing, and one lacked a tongue. Each body was a piece in a grim puzzle, but none of the pieces seemed to fit together. A criminal investigation at the time blamed their deaths on an “unknown natural force,” and the Soviet bureaucracy kept the case quiet. The lack of detail about this shocking event, an apparent massacre that transpired in a deeply secretive state, gave rise to dozens of long-lived conspiracy theories, from clandestine military tests to Yeti attacks.