Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar: Athletic Bookworm Notes and Review
Did you get a chance to read Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar for the August Athletic Bookworms Pick? I generally loved it and crammed through it in the first week of the month. Essentially, the book is about an unsolved case of how nine hikers passed away on a trip in the Ural Mountain range, and their cause of death is still technically unsolved. Aliens even came up as a conspiracy theory. It’s in Russia in 1959, so nuclear testing came up as well. It reads like an X-Files episode, but it’s terrifyingly real.
A quick recap:
The mystery of Dead Mountain: In February 1959, a group of nine experienced hikers in the Russian Ural Mountains died mysteriously on an elevation known as Dead Mountain. Eerie aspects of the incident—unexplained violent injuries, signs that they cut open and fled the tent without proper clothing or shoes, a strange final photograph taken by one of the hikers, and elevated levels of radiation found on some of their clothes—have led to decades of speculation over what really happened.
As gripping and bizarre as Hunt for the Skin Walker: This New York Times bestseller, Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, is a gripping work of literary nonfiction that delves into the mystery of Dead Mountain through unprecedented access to the hikers’ own journals and photographs, rarely seen government records, dozens of interviews, and the author’s retracing of the hikers’ fateful journey in the Russian winter.
Highlights from Dead Mountain:
Because this book isn’t about how to hike or anything like that, there weren’t any major learnings from it. It’s really just a fun read. (I would honestly have preferred that he did talk about more winter hiking basics and learnings, like McDougall does as he dives into things like the kidnapping of a WW2 general and somehow lands in talking about ketosis and modern-day Parkour. I like a book that teaches while it entertains!)
The one highlight that I kept coming back to made me sad. The book has photos of the group, and that makes it all the more real that nine hikers died. It’s easy to get swept up in the conspiracy side of the story, wondering what happened, feeling like it’s a movie or an X-files episode, but at the core of it, nine young hikers perished on this mountain. There was a roll of film recovered from the tent and Eichar writes: “Some of the shots were candid, capturing an arbitrary moment of preparation or rest. Others documented a charming vista, settlement or the locals encountered along the way. And then there were shots that were just silly, with the group striking comic poses in various combinations. About halfway into the rolls are the final images of Yuri Yudin in the company of his friends…. This last exposure failed to clear up anything about the hikers’ fate and, if anything, had only confused those looking for answers.”
I think for some reason, that documentation makes the hikers come to life—you can imagine them mugging for the camera, singing, laughing, trading stories, sipping tea. There’s brief discussions of flirtations between the men and women, but mostly, a strong core of friendship and camaraderie. That’s what I took from this book more than anything else—how lucky those hikers were to have found their people, and how strong those bonds were. Whatever happened on that mountain, those friendships remain. And that’s something you don’t often get to think about when reading an adventure story.
My two problems with the book:
First—I don’t think the narrator is as good as, say, Chris McDougall at inserting himself into the narrative. His story is pretty boring, honestly, and more than a little annoying when he keeps pointing out the things that he’s given up and the cost of doing this exploration. (“And I didn’t tell him how conflicted I felt about having self-financed this entire three-year endeavor, maxing out credit cards and draining my savings account—all the while starting a family,” he writes, and I can’t really feel sorry for him. More… confused why someone would do this if he was worried about taking care of a new family.) He also doesn’t add much—most of his narrative ends up being how he can’t get to the places he’s trying to go, or how difficult it is navigating Russia when one doesn’t speak Russian (duh?). I’d honestly prefer a book that omitted his narrative because it just doesn’t add anything to the story itself, just strings it along to make for a longer book. It’s fine, but the book could have easily done without it.
Second—I said it when I first talked about the book: I don’t 100% agree with how the author elected to narrate the book or his conclusions. The book is great until the last couple chapters, where the author suddenly goes a little off the rails in terms of his own conspiracy theory (which is just a very unlikely natural phenomenon with mental repercussions). As one naysayer pointed out, the sound vortex that Eichar refers to has never been shown to create a complete effect of madness that would make hikers plunge into all but certain death, so it’s a little hard to believe. The current theory is simply that a) it was much colder when the hikers died and b) there was some kind of avalanche that prompted them to need to escape their tent. It’s still technically unsolved—no official conclusion—which is, of course, a frustrating ending, but to me, it’s more frustrating to have a solid book with a good narrative suddenly jumping to a conclusion that has pretty much no basis in reality or backing from anyone who has actually studied the case. It’s a weird way to end an otherwise stellar story.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely. It’s a really fun read—just take the conclusion with a grain of salt.