A brief note on the Dyatlov Pass victims

Anna Arutunyan, my illustrious colleague, did a story this week on the Dyatlov Pass incident. The “incident” is really whatever it was that killed nine hikers on the appropriately named Mountain of the Dead in the Urals, in 1959. A new book has come out in Russia, and a new movie by Renny Harlin is coming out soon – so it only seemed appropriate to dig into the past again.

Whereas before I was pretty certain that, in spite of all of the entertaining conspiracy theories out there, it came down to an avalanche and the bizarre behavior that’s commonly associated with hypothermia, now I’m not so sure.

Maybe I’ve lived in Russia for too long – but military testing gone awry seems to be the more likely theory to me now. They did abandon their tent in a hurry – but they were also cutting it from the inside at first, making efforts to peek out and take a look at something. If the government was testing rockets in the area, they may have been confused about what they were seeing.

After that, it’s possible that panic set in when they left the tent. As Anna’s story notes, investigators concluded that at least three of them were trying to make their way back to the tent when they died. Still, their injuries, some of them downright strange (like skull damage with no visible bruising) invite other possibilities.

The conspiracy theories often obscure the sad awfulness of this story. You’ve got a bunch of student hikers off on an adventure – and you end up with this, with journalists still trying to pore over the details of the deaths decades later. A lot of the case files still remain top secret, in the meantime. I mean, yeah, this is Russia, where your grandma’s knitting patterns might wind up being labeled top secret, but still. I wish they would make more stuff public – though probably not under this administration.

The Dyatlov Pass story is a good reminded that the landscape never belongs to us. Especially not in Russia – but really, it doesn’t belong to us anywhere. It can turn on us in a second. So much of our art, so much of what we produce, is ultimately about that.

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