Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar

dead-mountainIn February 1959, a group of nine experienced hikers in the Russian Ural Mountains died mysteriously on an elevation known as Dead Mountain. Eerie aspects of the incident—unexplained violent injuries, signs that they cut open and fled the tent without proper clothing or shoes, a strange final photograph taken by one of the hikers, and elevated levels of radiation found on some of their clothes—have led to decades of speculation over what really happened. This gripping work of literary nonfiction delves into the mystery through unprecedented access to the hikers’ own journals and photographs, rarely seen government records, dozens of interviews, and the author’s retracing of the hikers’ fateful journey in the Russian winter. A fascinating portrait of the young hikers in the Soviet era, and a skillful interweaving of the hikers narrative, the investigators’ efforts, and the author’s investigations, here for the first time is the real story of what happened that night on Dead Mountain.

I wouldn’t have found this book if it wasn’t for the fact that it was a daily deal on Amazon around Halloween.  And admittedly, barring a true crime book about a horrible murder, this is a good one to choose for the season of spookiness.  Nine hikers all running half-dressed into sub-zero temperatures?  Mysterious injuries?  Creepy balls of light in the sky?  Possibly government cover-up?  This story certainly has all the elements of a horror tale (especially if you do any hiking beyond a paved state park trail), with the added bonus that it actually happened and has gone unexplained for over a half a century.

Author Donnie Eichar went on a personal quest to find answers, burning through his own savings and leaving his girlfriend and child behind on two different occasions to go to Russia and hunt for the truth.  Does he find it?  Well… not really.  There are tons of theories about what happened, and by the end of this book, Eichar’s theory actually comes across as the most likely, even if it does sound like something out of science fiction.  Obviously, we can never know what really happened that night in 1959, but with recent advances in scientific inquiry, I think that Eichar comes as close to the real story as we’ll ever get.

And the author does a good job of investigative journalism, considering how very cold the case is (in more ways than one).  He intertwines three narratives–that of the hikers, that of the rescue teams, and his own trek into Russia–to paint as complete a picture as possible of the circumstances surrounding the event and its aftermath.  The sections following the rescuers are especially gripping, because they intersect with the secretive Communist regime and raise questions that would be ludicrous in any other setting but are understandable here.  For example, why was the lead investigator so certain that the mysterious balls of light spotted around the time of the deaths key in understanding what happened?  And why, after a hush-hush trip out of town, did that same investigator forbid any further delving into, or even talk of, those lights?  It’s like a spy novel come to life… and again, this all actually happened, so it’s even more thrilling.

In the end, you won’t get anything truly definitive from this book as far as an answer to what happened to the Dyatlov group, but you will get a compelling picture of living in Communist Russia, hiking in an era with less high-tech gear than we now have, and of the efforts that it takes to solve a decades-old mystery.  I think this book is a worthy addition to the shelves of those who enjoyed Into Thin Air and other book in this genre.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from

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