People die on mountains all the time. They’re dangerous places, with many ways to kill an inexperienced or unwary traveller. But the deaths of nine experienced Russian hikers in the Ural Mountains in 1959 was something different. The mystery around exactly how they died has sparked endless speculation, covering everything from avalanches to mass insanity to yetis to aliens. It’s a real-life Soviet-era X-file that’s never been solved; based on the real-life declassified case files, Dead Mountain: The Dyatlov Pass Incident promises to put a new spin on this sixty-year mystery.
Dead Mountain begins with KGB Major Oleg Kostin (Pyotr Fyodorov) arriving in the Sverdlovsk region of the then Soviet Union. Five of the hikers’ bodies have already been found and the investigation into what happened is in full swing. Kostin informs his underlings that a): as far as they’re concerned he doesn’t officially exist, and b): he’s now in charge. Together with the local medical examiner, Katya Shumanova (Mariya Lugovaya), he’s determined to get to the bottom of what happened up on the mountain – which, considering what the pair soon uncover – may be a lot more dangerous than they first thought.
The real-life facts of the case are more than enough to make the first episode gripping viewing. The first thing rescuers found was the hikers’ tent buried in the snow with no one inside. The gear inside was still neatly stacked with no sign of panic, with food set out ready to be eaten. But there were a number of large slash marks in the sides of the tent; later, a seamstress at the police station where the retrieved items were stored noticed the slashes had been made from the inside.
Footprints of eight or nine people were discovered downhill from the tent, seemingly walking towards the tree line. Bizarrely, they were mostly barefoot or only wearing socks despite what must have been below freezing temperatures. Two bodies were found the next day, wearing only underwear and huddled by the ashes of a fire under a nearby tree. Other bodies were later found close by, seemingly trying to get back to the tent. They were all battered and bruised; some had burn marks. One had taken a bite out of his own hand.
The odd-numbered episodes of Dead Mountain are filmed in widescreen and colour as they follow Kostin and Shumanova’s investigation. Kostin’s own past rapidly comes to the fore; he’s scarred from his experiences in Germany during World War II, and some of his horrific experiences there might still be relevant here. There are flashbacks to a mysterious wartime castle, strange lights are spotted in the sky, and the path to any kind of solution is a long and involved one, with other crimes to be solved and mysteries to be faced.
The even-numbered episodes tell the story of the hikers themselves. Shot in black and white and in 4:3 ratio, they have much more of a documentary feel to them, and perhaps owe something to the hikers’ own black and white photos that were developed from the cameras found at their camp site. This look gives their story a claustrophobic, slightly ominous feel, even as they’re striding across the great outdoors.
We follow the excited group of largely young students – plus one obvious plant, though the real reason why he joined a civilian camping trip on the orders of the local hiking club is yet another mystery – as they make their way towards and into the mountains. One of them has to drop out (which, like having a mysterious older member join their group, happened in real life), they have strange encounters with the locals, and slowly the suspense builds. A countdown at the very start of the episode lets us know exactly how long we have until their eventual fate; anything could happen before then.
The other four hikers weren’t discovered until the spring thaw. Their mangled bodies were found piled together under ten feet of snow in a creek bed, suffering gruesome injuries. Some of them were wearing clothes taken from the bodies of others, and several items were emitting unusually high levels of radiation – levels that would have been even higher if not for being submerged in a running creek.
Dead Mountain is spoilt for choice when it comes to presenting an explanation for what happened. Over the last sixty years almost everything possible has been seriously suggested, from Soviet weapons testing to an attack by local tribesmen to alien fireballs to a freak windstorm. If you can think it, someone’s proposed it. Maybe nerve gas drove them insane; maybe they were murdered by the CIA. There’s as much evidence to rule each theory out as to support it.
Only one thing is for certain: Kostin’s definitely got a big job ahead of him.
Dead Mountain: The Dyatlov Pass Incident is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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