The Dyatlov Pass incident
– new theory and our 2019 expedition

Dyatlov Pass new theory

Dyatlov Pass - possible chain of events
13 unfortunate steps

February 1-2, 1959

Djatlovpasset

My theory tries to explain most of the strange phenomena that surround the mystery of the Dyatlov pass - such as why the tent was cut from the inside, why they left the tent and couldn’t get back, and why they fled ill-dressed - many without shoes. The theory also tries to explain the order in which the different individuals died - how and why and not least the often referred to strange injuries to the bodies.
The theory and our 2019 Jan/Feb expedition to the pass can be read in full here.  

1. Tense skiing uphill from the Auspiya valley for a prolonged period in bad visibility followed by a rushed pitching of the tent on Kholat Syakhl around 5 pm. Clothes became wet from snowfall and some in the group likely got damp garments due to the sweaty challenge.

Dyatlov Pass new theory

2. Removal of wet and/or change to dry clothes that were orderly spread in the tent. Wind and outside temperature were controllable with a stable presence in the tent. Stove was never assembled due to absence of firewood above the tree line.  

3. In mid evening, after some food consumption, an abrupt and unexpected change in the strength of the wind occurred. Extremely cold gravity winds (katabatic) suddenly grips the tent with severe fluttering or damage to the canvas. The gravity wind falls along the slope from NW - arriving from the valley in the west.

4. The already mended tent, aside from being two tents stitched together and poor anchoring, added to an awareness of a vulnerable canvas. The immediate decision was to swiftly evacuate and rescue the tent at all cost - this before it dispersed in the wind with uncontrollable loss of equipment. We talk about a few seconds (example of a katabatic scenario). A violently fluttering and deformed tent (in being elongated), a stiffly frozen canvas with a buttoned opening in overall darkness - are some of several difficult to overcome obstacles. To cut the tent open with a knife was necessary in order to save time (unless it teared itself apart by any item pushed against the canvas to keep it stretched). The wind furthermore created a severe cooling effect with temperatures well below minus 50/60 degrees Celsius. Staying under the canvas or on the slope would have caused severe hypothermia. 

The devastating gravity wind (katabatic) of the Anaris accident in Sweden in 1978, is illuminating in understanding the sudden forces possibly released in the Dyatlov Pass. Although the two scenarios differ in some significant points, such as the lack of a tent, the Anaris case shows how extreme winds with a subsequent cooling effect can generate disastrous consequences. See also entry number 13 below.  
  

5. In order to swiftly secure the tent, adjacent snow was quickly shoveled by hand over the collapsed canvas. The easiest way was likely to shave off the snow shelf above the tent - this while standing on the central part of the canvas (not the gables). Leaving the tent's deeply anchored gables fixed, was a good solution as it kept the canvas in place without creating too much of a sail. The combination of this swift judgement aside from a chaotic situation in limited light, left no time to locate the buried outfit and equipment. The applied snow cover made all gear inaccessible and with the cooling situation, time on the slope was critical.

The buried central section of the tent would also explain the misinterpretation of an avalanche or a "snow slab" as well as why most individuals ended up underdressed. The interpretation of a "snow slab" being decisive for the groups demise, I consider secondary (see item 11 and the link to full theory, below). This because the fractures on the bodies found in the ravine suggest post-mortem evidence and because a katabatic scenario (high wind with extreme cooling effect) was the main cause to the death of the 1959 group - this regardless of a "snow slab" or not. Thus I believe that NO serious or life-threatening injuries should be connected to any event inside or around the tent. 
 
In addition to this interpretation, the lack of any documented drag marks in the snow should also be considered. Any wounds inflicted by the impact of a "snow slab", also makes the fleeing of 1.5 kilometres down to the forest an overreaction - and problematic in regard of Tibo-Brignolle with his interpreted deadly blow to the head. If a "snow slab" affected the tent, the non-wounded would likely have had time to retrieve essential equipment for the long escape route. Again, a katabatic wind is therefore suggested as the only cause to the abandoning of the campsite in a rush.

In 2019 our expedition introduced the theory of a katabatic wind scenario. This wind component was also an important concideration in a new scientific Swiss study; 
"Mechanisms of slab avalanche release and impact in the Dyatlov Pass incident in 1959" by Johan Gaume and Alexander M. Puzrin (2021). This is indeed a meticulous presentation, although I believe that the adoption of a "snow slab", whether it occurred or not, is not central to the course of events - that is, fleeing down to the forest and not being able to return. The katabatic wind is.

The evacuation of the tent followed by a rapid retreat was a logical decision given the explosive katabatic event. It was hoped that the tent was secured if collapsed and sheltered under the snow - aside from being shielded behind the dugout lower snow shelf. A flashlight was likely positioned on the snow cover behind the shelf, facing the valley below - this to monitor if the tent was still in place and in order to retrieve any equipment as soon as the extreme wind subsided.


Their proceedings were professional and not uncommon for tents being threatened in the same way. One may argue that the exposed position of the tent was less favorable and thus unprofessional, but even if the group was prepared for strong winds, a katabatic scenario is very hard to predict and prepare for. The members of the Anaris group were also experienced but nonetheless succumbed to the gravity wind. Life-threatening situations do occur. No matter the experience, people still die when performing extreme ventures like climbing and hiking. This was after all the purpose of Dyatlov’s hike – to gain a level three in extreme skiing in tough surroundings. If it would have been easy, they wouldn’t have been there in the first place. 

Dyatlov Pass new theory

6. The group walked tightly together in a controlled pace while the wind was battering their shoulders. Footprints are preserved in non-exposed areas, other prints are erased. Socks (or valenki) without boots were not enough but temporarily sufficient considering the option of losing valuable time on the slope. Some segments of the distance to the sheltering forest may have been accomlished in a less controlled manner – causing bruises and minor injuries over the stone belt and in the dark forest below. 
Thus, the hikers were likely never worried by any overall sliding or tumbling snow masses from atop, as it would be illogical for them to move in the path of any such avalanche-like scenario. Nor was the accumulated snow found on top of the tent in any way sufficient to suggest such an event - which also the reported footprints around the tent may attest for. The slope furthermore lacks the angle to set any larger snow masses in motion, let alone with any momentum. I base this on my own inspection of the slope - a trait that has also been proven beyond doubt by for example Vladimir Borzenkov in his meticulous on-site investigations of 2014 and 2019. 

 

Dyatlov pass
Dyatlov Pass new theory

7. Making a fire was of high priority but difficult - although possible in the forest due to the fact that katabatic winds are much stronger along a slope. All but Krivonoshenko and Doroshenko engaged in the scooping out of two bivouacs, nos. 1 and 2, that could shelter 5 and 4 persons each. This is important because theories before 2019 have speculated in why four of the bodies were found outside the empty and nearby located bivouac (here named no. 2). Rather, the bodies were in fact positioned snuggly behind each other to keep warm - this in a later collapsed snow shelter no. 1 (see points 8-10). The protected digging and constant movement kept all but the men at the fire warmer and shielded from the wind. 

8. The two men at the fireplace desperately fails to keep a sufficient fire alive. Their last attempt to revitalize their numb limbs was by keeping their extremities into the fading fire. After a while they became unconscious. Before this, Doroshenko (perhaps assisted by someone else) attempted to climb the cedar in order to get a sight of the tent (beacon) and the condition on the slope (and/or to get superior firewood). As opposed to the hard-to-ignite twigs surrounding them, the higher branches of the adjacent Siberian cedar were favored. In the midst of the winter such branches are surprisingly easy to snap of by hand – as we also experienced during our stay in the valleys.         

9. The rest of the group of seven managed to finish the snow shelters, nos. 1 and 2. These were of substandard and rapidly shaped. Discovering that their friends had succumbed to the cold around the fire, they used some of their clothes and retreated to their bivouacs. At this point it is likely that the most exhausted, four people, crawled into shelter no. 1. 

10. They were now all intentionally divided into two groups with Dyatlov, Slobodin and Kolmogorova planning to stay in bivouac no. 2 – that is, the den that was retrieved empty by the search team many weeks later. 

Dyatlov Pass new theory

11. Bivouac no. 1 collapsed and trapped Dubunina, Kolevatov, Tibaux-Brignolle and Zolotarev inside. The collapsed bivouac was never identified as a shelter months later - this due to its collapsed nature over the brook. This den was probably dug out from within the depression of the ravine - this in order to constitute a warmer cavern-structure rather than being exposed under the sky. The entrance was made in a hurry, facing downstream. It is here that the fractured chests on two of the victims got their symptomatic compression over time under heavy and wet snow. Dubinina and Zolotarev’s chest wounds where likely not present during the time of positioning inside the shelter - which is explained by their activities until their moments of deaths - Dubinina using Krivonoshenkos clothes and Zolotarev with his alleged pen and notebook in his hands. Such injuries are more understandable in terms of misinterpreted post- and antemortem indicators (see items 12 and 5).
The collapse of bivouac no. 1 forced the three persons to vacate or never use the nearby and possibly insecure bivouac no. 2 - this in order to retrieve the tent (as a last chance of survival and for eqipment to dig their friends out). Most certainly bivouac no. 1 had already crumbled before the last attempt to reach the tent - otherwise we could expect the last three to have used essential footwear present on the others.

At this time (and likely long before that), we must also expect the last survivors were hit hard by hypothermia - this with symptoms of extreme fatigue, impaired coordination ability, confusion and perhaps hallucinations. This followed by apathy. 

 

A visualization of the Dyatlov Pass bivouac no. 1, before collapsing. It was here that  Zolotarev and three of his friends were sheltering.
A visualization of the Dyatlov Pass bivouac no. 1, before collapsing. It was here that Zolotarev and three of his friends were sheltering.

12. Traces of radioactivity (beta radiation) in two of the members clothes can be explained by earlier exposure to industry pollution. Missing eyes is false and was the result of decomposition – as well as the missing tongue. Any blood in the stomach is a natural cause of hypothermia, where bruises and perhaps fractures were likely a result of the chaotic situation that appeared during survival procedures and/or when escaping the extreme falling wind on a dark slope and in the forest.
In the case of Anaris in 1978, the rescue force described the scenario around the bodies as the bloodiest ever encountered - this due to survival procedures with numb extremities. 
The compressed chests of Dubinina and Zolotarev should be explained by the decomposition of the bodies and gradual and long exposure under heavy and eventually wet snow (the collapsed snow shelter no. 1). Severe fractures on skulls should be evaluated in the light of falls but most likely damage to the bodies as the rescue team probed the snow - such as in the case of Dubunina when damaging of her neck when locating her body.

Dyatlov Pass new theory

13. The tent was retrieved with clear patterns of heavily wind-swept snow from a northwestern direction. The dating of these can be debated but adds to the overall hint to very strong winds around the actual time - which was also raised by the first rescuers. The stratigraphical layers surrounding for example Slobodin are thin and compacted as deposited by wind.  
Any gradual build-up of wind wouldn’t have forced the group to act hastily and therefore a sudden change with a violent wind scenario is advocated - such as in the case of the Anaris accident. The lingering question has always been why they left the tent in panic - this without gathering the essential equipment – and why they couldn’t return in time before succumbing. A katabatic wind wouldn’t let you.    


/Richard Holmgren, 2019


 

See also our new 2021 documentary - The Dyatlov Pass Mystery - on the Swedish Television (SVT-Play). It is based on our skiing to and
stay on the pass in 2019 - and the theory presented above. It can
be seen until January 28, 2022 (speaker voice in Swedish only).

The two most common objections to the falling wind theory are the following:
 
Statement: They had time to collapse and bury the tent, leave a flashlight on top, but no time to put extra clothes and boots on?
 
ANSWER: Correct. From the time a falling wind grabs the tent followed by the slicing of the canvas to get out, only some seconds passed. You have no time to collect your gear, unbutton the frozen canvas and put on footwear. Everything is dark and chaotic. When outside, you immediately need to prevent the canvas from flying. If the group pushes down the tent after exiting, stands on top of it while scooping snow over it, then it can be saved. But, at this moment you have buried most of the things you need and the cooling effect is murderous - consequently one needs to leave the slope promptly. Thus, staying inside the tent in order to weight it down, is neither an option - leading to hypothermia and a certian death. 
After having saved the canvas you can return when the wind has subsided – even though frostbites are unescapable. A positioned flashlight may help you relocating the tent and putting it atop takes no time.

May I also add that when putting on ski-boots in the pass, during -40° C, it took me three to four minutes in a controlled situation. Leather and cords are extremely stiff because of the cold. And - you also need to do this with your bare hands. During an event such as the one described above - just forget it. 



Statement: Would the weight of a collapsed bivouac be enough to equal the force required for injuries that were compared to a car crash?
 
ANSWER: If a ribcage already contains fractures, the thorax will easier compress under heavy weights of snow. Fractures could have occurred before the collapse of bivouac no. 1, during survival practices such as climbing/falling etc. The longer a corpse is positioned under heavy snow, the easier it gets compressed during putrefaction – especially since wet snow is getting heavier during thawing in May.  

Photos: Dyatlov Foundation in Yekaterinburg and Richard Holmgren