Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery

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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.

Clue 4: The discovery of Duncan's body

Fourteen years later, on Friday, July 18, 2003, at 3:00 P.M., employees of the Stubai Glacier informed officers at the Neustift gendarmerie station that they had found a corpse on the Schaufelferner. Though the glacier was easily accessible by gondola, no officers went to the site to supervise the body's recovery. At 4:57 P.M., a police officer landed a helicopter on the glacier and photographed the corpse as it lay partly encased in ice. After attending the scene for seven minutes, he authorized Stubai Glacier personnel to recover the body, and then flew away. In his report, this officer noted the true location of the discovery site--i.e., approximately 25 meters east of the t-bar lift, in the middle of the slope.

In spite of this singular fact, gendarmerie officers in Neustift notified the Canadian Embassy that the body (identified by means of ID cards as Duncan Alvin MacPherson) had been found 120 meters east of the tow-lift--i.e., a location well outside of the east boundary of the ski slope. The following day, the Austria Press Association issued a release stating that that "the then 23-year-old fell into a crevasse with his snowboard in the out of bounds ski area." This misinformation implied that Duncan had been legally responsible for his death.

With no investigation whatsoever and without even knowing the cause of death, Innsbruck prosecutor Thomas Schirhakl immediately released the body for burial. The examining magistrate in charge of Duncan's missing person case was not informed of the discovery. After the body was released, gendarmerie Inspector Koch called district medical officer Kurt Somavilla, who viewed the frozen and clothed corpse in the funeral chapel of the Neustift parish church, which had neither lighting nor equipment for a forensic medical exam. After Dr. Somavilla attributed the cause of death to polytrauma, the body was transported to a funeral home, where it was to remain in cold storage until the MacPhersons arrived.

The following Monday, July 21, 2003, Inspector Willibald Krappinger informed Prosecutor Schirhakl that the body had not been found off-piste, but on the ski slope. This indicated that Stubai Glacier personnel had not only failed to control a crevasse, they had also filled the crevasse with snow (using a snow groomer) without first checking to make sure that no one was in it. Krappinger reasoned that, "worst case," the workers were guilty of negligence. Schirhakl then cited the statute of limitations for negligent homicide and closed the case. As I argue in Cold a Long Time, Schirhakl's reasoning was fallacious and outrageously unfair to the MacPhersons.

For his part, Inspector Krappinger overlooked a number of suspicious circumstances:

1. At the end of Sept. 1989, in response to a confidential Canadian External Affairs query, a man who worked at the Eisgrat station claimed he was certain that Duncan's snowboard had been returned, which indicated that Duncan had come off the slope. And yet, a Duret snowboard was found with his corpse 14 years later.

2. Duncan was still wearing a pair of grey nylon gaiters inscribed with "Rental 3000"--the rental department of the Sport Shop 3000.

3. Duncan's wallet contained all of his IDs except his Saskatchewan Driver's License--the most likely document he would have left as a deposit for the snowboarding gear. Someone must have thrown this away.

4. His body was found with hard ski boots whose size was inscribed on them with an indelible marker--a common rental shop practice. Duncan certainly wore street shoes from the parking lot to the Eisgrat station. These were never returned to the MacPherson, indicating that someone had thrown them away.

5. All of the above raises the question: Why didn't Stubai Glacier personnel search for Duncan at the end of the day when he failed to return his equipment and pick up his clothing, driver's license, and street shoes?

6. A red ski glove, a pair of blue cross country ski gloves, and a blue work glove were found with Duncan's body. He obviously didn't go snowboarding with three different pairs of gloves. To whom did the other gloves belong, and why were they found with Duncan's body?

7. Three of Duncan's limbs were amputated. The sleeves of his rain jacket and sweatshirt were shredded, as were his left sweatpants' leg and left gaiter.

8. The snowboard found with his body bore obvious marks of contact with a machine that is not suitable for excavating objects from ice.

A few days after the public prosecutor closed the case, Inspector Krappinger took cursory statements from Stubai Glacier maintenance workers, who theorized that Duncan must have come off the Eisjoch t-bar lift and decided to go through the glacier's active crevassing area, which, they claimed, was always fenced off in the summer due to the elevated risk of collapsing snow bridges. They presented no records to support their claim that the danger area had been fenced off, and Inspector Krappinger didn't ask for any.

Clue 5: The True Location of Duncan's Body

The above photograph was taken on July 18, 2003, the day Duncan's body was found, during a period of unusually heavy summer melt. The arrow is pointing at the location of his body. The small crevasse in which he was buried is estimated to have moved about 40 meters down the hill during the 14 years he was in the ice. It is in a row of transverse crevasses that are moving uniformly down the hill near the glacier's equilibrium line, where ice flow is chiefly horizontal.

As Professor David Evans, co-author of Glaciers and Glaciation, pointed out, it is highly unusual for a body to melt out so far up on a glacier. This indicates that Duncan did not fall into a deep crevasse (in which case he would have emerged decades later at the bottom of the glacier) but went just deep enough to evade detection. This is consistent with the statement of Michael Tanzer, head of Stubai Glacier slope operations in 2003, who claimed that Duncan must have gone into a shallow, v-shaped crevasse, adjacent to the t-bar lift. But if that was indeed the case, why wasn't he found at the end of the day (Aug. 9, 1989) when he didn't return his equipment and pick up his possessions?

The above image of the discovery site was taken the following day. The Eisgrat station at the slope's base is approximately 500 meters away.

Above: Duncan lying slightly on his left side in the vestige of a shallow crevasse. Note the horizontal attitude of his body: Most victims of a crevasse fall end up wedged vertically in the ice. Duncan's destroyed left leg is still buried; his outstretched right leg is still completely clothed. The left arrow indicates his left ski boot, standing upright next to his left side. The right arrow is pointing downhill.

Clue 6: The Condition of Duncan's Body

On Monday, July 21, 2003, district medical officer Kurt Somavilla filed his official Report of Death at the Neustift municipal office. To the question, "Was an autopsy performed?" he checked the box for "Yes" and checked the margin to confirm. When later asked why he had checked the "Yes" box, he insisted that he had sent the body to Innsbruck for autopsy.

On the same day, Dr. Bernhard Knapp--then head of public security at the Innsbruck District Administration--ordered the body transferred from the funeral home to the Innsbruck Institute of Forensic Medicine. In his official order, dated July 29, 2003, Knapp stated that this was for the purpose of identifying the body with forensic medical procedures. However, a Canadian Embassy memo dated July 23, 2003 states that Knapp called on that day to advise that the body had been transferred to the institute "for dental [identification] and pathology." Moreover, in a follow-up letter to Canadian Vice-consul William Douglas dated March 26, 2004, Knapp stated that "the exact cause of death was established by the Innsbruck Institute of Forensic Medicine." As I show in Cold a Long Time, Vice-consul Douglas was repeatedly misled about how Duncan's case was handled in Innsbruck.

Unfortunately for the MacPhersons, they arrived in Innsbruck on July 24, 2003 without a consular escort or lawyer, which left them highly vulnerable to deception. Their first meeting was with Inspector Krappinger, who told them very little and refused to give them copies of the discovery site photos. Later they managed to obtain copies of these from a different police officer.

From Inspector Krappinger's office, they went to the Institute of Forensic Medicine, where they met Dr. Walter Rabl, who is now head of the Austrian Society of Forensic Medicine. Dr. Rabl told them that he had not received an order from the Innsbruck public prosecutor to perform an autopsy. The District Administration Office had ordered him to identify the body--nothing more. However, Rabl explained, the circumstances indicated that Duncan had died after falling into a crevasse, most likely from non-asphytic suffocation as a result of being buried under snow. Rabl said that this was not an unpleasant way to die--that avalanche victims rescued at the last minute had reported happy feelings as they were on the verge of passing out.

Lynda repeatedly told Rabl that she wanted to know how Duncan had died, but he insisted he had not received an order from the prosecutor to perform an autopsy. The MacPhersons therefore went to the prosecutor's office and spoke with Rudolf Koll, who insisted that the case was closed and that there would be no autopsy.

Dr. Rabl did not tell the MacPhersons that his institute is an independent institution that may, under Austrian law, perform private forensic exams for a victim's next of kin. As I show in my book, this was the first of many omissions that Rabl made over the course of his long and peculiar relationship with the MacPhersons.

To prepare Lynda and Bob for viewing their dead son, Rabl showed them two photos of the body. In looking at the images, they focused primarily on Duncan's face, which struck them as remarkably well-preserved. When they viewed the body a few minutes later, most of it, including his limbs, was covered with a sheet, and it didn't occur to them to remove the sheet.

Again Lynda told Rabl that she wanted to know how Duncan had died. He replied that, as an alternative to autopsy, he could arrange a CT scan of the body. A CT scan, he explained, would reveal if Duncan had sustained bone fractures consistent with a violent death. In his words, the CT scan would, at the very least, tell them how Duncan "had not died."

On July 31, 2003, Dr. Rabl and a radiologist at the Innsbruck University Clinic named Peter Waldenberger (now at a hospital in Linz) performed a CT scan of Duncan's body. The following day, Rabl told the MacPhersons that--according to the radiologist--the scan revealed no fractures of the skull, neck, or back, indicating that Duncan had not died as a result of a severe injury. As this seemed to confirm Rabl's estimation that Duncan had died of non-asphyctic suffocation, the MacPhersons decided to cremate his body in Innsbruck.

Dr. Rabl said nothing about the fact that three of Duncan's limbs had been amputated. This was a remarkable omission, as it is common knowledge that a man will bleed to death from three severed limbs unless he quickly receives emergency medical care.

At his final meeting with the MacPhersons, Rabl said he would send copies of the CT scan and radiology report to their home in Saskatoon as soon as he received these from Dr. Waldenberger. In this same meeting, Lynda asked Rabl for the photos he had shown them to prepare them for viewing Duncan's body.

With these two photos, along with the snowboarding equipment found with the body, the MacPhersons returned to Saskatoon. Back home, Bob studied the images and noticed that both of Duncan's forearms and his left leg had been amputated. The damage to his lower left leg was spectacular.

In spite of Dr. Rabl's assurance that he would send the MacPhersons copies of the CT scan and radiology report, these items did not arrive. Over a four-month period, Lynda repeatedly requested by email that he send the images. He replied that he was having trouble contacting his colleague in radiology--a facility that was, unbeknownst to Lynda--located 300 meters from Rabl's institute. Finally, on November 21, 2003, Rabl sent four low-resolution digital radiographs in the form of JPEGs attached to an email, including the following image:

Because Dr. Rabl did not send the findings of the radiologist, the MacPhersons showed this image to Dr. Brent Burbridge, head of radiology at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon. He explained that, due to its low resolution, he could not study the arm fractures closely, though it was clear that both forearms had been severed, and the right elbow had been dislocated and rotated 180 degrees. He wondered if these injuries had been caused by contact with the ski hill grooming machine.

At this point, Lynda asked Dr. Rabl for hard copies of the radiographs (as distinct from the low-resolution JPEGs) and for any other photos he might have taken. Two months later, in early 2004, he sent several radiographs, as well as additional photos of the body. Among these images was the following.

Note that the above image is the same that Rabl sent on Nov. 21, 2003, only it is less cropped. Why did he initially crop the legs out of this radiograph? And given that the entire body goes into the CT scanner, why were the lower legs left out of the field of view?

The MacPhersons took the above image to a forensic pathologist in British Columbia named Dan Straathof, who had examined the Canadian Ice Man--a mummified corpse found melting out of the Grand Plateau glacier in 1999. Dr. Straathof told the MacPhersons that Duncan's limb fractures were consistent with damage from heavy machinery.

On Feb. 12, 2004, Lynda emailed Dr. Rabl, expressing her growing concern that Duncan had been run over by a groomer. In Rabl's reply the following day, he expressed skepticism that Duncan had been "run over" by a groomer. He then offered the following alternative hypothesis:

On the other hand in crevasses the limbs of a person are more subjected to shearing injuries (better: damages) by the glacier movement--in the past I saw torsos (corpses without limbs) that were found in glaciers. On the other hand there are found single limb bones in glaciers too (the last case was a fibula found on the end of a glacier on the Nanga Parbat - supposed to be a part of the body of the brother of Reinhold Messner - a famous alpinist from southern tyrol).

Since Duncan's body was cremated, Dr. Rabl has maintained that the cause of his death was never determined. In a Dec. 5, 2003 email, he discouraged Lynda from filing a lawsuit against the Stubai Glacier on the following grounds:

My friend [a lawyer] estimates that your chances of success in such a proceeding would be very small. The main reason for this is the fact that the causal relationship between a possible misconduct of the glacier company and the death of Duncan cannot be determined with safety, because the definite cause of death remains unclear.

Rabl estimated the cause of death to be "non-asphytic suffocation," and he assumed that Duncan's limbs had been mangled by glacier ice, but he did not perform a forensic exam in order to confirm his estimation and his assumption.