Alexander dipped his paddle into the icy cold water of the Snezhnaya river and drew himself forward. The silence of the forest and the flow of the river were very relaxing. Snow was settled on the river banks, and the slight waves rocked his kayak to and fro. He glanced back at the others in his tour group as they neared a bend in the river. All seemed well, and he turned his attention back to the front.
As they began to curve around the bend Alexander noticed something out of place along the shoreline. Calling it to the attention of the others, he moved closer. As he did so, curiosity turned to horror, and everything in him said to paddle away as fast as he was capable. A wave of panic spread among the group, as they did all they could to put distance between them, and wait stood just at the waterline.
After they passed, they grouped up and discussed what they had seen.
We have to go back
It was what none of them wanted to hear, and what none of them wanted to do, but they knew that they had no choice. As much as what they saw covered them in dread, and every instinct was screaming for them to leave, they knew that they had to go back. They had to face a visage from the darkest depths because it was the right thing to do. Quieting their survival instincts, they turned their kayaks back and paddled to land. What waited for them there, they could hardly believe.
What Alexander had seen as he rounded that bend was a girl, standing just at the edge of the forest, staring blankly ahead paying no mind to their presence at all, and covered in blood. Nothing prepared him, or the group he was with for seeing her there. Nothing could explain how she would have gotten there, in the middle of nowhere, and all alone. She could be a trap. Others could be waiting just inside the treeline for hapless tourists coming to help her. It could be a robbery gang, or worse than that, whatever befell her could be waiting for them.
As they approached, they called out to her, and she made no attempt to respond. She stood, in the same place, staring off into nothingness. Realizing everything about this was wrong, the kayakers wrapped her in a blanket and took her with them. It wasn’t for some time that they heard her voice, and the story that she told was not only horrified but it, to this day, has never been explained.
On the second of August, 1993, a group of six hikers, Viktoriya Zalesova - Vika (16), Denis Shvachkin (19), Aleksander Krysin - Sasha (23), Timur Bapanov (15), Tatyana Filipenko (24), and Valentina Utochenko - Valya (17), gathered to undertake a category IV difficulty hike to Hamar-Daban.
Lyudmila Korovona (41)-Top center
Tatyana Filipenko (24) Top left
Viktoriya Zalesova - Vika (16) Bottom left
Aleksander Krysin - Sasha (23) Top right
Denis Shvachkin (19) Bottom right
Timur Bapanov (15) Bottom center
They were a part of a hiking group led by a woman named, Lyudmila Ivanovna Korovina-41. She was very experienced, and was described as a “master of sports of an international class on pedestrian tourism”, and in the guided hike business, there was no one as good as Lyudmila.
However, some of her colleagues felt that Lyudmila might be prone to pushing her groups too hard or taking unnecessary risks. They felt she could be a bit more responsible with those she was charged with.
Her students on the other hand thought she was a terrific leader. They eagerly went along wherever she led and enjoyed the challenge that her planned hikes provided. One of her former students, Evgeny Olkhovsky, described her this way:
*She knew how to rally everyone, make a team. Believed people, believed in people. Could make a person become the one who he really is. Under her mentoring, each of us was able to reveal their abilities as much as possible, grow in all spheres of life. How many people thanks to her became excellent teachers, athletes, created families, learned to play guitar, draw, became stronger, bolder, more correct! We all were her like adoptive children, for everyone worried, the guys sent and met from the army, "
This hike, in particular, would take place over forty-five to fifty miles, with preplanned stops along the way. They would leave the town of Murino, and begin their hike at Lake Baikal, which is the deepest and oldest lake in the entire world:
From there, their course would take them 1.49 miles up over the rocky barren mountainside, cresting the Hamar-Daban ridge. At the summit, there was a resting place for hikers, with shelter, a place to build a fire, and firewood. They would rest here for the night and descend again the following day.
Simultaneously other groups would also be undertaking the same hike but on different paths. The pathway these hikers set out on was not a difficult one and was trekked yearly by numerous tourists. One of these groups was led by Lyudmila’s seventeen-year-old daughter, who was heading her own hiking group, following in her mother’s footsteps as a guide. The two groups planned to meet up in the forest after Lyudmila’s group finished their hike up to the ridge. After the meetup, the two groups would finish the hike together. This did not come to pass.
Doomed From The Start
The weather predicted for this relatively simple hike was temperate, and calm, and it indeed started out that way for the beginning of the journey. However, as they got higher in elevation, and left the treeline of the forest, that shifted quickly, with temperatures suddenly becoming frigid, and icy rain began to fall. Never being one to tolerate complaining, the students knew that Lyudmila would have no interest in stopping. This was her personality. Life is not easy, she taught, and persevering is how to get through.
Knowing this, the students dug in and kept going, even as the freezing wind whipped through them, leaving them soaked, and chilled to the bone. They ground out another couple of days in these miserable conditions, doing their best to have a positive outlook.
On the third day, they were only about a half an hour away from the summit:
when Lyudmila inexplicably suddenly called for a halt and said that they would be putting up camp in the very spot that they stood.
No one is certain why she made this decision, and it is impossible to ask her. It is thought that perhaps Lyudmila was able to see that the weakest people in her group were at their breaking point, and could not push them any further. Thus why she didn’t press them that final distance, nor did she insist that they go back to the treeline where there would be shelter from the elements. It is also possible that she was unaware of how close they were to the summit, and could not see taking the risk. Where they stopped, however, was likely the worst spot possible. It was entirely open, there was nothing to protect them from the elements except their tents, which they hurriedly constructed.
Once finished setting up their tents, they made food for them to eat and replenish their energy, and tried to get some rest so they could make the summit in the morning, but that was not to be. All night long the tents were beleaguered by the tempest outside. At around 2:00 AM one of the tent’s ropes was ripped off the stakes that secured it to the ground and had to be fixed.
Then, at 4:00 the wind lifted half of one of the tents up into the air, tilting it, and allowing freezing water to flood inside, soaking their sleeping bags. With no other choice, they resecured the tent once again, and the group had to make due, and try to sleep despite the awful conditions, and were finally able to do so for a few short hours.
After a miserable night of cold Lyudmila was greeted by a sight that she did not expect. Everything was covered in snow and frozen. Her group was exhausted and had nothing left to coax out of them in order to reach the summit. It wasn’t safe, and there was no choice but to get down to the forest and build a fire. Otherwise, the group faced the real possibility of severe hypothermia. She knew that she had to get everyone to safety, and that was what she decided to do. It wasn’t to be, however.
Unknown to everyone on that mountain at this point, things have already slid into their terminal stage.
This Is What The Girl Said*
When I woke up it was around ten. I left the tent, everyone else was still sleeping, and when I got outside I saw Lyudmila standing there with her hands on her hips. She looked very concerned.
When she saw me standing there she said,” We have to go back down to the forest and build a fire to get everyone warmed up. Help me, please?. Go around and wake everyone up and get them to start packing up. We have to leave as soon as we can.”
How she said it, Lyudmila was always strong and sure of herself, but she didn’t sound that way. She sounded almost frightened, and I agreed to help her right away. I did what she asked, and woke everyone up. They all seemed to be glad to leave the mountain to build a fire, and they all got ready to leave as fast as they could manage. It didn’t take very long at all.
When we started down the mountain, everyone was in pretty good spirits. We knew that we would be able to get warm around the fire and have a good breakfast. We were walking single file, and Sasha, Lyudmila’s adopted son, just falls over suddenly. We helped him up and he looked very confused. He took another step, and another, but he fell over again. He didn’t look confused anymore, he looked terrified. His eyes were wide and fixed, and then he started to bleed out of his ears, foam was frothing at his mouth, and blood came from his eyes.
Lyudmila was frantic. She tried to find a pulse, see if he was breathing, anything, she screamed out that he was dead. I couldn’t believe it, no one could. He was fine a second ago. Lyudmila commanded that we get to the forest immediately and start a fire. We all said no, that we wouldn’t leave. She wouldn’t hear it, and we finally agreed. We started down, but she called for us almost immediately, that she couldn’t move. We rushed back. Just like Sasha, she was bleeding. I reached for her, but she just died. Right there without any warning, she just died. There was nothing that we could do for her.
In disbelief, I turned back towards the group, but it was everywhere. It was a madhouse. One after another everyone in the group but me started to bleed, or scream. Everyone was crazy. no one would listen. I tried to help them. I tried to get them to come with me to the forest, but no one could hear me, and they pulled away from me when I tried to get them to come.
Denis ran to hid behind a boulder to protect himself from whatever was happening.
Vika and Tatyana began to writhe, pull at their clothing, and claw at their throats. I tried to help Vika but she bit me on the hand and then just curled into a ball. After that, she didn’t move anymore.
Tatyana began to beat her head on the rocks before she fell over dead as well, blood flowed from nose, mouth, and ears as well.
Denis saved me.
He said, “Go to your backpack and take only what is necessary. Go to the forest, I will meet you there.” I turned to look at him, and he was bleeding, but I listened to what he said. I grabbed my sleeping bag along with a tent, I looked back at Denis, but he was dead.
I thought I was next, I kept feeling my face, and I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t dying like they were. I didn’t know what else to do.
I ran to the forest and hid under an overhang of rocks. I hid in my sleeping bag, I pulled a tent over me, and I forced myself to go to sleep. It was the only way to escape the shock. When I woke up, it was deep in the night and the storms had returned. The wind ripped through the forest, and all around me, I heard massive trees snapping like matchsticks. I waited to be crushed, but it never happened.
When dawn came, I knew if I wanted to survive, I had to go back to the group. I didn’t have any other choice, so that is what I did. I knew before I got there that they had all died the day before. When I arrived, everyone was exactly where they had fallen. No one moved, even a little. They were dusted over with snow. I went to each one, and I closed their eyes. It seemed like the right thing to do. Then I searched for what I thought would help me leave the mountain and get back home. I took a map, and I took a compass. Then I started walking. It felt like someone was leading me, and I just followed.
After a time, I don’t know how long, I found a repeater tower.
It was almost night, and getting very cold. It seemed like somewhere that I could stay until the next morning. Then, I thought, I could follow the poles down to the village that they lead to. There would be people there, and I would be okay.
The next morning I thought that I was almost home, and I started walking along the wires leading down the mountain, but when I got to the village, no one lived there anymore. They hadn’t for a long time. There was no help for me, and I didn’t know what to do next. Where should I go? I didn’t know, so I just kept walking. I thought of my mother. She would be all alone if I died. I had to keep going, I just had to keep going. At some point, I remember standing on the riverbank and seeing the kayakers sailing along the water. Then it was over. I survived the nightmare.
The only reason I lived was because of God. God saved me. God brought me home again.
What Happened Next:
Valentina Utochenko was the sole survivor of this unexplained tragedy. She was returned to town, authorities were called, and it was still a very long time before she could even tell them that she was the only living member left of a hiking group that had departed only nine days earlier.
After being questioned, and they determined the resting place of the other hikers, there was a rescue organized, but they didn’t reach the bodies for almost a month. What they found there was a scene of pure horror. The bodies had partially mummified with their faces frozen in stark terror. Their clothing had been mostly stripped away, leaving many of them in thin clothing, not suited for the freezing weather. Three of them were barefoot. All of them were missing their eyes.
"I do not remember that there - in the place of the death of the group - sang or flew birds, even crows. This place is well thought out. The bodies were partially mummified, and did not even have a body smell, "he continues his terrible story, noting that all the guys were a blue-purple. "Bodies have already been swollen, the sockets have completely left. Almost all the dead were dressed in thin trico, with three barefoot. The manager lay on the top on Alexandra ... "- quoted in the press of the word Izmailov. An autopsy that spent in Ulan-Ude showed that all six died from supercooling.
The bodies were collected by helicopter and brought back for autopsy.
*We all collected and in a team of six people sent to the scene. There was a task - to find the bodies of the dead. When we arrived, the bodies were already prepared. One feature that we told those who removed the dead from the mountain, the bodies lay in pairs, and at a decent distance from each other (40-50 meters), "Nikolai Fedorov said. - Opening the bodies were produced in Ulan-Ude. According to the conclusion of experts, all died from hypothermia
The conclusion reached was hypothermia, but no explanation was offered for the nature of their sudden demise, nor the blood that poured from all of the deceased.
Evgeny Olkhovsky does not believe the official story given regarding what happened on the mountain. He stated:
*The Korovina people did not freeze in minus 50, and here you ... .. I can rather believe in aliens, but so that the Korovina people have frozen, I have passed with her with a dozen trips, and I know what I'm talking about ... Maybe occurred ozone. There was a strong thunderstorm front, maybe the guys got into the high concentration of ozone, so the body could not stand.
High concentrations of ozone can cause ozone poisoning which affects the lungs. It can cause them to swell massively, and rupture blood vessels. There are suspicions that other tour groups died in the same manner, at the same time as Korovina’s group. Alexey Livinsky, who was involved in the recovery of the bodies stated that another man was found dead nearby. He showed the same signs of bleeding and evidence of foaming of the mouth, but this is not discussed. How many other people died the same way, but are not known about, because no one survived their trek to testify to what they saw?
The hikers were found to be suffering from a protein deficiency, but this made no sense at all.
Livinsky also stated:
At the parking lots of the group of us, to put it mildly, discouraged the diet of the group. For dinner and breakfast was consumed by one bank of canned meat 338 g and one fish 250 g. What a garnish was and how much, I don't know, but the proteins in the diet on seven healthy tired people were clearly too little. The place of overnight stays were on the ridge much higher than the forest zone, and with the preparation of food, drying clothes, for sure the group had problems, "the Livsky rescuer notes. "And then a pathologist who conducts an examination in Ulan-Ude, the open text said that in the tissues of the dead, in the liver, and somewhere else there is no glucose. Those syndromes, which were observed in the group, fully correspond to the hypoint plus to completely exhaust the body.
The group is said to be suffering from malnutrition, but when asked if they ate well on the hike, Valentina responded:
- How many times a day did you eat?
- Four times a day for sure. Hot food is a must. They made a fire, cooked. In addition, snacks at the halts. We had cereals, milk powder, crackers, stew, carrots, beets, onions, sweets, chocolates ... In my opinion, the calculation was based on 2,400 kilocalories per person per day.
It is unlikely that the group would have signs of starvation if they had been on a normal hike, and in normal weather, but it should be noted the extreme amount of exertion they would have had to put out to continue walking through several days of rain and snow. For context, it is estimated that the Donner Party would have needed around 5000 calories a day to survive while in the deep snow that trapped them in the mountains. Did the extreme conditions cause them to be at such a caloric deficit that it was evident in autopsy, or, was this another example of the unexplained aspects surrounding these deaths.
After the incident, there was a funeral held for all those lost on the mountain. It was attended by over 200,000 people. The casket lids were closed. A few days later an article was published that laid the blame at Lyudmila’s feet. One of her long-time friends, Valentina Yaskova was angered by this indictment, because so many people readily accepted it as fact. It also angered many of the parents of the deceased.
- А спустя несколько дней после похорон в «Комсомольской правде» вдруг вышла статья, в которой автор обвинил руководителя походников в гибели группы, - с горечью рассказывает мне подруга погибшей Людмилы Коровиной - Валентина Яськова.
Город заволновался. Так вот оно что, оказывается! Коровина повела ребят в горы, решила рискнуть, и погибли почти все.
- Статью обсуждали даже в трамваях, - продолжает Яськова. - Я читала ее и плакала, не могла поверить. Но больше всего горя статья принесла родителям ребят.
- Почему? Вы считаете, Коровина не виновата в трагедии? - удивляюсь я.
- А вы позвоните кому-нибудь из родственников погибших, - предложила Валентина Николаевна.
Мама 15-летнего Тимура Бапанова Галина Николаевна в 1993 году была замдиректора петропавловского педучилища. Звоню ей прямо из дома Яськовой.
- «Комсомольская правда»? Разговаривать не буду!
С трудом удерживаю ее:
- Вы уверены, что в гибели вашего сына руководитель группы не виновата?
- Людмиле я доверяла как самой себе. Мы много раз с ней и Тимуром ходили в походы разных категорий. Она - профессионал! И не могла погубить свою группу.
- Общался ли с вами кто-то из следователей, когда все произошло?
- Из-за чего, по-вашему, погиб ваш сын?
- В справке о смерти написано: замерз в походе...
- Как можно замерзнуть летом? - еле успеваю спросить я, но собеседница уже отключила телефон.
“A few days after the funeral, an article suddenly appeared in Komsomolskaya Pravda, in which the author accused the leader of the hikers in the death of the group,” Valentina Yaskova, a friend of the deceased Lyudmila Korovina, tells me bitterly.
The city was agitated. So that's it, it turns out! Korovina took the guys to the mountains, decided to take a risk, and almost everyone died.
“The article was discussed even in trams,” Yaskova continues. - I read it and cried, I could not believe it. But the article brought the most grief to the parents of the children.
- Why? Do you think Korovin is not to blame for the tragedy? - I am surprised.
- And you will call one of the relatives of the victims, - suggested Valentina Nikolaevna.
The mother of 15-year-old Timur Bapanova Galina Nikolaevna in 1993 was the deputy director of the Petropavlovsk pedagogical school. I call her directly from Yaskova's house.
- "TVNZ"? I will not talk!
I can hardly hold her:
- Are you sure that the leader of the group is not to blame for the death of your son?
- I trusted Lyudmila as myself. We many times with her and Timur went on hikes of different categories. She is a professional! And she could not destroy her group.
- Did any of the investigators talk to you when everything happened?
- Because of what do you think your son died?
- The death certificate says: I froze on the hike ...
- How can you freeze in summer? - I barely have time to ask, but the interlocutor has already turned off the phone.
Lyudmila was a meticulous planner. She had been plotting the hike for six months prior to their departure. She had a detailed planned route complete with timekeeping to the hour.
Everything that was carried on the hike was doled out to who could most confidently carry it. She knew every person in her group well, and each had previously accompanied her on a hike in the past.
Other details that emerged after the funerals were regarding the hikers themselves. They went from being faceless curiosities to being real people that were tragically lost.
Alexander Krysin, 23 years old. In 1993 he studied at Baumanka in Moscow. He met Lyudmila Korovina as a teenager. He came to the tourist club at the age of 12 and since then fell ill with the mountains. That summer I passed my exam and rushed to Khamar-Daban.
Denis Shvachkin, 19 years old. I got into the group by accident. He was also a member of the tourist club, he knew Korovin well. They took him instead of the guy who was not released by his parents. Like, it's time to go to haymaking, and you are going to the mountains. Denis's parents were at the resort in those days. The son left for Transbaikalia, leaving them a note: "I went to the mountains, I'll be back soon."
Timur Bapanov, 15 years old. You can say he grew up in the mountains. His parents were fond of sports tourism.
Tatiana Filipenko, 24 years old. She worked as a secretary at a teacher training college. She loved mountains very much. I went with Korovina on hikes of the 1st and 2nd categories. I was going to Khamar-Daban with great passion.
Victoria Zalesova, 16 years old. The one whom Korovina did not want to take was Vika. During the winter hike, the girl broke off from fatigue and became capricious. Lyudmila Ivanovna did not like it. But Vika wanted so much to Khamar-Daban that she begged her mother to call Korovina.
- They talked to me, - says Valentina Yaskova. - Mother, a primary school teacher, vouched for Vika that she would no longer be capricious and would not let anyone down. Luda somehow agreed to take Zalesova into the group.
Lyudmila Ivanovna herself was a very enthusiastic person. She lived in tourism, mountains. I have been to Tien Shan, Altai, and Sayan. In her sports piggy bank, hiking of different categories - from the first to the fifth.
Surviving Valentina Utochenko in August 1993 was 17 years old. She left her native Petropavlovsk immediately after graduating from college. And since then, no one here knows where she lives and what her fate is.
Almost immediately after being rescued Valentina was expected to sign a nondisclosure agreement, which she did. She was only seventeen years old when this happened, and putting it all behind her likely felt like a blessing. She attended college, after which her location and life circumstances were unknown to everyone. All there was to go on for her testimony was her original written statement.
Here is the translation of two excerpts from Valentina's written statement given as part of the preliminary investigation:
On the 4th of August we came to Krutoy pass. We descended in the afternoon. The group was passing through a treeless Alpine zone. We made food on a Primus [a type of kerosene stove]. Around 16:00 we were making our way to Tritrans hill. Heavy rainfall, cold. We stopped on a treeless hill, erected two tents. At 4 in the morning the tents’ ropes snapped. We fixed them. At 6 the stake was torn from the ground. Sleeping bags wet.
5th of August, 10 in the morning. Krysin came and said they’re wet and freezing. It was snowing, no landmarks in sight. We packed our things and started descending in one line. After 10 meters Krysin fell. We helped him up. He fell again. Korovina came to him. She told the rest of us to go down. Almost immediately she stopped us and asked someone to come get her. Tanya unpacked a tent and the rest used it to cover themselves. I went up for Korovina. Sasha’s eyes were huge. His gaze was apathetic. Korovina looked for a pulse and said his heart isn’t beating. She asked me to get Vika down. I came up for her, and she bit me. I dragged her back to the others. Tatiana started to hit her head on the rocks. Dennis hid behind some rocks and got into a sleeping bag. I crawled over to Korovina, she wasn’t breathing. I tried to help Timur up. When I realized no one was moving, I went down to the trees. I put on more clothes, got in a sleeping back and covered myself with a tent. In the morning I went up, saw Tanya on the rocks, Dennis, Timur, Vika. Up higher were Sasha and Korovina. None of them rose again.
Years after the deaths, and her miraculous survival, a reporter did manage to track her down. It was to him that she provided her first and only interview regarding those horrific days that she wanted nothing more than to forget, and it is from that interview that many of the details of this case come from. She had avoided them for so long in fact that it wasn’t until there was a retelling of the story on television which included her photograph, that her husband even knew that she had been there, and what she had gone through.
Many people have speculated about what happened, and the order of the events. Some reports state that Korovina was still alive the following morning when Valentina returned, but she herself states that this was not the case. She is very clear about the sequence of events, stating that Sasha died first, followed by Lyudmila. After that, she describes the chaos that unfolded, and her long walk to find help. Her details about those days alone are clouded as she was very much in shock from what she had seen.
What happened on the mountain? No one knows, and likely no one will ever know. It was a terrible event, that one woman alone has to remember for the rest of her life. No one else can possibly understand what she has been through, nor what she sees when she closes her eyes at night. Hopefully, after all these years, it is peace that she finally finds. She certainly deserves that small comfort after her living hellscape on a frozen plane of death.
*This is a story form retelling of her testimony. It is therefore not a factual recounting of her thoughts and feelings at the time of the incident, but rather a creative illustration of what those thoughts may have been while the facts of the case unfolded. The factual information provided is based on what she stated, relayed in a personal narrative format for the enjoyment of my readers.
*The quotations provided in block quotes are English translations of what was said in Russian. I was unable to find the original quotes as I do not speak Russian. it is clear that some of the quotes are not precise as it tends to happen when translations from one language to another lose some detail. For instance, “campground” is translated to “parking lot”. It is clear in context that the quote is not referring to an actual parking lot. Please keep this in mind while reading.