Many have heard of the tragedy that befell the group of mountaineers who headed up the snowy Dyatlov Pass in 1959. The nine Soviet hikers who died in the freezing conditions seemed to have faced something completely incomprehensible, which had caused them to flee their tents and scatter into the night.
Strange encounter, shared psychosis, or natural disaster, it seems that we may never fully unravel the mystery. But the Dyatlov Pass Incident is far from unique, even to the region: there is another, even stranger occurrence that happened to hikers in the wilds of Siberia.
This happened in 1993, at Khamar Daban in Siberia’s eastern Sayan Mountains on the isolated shores of Lake Baikal. Seven hikers experienced something in the wilds which defies explanation even to this day.
The incident, sometimes referred to as “Mountain Madness,” tested the fortitude of those who faced it. But, unlike the Dyatlov Pass incident, this time there was a survivor.
The Khamar Daban Incident
In the summer of 1993, a group of seven hikers were deep into planning an expedition to explore the Khamar Daban mountain range. Although the hikes would be challenging the area was not entirely unknown, and in fact parts of the range were popular with tourists, so long as they visited at the right time of year.
Leading the expedition was Lyudmila Korovina, a 41 year old survivalist and experienced mountaineering guide. With her were six of her students, ranging from 24 years old to just 15. She was a stickler for preparedness and the expedition was thoroughly mapped out: nothing had been left for chance.
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Lyudmila did have a reputation for pushing her students on the hiking trails and distances she chose, but she was not reckless. Everyone involved expected the summer’s expedition to be simply another in a long line of exciting, but safe, hiking adventures.
Everything was going to plan as the hikers set off on August 2 1993. The group was one of three hiking parties in the region at the same time; another, led by Lyudmila’s daughter Natalia, expected to meet Lyudmila’s party three days later on August 5th.
However, on the scheduled date Lyudmila’s group were nowhere to be found. Natalia was unconcerned: there were seven fit and experienced hikers in her mother’s group, and she was sure they had just missed the rendezvous for one of any number of innocuous reasons.
Five days later, on August 10th, a group of kayakers on the river at the base of the Khamar Daban mountains noticed something strange. Emerging from the trees which lined the river banks was a lone girl, who stopped still as she saw the group and simply stared at them. When the kayakers approached closer to see if the girl was OK, they froze in horror: the girl was covered in blood.
After trying to comfort the girl, the kayakers discovered that her name was Valentina Utochenko, and that she was one of the six students that Lyudmila had led up the mountains on the expedition a week earlier. And she as the only survivor of the group.
Valentina (“Valya”) was rescued and taken to a local police station where she revealed her story. What she told the authorities has remained unexplained from that day to this.
According to Valya, the trip had progressed entirely according to plan at the start, even better in fact. Aided by good weather and high morale the group had reached their intended summit ahead of schedule after two days. The first sign of trouble started as the group began their descent, where unexpected heavy rainfall made the journey more difficult than anticipated.
Tired from the added weight of their wet gear and the additional aches in their legs from the uncertain ground, as the group huddled in their makeshift camp on the evening of the 4th August they nevertheless remained in high spirits. They expected to descend the remaining route without problems the following day and rendezvous with Natalia’s group as intended.
But something happened soon after they breakfasted and started their final descent. As they were walking the last person in the group, Sacha, suddenly clutched at his face and began to scream. As his companions rushed to aid him he fell to the ground, blood pouring from his eyes and ears.
Lyudmila sent the rest of the group downhill to look for aid from Natalia and her friends, but they had not gone far before they heard Lyudmila’s screams join Sacha’s. As they rushed back another student suddenly started bleeding from her face too, smashing her head against a rock in her frenzy until she passed out. Two further students immediately fled in terror, leaving Valya and her friend Denis with three dead bodies.
Valya and Denis resolved to descend the mountain as quickly as possible, but after only a short while Denis collapsed as well, foaming at the mouth and coughing up blood like the others. Valya was left alone and continued down the mountain carrying only what she had with her, trying to get as far from the madness as possible.
Valya spent the next four days alone on the mountain trying to reach help. Terrified that whatever had happened to her friends would also happen to her, she followed power lines down the mountain until she found the river, and the kayakers.
It would be a further two weeks before a helicopter search found the missing hikers. The two who had fled the scene before Valya and Denis were found dead, apparently having suffered the same fate as their friends, and an autopsy showed all but Lyudmila had died from extreme hypothermia and exposure. Lyudmila, overcome by the situation, had died of a heart attack.
What caused these sudden symptoms, which seemed to happen in one localized area? Many have suspected some sort of nerve agent caused the deaths, a diagnosis which fits the symptoms and which would explain the deaths, either paralyzing the hikers leading to death from exposure, or killing them outright as with Lyudmila.
Did the hikers drink contaminated water, perhaps from Lake Baikal? No evidence has ever been found to support this, and such a bizarre accident has never befallen another group in the area.
Others have suggested that the hikers may have unwittingly foraged a poisonous mushroom for their breakfast. This might explain why Vayla alone was unharmed, having by chance not ingested any of the deadly fungus, but the suddenness of the onset of the symptoms would suggest otherwise.
Could it be something we do not yet know? Could there be some unknown danger, man-made or otherwise, hidden in the remoter Khamar Daban mountain range?
Nobody can say for now.
Top Image: Something sudden happened to the hikers on Khamar Daban that day which left six of them dead and the seventh entirely unable to explain what she had seen. Source: Chouette98 / CC BY 4.0.
By Bipin Dimri