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Unsolved mystery of Russia's missing hikers may have finally been cracked

The mystery has spurred countless conspiracy theories, but we may finally have the answer.

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The mystery of the Dyatlov Pass has raised questions for over half a century.
Soviet investigators/Creative Commons

The Dyatlov Pass incident is a spooky tale most often told in hushed tones around a campfire, but this very real -- and very mysterious -- event has long been the subject of conspiracy theories, scientific conjecture and even a movie or two. But the truth of what drove nine experienced hikers to slash through the safety of their own tent and flee, half-dressed into the snow of the Ural mountains, has remained inconclusive for over half a century. 

That is, until now. After 62 years of speculation, scientists believe they may have figured out what happened in the Ural Mountains, all those years ago. 

Thanks to simulations, analytical models and even some borrowed Disney technology, the data indicates an impactful force of nature could very well be the conclusive answer. 

What is the Dyatlov Pass mystery?

In January 1959, a team of experienced Russian mountaineers were trekking in the Ural Mountains -- at least, they were, until they perished under mysterious circumstances. 

Personal diaries and film discovered on site confirm that the team had made camp on a stretch of the slopes known as Kholat Saykhl, or "dead mountain." However, something caused the hikers to flee in the middle of the night, cutting their way out of the tent and scrambling across the mountain -- barely dressed despite subzero temperatures and a thick layer of snow.

When a search and rescue team finally found them weeks later, scattered over the pass, they discovered that while six of the hikers had died from hypothermia, the remaining three hikers had been killed by extreme physical trauma. There were body parts missing -- one hiker's eyes, another's tongue -- and severe skeletal damage to some of the skulls and chests.

The only problem? There was no convincing evidence to explain why or how this had happened. At the time, the investigators concluded only that an unknown but powerful "natural force" had compelled them to leave their tent. Conspiracies range from katabatic winds through to Yeti attack and even infrasound-induced panic, but no definitive conclusion was ever made to explain the deaths. 

Until, potentially, now.

Simulations, Disney and a potential answer

In an article published Thursday in the journal Communications Earth and Environment, researchers identified data supporting the theory that a small, impactful avalanche could have been the culprit.

It's not the first time such a hypothesis has arisen. In fact, it was one of the first conclusions drawn -- it just had no supporting evidence. In 2019, a team of Russian scientists also concluded that it was an avalanche, but the data to support the theory was once again lacking. There had been no definitive evidence of an avalanche, even a small one. The topography and snowfall levels didn't match such an incident.

Now, however, a team from the Snow Avalanche Simulation Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland, has been able to use analytical models, simulations and even technology from Disney's animation studios to explain how an avalanche may have occurred without leaving behind evidence.

Reported by National Geographic, the data indicated the avalanche would have been particularly small -- perhaps as small as 16 feet of ice and snow, compacted into a solid slab. This would allow for the conditions to mask the phenomena over time, with snowfall obscuring any debris, while still creating enough of a threat to compel the hikers to slash their way out.

But it still didn't explain the extreme trauma left on some of the bodies. To answer that question, the team looked to Disney's Frozen. Johan Gaume, head of the laboratory, combined their simulation tools with animation models borrowed from Frozen's creative team to analyze how the impact of the avalanche would affect the bodies.

Using the simulation, enhanced by these animation models, the team was able to conclude that the suspected avalanche could have had enough of an impact if the hikers had arranged their bedding on top of their skis, providing a rigid base upon which the force would have been exerted -- crushing skulls and chests between the two hard forces.

There's still little evidence as to what happened next, given that all the hikers were found outside the tent, but the best theory is that they then tried to escape the avalanche and rescue their injured teammates -- though their injuries and the extreme temperature would eventually prove fatal. As for the missing body parts? Animal scavengers are the likely culprit.

So while the study goes a long way in explaining a possible, even likely, scenario for the deaths of the hikers on Dyatlov Pass, a lot of questions still remain. 

And those questions are inevitably going to keep conspiracy theorists busy speculating for years to come.