Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery

One day in September 2010, while studying a photo of Duncan MacPherson's mangled left leg, I noticed an object.  Zooming in on it, I saw that among the jumbled mass of bones, oxidized skin, and clothing was what appeared to be a cable with a swage fitting attached to a handle or bracket.

Artist's rendering (visual aid) of cable

Was it part of Duncan’s clothing or equipment?  Through painstaking work, I established that the cable was not his sweatpants’ draw string, not his gaiter draw string, not a snowboard leash, and not part of the snowboard binding.  Nor could it have been a bootlace, as his ski boots had buckles and not laces. The cable appeared to be tensioned. In one place it was drawn into the fractured bone, and then flattened out as it looped around the leg. That it was snug against the skin and bone indicated it had been applied after the leg was unclothed and injured. What was a piece of cable doing wrapped around Duncan’s wrecked leg?

The cable is visible only in a photo of the leg as it was lying on the dissection table.  In the images of the leg after it had been transferred to the gurney five minutes later, the cable is missing, which means that it was removed by Dr. Rabl or his assistant.  I also found it notable that he didn’t remove any other articles from Duncan’s body—only the cable. 

Above: Photo taken five minutes minutes later, after the body was transferred from the dissection table to a gurney to prepare it for the MacPhersons' viewing. The arrove indicates the spot at which the cable had looped around the leg: Note that it is missing. What exactly was the cable, why was it wrapped around Duncan's leg, and why did Dr. Rabl remove it? When Lynda MacPherson asked Rabl, he replied that he couldn't identify it, and that he too couldn't find it in any other picture! 

In Cold a Long Time, I present a hypothetical explanation for why a piece of cable was wrapped around Duncan's destroyed left leg. Shortly after I formulated it, I spoke with Lynne Herold, a renowned criminalist in the physical evidence section of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. I didn't tell her my hypothesis; I merely pointed out the cable. Without any prompting, she proposed the same hypothesis that I had just formulated. 

Because of the photo's low resolution, I have been unable to identify what kind of cable it is, and what exactly it is fastened to, though I can say with certainty that it doesn't belong to Duncan's clothing or equipment.   

Above: Closeup of cable. The top arrow indicates where the cable is fastened to what appears to be a piece of wood or plastic. The second from the top arrow indicates the swage fitting. The third from the top arrow indicates where the cable is drawn into the fractured bone. The fourth from the top arrow (pointing in opposite direction) indicates a continuation of the cable. The bottom arrow indicates where cable is looped around the leg. Note that this section is flattened out, indicating that it was, at one point, wrapped around a hard object and highly tensioned. 

The same image, inverted: The arrows indicate where the cable has tensioned onto the bone, apparently displacing a fragment of it. To reiterate: Given that the cable is tensioned onto the bare skin, it MUST have been brought into contact with the lower left leg AFTER the leg was unclothed and largely destroyed. 

To form a plausible working hypothesis to explain the presence of the cable, it is useful to consider a documented case of a skier's leg going into a grooming tiller. In January 2008, a twelve-year-old boy at a U.S. American ski resort lost control and slid in between the tractor and tiller of a Snowcat. His left leg was pulled into the machine, where it became firmly lodged between the rotating shaft (cutter bar) and steel casing. Thanks to prompt emergency medical care, he was kept alive while the fire department cut the casing apart with plasma torches in order to free his leg--fractured multiple times, with massive tissue damage. Though I am not allowed to publish the truly graphic accident photos, I have seen them. Some of the flesh of his lower leg was finely ground. In the following photo, the blood from the boy's injuries, which has seeped into the snow, is covered with blankets. 


Duncan's considerably larger leg would have become even more firmly lodged in the machine. It is notable that Duncan's left leg has been cleanly amputated just above the knee. Moreover, a row of tiller tine gouges runs across the back side of his thigh, a few inches above the amputation.

With the leg amputation above the knee, it was possible to pull Duncan's body away from the machine, but his lower left leg would have likely remained lodged between the cutter bar and casing. One strategy was to disengage the hydrostatic drive and rotate the shaft by hand in order to work the limb and clothing out. However, with the shaft firmly jammed in place, a mechanical advantage was needed in order to rotate it. 

And so someone appears to have looped a piece of cable behind the tiller tine that was jamming the leg into the casing, and then pulled on the cable with a block (perhaps attached to an electric winch).  As the cable tensioned onto one of the tiller tines, it was flattened out. As the shaft began to rotate, the cable slipped off the tine and drew into the fractured leg. Because the cable was covered with blood, it was simply buried in the crevasse with the leg. 

This is a working hypothesis. I would like to emphasize that, had Duncan's destroyed left leg and the piece of cable wrapped around it been properly examined by Innsbruck authorities, it would be entirely unnecessary to theorize about this foreign object. 

Can you positively identify the cable and the object to which it is fastened?  If so, please email me at:


Written by John Leake — February 24, 2012



why didn’t they interview the machine operators that were grooming that day?
What a sad story. All over money.

June 17 2012 at 08:06 PM

Carol Remmert:

Two years ago I had a massage therapist (from Austria, living in Canada) who told me that Austrians are very deceitful people. I found this an incredible thing to say. “More deceitful than any other people?” Indeed, he answered, they are intrinsically deceitful. Ridiculous, I thought. After the Fifth Estate “Cold Case” I’m left with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I recall his words. Who, in Austria, gains by telling the truth about any aspect of this case???

June 17 2012 at 10:06 PM

John Leake:

Michele, As I relate in my book about the case, the men who work in slope maintenance are sticking with their story that Duncan must have simply fallen in a crevasse. Carole, I doubt that Austrians as a whole are more or less deceitful than people living in other territories. In my experience, people everywhere are at least tempted to conceal the truth in order to stay out of trouble or protect their interests. Also, most Austrians know nothing about this story as it has never been properly reported in Austria. Thank you for your comments.

June 18 2012 at 09:06 AM


The cable was used to (try to) pull the body out of the ice. It was tied to a truck/tractor, producing the force to have a cable like that first to flatten and then to snap. Perhaps a winch.
So they had to wait until spring – or thaw it out. To avoid any questions they removed the cable – just too late for the first pic though.

June 28 2012 at 02:06 PM

John Leake:

Thank you for your reply, Jay. The left leg was severed both above the knee and below the knee, and the lower leg was chopped into pieces by a grooming tiller. The dark grey color of the fractured surfaces indicates that the cuts to the bone happened a long time before the body was extracted from the ice. The most plausible explanation for the piece of cable is that it was used in an attempt to extract Duncan’s amputated lower left leg from the grooming tiller. Numerous signs indicate that the amputated lower limb became lodged between the tiller’s rotating shaft and housing.

June 29 2012 at 12:06 PM


Dear John,

maybe you’ve seen this already – the Tiroler Tageszeitung recently mentioned your book on its webpage (I guess it’s simply some version of the APA press release) the report is a short synopsis of what is in the book but at the end it presents Rabl’s story as conclusion

November 05 2012 at 01:11 AM

I am doing a school project on Duncan MacPherson’s story and it would be nice if you could give me some information on the CIA angle of the story, thanks.

February 16 2013 at 07:02 PM

John Leake:

Dear Trevor,
Shortly before Duncan departed for Europe, a man approached him who claimed to be a recruiter for the CIA. The Cold War was still on in the summer of 1989, and it seems that hockey players and coaches in Europe were potentially attractive recruits for carrying information back and forth across the Iron Curtain. A recently published book claims that the Russian player, Vladislav Tretiak, was a spy. As I mention in my book about Duncan MacPherson, he told his mother that he had turned the offer down, and she believed him. However, after he went missing, she briefly wondered if he had, in fact, taken the offer, though she never considered this a strong possibility.

February 21 2013 at 07:02 AM

Jarek Rosiak:

Why was Duncan wearing ski boots? Some types of snowboard bindings are designed to work with stiff skiing boots but not the ones on Duncans snowboard. What was he doing, walking down the slope, wearing stiff, uncomfortable ski boots and carrying a snowboard he couldnt strap his boots to? Weird

October 31 2013 at 11:10 AM


Safety conscious. Some insurance QuotesChimp determine rates by how willing you are to take steps to reduce your risk. This helps both of you, since reduced risk leads to fewer claims and fewer claims means that your life has been less “eventful.” For example, companies offering homeowner’s insurance often reward non-smokers with a small savings in the premium since statistics prove that nonsmokers have less likelihood of suffering a fire than smokers do. Fewer claims should also mean lower premiums.

March 06 2014 at 12:03 AM

Leave a comment