Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyaltov Pass Incident, Donnie Eichar

dyaltov memorial.jpg
Memorial to the Dyaltov Hikers, , Mikhajlov Cemetery, Ekaterinburg

 

I first came across the Dyaltov Pass incident some time ago on Wikipedia, probably by following a link on the Wiki page “List of unusual deaths” The incident saw the deaths of nine Russian hikers, all students of the Ural Polytechnic Institute and experienced hikers, sometime on the night of 1st February 1959 when, as the Wikipedia page puts it: “during the night something made them tear their way out of their tents from the inside and flee the campsite inadequately dressed in heavy snowfall and sub-zero temperatures. Soviet investigators determined that six victims died from hypothermia but others showed signs of physical trauma. One victim had a fractured skull while another had brain damage but without any sign of distress to their skull. Additionally, a female team member had her tongue missing. The investigation concluded that an “unknown compelling force” had caused the deaths”

Donnie Eichar’s book Dead Mountain is a compelling account of the incident, and his own investigation over fifty years later. This incident has attracted a lot of attention over the years, much of it conspiracy-theoretical in nature. For me, the most forceful impact of Eichar’s book was restoring the humanity of those who lost their lives; an incident like this tends to attract a lot of speculation and curiosity with the sheer loss suffered overshadowed. Eichar discusses the family’s distress, especially at the difficulties having their children buried back in Ekaterinburg. On Pinterest there is a gallery of photos Eichar collected which further reinforces the humanity behind this unsolved-mystery story.

Eichar weaves three stories together – the hiker’s journey in 1959, the search for them a few weeks later, and his own journey in 2012. He also encounters the “tenth hiker”, Yuri Yudin – who turned back from the trip due to illness. There are moving passages about his understandably mixed emotions, although Eichar is disappointed to find Yudin is in thrall to inchoate conspiracy theories which Eichar rejects (see below) He is also stunned when Yudin expresses unvarnished nostalgia for Stalin’s time (although condemning Lenin) with particular ire for Boris Yeltsin. Eichar’s translator vigorously shakes her head in refutation of Yudin’s view on Stalin, although one wonders how naive Eichar was about Russia it he didn’t realise Yeltin’s massive unpopularity. Yudin says “under Putin, we are plankton” and decries the corroding effect of money on contemporary Russia

The book also gives some revealing glimpses of Soviet society during Khrushchev’s “Thaw.” Often, writing not directly trying to understand a society or pontificate about it – a book investigating the myserious deaths of a group of hikers, for instance – can reveal more than a worthy tome of social analysis. Indeed, parts of the book reminded me – vividly  – of the fiction of Andrei Makhine. Two passages in particular struck me with force, both for this insight into Soviet life and their emotional weight.

One describes an incident on January 24th 1959:

On the morning after their departure, three hours before the lazy winter sun had risen, the Dyaltov group disembarked in Serov, an iron and steel manufacturing town 200 miles due north of Sverdlovsk. Blinov and his party joined them on the platform. It wasn’t yet eight o’clock, and after ten and a half hours of gaiety and irregular sleep on the train, both hiking groups were weary. The next train, which was to take them to Ivdel, wasn’t due to depart until evening, leaving the group of friends no choice but to spend the day in this unfamiliar mining town. Perhaps they could visit a local museum or- befitting their academic studies – a metallurgy plant.

Their first instinct was to get some sleep inside the station while it was still dark. They quickly discovered, however, that the doors were locked. The workers inside, speaking brusquely through the station windows, refused to allow any travellers in from the cold.

In classic fashion, Georgy lightened the mood by taking out his mandolin and breaking into song right there on the platform – a conspicious disruption given the early hour and inhospitable surroundings. In comic imitation of a busker, he set out his felt cap for tips, his beanpole frame and protruding ears adding to the comedy of the moment. But his spontaneous merrymaking didn’t last long because a nearby policeman heard the noise and strode over.

 

 

After a stern warning from the policeman, the group wander Serov and discover an elementary school “bearing the uninspired name of School #41.” A cleaning lady lets them in, and they meet a schoolmaster who allows them rest in the school if “in return, they would speak to his class later that day about their trip.”

A typical Soviet school day was broken into two periods: a morning session devoted to proper lessons, followed by a less structured afternoon session, during which pupils could pursue their own activities or gather for guest speakers. Schoolchildren could typically expect war veterans, factor workers, museum docents or writers as afternoon guests. But a group of mountaineers who could regale them with their adventures? This was a rare thing.

With Igor and his friends well rested, they piled into a classroom of roughly thirty-five young face, ranging in age from seven to nine. The little ones were eager to learn, and when the hikers revealed the contents of their backpacks, the children were held in captive fascinations. There were ice crackers, maps, Zorki cameras and flashlights – known as “Chinese torches” – passed around the room. The guests even treated the  class a tent-pitching demonstration, and by the end, the children were begging to be taken along on further expeditions. With the educational portion of the visit concluded, the classroom erupted in song

While Sasha was certainly the star of the sing-along, the children fell hardest for Zina, and became emotional at the idea of her leaving them. They asked her to be the leader of the “Pioneers” – a youth group similar to the Scouts in the United States – not understanding that Zina couldn’t stay. As evening drew near, the hikers wrapped up their visit with one last song, but the happy conclusion didn’t prevent the children from becoming tearful when the hikers moved to leave. With their teacher’s permission, the entire class poured out of the school and followed the ten adventurers down the road all the way to the train station. The kids pleaded with Zina again, begging her to stay and promising to be well behaved if she would only agree to remain behind and lead their children’s group.

 

This incident has a heartbreaking sequel:

 

Weeks later, once School #41 had gotten word that the Dyaltov group was missing, the children all wrote letters to UPI, expressing their concern and asking the frank questions that children ask. What happened to their new friends? Where was Zina? But their mail went unanswered, even after the group’s fate was known. Yuri Yudin received one such letter from a child they had met that day, but he didn’t have the heart to write back. What could he say?

On January 26th 1959 the hikers arrive at Sector 41, a temporary woodcutting camp (I am sure someone has tried to make something of the recurrence of the number 41) There follows a less emotionally stirring but perhaps even more revealing insight into Soviet society (note Yudin’s comment about the woodcutters being “not just working class”) It is too long to quote in full but I have tried  :

The men had young, unlined faces, the hikers recognised that they were not much older than themselves. Among those who greeted them there was one proud man, who stood out from the test. He had dark disheveled hair and a full red beard. … Boroda (the Russian word for “beard”) considered himself the spokesman of the group, and he took immediate charge in finding rooms for their guests. Aside from a series of pine log cabins that served as dorms for the workers, there was little to see at Sector 41 .. Perhaps it was at moments such as these that the ten hikers felt lucky to have been awarded a place at the university; even under Khrushchev, there were many many young people whose opportunities were startlingly limited.

The woodcutters made bread for their visitors, and after dinner, everyone gathered around the wood burning stove for warmth. The cabin offered none of the comforts of the Vizhay guesthouse. The furniture was Spartan, and patches of swamp moss wedged between the logs were the only thing keeping out the bitter draft. But the cabin was luxurious compared with the accomodations that lay ahead for the hikers, and they were surely grateful for the warm reception and company.

In fact, the students from the city found that they had more in common with these rural labourers than they might have guessed. It was true that the woodcutters had the wiry bodies of men who made their living from the land, but they also had the minds of self-taught intellectuals and the hearts of poets. Of all the men, the hikers found Boroda the most like-minded. Not only could he recite poetry as if he were reading it from the pages of a book, but he also held an easy sway over the entire group … His reluctance to shave may have arisen from convenience, but when paired with his smart blazer and Cossack-style breeches, Boroda’s generous facial hair lent him a surprising air of sophistication. It was as if he were making a conscious fashion statement, even if out here in the Russian wood there were few to admit it.

Over multiple cups of  black tea, which was in plentiful supply from China during that time, Boroda and his crew recited their favourite poems for their guest. “Even though they worked as forest cutters, they knew Yesenin and his poems,” Yudin remembers. “So that shows that they were smart, not just working class.” Sergei Yesenin was a lyrical poet of the early twentieth century, one of the most celebrated in Russia. He had been an early supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution, but his later criticism of the government compelled Stalin to ban his work – a ban that remained in placed through Khrushchev’s regime.

section41
The Dyaltov Group with the Section 41 Woodcutters – source https://www.pinterest.com/pin/62909726018396184/

At times in the book, Eichar is asked why he, an American with no Russian connections, is interested in this story. “Are there not mysteries in America also?” he is repeatedly asked. He asks himself the same questions. When he first goes to Russia his girlfriend is heavily pregnant, and on his return she has had a daughter . One can imagine adventure writers of even ten years ago not mentioning this fact, or glossing over it, whereas Eichar wonders at his motivation (he doesn’t mention that his girlfriend is model Julia Ortiz either). However this is never really resolved or explained.

Eichar’s hypothesis is that infrasound caused the hikers deaths. He outlines the reasons why the other theories advanced are less than probable. In particular avalanches, a beloved hypothesis of skeptical debunkers, simply don’t occur on the kind of terrain the tent was placed. Eichar convincingly demonstrates that the physical injuries the hikers suffered are relatively easily explicable; the mystery lies in why they left the tent, barefoot. This review sets out, concisely, the threads of his argument (and I like the line “while conspiracy theorists might have a worldview shaped by Hollywood teen-slasher movies, the Dyatlov group acted as a conscientious team in a hostile environment.”)

Eichar describes researching this theory in the US, and rather entertainingly finding that one of his Russian counterparts has exactly the same theory. For me, the weakest sections of the book were those following Eichar’s attempts to follow in the hiker’s footsteps. In the end, Eichar does not spend the night camped where the hikers did (which is perhaps just as well given his conclusion) and there is an anticlimactic element to this attempt retracing. While there are plenty of illuminating lost-in-translation moments, Eichar is blessedly free of the condescending scorn many Americans seem to indulge in about all things Russian.

Infrasound has the explanatory advantage of being little known now but not even coming on the radar of investigators in 1959. Hence the “unknown compelling force” which, given the perspective of 1959 , was entirely correct if it was infrasound that did them. Personally, Eichar’s account is convincing, but – like MH370, I would imagine – there is likely to be something perpetually insoluble about the mystery that will always leave room for doubts.

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