Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Entering the Dyatlov Pass

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In February of 1959, a group of Russian hikers, led by a man named Igor Dyatlov, embarked on an expedition in the Ural Mountains. Most of the group consisted of students or graduates of Ural Polytechnic Institute, and all were experienced mountaineers. The route they had planned was a challenging one, taking them along the eastern shoulder of a peak known in the Mansi language as Kholat Syakhl, or Mountain of Death. After arriving in the area by train, they took a truck north to the last inhabited settlement and began to walk along the valley. On the second day, one of the hikers became ill and had to turn back, leaving nine members in the group. That night, with visibility worsening, they strayed off course, and ultimately decided to camp on the side of the mountain to wait out a severe storm. Days later, when they failed to check in at their destination as scheduled, a rescue operation was set in motion, and finally discovered the remains of the camp three weeks after the group’s disappearance.

The first thing the rescue team discovered was the group’s abandoned tent, which had been badly damaged, and seemed to have been torn open from the inside. Following a line of footprints to the woods, the rescuers found the bodies of two men, both shoeless and dressed only in their underwear, although the temperature on the night of their death had been twenty degrees below freezing. Three more bodies were found across a distance of several hundred yards, as if they had tried and failed to return to camp. All had succumbed to hypothermia, and one had a fractured skull. The remaining bodies were unearthed two months later, under a deep covering of snow in a ravine in the woods. One victim had died of hypothermia. The rest had suffered severe injuries, including chest fractures and skull damage, although no external wounds were visible, and one of the hikers, a woman, was missing her tongue.

Ever since, the Dyaltov Pass incident, which an official investigation concluded was the result of “a compelling unknown force,” has been the object of intense speculation. Possible explanations, none of them completely satisfying, have included a weapons test, an attack by local tribesmen, or even an alien abduction. (Orange lights were allegedly seen in the direction of the pass on the night of the hikers’ deaths, although the fact that a snowstorm was raging at the time has called these reports into question.) But the more I reflect on the incident—and I’ve been thinking about it a lot for the past year—the more I feel that strangest thing about it is how little known it is, at least outside of Russia. I’ve always been a sucker for unexplained events, but I’d never heard of this incident until I began to look systematically at Russian history for an episode that could provide a starting point for my second novel. The fact that it took place at the height of the Cold War, and wasn’t fully reported until years later, may account for its relative unfamiliarity. But I’m still amazed that it isn’t more famous than it is.

In any case, when I initially encountered the story of the Dyatlov Pass, I had much the same reaction that I did when I first saw Étant Donnés, the work of art that stands at the heart of The Icon Thief: I knew that there was an extraordinary novel here, and that if I didn’t write it now, someone else almost certainly would—I’d just been lucky enough to get there first. My greatest challenge, I realized, lay in simply doing it justice, by conveying something of its strangeness and terror while also providing a solution that was original and hopefully convincing. Whether or not I’ve succeeded is something that my readers will need to decide for themselves, although I feel that the answer set forth in City of Exiles is at least worthy of consideration, and one that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been proposed before. Taken on its own, however, it wasn’t quite enough to sustain an entire novel. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how I combined it with one of my earliest obsessions, and how, after many false starts, I finally managed to write a book about one of the most enigmatic mysteries in the Western tradition: the work of the chariot.

Written by nevalalee

November 27, 2012 at 10:11 am

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