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The Incident at the Mountains of Russia

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In 1959, the frozen bodies of a nine-member ski-hiking expedition that had gone missing weeks before in the northern Urals of the Soviet Union were found near their campsite on a mountain called Kholat Syakhl.

Made up mostly of students and graduates from the Ural Polytechnic Institute a few hundred miles away in Yekaterinburg, the team had set out on 27 January to reach another mountain about 7 miles away, Gora Otorten. After being sidetracked by a snowstorm, they pitched a tent on the eastern slope of Kholat Syakhl on 2 February. That night they died. Apart from the fact that they froze to death, no one knows why.

Police and military investigators charged with solving the case were baffled by what they found. The skiers’ tent had been sliced open from the inside and hurriedly abandoned. Their belongings were still inside, but the skiers weren’t. The placement and condition of their bodies, some found as far as a kilometer-and-a-half from the tent and buried under four meters (13 feet) of snow, were odd, to say the least.

Fireballs In the Sky

It was reported that eyewitnesses in the northern Urals saw fast-moving “balls of fire” in the night sky around the time of the incident. It has been suggested, plausibly, that these were Soviet missile or rocket tests. But another theory and here we encounter the earliest paranormal explanation of the incident holds that the fireballs exploded or emitted a beam of unspecified energy that directly caused the skiers’ deaths.

That theory was proposed 31 years after the fact, oddly enough, by one of the original investigators in the case, a former public prosecutor named Lev Ivanov. But the fireball theory presupposes that the reported sightings match up with the actual date of the incident, an assumption that has been challenged by another author, Russian mountaineer Evgeny Buyanov, who says he found no verifiable reports of unidentified flying objects in the Urals on those dates.

Before Ivanov’s 1990 article came out, the predominant explanations for the deaths focused on straightforward natural causes avalanche or animal attack, for example, or secret government activity, such as a military or KGB operation the skiers unknowingly stumbled upon. Despite the declassification and release of the case files in the intervening years, the original documents did little to resolve lingering quandaries, and in fact, only seemed to prompt further outlandish speculation.

The Hypothesis

On February 2, 1959, nine college students hiked up the icy slopes of the Ural Mountains in the heart of Russia but never made it out alive. Investigators have never been able to give a definitive answer behind who — or what — caused the bizarre crime scene. Fifty-five years later, American explorer Mike Libecki reinvestigates the mystery — known as the incident — but what he uncovers is truly horrifying …

Following the trail of evidence, Mike finds proof that the hikers were not alone — a photograph, taken by one of the hikers a day before they died that suggests that they encountered a Yeti.

Yes, you read that right. According to the Discovery Channel, the Dyatlov group met their deaths at the hands of a Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman (or, if you prefer, Bigfoot’s Asian cousin).

It has long been rumored that Yeti-like beasts inhabit the wilds of Siberia and the Ural Mountains to the west, although, like everywhere else these so-called hairy hominids have allegedly been sighted, no one has come forward with verifiable evidence of their existence. Nevertheless, the show’s host, Mike Libecki, said the incident proves they’re real.

“When I found out one of the students was missing a tongue immediately I knew this was not caused by an avalanche,” Libecki said. “Something ripped out the tongue of this woman.

Yet no matter how many times one hears the out-of-focus figure described as a “Yeti,” or a “creature,” or something other than human, the fact is that it resembles nothing so much as an ordinary, adult male human being. And no matter how many times one repeats the claim that the only reasonable explanation for one of the bodies missing a tongue is that a Yeti pulled it out, it pales beside the straightforward hypothesis that her tongue was devoured by a scavenging animal or decomposed due to constant contact with the stream of running water where the body was found.

In any case, it wasn’t just the tongue that was missing. According to the autopsy reports, also missing was some soft tissue around the woman’s eyes, eyebrows, nose bridge, upper lip, and cheekbone not to mention the eyes themselves.

The problem with proposing Yeti attacks and killer UFOs as the answer to the Dyatlov puzzle is obvious: They render it more mysterious, not less. And while isn’t entirely implausible that secret government shenanigans were in play (we are talking about the Cold War-era Soviet Union, after all), even that is speculative overreach insofar as it is based on assumptions, not evidence.

The Second Hypothesis

In simplest terms, a Kármán vortex street is an oscillating pattern that emerges when a fluid or gas (in this instance, wind) flows around a suitably-shaped object (in this instance, a topographical feature: the mountain). When they occur on such a large scale, these wind patterns can theoretically generate very-low-frequency sound waves that have been blamed for harmful physiological and psychological symptoms in human beings. According to a 2001 review of the medical literature by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, such symptoms range from annoyance to fatigue to nausea.

Eichar argues that just such a phenomenon may have occurred under extremely high wind conditions on Kholat Syakhl the night of the incident. The resulting bombardment of the skiers by infrasound waves induced severe panic and caused to flee the safety of their tent and meet their deaths.

But never mind the what-ifs entailed in supposing that the wind interacted with the dome of Kholat Syakhl in just such a way as to produce the low-frequency sound effects required, the fact is that acoustic scientists are far from sure that infrasound exposure causes even the mildest symptoms that have been attributed to it, much less extreme panic.

The Last And Final Hypothesis

We don’t pretend to have the solution to the mystery, but some of the facts of the case point to an explanation that doesn’t require such a colossal leap of faith.

One thing we do know induces panic in people on a snow-covered mountainside is an avalanche. And while the number of skiers and hikers known to have been killed by infrasound waves to date is zero, avalanches are known to kill approximately 150 skiers, snowmobilers, and snowboarders worldwide every year.

Temperatures in the vicinity of the skiers’ Kholat Syakhl campsite dropped precipitously from minus-11 degrees C to as low as minus-25 degrees C on the night of 1 February 1959. Wind speeds are estimated to have reached between 8 and 16 meters per second, with gusts likely even higher. Without adequate protection, frostbite, hypothermia, and death are virtually guaranteed under such conditions, and within a very short period of time.

Autopsy reports say the proximate cause of death of all but one of the victims, even those who suffered internal trauma, was hypothermia. Did an avalanche occur? We don’t know, but one could have and could account for some unexplained aspects of the incident, including why the skiers fled their tent and why some sustained the kinds of injuries they did.

You may object that an avalanche doesn’t explain everything — the radioactivity found on some of the bodies, for example. Granted. But neither does a Yeti attack, a Kármán vortex street, nor, given that we don’t even have proof that they were in the vicinity when the skiers met their fate, unidentified flying balls of fire.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Connor Lane