Has science solved one of history’s greatest adventure mysteries?

The bizarre deaths of hikers at Russia's Dyatlov Pass have inspired countless conspiracy theories, but the answer may lie in an elegant computer model based on surprising sources.

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Soviet investigators examine the tent belonging to the Dyatlov Pass expedition on February 26, 1959. The tent had been cut open from inside, and many team members had fled in socks or bare feet.

A 62-year-old adventure mystery that has prompted conspiracy theories around Soviet military experiments, Yetis, and even extraterrestrial contact may have its best, most sensible explanation yet—one found in a series of avalanche simulations based in part on car crash experiments and animation used in the movie Frozen.

In an article published today in the journal Communications Earth and Environment, researchers present data pointing to the likelihood that a bizarrely small, delayed avalanche may have been responsible for the gruesome injuries and deaths of nine experienced hikers who never returned from a planned 200-mile adventure in Russia’s Ural Mountains in the winter of 1959.

In what has become known as the Dyatlov Pass incident, ten members of the Urals Polytechnic Institute in Yekaterinburg—nine students and one sports instructor who fought in World War II—headed into the frigid wilderness on a skiing and mountaineering expedition on January 23, 1959.

One student with joint pain turned back, but the rest, led by 23-year-old engineering student Igor Dyatlov, continued on. According to camera film and personal diaries later found on the scene by investigators, the team made camp on February 1, pitching a large tent on the snowy slopes of Kholat Saykhl, whose name can be interpreted as “Dead Mountain” in the language of the region’s Indigenous Mansi people.

The nine—seven men and two women—were never heard from again.

When a search team arrived at Kholat Saykhl a few weeks later, the expedition tent was found just barely sticking out of the snow, and...

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