Chronicle Books, 2013, 288 pages
In February 1959, a group of nine experienced hikers in the Russian Ural Mountains died mysteriously on an elevation known as Dead Mountain. Eerie aspects of the incident—unexplained violent injuries, signs that they cut open and fled the tent without proper clothing or shoes, a strange final photograph taken by one of the hikers, and elevated levels of radiation found on some of their clothes—have led to decades of speculation over what really happened. This gripping work of literary nonfiction delves into the mystery through unprecedented access to the hikers' own journals and photographs, rarely seen government records, dozens of interviews, and the author's retracing of the hikers' fateful journey in the Russian winter. A fascinating portrait of the young hikers in the Soviet era, and a skillful interweaving of the hikers narrative, the investigators' efforts, and the author's investigations, here for the first time is the real story of what happened that night on Dead Mountain.
The Dyatlov Pass Incident has all the ingredients necessary for a creepy, enduring mystery. Back in 1959, nine Russian college students went for a hike in the Urals, an inhospitable, avalanche-prone region, and never returned. Search parties eventually found their bodies, scattered, unclothed, mutilated, their tent mysteriously torn open. Add in the predictable Soviet cover-up, unnatural radiation levels found in the bodies, and UFO sightings, and it's a virtual buffet for conspiracy theorists. Exactly what happened to the hikers has never been determined.
Donnie Eichar, an American film producer who came across the old story by chance, exhausted much of his funds traveling to Russia, interviewing family members, trying to track down the last survivor of the hiking party, and retracing their steps, while trying to solve a mystery that's gone unsolved for over half a century. Understandably, the Russians he spoke to were skeptical, wondering why an American cared so much about something that happened in the Soviet Union before he was born, how much money he was making for this book, and what he was going to discover that Russian authorities never did.
It turns out that most of the more lurid details (such as one hiker's missing tongue, and the knife slashes in their tent) have fairly mundane explanations. But none proven. Russians to this day have plenty of theories about what happened, ranging from a sudden windstorm or avalanche to a bear attack, one of the party going mad and attacking the others in a psychotic fit, and of course the most popular, that they witnessed a classified missile launch or some other weapons test and were killed for it.
That's even without exploring the more fanciful theories which, come on, are the real reason you read a book like this. Nine hikers found mysteriously dead in the mountains is a horror story that practically writes itself. Eichar's description of the region makes it easy to imagine all sorts of inhuman things lurking in the crevices and the snow, waiting for hapless humans to stumble upon them.
Unfortunately for the fantasy-minded, Eichar summarily dismisses aliens or any other supernatural explanation, and unfortunately for those who love a good, creepy mystery, Eichar shows no inclination to play up the horror, turning this book into a comprehensive but flat work of non-fiction, with chapters spent going over the biographies and personalities of each dead hiker, then the physical evidence, his own experiences as he researched their story, and finally, his presentation of the most plausible theory.
It's a bit of a let-down, although even the most plausible theory is still just a theory. So maybe the hikers really did run into giants. Hagrid said that happens sometimes.
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