Terrible Things Happening in Cold Places

The disappearance and reappearance of Duncan MacPherson
1 Mar 2019, 3:04 p.m.

In August 1989, 23-year-old professional ice-hockey player Duncan MacPherson travelled from New York to Europe, to enjoy a holiday before starting a new job in Scotland. He hired snowboarding gear and took a lesson on the Stubai Glacier. Then, according to the Austrian authorities and the owners of the ski resort, he simply disappeared. In the book Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery, John Leake details the coverup and corruption that started then and continued for years after MacPherson's body melted out of the ice in 2003.

Note: This post was originally published on MetaFilter. It's reproduced here, lightly edited and expanded. If you are sensitive to images of dead bodies, I strongly advice not clicking on the links in this post with warning labels; articles without warnings are safe at time of posting.

A young white man with dark hair and a scar beside his right eye, wearing a white t-shirt.
Duncan MacPherson shortly before he left for Europe, via Wikimedia Commons.

Leake was asked to write Cold a Long Time by MacPherson's parents, Lynda and Bob MacPherson, who have spent years campaigning to find out the truth behind their son's disappearance. Published in 2011, the book describes how they were repeatedly stonewalled by the authorities, and uses hard-won forensic evidence to explain what really happened to Duncan. Several excerpts and supplementary articles are available on the Cold a Long Time website. (Warning: the front page is safe, but the book trailer and rest of the site contain close-up pictures of MacPherson's damaged body.)

This book review describes his likely fate. Injured by a fall from his snowboard, MacPherson was probably driven over by a snow groomer and tangled up in its mechanism, before being hidden in a crevasse in the glacier and covered over. Locals and authorities then systematically covered up the case for decades.

Two mountains, covered in snow, under a cloudy grey sky. Two ski lifts run up towards them. In the foreground is a glass-walled gazebo with a yellow roof.
A view up to the Eisgrat Mountain Station (left) and the Daunferner, via Wikimedia Commons

Florian Skraber had previously investigated the case—the only Austrian journalist to do so. His 2009 article 'On Thin Ice' (German original | good English translation) paints a frightening picture of lax safety standards and disinclination to investigate the tragedy.

An Austrian friend of Leake's, quoted in the book and in this article, suggested this reason for the cover-up:

"As you describe her, Lynda MacPherson believes personal integrity to be the highest good, and to abandon it would be to abandon herself. But to a simple man in that valley, the highest good is protecting his community. He may personally dislike people in his village, and he may secretly resent its powerful members, but he will always be terrified of ostracism, because he can't imagine living anywhere else. He understands why the MacPhersons are outraged, and he feels sorry for them, but if he knows something about what happened to their son, he will never tell them. When Canadians like them and an American like you show up and start asking questions, he will perceive you not as a truth-seeker, but as an assailant."

A snow groomer with a red cabin and caterpillar tracks, with a yellow snow tiller behind it, in snow, in front of a mountain.
A snow groomer similar to the ones used at the Stubai Glacier, via Wikimedia Commons

In the case of the President of the Austrian Society of Forensic Medicine, Dr. Walter Rabl, who was responsible for what forensic attention MacPherson's body received, the problem might lie deeper. In controversial cases (warning: images of dead bodies) he has repeatedly appeared "unable or unwilling to see the significance" of injuries to the dead under his care. Writing about the old boys' networks of Tyrolean justice, CeiberWeiber.at (sadly no longer available online) commented:

Hushed-up murder, fraud, corruption — if you seek information about unexplained deaths in the Tyrol, you get the sneaking suspicion that the average consumer of CSI series would investigate better than the police, the courts and the forensic pathologists. — my translation

A building standing on a high point of a snow-covered mountain landscape, with two ski lifts in the foreground.
The Eisgrat Mountain Station, where Duncan was last seen alive, via Wikimedia Commons.

Duncan MacPherson's death has been covered in several other outlets. CBC's The Fifth Estate investigated twice and their second video is available online. ESPN's 2005 article has more detail on his personality and ice-hockey career. Esquire (2007) is poetic but not altogether accurate, focussing mainly on the effects of the tragedy on Bob and Lynda MacPherson. The Süddeutsche-Zeitung Magazin's article (Google translation), which was published after Leake's book came out and includes an interview with him, has more background on the history and people of the Stubai Valley.

Lynda MacPherson commented on my MetaFilter thread about the case:

Accidents are one thing; they can happen to anyone. Cover-up of an accident adds a whole other dimension to the "accident;" and is unforgivable.
Given the lies told to us by all public officials that touched the file, I think any parent in that situation would do the same - even animals stand up for their young.

She may well be right, but she has nonetheless become a personal hero of mine, along with Bob, for her pursuit of the truth about her son's death.