by James T. Gavin
“Okay, class, that is all I have for you today. You may go…. Will those of you who signed up for the research trip to the Ural Mountains please stay a moment?”
The group of eight different students shuffled down the staircase in the auditorium, weaving their way against a tide of students flooding the exits beyond the stairs above. They congregated at the podium forming a horseshoe shape around where Professor Igor Dyatlov stood.
The professor surveyed the group before getting into his introductions. He saw six men and two women. One woman and a baby-faced man seemed to be a couple. Three of the men were definitely friends; they were well-built, probably part of the school’s excellent gymnastics program. One man was considerably older than the rest of the group maybe another World War vet trying to move on. The second woman seemed shy and beautiful. She had a tall, thin frame. Her hair fell in short brown curls setting off her bright blue eyes. The last man seemed like a bit of an odd duck, the professor thought. He seemed to sulk in the back, shying away from the group and from attention, or perhaps he did not feel well.
“First off, who here is part of the class of ’59? I need a list of graduating students to get a photo for the yearbook. All right, now that that’s settled, let’s talk about the trip. We will be leaving for Vizhay from here on the twenty-sixth of January. We will be transported by bus; I will let you know the exact time later. After spending the night in town, we will set off early the next morning and begin our march to Gora Otorten. We are scheduled to return to Vizhay by the twelfth of February, so that gives us eighteen days to get to the peak and back. In that time, we are to gather all the information about the weather and wildlife, depending on which group you signed on with, in order to complete your project. Don’t worry, though, this trip isn’t all work. Most students say it is a great experience, trotting through the back-country before setting out for the climb up the Urals. This year, we will be attempting to summit Gora Otorten. I have never climbed it before, so it’ll be an exciting first for me as well as for all of you. So, now, let’s go around the group and introduce ourselves to each other.”
Around the group they went, and the professor was impressed to see that his first impressions were spot on. There was Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignollel and Lyudmila Dubinina, an adventurous couple with dreams of the future. Yuri Doroshenko, Georgyi Krivonischenko and Rustem Slobodin made up the trio of friends; they were members of the wrestling team, not the gymnastics team, though. Alexander Zolotarev was the “old man” of the group at 37-years-old. He had, in fact, served in World War II as a tanker for the Soviet Union. Zinaida Kolmogorova was the beautiful, shy girl, and Alexander Kolevatov was the uncomfortable looking male.
Dyatlov was happy with the group in front of him. In the past, he would occasionally run into trouble with groups being unable to handle the physical hardships that this trip takes them on, but he believed there was enough bravado in the trio from the wrestling team to be able to help motivate the group and push through the hard parts, and he believed they would be strong enough to help carry extra equipment if one of the young ladies or the small kid, Alexander, struggled. Dyatlov was happy an older student was present to keep him company, for in the past, the energetic youth of the students had worn on him.
“Okay, thank you for listening to an old man blather. We will meet again after next class to go over what you need to have ready. Have a good day, my students.”
As the group departed the auditorium, Dyatlov saw an administrator with the school and another man clad in a suit standing atop the stairs.
“Good afternoon, Professor,” hailed the administrator. “I’m sure you have met Mr. Fedetenko.”
Fedetenko was an agent within the Soviet government, and Dyatlov knew it was never good news when one of them showed up.
“What do you think of the group this year, Professor?” asked Fedetenko.
Dyatlov stared at the ground and nodded.
“It is good, sir. We have a good group this year, good kids.”
“Excellent. So I can trust there won’t be any problems like last time, Mr. Dyatlov? I will be checking in come mid-February. Good luck.”
The agent left the room with the administrator at his tail.
“This trip is going to be great! I’m so glad you’re coming along with me,” said Lyudmila.
She and Nicolas were walking down a path towards their dorm, her arms wrapped around his. They were buried deep in clothing to protect them from the harsh winter wind.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world, Mila. I think it is going to be so much fun! You and me hiking across the barren snowscape, climbing the mountain, conquering the Russian winter. Plus, we’re going to learn so much from the professor. I think this trip is going to be something we remember for the rest of our lives.”
Mila leaned into Nicolas at his kind words. They had been dating for over two years but had had some struggles recently because Nicolas was unsure of what he wanted to do with his future and dreamed of moving away to live in a foreign country. It warmed Mila’s heart knowing he still loved her and was taking such a positive approach to something she knew he did not really want to do. Mila did not care about the trip, either; she just cared that Nicolas was going with her.
Professor Dyatlov walked into his home and tossed his coat on top of his couch. After dropping his keys and wallet on the dining room table, he went into the kitchen, took out a glass, and poured himself a martini; vodka with Noilly Prat. Dyatlov took a sip as he reached into a drawer and pulled out a pipe and a bottle; he pulled a couple buds out of the bottle. Dyatlov packed himself a bowl, lit a match, and inhaled deeply. He immediately felt his mind relaxing. He smiled for the first time that day.
The professor returned to the living room, put a record on, and sat down on his couch. He inhaled slowly, letting the smoke rise from his lips in a thick, slow manner. As he watched it rise towards the ceiling, he blew at it. He enjoyed watching it dissipate as it changed from a graceful slow rise to a scattered cloud. Frank Sinatra was his record of choice. “That American Bastard.” He smiled to himself as he tapped his foot to the beat. Dyatlov didn’t actually care about all that hoopla between his home country and the United States on the other side of the world. He thought they had some pretty good ideas politically, and their music was wonderful.
Dyatlov downed the rest of his drink. He hated having to use the students like this, for some ridiculous experiment. Every few years, scientists from Nikita Khrushchev’s administration would come to the schools and have them conduct different experiments using the students. Some experiments were completely harmless and were to just see how different groups of students would respond to different situations, such as a power failure or a small emergency situation. These experiments were always acted out with people on the inside ensuring the students’ safety. Other experiments were not so student-friendly, and the professor had been put in charge of them.
The government wanted him to take this group of students out on a trip, one that he had done a dozen times before, but this time make the students the focus of the study rather than the environment. The government wanted Dyatlov to drug his students using the hallucinogen LSD and then study how their behavior was affected. He was not allowed to know what the point of this study was, and he was not permitted to leak any of this information to anyone outside of the study. He was told that he was to never speak of it unless he was approached by someone within Khrushchev’s inner circle. At this point in time, the only person who had approached him was Mr. Fedetenko.
Dyatlov took another hit from his pipe and poured another drink. The snow outside his home had picked up quite a bit, and he knew there would be no class in the morning. At least this was one night he could enjoy peacefully.
“This shit was fucking insane, Georgyi! You’re a fucking hound!”
Yuri was ecstatic at seeing his teammate and friend viciously pin a competitor to the ground. “An absolute hound! You ate up that creep like a starving stray! If I had half the strength you wield in your right arm, I would be running this country!”
“You say too much, way too much. Without you to push around and beat up with ease, I never would have gotten the practice I needed to be so good!”
“You mean if I never went so easy on you and let you think you were good, I never would have tricked you into wrestling with me!”
“Going easy on me, eh? That is bull! Let’s go right now. Friendly match. Rustem, you ref.”
It always like this among Yuri, Georgyi, and Rustem. They were best of friends, but a very competitive bunch. They all had grown up together at the same school, playing on sports teams together. They grew into a formidable trio, popular around school, and completely inseparable.
“That’s it! He pinned you, Georgyi. You are done!”
“Bull I am done! He is a cheater; he poked me in my eye and maybe broke my nose.”
“Oh shut up, you little girl,” Yuri retorted. “If your nose wasn’t so big, maybe I would not have hit it.”
“I would beat both of you! Now shut up and let’s go to dinner,” said Rustem.
They carried on as they walked towards the dorm room they shared.
It was the last night before they departed from school for Ivdel, the town that would serve as their last contact with civilization before they began their trek to the Ural Mountains. Dyatlov was unable to get to sleep that night. He tossed and turned, flipped the covers on and off, flipped over to the cool side of the pillow; no matter what he did, it failed. A feeling of anxiousness poked and prodded him. He had never been this nervous for one of these trips before.
He fled his bedroom to take refuge in his kitchen, where he attempted to calm himself with a cigarette. He lit a second. He would have liked to smoke a reefer, but was afraid the scent would attach itself to him, and he did not want the students to know how he kept himself busy after class. He thought it was funny; he was trying to protect these students from marijuana when, he himself, was going to force-feed them LSD in a matter of days. He lit a third cigarette.
He meandered into the living room and stared out the window. A light snow fluttered from the dark ceiling of the night sky. It powdered a fresh carpet over the old, stale snow that had frozen over. It was going to look beautiful on the mountainside when they got there. He went to his record player and played Tony Bennett, a new album he had found that quickly became a favorite. After going back to the kitchen and concocting a martini, he sat back down on his couch. Closing his eyes and tilting his head back, he let himself get absorbed in the music. The professor was finally able to fall into sleep.
“Did everybody get their things off the back of the truck? Remember, from here on out we’re carrying everything.”
After spending the night in Vizhay, the time had finally come for Professor Dyatlov and his class to begin their trek to the Ural Mountains. As they started their long hike, the professor began talking to his class.
“Welcome to the Ural Mountains, class! This is where we will be spending the next ten days, four of them hiking towards Gora Otorten, two there to study, and then the final four returning here to be picked up.
“You’re going to heat up pretty good, get a good sweat on while we’re on this hike, but remember, it’s important to keep your hands and face covered as much as you can, especially if you’re sweating. If you start sweating then let that cold air hit you, your face will freeze. Also, remember to drink water, even if the water is cold. Water makes your body work and helps keep you warm.
“To give you a little history about Gora Otorten; it is only about one thousand two-hundred meters high, but it offers a great view of the entire pass, and there we will record the majority of our observations. It takes us four days to get there, but it is pretty easy to get to, depending on the weather, and we stop often for rest and for studying purposes.
“The area of the Pass that we will be taking to get to the mountain is inhabited by a local indigenous people called the Mansi. They are a friendly people, so we don’t have to worry about them if we run into them. Just leave them and their things alone if we happen to see them.
“The Mansi have lived here from hundreds of years and are the ones who named Gora Otorten or, in Russian, ‘The Mountain of the Dead.’ Their legend states that no one summits this mountain, that a supernatural force prevents people from making it to the top. Apparently this ‘supernatural force’ hasn’t gotten in the way of the Mansi too much because they’ve been here forever, so I say we take that mountain by storm and plant a flag up top. How’s everybody doing so far?”
They had been walking for a while. The snow was firmly packed on the ground, making the walk easy thus far. In years past, Dyatlov had had students struggle with soft thick snow. When the snow is soft or wet, it makes the legs work harder and tires out the students faster.
“How are you doing, Zinaida? You’re not getting tired on me yet, are you?”
“Ha ha, no sir. I’m feeling great! The snow is just so bright from the sun; it’s giving me a headache.”
“All right, drink some water, then. You know what, let’s take a rest, everybody. We’re making great time.”
The class all plopped their rucksacks on the ground and sat on them. Dyatlov surveyed his class to see how everyone looked. The students seemed to be holding up well so far; he really did have a great group this year. The work he had to do for Mr. Fedetenko weighed on his mind.
“So, how’s everybody feel? What’s everybody think so far?”
“I’m excited! It looks amazing out here—untouched snow that stretches in sheets of white all the way to the horizon.” Alexander, the introverted man, said.
They had been the first words he’d muttered the entire semester.
“Ah, yes, that’s what I was going to say, Professor!”
“Shut up, Georgyi. You are too stupid to say that.”
Georgyi, Yuri, and Rustem were in their usual playful moods.
“All right, boys, calm down. Alex is right; it’s very beautiful out here, very relaxing and calm.”
“How is everyone’s rucksack feeling? Does anyone need to repack? Mine feels a bit top-heavy.”
The professor took this opportunity to get the case that held the LSD for the ‘research’ he had to do. It wasn’t time to do it, but he wanted to carry it on his person.
“All right, everyone, get your gear on. Let’s get going.”
The group resumed marching towards their goal.
Darkness was setting in so the group prepared to settle down for the night. They had just finished their fourth day of marching and were finally at the foot of Gora Otorten. Under guidance from the professor, but without his help because it was supposed to be a part of their grade, the students set up the two tents they would be sleeping under. The students had been letting Alexander Zolotarev, whom they had nicknamed ‘Zolo,’ build the tents because of his experience with the military. Zolo had no previous experience building a tent, but he built them anyway.
They were shoddy little things, but his product succeeded in giving the group protection from the wind and the snow as they slumbered, so the professor allowed it. This night, Zolo made the bad choice of building the tents in the middle of a field, without any forest to dampen the strength of the wind. There was forest only five hundred meters away, but for one night, the professor thought they should experience why one would want to give oneself wind protection.
Actually, he thought, they won’t even notice the wind tonight…
The professor’s stomach dropped and anxiety took over his chest as he realized tonight would be the night that he had to give his students the drug.
The professor decided that the best way to do it was by dropping all of the doses of the hallucinogen he had with him into the soup they would be eating that night. He knew that method wouldn’t guarantee everyone would receive the same dosage, or even get any at all, but he could not think of a better way to go about it. In all honesty, he half hoped the students would not be affected at all and that he would just deal with Mr. Fedetenko later. He knew he could not do that, though; who knows what would happen to him if he were to defy the government like that?
The professor looked out of the tent and over to his students, who were sitting around a rather large fire they had built. It was almost time to eat, so the professor filled up a large pot with the soup-mix and water to bring over to the fire. He mixed in the drugs with the soup mix. The professor then treated himself to some of his own food, for he could not have any of the soup. It was imperative that he remain sober and coherent during the experiment so he could both observe and protect the students.
“All right, everybody, make way. Soup is coming in!”
The students shifted out of the way, allowing the professor to hang the heavy pot over the fire.
Yuri got up to assist him.
“That’s going to take a couple minutes. How’s everybody feeling tonight,” the professor asked.
“I had the worst dreams last night, Professor. I couldn’t sleep at all!”
“Oh, I know, Mila. You sounded like you were really having a tough time,” Zinaida responded.
“What was the dream?” Zolo asked. “I’ve been having awful headaches and having some weird dreams, too. Maybe you had the same dream?”
“I don’t remember too well, but I remember we were walking around here, but it was nighttime, and there were shadows everywhere—very long, scary shadows. They almost looked like the silhouettes of tall men, but we couldn’t see where they were coming from. And they were following us, watching us. I was so afraid!”
“Huh, that’s interesting. I dreamt the last two nights that we were marching through this snow, but we were in war-torn Warsaw. Gargoyles were stalking us there. We felt them staring at us. It was eerie,” Zolo remarked.
“I don’t know I slept like a rock.”
“That’s because you’re as stupid as a rock, Yuri. Let’s eat! The soup is bubbling.”
The students crowded around the soup, filling their bowls. The professor handed everybody some bread and crackers to go with it. They had made tea to drink.
“It’s delicious, isn’t it?” Nicolas asked his girlfriend.
She didn’t want any so she gave hers to him and just ate the bread.
The professor excused himself from the group. He knew the students would start feeling the effects of the LSD shortly, and he did not want to be present for the first few moments. He hated seeing the confusion and fear in the face of someone who was going through an unexpected trip.
Professor Dyatlov was about to pour himself a quick drink from his secret vodka stash when he heard a huge explosion coming from outside. It sounded more like a sonic boom. The effect of it knocked him on the ground, spilling his hot tea all over himself, burning his face. Then he heard a noise he had never heard before. It sounded almost like a cicada’s wings, but there was a low, guttural sounding noise underneath it.
The professor struggled to get himself out of the tent, which was in shambles. He had become completely wrapped up in it. He heard his students screaming out for help and in fear. Dyatlov was finally able to cut himself out of the tent with his knife, but he was having trouble seeing because of the burns on his face. Through blurred vision, he was able to tell that the fire had grown exponentially and his students were gone. He could hear them screaming in the distance. They were running from something.
“What have I done?!”
The professor wondered if this was some sort of reaction from the LSD. Maybe he had ingested some of the drug himself and was hallucinating. Now feeling sick to his stomach, he bent over to vomit.
Exhausted, the professor lay motionless on his back. He had no idea what was happening but he must have been hallucinating, for the sky seemed to be growing orange. What he saw resembled the northern lights, but it was orange. A stench of sulfur began to fill the air.
“Professor! Professor! Are you all right?”
Yuri rushed over to care for him. The student appeared to be bleeding.
“We have to get out of here! Something is happening! There are animals attacking us! They’ve already killed Nicolas and Mila!”
“What…what are you saying? No, it is not, it is just the soup. You are drugged. It’s my fault.”
The professor was having trouble staying focused.
“What? You are delirious. There is something in the air making us sick.”
The boy’s face began to melt. His eyes began to spin. The professor vomited again.
“Professor, I’m going to leave you if you don’t get…”
Yuri didn’t finish his sentence—he was smacked off the ground by the tail of a beast.
The beast then pounced on the boy. The professor could not believe his eyes. He must have ingested some of the drug. The beast had the body of a dog but the scales of a lizard. It seemed to walk on two legs and it had a long barbed tail, almost twice the length of its body. The boy underneath this beast suddenly came alive and violent, trying to fight and get away from the beast. The beast used its beak-like snout to dig into the boy’s face. The beast then stabbed the boy in the stomach with its tail.
The professor shot up and began sprinting for the wood-line. He did not know where he would hide, but it was his only hope. He struggled to determine if this was real or if he was in some sort of vibrant, horrific, drug-induced nightmare.
He made it about three hundred meters before he saw two of his students lying dead on the ground. He could not tell who they were because their skin was darkened brown, almost like that of leather. Their faces appeared burnt and skeletal. The professor realized his skin was burning too. He was sweating profusely. He began tearing his clothes off as he darted for the woods. He aimed for the light of a fire, hoping it had been lit by some of his students. He heard the screaming of a woman in the distance followed by the caw of what must have been one of these beasts.
“This is absolutely insane!”
The professor then looked into the woods and saw what appeared to be a thousand glowing fires. They almost appeared to be eyes staring at him. He panicked and did not know where to go. All he could hear was the crackling of these beasts. Or were they actually cicadas? He tried to get a grip of himself, reminded himself this could not be real; it was just a bad trip. Then he saw the beast run in front of him again. He started running from it. The crackling became louder. The sky grew brighter. His skin began burning as if he was in an oven.
He couldn’t see anything. All he saw was fire staring at him. He heard the beast galloping around him, crackling. It sounded as if it was crackling at him. The professor finally made it back to where his tent had been. He found his bag and reached for the gun he kept in it. He could not stand this horror anymore.
“I am in control.”
Before he could pull the trigger on himself, he came face to face with the beast. It had the head of a hawk. He was staring death in its face. The beast let out an ear-wrenching caw and pounced on top of the professor.
Professor Dyatlov could not fight back.
February 18th, 1959
AP – MOSCOW, Russia—The bodies of nine ski-hikers were found today scattered throughout a three-mile stretch of the Ural Mountains in Western Russia. Four of the hikers were believed to have frozen to death, but the fate of the other four was drastically different. One hiker was found inside a tent at a campsite with a crushed skull, a gaping chest wound, and a missing jaw. Two more hikers were discovered about one mile from the campsite, suffering from what appeared to be severe radiation poisoning. Both hikers had similar injuries as the man in the tent. One female hiker was missing; all that was found of her were her tongue and her scalp. The final hiker was found at the original campsite. His cause of death is unreleased, but someone working with the team who spoke anonymously said that his body was found with a handgun by his side. Investigators state that a “compelling unknown force” is to blame for this travesty.