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Pretty good book

Dead Mountain, by Donnie Eichar. I stumbled across it on iBooks looking for some airport reading.

This is the reconstructed story of a group of nine 20-something Russian students who went on a winter backcountry ski trip in the Ural mountains in the winter of 1959 -- and never came back. Searchers found the big group tent first, with an exit slash on the back wall, and eight pairs of boots lined up by the wood stove. Intensive searching over the next couple of months located the students' bodies in three groups within a few hundred meters of the tent -- all had left the tent lightly clad and wearing only socks.

The author is from Florida, transplanted to Mailibu, and admits he is neither outdoorsman nor skier. This shows in that he refers to the skiers as "hikers" throughout the book -- he could as well have defined their activity as "backcountry skiing" and then used the proper word. Forgiving him that, he has done a good job sifting through accident reports and all the myth, rumor, and explanatory theories that have accumulated over the years, and ultimately arrives at an intriguing natural explanation that I won't give away here. Let's just say I'd like to hear what our resident rocket scientist has to say about it.

To tell the story, Eichar waded through reams of documents, interviews the one surviving student who turned back early due to illness as well as other Russians with a long-standing interest in the story, and takes a snowmobile ride to the sit of the incident -- bold move for a Floridian. The book includes haunting and black and white photos recovered from the students' cameras.

I only have an e-copy of this one, but I wouldn't mind having a hard copy for our polar explorers/mountaineering/true backcountry adventures book shelf. Very much recommended for the TS crowd.

Must have been Aliens from Mars.

There are three books just out on this incident plus one about a year earlier. I haven't read any of the 4, but at a glance at my neighborhood bookstore, Eichar's book (the one Big Red mentions) appears much better than either McCloskey's or Baker's or the earlier book by Wellins and Batty.

I don't have time to read any of them right now, since I am in the midst of finalizing my presentation for Jan 7 for the American Climber Science Program. (If you happen to be in the SFBay Area on Jan 7, a Tuesday, you are invited - info at )

At Netflix there is a video/movie called Devil's Pass (The Dyatlov Pass Incident):

Five students retrace the steps of a group of hikers who famously perished in Russia's Ural Mountains more than five decades prior.

The five students that went to the Url area also disappeared. 

Later edit; I am watching this video now on its almost like that movie "The Blair Witch Project" it seems unreal i  away watching it it as its shot like a home movie. It shows the students shooting it with their own video equipment like a personal documentary. I don't know if this is the best movie to watch about this incident or not?  reason is they show what are supposed to be Bigfoot foot prints in the snow around their camp(s) and along the route they follow. Making me kinda skeptical that this is not just a movie lampooning the events that lead to the original accident in 1959.


Well, now having read the book, I can't recommend it as enthusiastically as Big Red. A few comments:

The fact that Eicher does not know Russian leads to a number of misinterpretations or perhaps mistranslations by his interpreters. However, the one Big Red questions about the term "hiker" is not one of them. Russian is one of about a half-dozen languages I read (and even speak). The Russian word that transliterates as "tourist" is used to describe outdoor clubs, often associated with universities and colleges. I checked my very complete Russian English dictionary to be sure I was recollecting accurately. Sure enough, the first translation of "tourist" (wish I knew how to type on the computer in Cyrillic) means "hiker", and the second is "mountaineer" (in the sense of both "climber" and "mountain dweller"). So the club at the Institute was much like the outdoor club that Barb and I were in at UCLA, the Bruin Mountaineers (who did more backpacking than climbing, though a number of famous climbers were members at one time or another). Second thing here is that, while the 9 were using skis a lot on approach to "Dead Mountain" (in the local Mansi language, which the Mansi say refers to the lack of vegetation on the summit of Kholat-Syakhyl - some of the other 3 books call it "Mountain of Death", as does Wikipedia). But, given the snow conditions, especially when following the frozen streams, they were using the skis more as snowshoes, plus intending to hike to the summit without skis. So "hikers" is really more descriptive of their intentions.

An example of Eicher's mistranslations is when he is talking about students during the time that the incident occurred making clandestine copies of jazz, rock, folk, and other "westernized" records on "roentgen" film. He translates "roentgen" as "bone", whereas it really refers to film used for X-rays (named for Roentgen, the discoverer of X-rays, referred to in many languages as "roentgen rays"). This was a clever substitute for making vinyl disc copies, since vinyl was not available by government decree. The mistake is due to the fact that X-rays are used to take images of broken bones.

But, this example appears in Eicher's extensive interesting discussions of the Soviet Union under Stalin (Stalin died just a couple years before the incident, and students felt much freer under Khruschev, though many of Eicher's contacts remained ardent communists - hate Stalin, but still somewhat nostalgic for the old days, especially since many apparently currently hate Putin).

About 2/3 to 3/4 of the book is about Eicher's numerous dead-ends and struggles to get the real information. Many of the Russians and the locals had theories ranging from UFOs (I thought I was joking in my earlier post!), local people launching an angry attack on outsiders (the Mansli are actually a very friendly people), a nuke exploding in the vicinity, wild animals, and dozens of other conspiracy theories. I have serious reservations about Eicher's final conclusions, though it is clear that something suddenly and quickly panicked the 9 victims. His scenario of their reaction to whatever panicked them is reasonable. But having done research involving Karman streets back when I was doing a lot of fluid dynamics modeling, I have serious doubts about what triggered the panic. It is plausible, but a bit far-fetched. The only way to find out would be to carry out a controlled experiment on site at the same time of year under very similar meteorological conditions. I agree with his consultant at NOAA, Dr. Alfred Bedard, that the phenomenon he blames can cause discomfort. Whether to the extent needed to cause panic in the particular circumstances is another question.

The reason for the students going on the trip was that all were rated as Class II "tourists" and were taking the trip, documented with lots of photos, to qualify for the highest rank, Class III. They all had lots of experience and were well-equipped. The expedition had plenty of food and back-up spare gear, including extra skis and boots. The storm should have been well within their capabilities. I will note that Eicher mixes units, which is a bit confusing in places. Most of the time he uses temperatures in Fahrenheit, wind speeds in miles per hour, and distances in miles. But sometimes he seems to be using metric units straight from the maps or information given to him by the Russian officials and relatives he is interviewing. Since names of places were changed by the Soviets after the revolution, then again by Stalin, then to something else after the Soviet Union disbanded, sometimes he gives the current name and sometimes when referring to past history, one of the old names (sometimes both old and new names).

Re-reading my post I see that it might come across as my saying the book is not worth reading. On the contrary - the book provides a lot of interesting insights into the attitudes of the Russian people at the time of the incident (1959) and currently (2013, when Eicher was doing his research for the book during his trips to Sverdlovsk - Sverdlovsk, aka Yekaterinburg, is the location of  the university the students were from, Ural Polytechnic Institute). That alone makes the book worth reading. The location in the Ural Mountains is within Russia (as opposed to being one of the pieces of the old Soviet Union which became separate entities).

I found the discussions of the gear available to the students in 1959 and gear they had to make themselves (like the boot covers) to be pretty interesting, along with the descriptions of the people and their changing attitudes over the years. The variety of theories of what happened was one the one hand amusing, but on the other, a horrifying example of imaginations run wild. The conspiracy theories run from UFOs to nukes to angry aboriginal groups - it seems everyone had a separate idea.

As I said above, Eicher's conclusion is plausible. But having done research on the phenomenon some years ago, I have my doubts. The final solution requires an experiment carried out on the location under as similar conditions to the 1959 time as possible. And that would require some fairly expensive instrumentation and dealing with some very severe weather conditions.

I think it was ET.

I agree that Eicher's idea needs to be tested and that is unlikely to happen. But he does a pretty good job of ruling out a lot of the alternatives, and it's at least intriguing to think that the cause was a rare and hitherto unsuspected natural phenomenon.

I found it written well enough to keep me turning the pages, and thinking about it when I was doing other things, and that's a sign of a pretty good book at least on the airport reading scale.

The numerous photos in the book are also revealing about the equipment and modes of travel at the time, as well as adding young faces to the names.

Sounds interesting! Perhaps Ill get me that book and read it just for fun. Is it available as an e-book?

I found it at the library. It is a good winter read and The Blair Witch Project was my first thought after finishing it. It was a little funny that a guy from Florida who had only seen snow a few times in his life went on this sluething adventure and his premise just does not grab me. Been in hellacious, ferocious winds a few times in a dark tent, gale force winds at least once with ridelines and many rocky formations and bet plenty here have too. It is outdoor life on the Colorado plateau and many other places. never heard of anyone fleeing and most certainly without boots or gear.

But again, it was a good winter read and most definetly a good but harrowing mystery. Tragic really.

I laughed when the old Russian kept asking the author if there was not a compelling mystery in his own country to keep him busy. Sure the Kennedy assaination and we think you folks might have been somewhat involved in that one too. LOL

I thought their little hiking clubs were great. It was a thing they organized and saw through. Interesting insights into Russian lives.

Hei Otto! Julehilsener fra Trondheim!

I got the book as and ebook from the US iTunes store -- I wouldn't be surprised if it's also available on Amazon.

Takk Richard, romjul- og nyttårshilsener fra Bodø! After the holidays I will look up the book. Otto

November 27, 2021
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