"Siberia," historically, has been less a geographical designation than a state of mind, a looming threat—the frozen hell on earth to which czarist and Communist Russias sent their political undesirables.
In 1959, nine highly experienced hikers ventured to hike the Ural Mountains. All except one were students at the Ural Polytechnical Institute and were highly skilled mountain climbers. Part of the reason they were making this particular trip was due to their passion for this activity but the other reason was because they got credits at school for completing such treks. Despite being lauded as some of the most experienced hikers ever, none of them (except one) were going to return from this hiking trip. The lone survivor had turned back much earlier due to a severe back injury that only threatened to get worse.
When the rescue party came across their campsite weeks later, they were puzzled by what they saw. The contents of the camp looked undisturbed, as if the inhabitants had just stepped out and would return soon. Their initial relief soon turned into dismay however, when they came across the first body just a mile away from the camp.
I had not heard about the Dyatlov Pass incident but after reading this book, I felt haunted for a while. It was the most tragic and upsetting incident I had read in recent times. Not just because these kids died doing something they loved (hiking) or because they were very educated about it and still they died. Nor because their families never got closure because to this day, there is no investigation or document that definitively states how they died (instead it's attributed to "unknown compelling force"). All of those were horrid in themselves but I was mostly saddened because one of the possible causes of death (which the author believed in) was a relatively new phenomenon that hadn't even been studied much in the 1950s. Or even now. (I won't go much into it because it's spoilery for this book.)
In Dead Mountain, Donnie Eichar goes back and forth between the present, where he tries to interview relatives or friends of the hikers (among those still alive), and the past, where he tries to reconstruct their journey from journal entries, interviews, and any available public data. Over the years, there have been plenty of theories such as avalanche, government attack, murder by a nearby tribe, military tests, infrasonics, yeti. The circumstances of their deaths were very suspicious. It looked like the hikers tore their tents from the inside and stepped out into the cold dark night very inadequately dressed. What makes reading about this incident frustrating, is not really knowing for sure what could have caused the hikers to die.
I loved that the author focused a lot on the hikers, sharing tidbits about their personalities, despite it being more than 60 years when this book was published. However, it bothered me that the hikers sounded too naive and childish to me and I'm not sure if that's a sentiment I got because I listened to the audiobook or because the details that were shared about the hikers mostly showed their youthful sides or because it really was a case of poor portrayal. I also didn't quite enjoy how "suddenly" the author sprung his theory on us without any hint of the cause in all the preceding pages. It felt sort of like reading a Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie book where the murderer is someone who never had any presence in the book until the time of reveal.
Ultimately, I enjoyed learning more about this incident - I googled the heck out of this incident and won't be forgetting any time soon. But I never really got attached to the book or the author's narration so much.
This audiobook is from my personal library.