Thursday, May 23, 2013

Multimedia Snowboard Tragedies

I like to put these snowboard book reviews into themes, because no one reading something on the interweb wants to read about individual reads they aren't going to read, so I look to see if there are any interesting trends to be found that you might be interested in. This time out I ended up picking up all of the two non-fiction books that have ever been written about snowboarding tragedies to see what's going down in that genre. Cheery. There were two trends; the first trend was that every single one of these books is written by blokes named John, and the second was that that both stories were much more than just books, they had developed into fully blown multimedia experiences. So for people who don't like reading, this is the read for you. Stick with this and there'll be all sorts of opportunities to look at pictures, click buttons, watch videos, Facebook Like stuff and abuse people in comments sections...

Cold a Long Time by John Leake
It seems the story of Duncan MacPherson's disappearance got a fair bit of coverage in Canada, but not much outside of that, so I'd never heard anything about it before I picked up the book. The book is self-published so the quality of the cover and the printing wasn't good, my expectations were low and I only picked it out because I'm a sucker for crappy snowboarding related books. Then I was blown-away by it.

Let's start our multimedia journey with the book trailer video, every good book has to have one these days. Somehow this lad managed to snag Bill Paxton and his drawl to do the narrator duties.
Having watched that you might be thinking that with the sinister music, the overuse of the word mystery and the interview sections with the over-animated author you wouldn't get tired of slapping, that this book has conspiracy bollocks written all over it. That's what I thought when I started reading the book and I hadn't seen this trailer.

For the first half of the book the genuinely disturbing information was swamped by John Leake's slightly hysterical writing style and his conspiracies about things that really just sounded like just your run-of-the-mill incompetence and shitty bureaucracy. I was close to putting the thing down, but then I hit the second half of the book and suddenly things got interesting. It turns out that despite first appearances John Leake did the graft, produced the evidence and was able to back up his claims. This is not a flaky conspiracy theory, it's actually the true story of how a number of people in a ski resort managed to cover up a terrible thing and got away scot free.

------------------------------Spoiler Alert------------------------------
Normally the last thing you want to know about a book that's promoted as a mystery is what actually happens in the end, but this story is different. This story need spoiling. It's a whole lot better if you actually know what happened before you start. In fact the promotion of a story like this as a mystery reduced the otherwise powerful impact of the events and undersells the book. Instead of being presented as a who-done-it it should be a how-did-they-do-it. The the real story is how it happened and the nasty shenanigans that occurred afterwards. So here's what happened:

On the 9th August 1989, Duncan MacPherson, a Canadian former ice hockey player disappeared on a solo trip in Europe.
By the 16th August his parents were alerted that he hadn't turned up for a job he was starting in sunny Scotland.

Then heaps of incompetence and bureaucracy took place as the various police forces and diplomatic services muddled their way through their working weeks.

On the 20 September the car he'd borrowed from a friend in Germany was found in the car park of the Stubai Glacier in Austria with all of his belongings in. It had sat there for 42 days, while the resort was open, without anyone apparently noticing.
It's hard to spot, but it's the red one.
On the 9th August he'd taken the gondola up to the glacier, rented a snowboard set-up and taken some beginner lessons. According to the rental shop he'd returned his snowboard gear that afternoon and after that no one ever saw him again. The local police assumed that he either decided to walk down the mountain and died somewhere on route, or he somehow went snowboarding again on an imaginary snowboard and fell into a crevasse in one of the marked-off areas away from the marked ski run.

The somewhat inept searches were called off on the 14th October and by the 14th January 1990 the case closed and his disappearance was put down to an unspecified case of 'mountain accident'.

14 years later, on the 18th July 2003, on a very warm day, his body appeared, in a shallow crevasse right in the middle of the slope.
The red arrow is where he died and the black arrow is where his body was found 14 years later
He was found with all the rented snowboard equipment everyone had insisted he'd returned on the day he died.

The body was recovered by the piste grooming team (except for the bits they missed that his parents found when they went to have a look later), some more cursory and botched police work ensued, no one wondered how the rental gear had suddenly reappeared, no one bothered doing an autopsy and by the 6th October the case was closed again and this time his demise was put down to a bad bit of 'accidental death.'

After this the parents slowly started to come to the realisation that it wasn't quite that nice and simple. When they finally got hold of the x-rays and photos from the Austrian pathologist and Duncan's effects which included the rental equipment they started to notice that things were significantly amiss.
For starters, this was the snowboard. Have you ever had a snowboard accident which tore your snowboard to shreds? Me neither.
The snowboard wasn't just broken, it was ripped apart by something very powerful. His clothing had also been shredded including his left boot lining although the left boot itself was separate and undamaged, there were three unaccountable gloves left with his body, both his left and right hands had been cut off, his left leg had been severed entirely below the knee and in the middle of the thigh and it was apparent that all this damage happened before he went into the glacier.

Here's where the multimedia thing kicks in again. If you want to see the details (and it's just a tad minging) it's all there in glorious technicolour on the book's website along with chocks more evidence including the photos used here. There's no doubt at all that this lad was horribly mangled by some heavy machinery on the day he died. Here's what the evidence suggests happened:
  • In the afternoon of the 9th August Duncan MacPherson was the last one on the slope when he fell and suffered a serious injury, presumably a broken leg, which is why he was unstrapped from the board and his left boot was off. He was alone on the hill in fog so no one was able to see him in trouble.
  • At some point later that day he was hit by a piste groomer and dragged into the tiller which caused all the damaged to him and the equipment.
The tiller is the spiny spiky bit at the back of the pistie beastie.
  • His body was then jimmied out of the mechanism by at least two piste workers and chucked into a convenient crevasse, along with the gloves that they'd got bloody during the extraction. The crevasse was then covered in snow to hide the evidence.
  • The rental shop owner covered up that the snowboard wasn't returned at the end of the day. In 2003 the rental shop owner sent a letter to the parents denying that they ever stocked Duret snowboards, despite clarifying that they did in police reports at time of the disappearance and the Duret snowboard having their identity shop rental stickers on it. That's taking denial to an incredible level.
  • The snowboard instructor who had taught him in the morning, who was expecting to see him the next day for another lesson and who was looking after his clothing, didn't alert anyone to the disappearance.
  • The resort employees didn't notice the car parked for 42 days.
  • The police were incredibly work-shy at all opportunities.
  • The forensic pathologist didn't run an autopsy when the body was found in 2003.
  • The prosecutor dismissed the case out of hand.
And that, my friends, is how you cover up a dead body in a ski resort.

If you find all that just a little bit disturbing then have a watch of this 45 minute long documentary on the CBC website which is well worth the time. The Fifth Estate - A Cold Case

And to finish off your multimedia experience I'd recommend getting a hold of the book. It might be an odd writing style but there's loads more to this story and it's so bonkers you'll struggle to put it down.

Next, I got this on my Kindle.
Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch & The New York Times
It was a sad story. It was short. It brought me nothing.

At least that was that case, until I subsequently found out that it was not just an ebook, the story itself was just the base of an incredible online article, with interactive graphics, interviews and video elements. The New York Times wanted to produce an article that made full use of all of the opportunities the internet has brought together. I'm not sure why they chose this particular story to really go to town on, but they did and it took something from being ordinary to being brilliant. It took a team of people several months to produce and it's since won a Pultizer prize (we haven't even got one of those). So, don't buy the crappy ebook (whoever organised that bit was really letting the side down), instead clear about two hours of the time you'd normally waste watching CSI reruns and have a go at this: Snow Fall

Enough of this. Happy summer snowboarding season!

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  1. I am Duncan MacPherson's mother, and just wanted to thank you for posting a review of the book; we appreciate it.

  2. I'm sorry for your loss, Mrs. MacPherson. My old man, who used his big and tough to get out of Northern Ontario, always said that your son was a fantastic player.

  3. hi, just saw your post now. Thanks for your kind words. By the way, who was your Dad?

  4. My Dad is Leo Martel. He played OHL preparing for the NHL scouts in the 60's until he was badly injured in an accident. After he married my mum he started a football club in Sault Ste. Marie.
    I remember many nights being sent to the pre TV converter television to change the channel so that we could watch your boy play.
    If there is anything our family can do to help you in your quest please contact us at

  5. Sorry, somehow posted under my husband's account but this is thegirl44.


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