Hypothermia, paradoxical undressing and the Dyatlov Pass

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The mysterious deaths of nine Russian hikers in Dyatlov Pass in 1959 has spawned many outlandish theories and a bad horror movie. Some of the victims had traumatic injuries. New research suggests these may have been caused by a slab avalanche that battered rather than just burying them.

This theory does not account for why some victims died of hypothermia having fled almost naked from the campsite after the avalanche. However, an effect known as paradoxical undressing is well known in cold weather medicine and may occur in up to half of deaths associated with hypothermia. Snowbound victims remove coats, sweaters and even trousers before dying from the cold.

As the body cools, vasoconstriction occurs, meaning that blood vessels narrow to divert blood away from the periphery of the body and maintain temperature at the core. This causes a loss of mental clarity sometimes known as “cold stupid”. When vasoconstriction falls off, the victim senses their skin becoming warmer. Feeling strangely hot, in their confusion they take off layers of clothing, usually becoming unconscious soon afterwards.

The scene of the deaths at Dyatlov Pass was certainly puzzling, as the bodies were only discovered long after the event. But the answer more likely lies with established if unusual natural phenomena rather than with the paranormal.

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