Kholat Syakhl, a mountain deep in the Northern Urals. The native Mansi people call it the Mountain of the Dead. On February 2nd, 1959, a group of ski-hikers, blown of course by inclement weather, make camp in a pass on its eastern slope. There were nine of them. Seven men, two women. All of them experienced hikers, and all of them students or recent graduates of the local Soviet polytechnical institute. Their tents were ringed around a fire, built mostly with wet wood from the snow. There would have been a lot of smoke from the wet wood, blurring the already limited visibility from the snow. The fire was the only way the hikers could fend off the below zero temperatures. By the time it happened, the air would have been around -30 degrees Centigrade.

At some point in the night, all nine hikers fled their camp. None of them were wearing shoes or outdoor gear, they were in their underwear and sleeping clothes. Some of them ripped open their tents from the inside out to get away from the camp. Some died less than few hundred meters from the camp, some were able to make it almost a whole kilometer. A few had actually started doubling back to the camp when they died. None of them saw the sun come up.

The group was not expected to check in for another ten days. When that date passed and there was no word, no one thought anything of it. Winter expeditions like this were often a few days behind schedule. It wasn’t until the parents became worried and started pressuring the university to mount an expedition that anyone started to look for the missing hikers.

The first bodies were found on February 26th. The investigators found the camp, and followed the tracks into the woods. They found the first two bodies huddled under a pine tree around a makeshift campfire. Between the pine tree and the campfire, they found three more bodies. The remaining four bodies wouldn’t be found until the spring thaw in May. They were buried under twelve feet of snow in a stream valley on the opposite side of the camp from the pine tree.

The official inquest into the deaths of the hikers was already underway when the second group of bodies was found. And while the circumstances that would force a group of experienced hikers into the deathly cold of the night were unclear, the cause of death to the first five bodies wasn’t. They all died of hypothermia.

The four found down by the river died under completely different circumstances. Two of them had massive trauma to their chests, another had crushed skull, and the fourth was missing her tongue. The bodies showed no sign of external damage, meaning that what ever force shattered these people was something akin to a shockwave. There was no object behind the pressure to tear the skin or cause bruising to the soft tissues. The woman who was missing her tongue died of hypothermia. It is unknown if her tongue was removed before or after death.

The forensic examination of the campsite and the camper’s gear became much more intensive after the discovery of the second groups of bodies. All of the gear at the site was found to have a high concentration of radiation, but the surrounding dirt, water and trees had no similar concentrations. The tracks in the area were made entirely by humans, and all of them could be traced to the nine dead bodies. The investigators concluded that the trauma deaths could not have been inflicted by another human being.

The case was closed soon after the final forensic results came back. The government could not find anyone to charge with a crime, so the official report was filed, and then promptly sealed and classified. Their final ruling was that “an unknown compelling force” had caused the hikers to feel their camp, and that they all died because of this action. Hikers were barred from traveling in that area for the next few years. Nearly all of the information about this event has come from the declassification of the documents in the 1990s.

Conspiracy theorists have flocked to this case because of the bizarre details surrounding the deaths of those nine hikers. Some claim that they accidentally stumbled into a military testing ground for nuclear weapons, but the Urals would be a bad choice for a proving ground. The winds in the mountains are erratic, and there are large population centers nearby. Some look to mysterious orange orbs seen floating in the sky in the area in the days surrounding the incident. They claim that these UFOs had something to do with the deaths.

The last person to see the hikers alive was the tenth member of the group that fell sick at their last stop before scaling the mountain. His name is Yuri Yudin, and this is what he has to say about what happened up there on that frozen mountain side “If I had a chance to ask God just one question, it would be, ‘What really happened to my friends that night?’”

A gallery of photographs taken by the hikers on the trip.