In 1959, nine Russian hikers died in an extremely unlikely set of circumstances. I shan’t rehash everything here, so do read the linked post. But I happened to be hanging out with my friend Greg last weekend and he imparted to me an interesting theory he had about what caused the deaths of the Russian hikers. It seems plausible to me, much more plausible than anything I came up with (and certainly better than the laughable alien theories).
Russia entered the nuclear era with a bang, not a whimper. They saw nuclear technology as the next revolution in generating electricity. As such, they strove to use it everywhere, even when the safety concerns would seemingly override the value of using nuclear (but that’s Communist Russia for you). In particular, Russia employed a great number of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs). The particular model they used was about one meter by one meter by two meters, small enough to fit in pretty much any building. It generated energy not by conducting full-scale atomic fission like in a nuclear reactor but by harnessing the heat given off by the radioactive decay of Strontium 90. It’s the same technology we use to power our spacecraft which journey far away from the Sun (beyond the usefulness limit of solar panels).
The U.S.S.R. employed up to a thousand RTGs that we know of, many in remote lighthouses and navigation beacons. They are slowly being phased out with solar cells and battery packs today, but that technology wasn’t around in the 50s. All they had were the RTGs. And while the radioisotope source in the RTGs is theoretically well-encapsulated inside of a double layer stainless steel, aluminum, and lead casing, it’s easily possible for anyone with tools to gain access to the inside, inadvertently exposing themselves to a deadly dose of radiation.
With all of the background on RTGs taken care of, we return to the case of the nine dead Russian hikers. It is Greg’s theory that they stumbled across an RTG (which is not at all impossible given how widely they were used). The RTG was broken open, either by the hikers themselves, some outside actor, or a simple manufacturing defect. It was giving off heat and the hikers took it back to their tent to keep warm with, possibly mistaking it for some kind of heater. When they realized the true nature of it, probably after experiencing the onset of radiation sickness, they departed their tent in a hurry, stopping not even to put on their clothing.
But it was too late. They had already received a fatal dose of radiation, which they would have died from were it not from dying of weather exposure first. This theory explains many of the facts about the case: why the men fled a perfectly good tent, why they were found with high levels of radiation exposure, even why the military helicopter pilots refused to transport the bodies. The presence of the RTG isn’t mentioned in any of the surviving reports because it was covered up (this was Soviet Russia), and they authorities figured they would rather have the deaths remain an anomaly than have their prized nuclear technology be considered dangerous.
This theory explains pretty much all of the facts of the case except one: how did four of the deceased end up with severe internal injuries yet no internal wounds? The coroners noted the injuries were possibly caused by collision with a vehicle, except that there was no vehicle anywhere in sight. So maybe the source of radioactivity was part of some secret testing or training, and the hikers were first discovered alive by the military and then eliminated, leaving only corpses and a cleaned up scene for the hikers’ friends to stumble upon much later during the recovery search? Can you come up with a better theory?
In the end, I suspect we will never know the truth. The Communist government of Soviet Russia seems to have had good reason to cover up the particulars of this case. So in the end all of the facts were recorded as anomalous, while truthfully, there were people involved in a cover-up effort who knew exactly what happened.