A few weeks ago I checked out a book from my local public library about something called the “Dyatlov Pass incident.” When I got home, I set it on my dining room table and then kind of forgot it was there.
The following weekend, I was in the mood for a crappy horror movie, and I noticed this flick called Devil’s Pass was available for streaming at Netflix. It sounded intriguing: I love movies set in snowy nowheres, and it was directed by Renny Harlin — admittedly not a great sign but at least I’d heard of him.
As soon as the movie started, I was astonished to discover it was about the same thing as the book I’d just picked up — the Dyatlov Pass incident — something I’d never even heard of until this bizarre coincidence.
What a bizarre coincidence!
Also: what a fascinating story! And man, is it ever the perfect fodder for a horror or sci-fi movie — why there haven’t been more of them, I have no idea. Before I get into specifics about the movie and the book, though, let me fill you in on a little background. This part is the true-story part.
In the winter of 1959, a group of young adults in Russia decided to take a break from school and go ski-hiking into the Urals. They started out as a group of 10 (8 men, 2 women), but not long into the trek, one of them fell ill and had to turn back.
The other 9, led by Igor Dyatlov, a 23 year-old student at Ural Polytechnic and highly skilled climber, had no concerns about their trip, despite the fact they were climbing in the snowy nowheres of Siberia in January — certainly not my first choice for camping. These guys knew what they were doing, though, and they were having a great time doing it. Photos from their trip show them goofing around, enjoying camp, laughing. It was clearly a blast.
At least, it was until it wasn’t anymore.
After their deadline to get back to town came and went, the group’s friends began to get worried. They soon put together a search team and headed up along the same path the Dyatlov group had taken.
For five days, they found nothing. On the sixth day, they found the group’s tent, eerily set up inside as though the group had just been there and would be back any moment. Food was laid out. Several of the hikers’ boots were lined up by the tent entrance. But at the back of the tent was an ominous sign: a huge slash in the canvas, clearly made from the inside, as though something terrible had been coming in the front and the rear was their only way out.
Eventually, all the hikers’ bodies were found, and it became clear they had fled in a panic, separating from each other and running in wildly impractical, random directions. Most of them had frozen to death alone — they were all drastically under-dressed for the weather, many in what amounted to pajamas, and, as the boots in the tent had suggested, several were in their stocking feet. In Siberia. In January.
Disturbingly, though, two of the bodies showed evidence of some kind of violence — one had a crushing head injury, the other was missing her tongue. Another two were found in an embrace, next to the embers of a small fire. And, weirdest of all, several of them had high levels of radioactivity on their clothing.
Leading to the question: WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?
First, the movie’s theory. Devil’s Pass is about a group of film students who decide to follow the path the Dyatlov group took and make a documentary about the incident. It’s essentially The Blair Witch Project, only set in Siberia instead of New Jersey — this, for me, was not a bad thing.
After days of hiking in, the group finally gets to the place where the Dyatlov tent was discovered, and decide to call it a night, pitching their own tent essentially on the same spot where Igor’s had been. This, incidentally, would also not be my first choice for camping.
While the others are setting up, the team leader and her buddy head out for some early poking around. It’s just trees and snows and hills and rocks and stuff — until they come across something plenty weird: a door. A door in the side of the mountain. Thumbs up!
From there, the movie gets even more intriguing. Annnnnnd then it takes a sharp turn towards Hilariously Dumb. All in all, though, it’s not a terrible flick and I’d say it’s well worth a rental if you’re interested in some really crazy theories about what happened to Igor and his pals. Why the hell not?
Speaking of really crazy theories, let’s move on. The non-fiction book Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident is written by a journalist, Donnie Eichar, who essentially does the same thing the kids in the movie did — he goes to the Northern Urals and hikes the same path, in the hopes he’ll discover something no one else has and finally put to rest the decades-old question, WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?
The book is written in alternating chapters, with half of them set in the present day, focusing on the author’s research, interviews, and travels, and the other half set in 1959, telling the story of the Dyatlov group (reconstructed thanks to the hikers’ journals and camera, as well as interviews with friends and search party members).
Everybody in Russia seems to have a theory about what happened to the Dyatlov party, with no two theories alike. Those theories range from alien abduction to a Soviet military conspiracy involving a secret radioactive weapon the group had accidentally stumbled across them testing out. The conspiracy theory is strengthened somewhat by the fact the government had been unwilling to help during the search, and later refused to release any of their own information about the incident and the victims.
Assessing and dismissing most of the major theories one by one, Eichar finally proposes yet another idea, only this time, the theory is based in science and is supported by scientists specializing in exactly that very scientific thing — a thing I will not describe so as not to spoilerize you.
The problem is, after such build-up — such suspense, such drama, such crazy, crazy weirdness — Eichar’s theory was kind of a super-bummer let-down for me. Partly because it’s really the only theory that makes any sense whatsoever, which means it’s probably truly what happened. Which means, ugh, how awful. Frankly, alien abduction probably would have been a gentler way to go.
So, what the hell happened? The answer is we still don’t know for sure and we may never know (though, apparently, there are more super-secret documents the Russians won’t release — suspicious!). Yet despite the fact that after reading the entire book, you still won’t really know anything more about what happened than you did when you started (which is to say: nuttin’), it’s well worth reading anyway, just so you can meet Igor and his friends, follow them along their journey, and mourn their tragic deaths. If what Eichar thinks happened really is what happened, it seems the least we can do for those poor kids.
As soon as you turn the last page, though, pop in Devil’s Pass so you can end your own journey to Siberia with some serious eye-rolls and snorty giggles. Really, Renny Harlin? Really? That’s what you’re going with? Of all the possibilities? You cheeseball.