Dead Mountain: The Dyatlov Pass Incident, on Topic, is a stylish historical fiction series about the real-life death of 9 experienced hikers in Russia’s Ural Mountains in 1959. The Dyatlov Pass incident is an unsolved mystery the likes of Jack the Ripper, in that it permeates the popular culture in its country of origin. Conspiracy theories abound, and there have been myriad books, documentaries and articles speculating on how they died. In 2019, the Russian government re-opened the investigation, declassifying documents, and giving researchers access to photos, hiker’s diaries, and KGB reports on the disappearance. Dead Mountain is a drama that is based on this updated research. It opens with fictional KGB investigator Major Oleg Kostin (Piotr Fyodorov) arriving in the Sverdlovsk region when the bodies of 5 of the hikers are discovered, as well as their tent. What follows is a three-pronged narrative in which Kostin and the local medical examiner Ekaterina (Katya) Shumanova (Mariya Lugovaya) investigate the incident. Kostin has PTSD from World War II, and the investigation triggers flashbacks to some horrific scenes from Germany. In addition, we spend time with the victims, led by Igor Dyatlov (Ivan Mulin), who were part of a hiking club at the Urals Polytechnic Institute. The series is beautifully shot, weaving together fantastical elements with historical ones.
-If you want to dig further into this mystery, you can buy the non-fiction book Dead Mountain here (affiliate link)-
Facts and Theories
The Dyatlov Incident has been the basis of conspiracy theories in Russia since it happened. The known facts are curious, indeed. 9 young yet experienced hikers went into the Ural Mountains January 23, 1959, and none came out. When searchers found their tent, it was cut open from the inside. Five bodies were found 1 kilometer away, clad in nothing but long underwear. What had they been running from? Meanwhile, the other 4 bodies weren’t found until the spring melt. Some bodies had suffered blows to the head and other injuries. Some had detectable amounts of radiation on their clothing. The most prevalent conspiracy theories involved UFOs, military weapons testing, yetis, or evil spirits on the mountain. Other, more scientific theories suggest an avalanche or other natural phenomenon. Dead Mountain tackles a lot of them.
The Look of Dead Mountain
From the opening shot, Dead Mountain has a distinctive style. It was created by the team that made To The Lake, (you can read our review here ), and it is very cinematic. Footage of the investigators has a muted palette, while flashbacks to the war are saturated in color. Episodes about the hikers are in black and white 4×3 format (not widescreen). Transitions are fanciful, such as using CGI to make it seem like the helicopter carrying Kostin is flying upside down. I’m not sure if there is a greater narrative purpose to the style, but I like that it looks and feels different than other versions of the story. Although I have to say, nothing is as haunting as the black and white photos that were developed from the hikers’ cameras, which were found in their abandoned tent.
Our Take on Dead Mountain
I love an unsolved mystery, and the Dyatlov Incident has sucked me in completely. Topic has only made the first three (of 8) episodes available as of this writing, so I’m looking forward to finishing the series. It’s unclear how much is fictional, and how much is based on unclassified documents, but the series does place KGB operatives throughout, including one agent embedded in the hiking group. If that is factual, then it’s no wonder there are conspiracy theories. I’m also enjoying the parallel narrative of the war, which further examines issues of fate, luck and human nature. I’m not convinced that Dead Mountain will solve the case, but it’s a fresh and well-paced introduction to a mystery that has enthralled generations of Russians. But fair warning: it might send you down a rabbit hole!
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