Search and discovery
Before leaving, Dyatlov had agreed he would send a telegram to their sports club as soon as the group returned to Vizhai. It was expected that this would happen no later than 12 February, but Dyatlov had told Yudin, before his departure from the group, that he expected to be longer. When the 12th passed and no messages had been received, there was no immediate reaction, as delays of a few days were common with such expeditions. On 20 February the relatives of the travellers demanded a rescue operation and the head of the institute sent the first rescue groups, consisting of volunteer students and teachers. Later, the army and militsiya forces became involved, with planes and helicopters being ordered to join the rescue operation.
On 26 February, the searchers found the group’s abandoned and badly damaged tent on Kholat Syakhl. The campsite baffled the search party. Mikhail Sharavin, the student who found the tent, said “the tent was half torn down and covered with snow. It was empty, and all the group’s belongings and shoes had been left behind.” Investigators said the tent had been cut open from inside. Eight or nine sets of footprints, left by people who were wearing only socks or a single shoe or were even barefoot, could be followed, leading down towards the edge of a nearby woods, on the opposite side of the pass, 1.5 kilometres (0.93 mi) to the north-east. However, after 500 metres (1,600 ft) these tracks were covered with snow. At the forest’s edge, under a large siberian pine (in popular parlance it is called “cedar”), the searchers found the visible remains of a small fire. There were the first two bodies, those of Krivonischenko and Doroshenko, shoeless and dressed only in their underwear. The branches on the tree were broken up to five metres high, suggesting that one of the skiers had climbed up to look for something, perhaps the camp. Between the pine and the camp the searchers found three more corpses: Dyatlov, Kolmogorova and Slobodin, who seemed to have died in poses suggesting that they were attempting to return to the tent. They were found separately at distances of 300, 480 and 630 metres from the tree.
Finding the remaining four travellers took more than two months. They were finally found on 4 May under four metres of snow in a ravine 75 metres further into the woods from the pine tree. Three of those four were better dressed than the others, and there were signs that those who had died first had their clothes relinquished to the others. Dubinina was wearing Krivonishenko’s burned, torn trousers and her left foot and shin were wrapped in a torn jacket.
A legal inquest started immediately after the first five bodies were found. A medical examination found no injuries that might have led to their deaths, and it was eventually concluded that they had all died of hypothermia. Slobodin had a small crack in his skull, but it was not thought to be a fatal wound.
An examination of the four bodies which were found in May shifted the narrative as to what had occurred during the incident. Three of the ski hikers had fatal injuries: Thibeaux-Brignolles had major skull damage, and both Dubinina and Zolotaryov had major chest fractures. According to Dr Boris Vozrozhdenny, the force required to cause such damage would have been extremely high, comparable to the force of a car crash. Notably, the bodies had no external wounds associated with the bone fractures, as if they had been subjected to a high level of pressure. However, major external injuries were found on Dubinina, who was missing her tongue, eyes, part of the lips, as well as facial tissue and a fragment of skullbone; she also had extensive skin maceration on the hands. It was claimed that Dubinina was found lying face down in a small stream that ran under the snow and that her external injuries were in line with putrefaction in a wet environment, and were unlikely to be associated with her death.
There was initial speculation that the indigenous Mansi people had attacked and murdered the group for encroaching upon their lands, but investigation indicated that the nature of their deaths did not support this hypothesis; only the hikers’ footprints were visible, and they showed no sign of hand-to-hand struggle.
Although the temperature was very low, around −25 to −30 °C (−13 to −22 °F) with a storm blowing, the dead were only partially dressed. Some of them had only one shoe, while others had no shoes or wore only socks. Some were found wrapped in snips of ripped clothes that seemed to have been cut from those who were already dead.
Journalists reporting on the available parts of the inquest files claim that it states:
- Six of the group members died of hypothermia and three of fatal injuries.
- There were no indications of other people nearby on Kholat Syakhl apart from the nine travellers.
- The tent had been ripped open from within.
- The victims had died 6 to 8 hours after their last meal.
- Traces from the camp showed that all group members left the campsite of their own accord, on foot.
- To dispel the theory of an attack by the indigenous Mansi people, Dr Vozrozhdenny stated that the fatal injuries of the three bodies could not have been caused by another human being, “because the force of the blows had been too strong and no soft tissue had been damaged”.
- Released documents contained no information about the condition of the skiers’ internal organs.
- There were no survivors of the incident.
At the time the verdict was that the group members had all died because of a compelling natural force. The inquest officially ceased in May 1959 as a result of the absence of a guilty party. The files were sent to a secret archive.
On 12 April 2018 the remains of Semyon Zolotarev were exhumed upon the initiative of journalists of the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda. Contradictory results were obtained: one of the experts stated that the character of the injuries resembled a person knocked down by a car, and the DNA analysis did not reveal any similarity to the DNA of living relatives. In addition, it turned out that the name of Semyon Zolotarev is not on the list of buried at the Ivanovskoye cemetery. Nevertheless, the reconstruction of the face from the exhumed skull agrees with the post-war photographs of Semyon, although journalists express suspicions that another person was hiding under the name of Semyon Zolotarev after the war.
The region was closed to expeditions and hikers for three years after the incident, but is currently accessible.
In February 2019, CNN announced that the Russian authorities were reopening the investigation, although only three possible explanations were being considered: an avalanche, a “snow slab” avalanche, or a hurricane. The possibility of a crime has been completely discounted.
21-year-old Yury Kuntsevich, who later became the head of the Yekaterinburg-based Dyatlov Foundation (see below), attended five of the hikers’ funerals. He recalled that their skin had a “deep brown tan”.
Another group of hikers (about 50 kilometres (31 mi) south of the incident) reported that they saw strange orange spheres in the sky to the north on the night of the incident. Similar spheres were observed in Ivdel and adjacent areas continually during the period from February to March 1959, by various independent witnesses (including the meteorology service and the military). However, these sightings were not noted in the initial investigation in 1959, and these various independent witnesses only came forward years later.