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 piece of cord approximately the same gauge as the gaiter zipper to the immediate right in the photo.

Artist's rendering (visual aid) of cord

Was it part of Duncan’s clothing or equipment? Through painstaking work, I established that the cord 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 cord 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 the piece of cord doing wrapped around Duncan’s wrecked leg?

The cord 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 cord 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 cord. 


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 cord had looped around the leg: Note that it is missing. What exactly was the cord, 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! 

Above: Closeup of cord. The third from the top arrow indicates where the cord is drawn into the fractured bone. The fourth from the top arrow (pointing in opposite direction) indicates a continuation of the cord. The bottom arrow indicates where the cord is looped around the leg. Note that this section is flattened out. 

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

The cord is most likely a piece of polypropylene bailing twine. Like many ski resorts, the Stubai Glacier occasionally uses straw as a filler when snow levels get low. Straw bails are brought in and the bailing twine must be removed in order to spread the straw.

Polypropylene bailing twine has enormous tensile strength and it will draw extremely tight and narrow, but it will also flatten out when it turns around a surface, as is evident in the photo below.

Above: Polypropylene bailing twine looped around a thermos about the same radius as a human calf. 

It is notable that Dr. Rabl removed the twine without noting it in his identification report or officially investigating why it was wrapped around Duncan's destroyed left leg. 

There are indications that Duncan's amputated left leg was additionally run over by the grooming tiller, where it may have become tangled. It is conceivable that someone used the twine for extricating the amputated limb from the machine. Another possibility is that someone used the twine to bundle together the fragmented limb and clothing in order to transport them from the accident site to the crevasse where they were buried. 

If there is a harmless explanation for why this twine was wrapped around Duncan's destroyed left leg, Dr. Rabl could have determined and documented it, but for some reason he chose not to do so. 



Written by John Leake — February 24, 2012


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