Theories Discussion > Deadly Cold Theory

Understanding hypothermia in the context of the DPI.

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For those of you who haven't read much about hypothermia, it's quite interesting, in that people have survived for days or longer, wearing improper clothing and out in the snow.  For example, more than 20 years before the DPI, a 23 year old woman got lost skiing and had to wait until the next day for rescuers to find her.  She either sat on a log or walked around it all that time, and was shivering uncontrollably when found, but was otherwise fine.  In 1946, a 25 year old male got lost in the snow and was found on the eleventh day of searching.  Here are some details:

"Lost and nearly blind, William Jacobs had bumbled the wrong way through that first storm but had stumbled upon a small, wooden NPS cache containing a rescue toboggan and blankets. Using these he had constructed a lean-to shelter in which he bivouacked, awaiting rescue."  From "Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite."

He walked away on his own but two of his toes were frozen (it doesn't say whether those had to be amputated).

In 1970, a 34 year old male collapsed during a "snowshoeing trip" (apparently fatigue) and those he traveled with set him up in the tent.  He was found the next day: "Ranger James Holcomb, still alone, finally found the elusive tent. It had collapsed and had been partly snowed under. This explains his difficulty in finding it. As Holcomb neared it, he next saw that the door of the flattened tent lay open. Klingenberg, hatless, lay sprawled within this opening. Eclipsing any hope that Holcomb had arrived in the nick of time, snow now covered the prone man’s lower body. The autopsy revealed Klingenberg had died of 'cold and exposure' a day earlier, on Monday morning."  From "Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite."

In 1973, a 21 year old male, not wearing proper footwear for cold weather, "slid off the path and tumbled 200 feet down the steep snow-covered, granite talus, bouncing and banging all the way... crippled and stranded off trail at nearly 6,000 feet elevation in the middle of winter..."  He was rescued nine days later but lost a foot to frostbite.  From "Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite."

There are a lot of cases where people died, of course, but Igor or others in his group may have read these kinds of stories and thought that surving that night in 1959 would not have been difficult (I don't read or understand spoken Russian so there may evidence that speaks to this).  It is also true that familiarity with snow, ice, cold weather, etc. may lead many to overestimate how well they can deal with these.  One thing I've noticed is that cold weather does not bother me unless there is some wind, and then it tends to bother me a lot.  I'd guess they or at least Igor miscalculated a few things that led to them dying of hypothermia so quickly relative to these other cases.  For one, why not take their blankets with them (assuming the heavy coats and boots had frozen), perhaps designating one person as the holder of those blankets while the others started the fire, dug the "den," or started/maintained the fire?  Igor apparently believed that sitting on the tree branches in front of the fire would be enough, or that it would be temporary and then they would huddle in the den.

Why did the "two Yuris" die first?  It's now known that for some people, core body temperature drops significantly when the person stops being active while out in the cold.  If this occurred to them, it may have frightened at least Zina into thinking it was a terrible plan overall, so she tried to go back to the tent and Slobodin then Igor go after her to convince her to come back.  But if they had kept moving, why couldn't they survive longer before hypothermia rendered them unconscious?  One possibility is that they sat down for a while in front of the fire but their core temperature actually decreased even if their hands or some other body parts felt warmer, and they started sweating heavily, leading to quick hypothermia once away from the fire and facing the winds coming down from the mountain top.  If they never sat down and kept active, at some point they likely tired out and were sweated up.  Again, going back up the mountain, without proper clothing and facing the winds would have been enough, but there's also the mental affects hypothermia can have, so this may have influenced the decision to attempt to return to the tent by one or more of them.

In 1997, on Denali, a group got caught in a terrible storm.  The two guides had a two person bivouac, then built igloo type structures for their other clients, but they then had to figure out how to survive for themselves:

"...the two guides went back to the task of trying to build a shelter for themselves. In retrospect, Smith believes it was the constant activity that had kept them alive through the storm. Then, minutes after returning to the task of building a shelter, they felt the wind begin to diminish. By 11:00 A.M., it was over.
“If it had lasted a few more hours,” he said, 'we would have died.'"  From "Denali's Howl."

Of course, they were all wearing proper outdoor clothing, circa late 1990s, not indoor clothing, circa late 1950s!  However, "a few fingers and toes were lost to the mountain" nonetheless.  If the Dyatlov Group's tent was about to collapse or blow open, and they wanted to secure it (which they apparently did well) and then find a place to survive until morning, it would seem they should have taken their blankets and found a spot to create a shelter from the wind, then huddled together with the blankets acting as a kind of makeshift tent.  They may have needed tree branches to place on the ground to avoid losing too much heat to the snow they would be sitting or lying on, but to me a key question that will likely never be known is, how much hypothermia danger did they think they were in after they secured the tent?

Hypothermia doesn't strike quickly, usually, unless you are really exposed. If your are really exposed, you'll first suffer frostbite, painfull ones until you don't feel your fingers, hands, feet anymore. That part can happen very quicly.
But the hickers (doroshenko put appart) didn't suffer frosbite (or not extensive ones). They were lightly dressed, but they were many people, with either a fire or a den to keep warm. Keeping close to each other, in "normal very cold condition" they should have survived at least the night, probably a few days.

They underestimated the cold, probably. But they were used to winter hikes, and when they realized their error, they were unable to fix it.
That's the part that's hard to believe for me, in absence of many frostbites and in such a shot period of time.
I think the delay of their death is underestimated ; maybe because their bowl didn't move as fast as they were in light hypothermia ( feeling commonly "cold" but actually more in danger).

I think the major issue for the five (not necessarily the "ravine 4," since they might have survived if they hadn't fallen onto the rocky creek) is that they did a lot of physical activity in light clothing, then sat/stood in front of a fire for a while.  The fire was not sufficient, due to the wind or some other reason (otherwise, the "two Yuris" likely would have died with the others), and they eventually became sweated up in light clothing but with no source of sufficient warmth.  Lots of used matches were found around the fire, suggesting they realized at some point they needed a new plan to survive, though the "den" idea may have been an idea originating with one or more of the others independent of the camp fire idea.  I think Zina became very upset or angry after seeing one or both Yuris die, and so decided to go back to the tent.  Slododin went after her, but struck his head, which rendered him unconscious, and then Igor went after her (there's no evidence of the three working together).  The "ravine 4" probably huddled together for warmth on their way back to the "den," with more clothing on (from the two Yuris), but that led to them falling on top of each other when they fell into the depression and onto the rocky creek.  Let's say the "ravine 4" had survived and told the tale that I just did, would anyone be talking about it now?  It is a "great mystery" only because people tend to lack imagination and instead get sidetracked with details that will never be totally explicable in such complex incidents, looking for something incredible but missing the highly likely "big picture" explanation.

You can see what I mean on a cold day.  Wrap one hand with a dry cloth and the other with the same type of cloth, only get it very wet then wring it out in so that it's damp.  Now put your hands near a heat source to warm them both up, and then put them out the window or go outside, and I think you'll notice that the hand with the damp cloth around it feels a lot colder.

Ho yes, for sure !
Actually, that might be why there are so many burned things. They tried to dry them over the fire. But about the 2 Yuri, they were hurt : one pretty badly injuried, the other one burned. It may have shorten their time (body can't fight everything at the same time !)

For me, there was no reason for Zina to expect any shelter from the tent if she knew it was torn. Getting more clothes / dry ones ? It could make sens, but they could have done a bigger fire -small material was available, but they choose to burn big branches lasting longer. They didn't look a lot for wood : they had no gloves, but no frostbites (for the guys), and looking for firewood in the cold would have get them some (as well as keeping them moving, so that they would not have feel how much they were wet.)
It's interesting to note that both Rustik and Kolevatov had matches left. They tried a lot, but they succeed long before to be short.

But even with a good enough fire to spend the night, they had then injuried people. If she was that upset, I would say she was going for the medkit rather than clothes.

One interesting thing I just found is what the people who found her said : from her position, she was looking like crawling uphill, but all together, she was rather looking like trying to stay in place more than anything else.
The winds were worst than before ? With cooling down temperature ? maybe. If she had a good reason to try to go up, and didn't realized how much in danger she was -or to late- going afar from fire, she could have try to hold it even when the wind was pushing her downhill. She burried her-self in the snow, waiting for a little calm-down who never came -or to late, again. And she had frosbiten fingers, so maybe.

You can die of hypothermia without showing any signs of serious Frostbite. The obvious injuries to some of the Dyatlov Group would have killed them anyway.


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