September 30, 2015

Dead Mountain: When the Mountains don’t Want be Conquered

By Stephon Boatwright In Reviews
Brew: Nosferatu, by Great Lakes Brewing Company 2/5 stars
 It seemed fitting given the time of year and the book I’m reviewing.  Very bitter, high octane at 8% abv, and I swear it taste like fermented squash.  Not my favorite.
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Book: Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident 3.5/5 Stars
 The sad part about being an adventurer in the 21st Century is that everything seems to already have been explored.  We’ve reached the bottom of the sea, the roof of the planet atop Everest, we’ve even began mapping mega caves that could swallow skyscrapers.  I think the lack of mystery in the current world led to the writing of Dead Mountain by Donnie Eicher.  We feel the need to solve history’s mysteries as our own are often not all that mysterious.

Dead Mountain follows nine adventures in the former Soviet Union as they attempt to attain their countries top certification for hikers in 1959.  *Spoiler Alert* They all die….well…almost.  One hiker turns back before reaching the ultimate destination in the Ural Mountains.  On the surface nothing is too odd about a group of hikers getting lost and unfortunately perishing in a Siberian winter.  Chillingly though, when the bodies of the hikers were found, the men and women of the group were under dressed, most of them barefoot, and several with blunt force trauma to their bodies.  They had all fled their tent in the middle of the night.

If this type of incident occurred outside the USSR and the context of the Cold War, it might be less interesting.  The fog of the Cold War makes everything more intriguing though.  The explanations for their death range from avalanches, government conspiracies, and, of course, alien abduction.  Personally, I enjoy anything that is so inexplicable that hostile extraterrestrials become a viable hypothesis.  In reality though, the loss of the Dyatlov Group (named after their leader Igor Dyatlov) struck an emotional chord with many Russians of the day, and continues to be the raw material of so much speculation and folklore.

Donnie Eicher does some special things that most other investigators have been unwilling or unable to do.  Firstly, finding the reclusive sole survivor of the group.  Secondly, he retraced the groups exact steps through Russia and the Urals.  Eicher refused to be swayed by theories regarding aliens, scientifically dismisses the idea of an avalanche, and recognizes the dearth of evidence to implicate the Soviet authorities.

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**Bigger Spoiler Alert** One of my favorite findings of the story is that the tent the hikers had fled sustained several man made slashes.  I began to think this was a definitive murder case and Eicher was going to crack it wide open.  Later, it was discovered that there were only nine sets of footprints in and around the tent, and more disturbingly, the slashes were made from inside the tent, presumably from someone trying to escape.  Fresh out of my own theories, I became intrigued in Eicher’s, just to be let down horrendously.

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Due to a series of events I can’t quite recall, the author finds himself at several prestigious universities to investigate the effects that sound has on the human body.  Eicher ultimately lands on a wholly unsatisfying answer: the wind killed them.  The gale force winds coming over the conical summit of the mountain where the hikers were camping, created an effect called a Karman Vortex Street, basically a tornado of sound that is terrifying to the hearer.  Furthermore, infra sound, or subsonic vibration of the inner ear, also brought havoc.  Infra sound can cause everything from migraines and nausea, to a deep feeling of paranoia.  These dual causes were apparently enough to drive the students from their tent and become lost in the snow, where they either froze to death or fell down a ravine, causing the physical injuries.

Why I Think It’s Hogwash

I deeply appreciate the move away from conspiracy theories and the supernatural to explain unknown phenomena, however, this one is a stretch.  Now, I’m a lowly political scientist who hikes and writes a blog, no sound specialist by a long shot.  I’m well aware of the effects of infra sound though, which has been a big sticking point to commercial windmill placement, but I can’t find too many incidents where it has sparked mass hysteria.  I’m sure such an outcome is possible in a controlled environment, but if this is something that happens in nature, I feel like we’d have a lot more crazed hikers.  I’m new to the concept of Karman Vortex Streets, but I wonder how terrifying a sound it could have been to drive nine, hyper-experienced hikers, barefoot and partially unclothed into sub-zero temps.

Given the well organized and generally undisturbed manner of the tent, it would seem as if these effects would have had to have happened instantaneously.  The only sign of “struggle” was the rip in the tent.  Basically, a switch would have to flip and launch all nine hikers, simultaneously, but without coordination, into chaotic hysteria and flight, leaving both their wits and boots behind, with no time to react or coordinate a plan.  That I simply don’t buy.  Mass hysteria is real, as is infra sound and Vortex Streets, but I imagine these things do not create universally understood terror in an instantaneous manner.  I imagine someone would have the wherewithal to shout, “Hey Igor! Don’t forget your boots!”

This incident may forever be the result of what the Soviet authorities called it a half-century ago: “Unknown compelling force.”

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