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The Mystery of Skeleton Lake

Chuck Lyons lives in upstate New York with his wife Brenda and a golden retriever named Jack who chases ghosts and barks at shadows.


In the “stunningly beautiful” northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, in a high section of the Himalayas surrounded by ragged mountain peaks and for most of the year asleep under a pristine layer of snow, the frozen Lake Roopkund guards a secret. The trek to the lake is said to offer “the best of every kind of mountain terrain—from deciduous forests to alpine meadows to snow-covered peaks.” But the area of the lake itself is remote, desolate, and without shelter of any kind.

It is also the scene of a centuries-old mystery that science is just beginning to resolve.

The Bones

In 1942 a park ranger in the area—it now lies with an Indian national park—visited the lake and discovered the skeletal remains of hundreds of people that had been preserved there by the cold and snow. The broken bones of men, women, and children and of horses were scattered about the ground surrounding the lake and bobbing in the shallow, unfrozen water near shore.

Since then, others have visited the area.

“We walked around the lakeside silently,” one of those visitors wrote, “looking in awe at the grizzly display, not daring to touch or even get very close to the skeletons” “We could identify frozen bits and pieces of long-dead humans,” another visitor wrote. “A yellowed hand balanced against a rock, its fingers black and twisted with time. A collection of human skulls and thigh bones. Rib cages. Teeth. Scraps of clothing, sandals, and tufts of hair, swept, by a traveler or a researcher perhaps, into a neat little pile.”

But what had brought these people to die at a remote desolate lake in an isolated area of the Himalayas?

What had killed them there?


The Mystery

There is no indication that the skeletons at Lake Roopkund lived near the lake or that there had been any human settlement in the region. Modern scientific examination of some of the skeletons in fact indicated that whoever these people were, they had travelled a distance to get to the lake.

By why?

What were they doing in such a remote spot to begin with?

The small glacial lake rests between two mountain peaks at 16,499 feet (5,029 m), a five-day trek from civilization. Modern tests performed on some of the remains showed that the 500-600 people who died there included some of short stature, who, scientists suggested, may have been local people hired as porters. There were also taller people whose DNA indicated they were of similar background or perhaps even of the same extended family.

At some point, investigators also became aware of a local legend that held a mountain peak near the lake was once attached to the worship of a female goddess who, her worshipers believed, had created the lake so she could see her own reflection. But, the legend held, a certain king had angered this goddess by coming to worship her but bringing along with him his pregnant wife, musicians, and dancing girls, and in anger the goddess sent a storm that killed him and all who were with him.


The Solution

the Nation Geographic Channel travelled to the lake in hopes of finally resolving what had happened there. First, the researchers collected samples from Aware of the skeletons and the legend, in 2004 a scientific expedition backed by the skeletons scattered about and sent them for radiocarbon testing that dated the skeletons from about 850 CE. That eliminated earlier theories that the dead were the remains of Japanese soldiers sneaking toward India in World War II or the remains of a British army unit lost in the mountains in 19th century.

The expedition also determined that the men, women, and children at the lake—and the horses—had all died in the same way. All had suffered severe blows to the head that had cracked their skulls and damaged other parts of their heads and shoulders; their lower extremities seemed all but untouched, which eliminated another theory, namely that there had been a mass suicide at the lake similar to the Jonestown tragedy of November 1978.

Finally, the scientists reached a conclusion.

All the deaths at Lake Roopkund, they wrote, had been caused by hailstones.

Hailstones in the area, they said, could be as large as three inches in diameter and deadly. They also noted that there was no shelter at all around the lake, no buildings, no trees, and the travelers had been left in the open to face the hailstorm sent by Nature or an angry goddess caught them in the open, unsheltered and unprotected.

Lake Roopkund still rests between its mountain peaks, but more visitors have stopped there lately, part of an increase in trekker traffic, and the bones at Skeleton Lake are disappearing, picked up and taken as souvenirs. Indian government officials are considering making Skeleton Lake a no-visitor area to protect what is left. Whatever they do, the story of the lake will remain and the local legend and a local folk song that mentions hailstones “hard as iron” raining on the heads of sinners.

(See more Skeleton Lake photos are

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