Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery

Duncan MacPherson was last seen on August 8, 1989 as he left the Bavarian town of Fuessen and drove south towards Austria and Italy. He had to be back in Nuremberg on the evening of August 11 to catch a flight to Scotland, so he only had three days to tour the region. This was the only lead the MacPhersons had as they embarked on their quest to find him in late August.

On September 22, 1989--after three weeks of driving all over the Alps--they found his car parked near the gondola station of the Stubai Glacier, a popular ski resort near Innsbruck, Austria, founded by a charismatic author, alpinist, and entrepreneur named Heinrich Klier.

The parking lot attendant said he was certain the car had appeared in the lot after September 1--an assertion that created much confusion and later proved to be false. During the MacPhersons' initial search, they were told by officers of the Tyrolean gendarmerie that any car abandoned in the the mountains would be quickly reported, as an abandoned car is a reliable indicator that its driver has been in an alpine accident. Ultimately the MacPhersons learned that Duncan's car had sat in the lot for six weeks without being reported.

Clue I: Duncan's Car

Bob MacPherson took the above photo of Sept. 22, 1989. The white building behind the car is the gondola station. During the summer ski season, which ended in late August, Stubai Glacier personnel passed the car every day on their way to and from work. Even after ski season, resort personnel continued operating the gondola for hikers.

On the descending embankment in front of the car, Bob noted freshly sprouted grass, indicating that someone had seeded it roughly three weeks earlier (accounting for germination time). A bare spot in front of the car indicated that the seed spreader had gone around the car when no others had been parked in the lot.

On the day the MacPhersons arrived, no one told them that the ski resort had operated any of its slopes in August, and this possibility didn't occur to them. They assumed that August was too warm for skiing, even on a glacier. The local gendarmerie (from the muncipality of Neustift) told them that the area was popular for hiking, and that Duncan must have gone for a trek and never returned.

Only through a (seemingly) chance encounter with the Stubai Glacier's snowboard instructor--a young man named Walter Hinterhoelzl--did they learn that one of the slopes had been open in August, and that Duncan had taken a lesson on August 9.

 

Clue 2: The location of the Eisgrat Mountain Station

Above is a photograph of the Eisgrat mountain station, where Duncan went on the morning of August 9, 1989. In order to reach this station from the base (where he parked his car) one must either hike or ride the gondola up 1,150 vertical meters (3,770 feet). It was in this mountain station that Duncan rented his equipment and signed up for his lesson (the rental shop and the snowboarding school are separated by a small corridor).

The ski slope that rises above the Eisgrat was the only slope open on Aug. 9. It is situated on a small, north-facing glacier called the Schaufelferner. Just below the Eisgrat, the glacier ends. During ski season, the lifts close at 4:00 P.M, at which time anyone who has rented gear must return it to the shop, retrieve his deposit (government-issued ID or credit card), street shoes, and any other personal articles, and then either ride the gondola or hike down to the base. An injured customer left to spend the night on the slope at an altitude of 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) would likely die of hypothermia if not from his trauma. Thus, as everyone who worked at the Eisgrat knew, it was critical that a search be conducted for any customer who failed to return his gear and retrieve his belongings at the end of the day.

According to the snowboard instructor, Walter Hinterhoelzl, Duncan rented a Duret snowboard and skiboots from the rental shop (known in 1989 as Sport Shop 3000). Using this equipment, Duncan took a morning lesson, and then had lunch with Walter at the Eisgrat restaurant. After lunch he purchased a sweatshirt from the Sport Shop, as his sweater and turtleneck were soaked from the morning lesson. These, along with his leather belt, he hung to dry in Walter's office, and then headed back to the slope for an afternoon practice session. Walter did not see Duncan at the end of the day, though he did notice that his sweater, turtleneck, and belt were still hanging in the ski school office.

Walter told the MacPhersons that he had not given the clothing much thought, as Duncan had mentioned his desire to return to the Eisgrat the next morning for a follow-up lesson. When Duncan didn't show the next day, Walter assumed that he'd decided to do something else and had simply forgotten about his clothing. Both Walter and the local gendarmerie inspector, Franz Brecher, told the MacPhersons that Duncan had probably gone for a hike and been in an accident. Walter suggested that he'd fallen into a waterfall.

 

Clue 3: Were the snowboard and boots returned?

Quickly the MacPhersons realized that Duncan's snowboarding equipment was an invaluable clue. If Duncan had returned the gear, it meant that he'd come off the slope at the end of the day and either gone for a hike or taken the gondola down to the valley. If he had not returned the gear, it indicated that he had not come off the slope.

Walter initially claimed he did not know whether Duncan had returned his gear. The manager of the Sport Shop 3000, Josef "Seppi" Repetschnig, claimed he had no memory of Duncan and no record of his rental, as the rental log from August had already been thrown out. However, Seppi insisted he was not missing a Duret snowboard or any other board. This meant that if Duncan had indeed rented his board from the shop, he must have returned it.

Four months later, the MacPhersons received a report, forwarded from the Canadian Embassy, stating that police investigators had determined that Duncan's snowboard and boots had been returned. This indicated that he had indeed come off the slope. In my book, I identify the man who propagated this lie, and I show how it was the key to concealing Duncan's death on the ski slope.