One of the best things about setting novels in exotic locations is I actually get to visit those places. There are a couple of exceptions: I’ve never experienced life on an oil rig in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, and I’ve never been to Dyatlov Pass. After suffering through too many Winnipeg winters, the last thing that appealed was camping in a place where the temperatures can plummet to -50C/-58F. No thanks.
So I was thrilled when I was approached by two Swedish adventurers who traveled to the Pass for the 60th anniversary of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Andreas Liljegren and Richard Holmgren have agreed to take us on an exclusive tour of the infamous Death Mountain.
Holmgren has his own theory about what happened on the Pass, and I have to admit, it sounds plausible. For the first time, I’ve heard a theory that could explain everything–except, perhaps the photo from Igor Dyatlov’s camera and that strange, scrawled message: “From now on we know, that snowmen exist.”
1. Why did you go to Dyatlov Pass?
Well, considering that our expedition ended up as a professional undertaking, it started rather embarrassingly. Obviously we both knew the story of the Dyatlov Pass, because one night in Italy, north of Rome, we passed through a forest together. The place was somewhat eerie and one of us commented upon the situation – that it recalled the story of the Dyatlov Pass. Since the forest was an Italian one and far from involving any freezing temperatures or deep snow and the like, it just felt – let us say “Dyatlov-y”. This is quite telling, though, because it lets us understand that the story of the Dyatlov Pass is not largely anchored in a rational mindset, but a myth-like and many times irrational understanding of a perhaps rather realistic event. So this triggered us to discuss the incident further and we eventually came to understand that the story was worth exploring further. It very much reminded us of the maps of the Holy Land studied in the first grade. For a child, these mysterious biblical events were very difficult to interconnect with real geography. You eventually come to understand that these were not the maps from the “Lord of the Rings,” but very much a real place. You become amazed and you want to explore it further by going there.
2. What kindled your interest in the Dyatlov Pass Incident?
This could probably be regarded as step two in the Dyatlov drama. When you finally get ahold of the story and when an almost myth-like state of mind turns into a rational understanding of the group – that is, when characters turn into individuals, stories turn into written diaries and Mansi mythology turns into the reality of indigenous dwellers, then you are forever caught inside a drama with feelings for the Dyatlov group’s personalities and their destiny – something that is hard to escape. You start to relate with the people from 1959 and you want to know more. Then you ask yourself, why and how did these somewhat realistic circumstances with real people, turn into something almost mythical? There must be something vital missing in the stories we’ve heard. Perhaps something unknown? The next step must inevitably be to go there and check out the premises for all the stories floating around. Of course you need to be passionate and accept that any budget and time will be spent on something other than a relaxing resort.
3. What was it like on the Pass? How did you feel while you were there? How long did you stay? What were the challenges?
Oh, there is much to say. But, the Pass itself is rather undramatic as long as the winds are under control. Of course the lower parts of the Pass are unbelievably beautiful when the sun is glistening from the freezing trees on the slopes. Actually, we think that many people would be surprised by the scenic nature surrounding Kholat Syakhl. But it can also be a deathtrap. Certain changes in weather would turn a “normal” skiing tour into hell itself. The temperatures in late January are also a hard-to-forget experience. As we come from Sweden, we are quite used to the cold, through for example our military service in the very north, but the Northern Urals are something else. Inside the silent forests there is a constant struggle for survival. Temperatures down to -58 degrees Fahrenheit are not normal, but not uncommon either.
We had -45 degrees at its worst and this affected our bodies in many unforeseen ways. You could literally put your jacket in a standing position after taking it off. Drinking water and food that constantly freezes is a challenge. Now, if you add wind to this, the situation could become deadly, especially if your tent blows away.
Before arriving at the Pass you have to ski through deep forests in pristine deep snow. This is the most challenging part – not the Pass itself. When you ski you cannot be sweaty, because then you will be ice-cold and damage your health greatly. There is no place to get warm again. You have to find a perfect pace through the woods and to be prepared for heavy work each night, including sawing and chopping wood, raising the tent with bare hands, lighting the stove and cooking food in the campfire. These are pretty normal things for any camper, but with the freezing temperatures, it’s another situation entirely.
This is very exhausting and an important factor that is easily forgotten when considering what the Dyatlov group went through before their passing. Of course, up to their last evening, they managed flawlessly since they were very professional and experienced hikers. This might perchance make their death even more peculiar, but foremost very sad. Whatever killed them, it could really be described as an “unknown compelling force” – or should we rather say “unthought-of compelling force.” These also were the words of Lev Ivanov, the chief investigator. We stayed a week in the area around the Pass, since we focused on experiencing the Auspiya valley and the Pass itself, which we thought would help us to better understand the prerequisites of their journey. The skiing that the Dyatlov group went through before getting to the Auspiya valley was quite straightforward, since they mostly used the even surface of the icy Lozva river.
4. Are you glad you went? Would you ever go back?
Yes! Yes indeed, answering both questions. The landscape is fantastic, and the experience of the harsh environment makes you appreciate nature at its best, besides appreciating the daily and relatively easy routines after returning home. The best part of the trip was the people. All were very helpful, cheerful and lovely human beings. We also think that this is very important in a frequently polarizing world, especially between the western and the eastern blocks. So yes, we will go back. There is much more to explore around the Urals, friends to make, and much to learn about the exciting life and mythology of the Mansi people.
5. Why do you think this mystery continues to endure?
Probably because many people only read the rather superficial outline of the case. If everyone studied the autopsy reports and took into account rational approaches to the event, many would probably have long since forgotten about the happenings of 1959. However, even if the reader tries to keep a rational approach, there might be circumstances that are more complicated than just hypothermia, thus possibly involving political and military interferences into the case and the cause of death.
We have different opinions here, but are of course open for alternative explanations within the known laws of nature here on earth. However, there is a great need for myths today. We all miss the days around the fire telling stories and we miss the old maps with dragons in the seas. Myths are also important for us in order to have the strength to endure the cold reality. This is also true for us when exploring the Dyatlov case. Don’t think for a second that we are totally rational when approaching the case. There is still room for good legends, even in the Dyatlov story. It is the feeling of “…but you never know” that continuously inspires.
6. What do you think of the Russian government reopening the investigation? Why do you think they are doing this?
It’s good in many ways, but mostly since there are still many people alive who have strong links to the case. Many people are still unsatisfied about the 60-year inquiry. At last these people can finally look into all aspects of the case. However, this will take some time and will probably create new questions in open endless discussions with new contradictions to things that we’d already established. The case was reopened due to the work of many committed people involved in the Dyatlov case, such as the Dyatlov Foundation. Otherwise, the case would probably have stayed closed. It could also be based on political motifs in general – where disclosure in itself is an antithesis to a controlled society.
7. Richard, you have an interesting theory about what happened to the ski-hikers. Can you explain it for us?
First, I want to say that I fully respect all theories out there, as long as they are rational within a “normal” framework. If a yeti were to blame, then I ask myself why not a “floating radioactive yeti” so that we can get rid of all questions concerning footprints and fleeting and odd elements once and for all? Perhaps this statement is insulting to the yeti or extraterrestrial audience out there, but hopefully you understand what I mean. The Dyatlov question would fade in comparison to any creatures looming the forests of the Urals. Why then be stunned at all when looking into the Dyatlov case, if such alternatives are on the table?
My take is a pretty natural explanation involving a katabatic wind, a falling wind affecting the slopes of Kholat Syakhl with devastating effects, such as in a Swedish case from 1978. These explosive events are not that common, but when they occur and when people happen to come upon them (especially in tents), they are often fatal. Anyone interested in the theory can read an outline on my webpage. It can be found here. A scientific version with proper references is ongoing.
(While impressed with Holmgren’s theory, I challenged him to explain how Lyudmila’s missing mouth and tongue could be from decomposition, since she had blood in her stomach, proving the mutilation occurred when she was still alive. This was his response:
“Yes Lyudmila is yet another mistake as a result of the autopsy report. However, this is not a case of what’s ante- or postmortem, but a result of wishful thinking. The pathologist never said it was blood in her stomach; he simply states that a red substance was present in her stomach. It could be anything, from her last meal to any other substance finding its way down her throat whilst she lay with her face against running water for many days. Furthermore, if it perchance was blood in her stomach, it could be a result of many other circumstances. One shall also remember that hypothermia-related deaths are still among the most difficult cases for postmortem diagnosis in forensic medicine. But there are several cases in where changes in gastric mucosa have been seen in hypothermia-related deaths. Ulcers and multiple bleedings in the stomach as a result of severe hypothermia are quite normal. Even if the pathologist in the Dyatlov case only mentions a “red substance,” I would suggest that it in fact was blood as a result of hypothermia. Although not as a result of Lyudmila’s tongue being removed while still alive.”)
8. Why do you think some of the theories turned to the supernatural: UFO’s, yetis, etc.?
As stated above, myths and legends are a very important part of the human mind. We need them and we shall never underestimate their needs, especially in our modern society. They can in many ways replace drugs and they give us hope. We would argue that keeping the myths going is more important than solving the Dyatlov case, not for the people directly involved, but for people in general.
Thank you so much, Richard and Andreas! Does anyone have any questions for them?