A much-hyped two-hour Discovery Channel “documentary” aired on June 1, 2014. Titled Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives, the program delved into a decades-old pseudo-mystery known as the Dyatlov Pass incident in which nine Russian skiers died under unclear circumstances in the Ural Mountains.
The show was packed with dramatic “found footage” re-creations, dubious derring-do, a pulse-pounding score, and piles of speculation. Though not as blatantly hokey and contrived as the infamous pseudo-documentary Animal Planet program Mermaids: The Body Found (which fooled thousands of people, gave credence to the discredited “aquatic ape” theory, and spurred the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to put a note on their website debunking the existence of mermaids), it is nonetheless a textbook example of modern cable TV mystery-mongering and thus merits a closer look.
Here’s the premise, from a press release for the show: “On February 2, 1959, nine college students hiked up the icy slopes of the Ural Mountains in the heart of Russia but never made it out alive. Investigators have never been able to give a definitive answer behind who—or what—caused the bizarre crime [sic] scene. Fifty-five years later, American explorer Mike Libecki reinvestigates the mystery—known as the Dyatlov Pass incident—but what he uncovers is truly horrifying. . . .”
Focusing on the undisputed facts in this case, we know that at some point on the night of February 1, 1959, after nearly a week of skiing, Igor Dyatlov led the group to cut slits in their tent and leave through the cut for the safety of the wooded area below, most of them wearing their underwear or a few scraps of clothing. After they failed to return, a rescue party was sent, and tracks were followed from the tent to the woods, where all the skiers were found, some of them many months later. According to the autopsies, the cause of death for all of them was hypothermia, or freezing to death. Four of the nine also had internal injuries, and one of them, Ludmila Dubinina, was missing her tongue and had additional injuries to her eyes. The biggest mysteries are why the group abandoned their tent (with their supplies and clothes inside), apparently in a hurry through a cut in the fabric, and what caused their injuries.
There are many elements and claims to the Dyatlov Pass story, and many theories including UFOs, top secret government conspiracies, and unusual natural phenomena. I won’t be addressing those claims (in fact as we will see there’s really no need to invoke those anyway) but instead will focus on the plausibility of the newest theory as promoted in the new Discovery Channel show: that a Yeti was responsible for the mass murder of nine Russians in 1959.
The Group’s Injuries
Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives begins with the premise that the injuries sustained by the skiers were so grave and extraordinary that they could only have been inflicted by an inhumanly strong creature. The show says that according to the autopsies, the hikers suffered “horrific injuries,” including fractured ribs and a fractured skull attributed to a “compelling natural force” (in other words, some sort of blunt force trauma such as a fall or being crushed).
Unfortunately for the show, photographs of the dead hikers undermine most of the sensational claims. The photographs are crystal clear: the bodies were not “mutilated” at all. They were actually in fairly good shape for a party who had skied into the remote area, froze to death, and were discovered months later after exposure to the elements. Those who had cracked ribs were found at the bottom of a thirteen-foot ravine, and could have sustained the injuries falling into it or at some point after their death during the months before they were found, when buried by an avalanche or crushed by the weight of wet snow.
Libecki makes much of how the bodies were found, for example, of those last to be found, “their bodies crouched and intertwined as of they had been hiding.” The interpretation of their body positions “as if they had been hiding” suggests of course that they were hiding from something that would kill them—say, a pissed-off Yeti. However there’s a much more likely explanation for why two bodies lost in a frozen wilderness might be found dead “crouched” together and entwined. It’s a simple explanation that any fifth-grader can likely see but that apparently escaped world-renowned mountaineer Libecki: they were cold and lay together to conserve heat, as any novice hiker is taught to do. Maybe so, but what about the missing tongue?
The Missing Tongue
Mike Libecki says, “When I found out one of the students was missing a tongue immediately I knew this was not caused by an avalanche. Something ripped out the tongue of this woman.” Skeptics will likely immediately recognize the logical fallacy Libecki employs, that the only possible explanation for Ludmila Dubinina’s missing tongue is that “something ripped” it out of her mouth. How the woman’s tongue was removed would be a question best answered by a medical doctor or a pathologist instead of a mountaineer, but Libecki gamely takes a guess: some powerful animal targeted and removed it. The show spends a lot of time on the mystery of the missing tongue because it is the lynchpin to bringing up the Yeti as an explanation for this mystery.
Here we can bring in the skeptical dictum of Ray Hyman’s categorical imperative, which says that before trying to explain something we should make sure there is something to explain; in other words, question your assumptions. For example, if there is a mundane, simple, and likely answer for why the tongue is missing, then we don’t need to begin speculating about what may have taken her tongue, whether leprechauns, aliens, or Yeti.
As it happens, a tongue-eating Yeti—even assuming it exists—is by far the least likely explanation for a missing tongue. The “missing parts” aspect of this case is a familiar one to skeptics and has been invoked in countless other “unsolved” mysteries including the chupacabra, cattle mutilations, Satanic animal sacrifices, and aliens. Typically a mystery is mongered by those unfamiliar with—or who intentionally ignore—ordinary predation and decomposition. Lots of animals both big and small scavenge on the soft parts of dead bodies. If it was a tongue-hungry Yeti as Libecki suggests, why would it only have eaten one person’s tongue when there were eight more nearby just ready for the ripping? Furthermore, the process of actually ripping out the woman’s tongue would leave far greater injuries to Dubinina’s mouth, jaw, and head than were found.
The Hikers Meet a Yeti?
We then move on to something about a found military boot cover, proving that the Russian military got to the Dyatlov scene before the rescuers did (opening the door to conspiracy theories, of course). Then, to what (to Libecki) appears to be a cryptic passage written in a newspaper the students brought with them to write on saying, “From now on we know that the snowmen exist.” You might think that Libecki would want to consult the original document in order to independently authenticate such an apparently important clue, but he does not.
Libecki says, “The biggest question for me at this point is, why were the students so sure the Yeti exists?” But were the students actually “sure” the Yeti exists? Had Libecki looked at the original document, he would have seen that the students were not reporting an eyewitness sighting of a Yeti during their trip but instead making a joke. As a Fortean Times investigation noted, “Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t read too much into this; it goes on to say: ‘They can be met in the Northern Urals, next to Otorten mountain.’ Given the humorous tone of the ‘newspaper,’ it’s quite likely that the students were jokingly referring to themselves rather than recording a genuine sighting of an almasty [or Menk or Yeti].”
Thus the passage actually reads, “From now on we know that the snowmen exist. They can be met in the Northern Urals, next to Otorten mountain.” Taken out of context as presented by Libecki it seems mysterious, but in context it’s clearly a passing jest, akin to a Bigfoot buff mentioning in passing that he saw the creature at a gas station on the way to a forest to look for the beast. Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives and Mike Libecki would have us believe that the nine skiers had an encounter with a Yeti, which they not only saw and photographed but stalked. And yet none of the skiers mentioned anything else about the Yeti or their shock at having photographed the creature.
At the end of the show, after all the manufactured drama and running around, Mike Libecki admits that he found no real evidence that the Yeti exists, much less that it was responsible for the deaths of nine Russian skiers in 1959. “I did hear something strange,” is the best he can muster, which is weak sauce indeed given the previous two hours of breathless claims about photographs of murderous tongue-ripping Yetis.
The one thing known for certain about the Dyatlov Pass incident is that the information about what happened is fragmentary and incomplete. There are many reasons for this, including that there were no eyewitnesses; the bodies were not recovered until months later; the Russian investigation may not have been as thorough as we’d like; it was during the Cold War, and so on. The issue is further clouded by a variety of mystery-mongering writers who have interpreted (and cherry-picked) information to promote their own theories and agendas, including conspiracy theorists, alien and UFO researchers, and others.
There is a simpler explanation for what may have happened to the group that addresses the main questions and doesn’t invoke enraged, tongue-hungry Yetis, top secret Russian military conspiracies, or UFOs: they were caught in an avalanche. Svetlund Osadchuk and Kevin O’Flynn, writing in Fortean Times, note that several of those most familiar with the case have rejected wild theories and believe that ordinary events killed their friends.
My theory, for what it’s worth, is that the group woke up in a panic on that fateful night and cut their way out of the tent either because an avalanche had covered the entrance to their tent or because they were scared that an avalanche was imminent and that was the fastest way for all of them to get out quickly—better to have a potentially reparable slit in a tent than risk being buried alive in it under tons of snow. They were poorly clothed because they had been sleeping, and they ran to the safety of the nearby woods where trees would help slow oncoming snow. In the darkness of night, they got separated into two or three groups; one group made a fire (hence the burned hands) while the others tried to return to the tent to recover their clothing, since the danger had apparently passed. But it was too cold, and they all froze to death before they could locate their tent in the darkness. At some point some of the clothes may have been recovered or swapped from the dead, but at any rate the group of four whose bodies were most severely damaged were caught in an avalanche and buried under thirteen feet of snow (more than enough to account for the “compelling natural force” the medical examiner described); Dubinina’s tongue was likely removed by scavengers and ordinary predation.
We will, of course, never know what exactly happened, but it’s likely that some variation of this is the real explanation. The cause of the deaths of the skiers is not mysterious or “unknown” as is often suggested; it is in fact clear from the medical examiner’s report: hypothermia, or freezing to death. There’s really no reason to question the conclusion of the investigators who had firsthand access to all the available evidence at the time. Exactly what caused them to flee their tent can be speculated upon endlessly, but there’s no reason to assume that anything unknown or mysterious caused it. In the absence of evidence one wild theory is as good as the next.
Osadchuk, Svetlund, and Kevin O’Flynn. 2009. The Dyatlov pass incident. Fortean Times February: 245. Online at http://www.forteantimes.com/features/articles/1562/the_dyatlov_pass_incident.html.
Smith, Anthony. 2012. Dyatlov Pass explained: How science could solve Russia’s most terrifying unsolved mystery. Online at http://www.isciencetimes.com/articles/3571/20120801/dyatlov-pass-explained-science-solve-russias-terrifying.htm.