Terrible Things Happening in Cold Places

Review: Cold a Long Time by John Leake
17 May 2019, 6:21 p.m.

Cold a Long Time, by John Leake, is the book-length account of the death of Canadian ice-hockey player Duncan MacPherson, and the systematic cover-up of that death. The original idea for the book was to spread awareness of MacPherson's case and increase the chances that a proper investigation would be done. As such, you don't have to read it to find out what Leake and MacPherson's parents deduced, from hard-won evidence, must have happened to him: you can read it on the Cold a Long Time website (warning: the website contains many distressing postmortem photos).

In short, Duncan MacPherson was hit by a snow groomer on a ski slope at the Stubai Glacier resort, Austria. His left leg was pulled into the groomer's machinery and both his arms were also severely injured. Instead of reporting the accident, the snow groomer driver pushed MacPherson's body and equipment into a crevasse on the slope, filling it in with snow. From then on, everyone who might have been expected to help find out the truth of the case—from other resort workers, to pathologists, to Canadian Foreign Affairs—shirked this responsibility, often reflexively lying or leaving out vital information. It took over twenty years for MacPherson's parents to find the truth of what happened to him.

Cold a Long Time tells the story of Bob and Lynda MacPherson's investigations into their son's disappearance, starting in 1989, and the many obstacles they faced. In 2009, they contacted Leake and asked him if he would be interested in writing a book about the case. Several chapters focus on the conversations Leake had with the MacPhersons at their house in Sasketoon, as the three of them pored over two decades' worth of documents and photographs, and the impressions he gained of the couple. Eventually, with the help of Leake's experience of Austrian culture and several other experts, they succeeded in reconstructing Duncan's lonely death.

It's this personal involvement in the investigation that makes the book worth reading, even if you already know what will be discovered. Leake's pen portraits of the MacPhersons illustrate not just their personalities but also the cultural mismatch that hindered their quest. In the Canadian couple's personalities and, especially, Lynda's unshakeable belief in impartial justice, they differed from the Tyrolean officials and locals they were trying to get information out of. That's not to say that Tyroleans don't believe in justice, of course, but their priorities were not the same as the MacPhersons', and the context that Leake gives explains why.

This context produced a tendency to smooth things over and look for convenient explanations for inconvenient deaths. This has led to multiple cases like Duncan's, where the truth may never be found out. A year before his death, a student from Hong Kong had died from falling into a crevasse on the same slope. A young Italian man, Fabrizio Falchero, also vanished from the Stubai Glacier within months of Duncan's disappearance. Leake points out that several high-profile cases involving postmortems (warning: photos of dead bodies) , including the MacPherson one, were (mis)handled by the same forensic doctor, Walter Rabl: a man who has apparently never seen a rug he didn't want to sweep something under. The German and Canadian authorities don't come out well, either. Given the choice between teasing out the truth from the cover-up or writing Duncan off as a young man who met a sad—but not too surprising—misadventure, they showed their preference clearly.

If you've a strong stomach for reading about injuries and corruption, I do recommend Cold a Long Time. It's engagingly written and full of information about Austria, glaciers, and the bodies that sometimes emerge from them, which I may mine for future posts here. In the years between Duncan's disappearance and reappearance, the prehistoric 'ice man' Ötzi (warning: photos of a mummy) was discovered, and Leake often juxtaposes the interest the two men's bodies received.

I will close this review with an excerpt that illustrates the uneasy contrast between the warm hospitality of the Tyrol, and the consequences of the self-protecting attitude Leake found there:

After a couple of beers, I asked the observant man about the history, animals, and plants of the valley, and soon everyone in the restaurant, including the waitress, joined our conversation. The evening wore on, and we switched from beer and wine to schnapps.

“You should try our home-distilled Laerchenschnaps,” our waitress told me. She was referring to schnapps infused with the aromatic oil of larch buds, but at that moment I thought she said Leichenschnaps—i.e., “corpse schnapps.”

“Corpse schnapps?” I said with an alarmed expression, at which point everyone in the room burst out laughing.

“Yes, exactly,” she replied. “Corpse schnapps—the specialty of the house.”

“To Stubai and its corpse schnapps,” I said, and toasted everyone.