Episode nine of season four of The Crown, ‘Avalanche’, is set in 1988 and follows the Queen and Prince Philip as they learn that their son and heir, Prince Charles, may or may not have been killed in a devastating avalanche on the ski slopes in Switzerland.
In the series, Charles is (historical spoiler alert) recovered unharmed, but the incident and the related death of a close friend leaves the prince even more uncertain about his relationship with Princess Diana, and sees him reevaluating his commitment to her.
But what was the real-life story behind the Swiss avalanche, and was Prince Charles really “feet from death”?
Did Prince Charles get caught in an avalanche?
On Thursday 10th March 1988, Prince Charles (played by Josh O’Connor in The Crown cast) was among a royal party who were caught out during an avalanche while skiing off-piste at the Swiss resort of Klosters, on Gotschnagrat Mountain. His close friend Major Hugh Lindsay was killed.
The Prince and his party, accompanied by a local ski instructor Bruno Sprecher and two Swiss security guards, had been skiing off-piste near the notoriously difficult Wang run. The avalanche started above the group at 2:45pm.
“Prince Charles ‘feet from death’,” ran The Times headline; “Prince in fatal ski incident,” said The Guardian.
Prince Charles, who first learned to ski at the age of 14, managed to ski to safety alongside other members of the party, excepting two individuals. Charles and others then began digging as they searched for the two missing members of their party.
Swiss journalist Elizabeth Suter had been close by, and reported that Charles had said, “I am shocked,” before breaking down in tears. He then added: “The Queen must be told.”
Eye-witness Marie Griffiths told reporters that she saw the “distressed” but uninjured Prince being airlifted off Gotschnagrat Mountain.
She said: “As far as I know he hadn’t been injured. He looked very distressed, somebody said he was crying, but he did walk to the helicopter so he looked uninjured.”
Hans Luggauer, the helicopter pilot who airlifted Prince Charles to safety, was quoted as saying the heir apparent had been “feet from death” at the time the avalanche struck. Luggauer arrived 20 minutes after the incident, and described seeing the Prince digging in the snow with his hands.
Peter Balsiger, editor-in-chief of Zurich-based newspaper Blick, said he was told the Prince helped dig one victim out of the snow (Associated Press News).
Who was Charles with during the avalanche?
Major Hugh Lindsay, former equerry to the Queen, and Patricia ‘Patti’ Palmer-Tomkinson were both among the skiing party, and both were carried 400 metres down the ski slope when the avalanche struck. The rest of the group had managed to ski to safety.
Major Hugh Lindsay was killed in the avalanche. He had married his wife Sarah just two years prior; she worked for the Buckingham Palace press office, and was six months pregnant at the time of her husband’s death.
Patti Palmer-Tomkinson was found by rescuers and responded to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation given by Bruno Sprecher, but suffered serious leg and lung injuries in the accident, and was taken to the intensive care ward at the hospital in Davos. Her husband Charles was also among the ski party.
The Times reported that it was “with considerable help from the Prince” that she had been extricated from the snow, prior to the discovery of Lindsay’s body.
After the accident, the Prince returned to the royal party’s chalet, where the BBC reported that the Princess of Wales (Princess Diana) and the pregnant Duchess of York had spent the afternoon. (Neither woman had been on the ski slope at the time of the avalanche.)
BBC TV News reported that, following the accident, the Queen spoke via telephone to the assembled royal family at the chalet. She had been informed of the accident during a visit to the Queen’s tennis club, London, where she was carrying out royal duties to mark the centenary celebrations of the Lawn Tennis Association.
What happened after the avalanche?
Major Hugh Lindsay’s body was brought home on 11th March 1988, arriving by royal airplane at RAF Northolt, Middlesex. The then Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, stood beside Lindsay’s wife Sarah on the tarmac. Both women were pregnant at the time.
Princess Diana and Prince Charles also stood beside Sarah Lindsay as the flag-draped coffin was carried past. Before leaving Switzerland, Charles had issued a statement defending Bruno Sprecher; stating that the party had all known the “risks” involved; and describing the “horror” he felt when both Lindsay and Patti Palmer-Tomlinson were swept away: “It was all over in a terrifying matter of seconds.”
Major Hugh Lindsay’s mother reportedly insisted that Prince Charles, who had led the tragic ski expedition on 10th March, was in no way to blame for her son’s death.
The weather had been fine the week prior to the avalanche, but ski instructor Sprecher later faced questions about why the royal party had been allowed on the notorious slope, and was strongly criticised in the Swiss press.
Locals alleged that even ski instructors weren’t allowed on that particular section of the mountain, and only expert military skiers were allowed to attempt it. However, Charles Palmer-Tomkinson, one of the royal party, subsequently defended Sprecher: “It was an act of God.”
Speaking to The Times four days after the incident, Palmer-Tomkinson (whose own father had been captain of the British ski team before dying in a mountain accident), said his injured wife Patti was in “good heart” but that they were both “desperately sad” about the death of Major Hugh Lindsay.
“We love the mountains… As Prince Charles says, we accept the risks. No man is infallible. People take guides [like Sprecher] on the mountains because they minimise the risk. You don’t eliminate the risk by taking a guide,” he said, before adding: “I am terribly upset about Bruno. He is being blamed by everyone… but he was just along as a guest.”
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