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Dyatlov Pass Incident

Scientists may have solved the Dyatlov Pass mystery – with help from the snow-generating software used to make Disney’s Frozen

The Dyatlov Pass Incident is one of the 20th century’s famous mysteries: in 1959, nine students died during a hiking trip in the snow-covered Ural Mountains. The case involved several enigmas: the student’s bodies were found only partially dressed in various locations with a number of non-fatal injuries similar to a car crash; they appeared to have cut their way out of their tent in the middle of the night in a hurry; and traces of radiation were detected on their bodies.

After the group’s bodies were discovered, an investigation by Soviet authorities determined that six had died from hypothermia while the other three had been killed by physical trauma. One victim had major skull damage, two had severe chest trauma, and another had a small crack in the skull. Four of the bodies were found lying in running water in a creek, and three of these had soft tissue damage of the head and face – two of the bodies were missing their eyes, one was missing its tongue, and one was missing its eyebrows. The investigation concluded that a “compelling natural force” had caused the deaths. Numerous theories have been put forward to account for the unexplained deaths, including animal attacks, hypothermia, avalanche, katabatic winds, infrasound-induced panic, military involvement, or some combination of these.

When, in 2019, Russia announced it was re-opening the investigation into the Dyatlov Pass incident, snow scientist Johan Gaume was asked by journalists for his expert opinion on whether an avalanche might have been to blame. His conclusion? “I was really convinced that a small avalanche above the tent could have led to the incident that night.”

Gaume didn’t just rest on giving an educated guess however. He and colleague Alexander M. Puzrin undertook a scientific analysis – published in January 2021 in the prestigious Nature Communications (“Mechanisms of slab avalanche release and impact in the Dyatlov Pass incident in 1959“) – in which they tried to address the problems with the previously dismissed snow avalanche hypothesis: a lower-than-usual slope angle; scarcity of avalanche signs; uncertainties about the trigger mechanism; and abnormal injuries of the victims.

The challenge of explaining these issues led them to proposing a ‘slab avalanche’ caused by progressive wind-blown snow accumulation above the hikers’ tent, which had been cut into the slope. They found that a ‘slabalanche’ could well have caused the severe non-fatal injuries observed in the autopsy of the bodies, leading to the hikers cutting themselves out from within the tent and fleeing into the night in different directions only partially dressed.

Nature created the following 10-minute video about the mystery, and Gaume’s investigation:

Elements of the story remain unexplained however. What was the source of the radiation detected on the bodies? Would hikers experienced in those extreme conditions really have run off into the cold night, only partially dressed in response to an avalanche?

While Gaume and Puzrin’s research offers strong evidence to back the slab avalanche theory, Gaume himself goes on record to say they “do not believe that the mystery can ever be solved, because no one survived to tell the story. But what we did in our paper is to show the plausibility of the avalanche hypothesis based on solid physical and experimental evidence.”

If their research has in fact found the answer to one of the great unsolved mysteries, there is one curious footnote to add as a punctuation mark to the story: according to National Geographic, Gaume was so impressed by the depiction of snow in Disney’s 2013 film Frozen that he asked its creators to share their animation code with him, which he then used to create his simulations and models of snow build-up and the eventual avalanche!

Maybe that’s the universe’s way of telling us that, six decades on from the Dyatlov Pass Incident, we should perhaps ‘let it go’…