Mountains are strange places. They offer a unique environment; a threshold between calm and chaos, between life and death. Cultures around the world and throughout history have looked up at the peaks in wonder and fear. Myths, legends and folktales tell of the mountains as the home of the gods or the lair of monsters.
Even in the modern era - when many mountains have been conquered and mapped – stories persist of mysterious, often terrifying encounters in the high wildernesses. Here are a few that capture our imagination.
Dyatlov Pass Incident
The fate of Igor Dyatlov and his party remains the granddaddy of all mountain mysteries. In 1959 nine student trekkers went into the Ural Mountains and none came back. The discovery of their bodies raised many more questions than answers. They were found strewn around the mountainside, far from their damaged tent and with a startling range of injuries.
Dyatlov’s group was made up of experienced hikers and cross-country skiers. Most of them were student friends from the Ural Polytechnic Institute and each held Russia’s highest level of outdoor-skills certification. They set out to reach a mountain deep in the Urals, but mistakenly ended following a mountain pass onto the slopes of Kholat Syakhi. This is where they met their grisly end – whatever that may have been.
On 26th February searchers found the group’s tent, half-collapsed and with signs of being cut open from the inside. Their bodies were found nearly 1.5km from the tent, at the edge of the treeline. There were signs that they had tried to start a fire, and that one individual had attempted to climb a tree - maybe for a better view? Most of the group were found barefoot and partially clothed.
What could have driven such experienced mountaineers out into brutal temperatures, partially undressed and in bare feet? Some suggested an avalanche, but there was no evidence to back this up.
The strange details piled up. Footprint patterns leading away from the tent suggested the group had moved at walking pace, rather than in panic. Three members of the group were found with fatal injuries that were compared to the effects of a car crash. Another was found with his eyeballs missing. Witnesses also report the group as having deeply tanned skin, and rumours persisted of strange radiation readings from the bodies. Finally, another group of hikers in the region reported seeing bright balls of light in the sky on the evening of the incident.
There are dozens of theories as to what happened to Dyatlov and his friends – ranging from Yeti attack and alien encounters, to military testing or murder by local tribespeople. It seems now that we will always be left to wonder what happened to Igor Dyatlov and his friends, in the mountain pass that now bears his name.
The Valley of the Headless Men
Another mountain wilderness with a gruesome backstory, Canada’s Nahanni National Park has earned the name 'The Valley of the Headless Men' for good, if horrible reasons. The Nahanni Valley is an area of 11,000 square miles deep in the Northwest Territories. Even today it is accessible only by air, river, or on foot and it remains largely unexplored by anyone outside the local First Nations People.
In the early 1900s, however, gold exerted it’s pull. Prospector’s crept into the area, drawn by rumours of native people seen with nuggets the size of coins. Willie and Frank McLeod travelled into the Nahanni in 1906, searching for a route to the Klondike and its ‘Gold Rush’. For two years the McLeod’s largely disappeared, only trappers and hunters bringing back word that the brothers had discovered a huge gold mine. The Lost McLeod Mine has since become a legend of its own.
Two years later, another prospecting expedition stumbled across the McLeod’s . . . or what was left of them. The brothers were found tied to a tree, and both had been decapitated. No one was ever found guilty of their murder, but reports filtered back that during those two years the McLeod’s had been seen with a third, unidentified man, a man who was later seen trading gold on the Hudson Bay.
Willie and Frank where not the last to meet such an end in the Nahanni. In 1917 Martin Jorgenson, a Swiss prospector was found headless, his cabin burned to the ground. In 1945 the headless body of a nameless victim was discovered in his sleeping bag.
These cases have never been solved, and have earned the valley it’s grim nickname. Over the years many other prospectors, explorers, and hikers have gone missing along the banks of the Nahanni River, most without any trace. Many researchers have blamed the murders on local First Nations tribes, irked by the trespass on their ancestral land.
It's worth noting, however, that those same local tribes have for centuries told tales of an evil spirit that haunts the valley, and of terrifying hairy ‘giants’ that live in the caves along the valley walls. The local Dene tribe also report that, in the earliest years of their living in the area, they warred with a mysterious tribe - the Naha - who would sweep down from the higher valleys and . . . wait for it . . . decapitate their enemies.
The Grey Man of Ben Macdhui
Ben Macdui is the second tallest mountain in the British Isles. It sits at the southern end of Scotland’s Cairngorm range, lonely, bleak and shrouded in fog – a daunting place to explore even before you hear of the Grey Man said to haunt its slopes.
Am Fear Liath Mòr, to give the Grey Man his proper Gaelic name, is described as a giant figure, over ten feet tall. However, not all who experience oddness on Ben McDui report seeing anything at all. For many climbers and mountaineers The Grey Man remains an invisible presence, marked only by strangely shaped footprints and the sound of debris crunching underfoot.
What is universal to Grey Man encounters is a palpable sense of panic or terror, growing from nothing to become unendurable. In the first recorded account, the climber John Normal Collie recounted how, at the summit of Ben McDui in 1891:
“I began to think I heard something else other than the noise of my own footsteps. For every few steps I took I heard a crunch, and then another, as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three of four times the length of my own. I was seized with terror and took to my heels.”
Other mountaineers have heard unnerving footsteps and experienced a sense of being followed. Many report the same fear that drives them back down the mountain until, as if they pass through an invisible barrier, the terror dissipates.
Whilst legends of supernatural goings-on linger in the folklore of the area, there may be a rational explanation for this particular mystery. ‘The Brocken Spectre’ is the name given to the phenomenon of a walker’s shadow being projected onto cloud or mist in front of the observer. This often has the effect of magnifying the shadow’s proportions, possibly giving rise to the legend of a gigantic figure.
Of course, this doesn’t account for the terror experienced by those mountaineers who didn’t see anything at all. Scientists wonder if the area could offer unique acoustic or atmospheric conditions that cause unease – but until we know more, perhaps tread carefully on the slopes of Ben McDui.
Is there any such thing as a cursed mountain? Probably not, but if there was then Austria’s Untersberg would be a prime candidate.
High strangeness seems to circulate around the Untersberg. The area is especially known for playing with time and space. There are dozens of accounts of climbers and mountaineers losing consciousness on the Untersberg, only to awaken on a different part of the mountain with hours missing. Alternatively, some hikers claim to have suddenly found themselves miles from their most recent location, with only minutes passing.
A famous account of weirdness on the mountain concerns a hiker who found a group of men living inside a cave. They stated that they were SS officers, and had no notion that the Second World War had ended decades previously. Though this tale sounds like the plot of a bad novel, the SS were present on the mountain during the war – as Hitler himself was fascinated by the legends attached to the Untersberg.
It seems easy to go missing on Austria’s ‘cursed’ mountain. Over the years numerous groups of hikers have vanished without a trace. These stories go back centuries, but the most famous happened (apparently) as recently as 1987. According to the tale, a group of three hikers entered a cave on the mountain . . . and disappeared from the face of the earth. Imagine the surprise, therefore, when their families received a phone call three months later, from a ship in the Red Sea. According to the group, they had no notion of how much time had passed, how they had spent it, or how they had crossed a continent.
Okay, that sounds a little fishy, but the Untersberg does indeed keep its secrets well. In 1929 a man, simply known as Karl K. disappeared whilst skiing on the mountain. In 2014 his bones were found inside a cave, along with his skis. He lay there undisturbed for 86 years, on a mountain that sees hundreds of hikers, climbers and explorers every year. That, perhaps more than any story of monsters or mysterious goings-on, should convince us that the Untersberg, like all mountains, is not to be taken lightly.