"A compelling, unknown force."
It was an elegant construction: from nine to none in an indeterminate span of hours. There was something diabolically simple about that. The beauty and the horror of it all had gradually come to occupy most of Mark's waking thoughts. It would be some time before they also came to occupy his other thoughts -- that is to say, his dreams.
The first picture was the one that really seized upon his imagination. It seemed as though the hiker was staring back at him, his frozen gaze piercing the shroud of his own undoing, seeing straight through to the heart of his own impenetrable mystery. His eyes were wide as if in fright, his mouth curling back into what might have been an aborted smile. Almost as troubling as this was the strange, half-glimpsed woman, head bowed, treading her doomed way past the camera. Mark studied the picture for some time that night.
"They could not see the trees for the forest," he wrote in his journal, not quite knowing what he meant.
He thought of them, their fatal footprints weaving through the snow. What must it have been like to find them? Frozen hand linked in frozen hand, naked bodies exposed to the frost, to the sun, to all the homicidal elements, scattered photographs made vulnerable to a half century of armchair conspiracy theory. Mark was scared. He thought that he saw something of himself in the photographs, although he couldn't be certain. It was enough to know that they frightened him.
On the eastern shoulder of the mountain Kholat Syakhl, you will find a narrow, snowy ravine that has come to be called Dyatlov Pass. A dubious honor for Igor Dyatlov, the hiker who perished there on the night of February 2nd, 1959, along with every member of his expedition party. They numbered nine in total; seven men, two women. All were students or graduates of the Ural Polytechnical Institute (now known as Ural State Technical University).
Mark made a note: "You can change all the names, but you'll never change what happened."
Mark reviewed the data. Names, births, deaths. His eyes darted hungrily over the page.
- Alexander Alexandrovich Zolotariov (Feb 2, 1921–Feb 2 1959)
- Alexander Sereievich Kolevatov (Nov 16, 1934–Feb 2, 1959)
- Yuri Alexeievich Krivonischenko (Feb 7, 1935–Feb 2, 1959)
- Nicolai Vasilievich Tibo-Briniolle (Jun 5, 1935–Feb 2, 1959)
- Ludmila Alexandrovna Dubinina (Jan 11, 1936–Feb 2, 1959)
- Rustem Vladimirovich Slobodin (Jan 11, 1936–Feb 2, 1959)
- Igor Alekseievich Dyatlov (Jan 13, 1936–Feb 2, 1959)
- Zinaida Alekseievna Kolmogorova (Jan 2, 1937–Feb 2, 1959)
- Yuri Nikolaievich Doroshenko (Jan 12, 1938–Feb 2, 1959)
Mark scribbled a series of furious notes:
"Five hikers (3 men, 2 women) born from Jan 11 to Jan 13 -- significance?"
"Alexander Zolotariov died on his birthday."
"Ludmila and Rustem were exactly the same age. Did they cling to each other as they froze?"
And so on. His handwriting was a jagged, black scrawl that held meaning for him alone.
They were headed for Otorten, a mountain ten kilometers to the north of the pass where they died. They were all experienced hikers. One of their number, perhaps more, was an amateur photographer. None of them made it off the haunted slope that now bears Igor Dyatlov's name.
Diaries, pictures, and coroner reports tell us the story.
January 31st: The group came upon the outskirts of a highland area and made their final preparations for the next day's ascent up the mountain. They stored excess food in the snow for a return trip that never happened. The food remained buried until spring, as did many of the hikers.
February 1st: They began to move through the nameless pass. Snowstorms impaired their vision and drove them off course. They trekked west, towards the summit of Kholat Syakhl. Late in the evening, perhaps realizing their mistake, they stopped and established an encampment on the slope of the mountain. Kholat Syakhl is a Mansi name, meaning "the mountain of the dead."
February 26th: A rescue team found their tent. It had been torn apart from within. A chain of footprints led from the ruined campsite down the mountain, towards the edge of a forest on the far side of the nameless pass. The footprints vanished after a few hundred yards, obscured by freshly fallen snow. The bodies of Yuri Doroshenko and Yuri Krivonischenko were discovered at the forest's edge, near the remains of a fire. The two men were garbed only in their underwear, sprawled in the snow beneath an ancient cedar tree. Three more bodies were soon discovered, half-buried on the slope between the cedar and the tent: Zinaida, Rustem, and Igor himself. They were found separately, clothed in strips of torn fabric, their frozen hands outstretched to the peak of the mountain. It would appear that they died while attempting to return to their campground.
The remaining four bodies were not found until the spring thaw. A search party (by this point the term "rescue party" would no longer have been appropriate) uncovered them deep in the forest, sealed beneath four meters of snow. A Soviet medical examiner determined that three of these hikers, unlike those whose bodies were discovered earlier, had sustained severe internal injuries prior to their death. Skull damage, chest fractures. One woman was missing her tongue.
In the dark, early hours of February 2nd, 1959, five hikers fled barefoot into the snow. They tore their way out of their tent and ran screaming down the mountain. The temperature that night was about thirty degrees below zero, Celsius. Two of them died attempting to build a fire at the edge of the woods. Three of them died making their way up from the woods back towards the tent. All five were found partially clothed, some wearing a single sock, some wrapped in ribbons of clothing presumably torn from the bodies of the dead. Four hikers remained in the tent, only to set out at an unknown point before dawn, in search of their missing comrades. They all died violently.
Mark could not prevent himself from shaking with excitement as he assembled the facts in his head. He felt touched by an impossible presence, something incomprehensibly vast and terrible. Within a few moments, he knew that he would be able to reach out and grasp it with his fingertips -- or it would reach out and seize him, instead.
He wrote: "I surrender my spirit to the mountain."
Mark steadied his trembling hands and reviewed the declassified Soviet inquest once more.
- Six of the victims died of hypothermia, three of fatal injuries.
- No evidence of any human activity in the surrounding regions, apart from the nine victims.
- Their tent was ripped open from the inside.
- The victims died between six to eight hours after having last ingested food.
- No apparent guilty party can be isolated.
- All nine victims left the campsite on foot, of their own volition.
- All nine victims appear to have been at the mercy of a compelling, unknown force.
Mark lingered over that phrase. "A compelling, unknown force." He shuddered helplessly.
Mark saw a line of frozen pallbearers. Their eyes were wide and staring, their lips were swollen and purple. He saw a lumbering simian creature with coarse white hair and eyes like bloody lighthouse beacons. He saw a pale siren dancing in the snow at the edge of the woods, crooning a lullaby and beckoning him with one curled finger. He saw strange lights drifting through the sky above a canopy of frozen trees. He saw a dead woman with blood running down her chin, holding her tongue aloft and smiling. And he heard laughter echoing in every crevice of the mountain of the dead.