Mountain of the Dead scared me silly. Each page added to the horror as my suspicion turned to certainty: author Keith McCloskey did all his research for the book online. Oh, I have no reason to doubt the claim that he actually traveled to Russia, but to what end is a mystery. He was given no special access, for example, to any material not readily available otherwise. He might just as well have stayed home at his computer. Which is exactly what I would encourage his potential readers to do.
I might assign some value to his “research” if he merely saved me the time of tracking down a number of websites with interesting information. What he clearly discovered, however, is that most of the sites in question regurgitated the same facts as all the others. Those facts being in short supply, he had to find another way to fill out his book, and he picked the laziest possible solution: to turn the book into a survey of all the deranged theories surrounding the case.
The case is this. Nine skiers/hikers went into the Russian wilderness, camped on the side of Kholat Syakhl (“Mountain of the Dead” in one translation, the not quite so forbidding “Dead Mountain” in another), and died. The manner and circumstances of their deaths are what give this tale its otherworldly sheen. For reasons unknown, they appear to have exited their tent by knifing through it from the inside, calmly walked about a mile down the mountain — wearing no shoes and grossly inadequate clothing — split into two groups, and froze to death. The bodies belonging to one group were otherwise more or less uninjured while the others included significant internal damage and strange injuries such as missing eyes and a missing tongue.
The eyes and tongue tell you where McCloskey is going. One’s first thought regarding them must be predation, but that’s much too prosaic for this guy: he doesn’t even bother to address the issue. He lumps them together with broken ribs and fractured skulls to suggest the fantastic, quickly dismissing the fact that the condition of the bones just might have something to do with where the bodies were found; to wit, at the bottom of a ravine. He dismisses this due to a lack of external injuries to account for them. Which begs the question, how unusual is this really? I, for one, would like to know. McCloskey, however, doesn’t want to tell me.
So after the initial description of the events leading up to the tragedy and then its immediate aftermath, the bulk of which can be found on Wikipedia and other easily accessed websites, about all McCloskey has left are those crackpot theories. We get them all: UFOs, paranormal activity, and secret government slash military tests gone awry. He does provide a brief rational explanation: an avalanche followed by “paradoxical undressing,” a known condition that causes a freezing victim to actually remove their clothing. But he admits he isn’t buying that; he falls into the military testing camp.
Interestingly, in spite of his own preference, he gives the most space to a ludicrous story of a man who once encountered (he says) floating lights that reacted to the human glance. I suppose even McCloskey found this bit of fantasy too much to take so he lets the man tell it in his own words. It reads like a very bad movie treatment as this clown unabashedly embellishes his alleged and rather benign experience with deadly pressure beams and precise details of how the hikers met their various ends. He ends the tale with warnings and advice to us all in case we should ever encounter this dangerous phenomenon. To call this or any of the viewpoints expressed in this book “theories” is disingenuous to say the least.
That said, the case itself is certainly bizarre, the more so, of course, because there are so few facts. With what is known to date, I can’t even begin to figure it out. I can understand the hikers cutting their way out of their tent if it was covered by a small avalanche, but I cannot fathom them then abandoning it along with all their supplies. I suppose if they were fearful of more snow coming down the mountain, they may have instinctively turned tail, but then why the seemingly orderly march down the slope? It truly makes no sense.
So, yeah, the case is a real campfire story. The book, on the other hand, is merely fuel for the blaze.