Explaining the Icy Mystery of the Dyatlov Pass

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 04, 2021

In 1959, a group of students died while on a hiking trip in the Ural Mountains. The circumstances of the incident and the way in which they died presented a mystery that has remained unsolved in the decades since.

The Dyatlov Pass incident is an intriguing unsolved mystery from the last century. In February 1959, a group of nine experienced Russian mountaineers perished during a difficult expedition in the northern Urals. A snow avalanche hypothesis was proposed, among other theories, but was found to be inconsistent with the evidence of a lower-than-usual slope angle, scarcity of avalanche signs, uncertainties about the trigger mechanism, and abnormal injuries of the victims.

Now, researchers have come up with a plausible explanation of the accident: a low-angle avalanche enabled by unusually slippery snow and high winds. From a piece in Wired about the investigation:

The cross-country skiers had actually pitched camp on a small step in the hillside, scooping away the snow to level it out. When they cut into the snowpack, they sliced through the weak layer, essentially initiating a countdown. “When you create a cut in the slope to install the tent, it’s like when you remove a retaining wall,” says Gaume, a snow physicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The slab of denser snow now hung precariously over the camp. “All the ingredients were there,” Gaume adds. “There was a weak layer, there was a slab, and the slope angle was locally steeper than the critical angle.”

Also from the Wired piece: the researchers were inspired by the realistic snow modeling that Disney did for Frozen. (via kottke ride home)