Possible resolution to the 9 dead Russian hikers mystery

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

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.

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The unexplained bizarre deaths of 9 Russian hikers in 1959

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

I just stumbled across the fascinating tale of the Dyatlov Pass Accident. The case is full of bizarre findings. Nine hikers set out into the wilderness and were never seen alive again. Theit bodies were found in groups a good distance from their camp, all in little more than underwear, as if they had to flee their tent in a hurry. Their tent was ripped open from the inside, like they didn’t even have time to use the tent’s door. Five of the hikers showed no signs of trauma and likely died from hypothermia — two of which were found around a temporary fire that they made while in their underwear. None of them seemed to dare to return to the tent. The other four hikers died of internal injuries but showed no external wounds, one from a fractured skull, and two from fractured chests, as if they had been crippled by extreme pressure.

Here are some more facts of the case (from the Wikipedia article):

  • Six of the group members died of hypothermia and three of fatal injuries.
  • There were no indications of other people nearby apart from the nine travellers on Kholat Syakhl, nor anyone in the surrounding areas.
  • The tent had been ripped from within.
  • The victims had died 6 to 8 hours after their last meal.
  • Traces from the camp showed that all group members (including those who were found injured) left the camp of their own accord, by foot. This implies that those with injuries were injured after they left the camp.
  • The fatal injuries of the three bodies could not have been caused by another human being.
  • Forensic radiation tests had shown high doses of radioactive contamination on the clothes of a few victims. These test results were not taken into account for the final verdict.

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Lost in the woods

Monday, March 19th, 2007

Sometimes I fantasize about being lost in the woods. It’s not that I want people looking for me; in fact, I’d rather not be found. I’d want to emerge from the wilderness only once I made my own way out. Being rescued from the woods is cliché. It almost shows that you’re weak. Stumbling out of the woods, all bedraggled and dirty after a month in the wilderness, hailing a passing car and returning to society long after everyone has given up hope and stopped searching — that’s how I want to do it. That says something about your character. Though I’m not interested in boosting my character per se; it’s mainly about the experience.

I love the outdoors, which is curious, because I’m barely ever outside. I suppose it’s that the computer has a stronger attraction than what meager outdoor experiences exist around here. But I do love camping. Being stranded in the woods is like an extreme form of camping. Long after your supplies run out, you have to survive by your wits alone. Normal camping isn’t a challenge. Involuntary camping is.

All I would need to survive, I hopefully imagine, is a survival guide for the appropriate area. I can match up pictures in a book to plants in real life and figure out what is safe to eat and what is not. Any dummy could do that. I could build a survival shelter from sticks and leaves. That’s not even an expert skill; you just work at it until you get some semblance of a dwelling. I like to think I could start a fire if I wanted to enough. Hopefully the survival book would have tips on how to do it in case my crude re-enactments of starting fires from survivalist shows on television failed.

I could hunt wild game to survive. When I’m starving, I would have no objections whatsoever to killing something and eating it. We are, after all, merely slightly-evolved apes, and they had no compunctions about hunting animals. It’s a more primeval form of living, but it has a certain crude appeal. It’d be like getting in touch with my long distant ancestors.

I suppose I could get lost in the woods. The only thing stopping me is that I would rather not die. If there were somehow some guarantee that I would end up alright, I would do it. But I’m realistic. I’m not a survivalist. I can’t learn all of the necessary skills from reading a book. And even expert survivalists can take a bad step and break a leg. All alone in the wilderness, a broken leg is often fatal.

So I won’t be getting myself lost in the woods. But I will still fantasize about the possibility.

Getting lost is always an interesting experience, whether in or out of the woods. You may need a people search to find those who are lost to you. You can also search criminal records or conduct background checks on those who you are with so you won’t get lost too.