Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery

Another Clue: The Cable

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