Charles as a skier in 1994. YouTube

Unlucky prince

In 1988, Prince Charles of England was caught in an avalanche in Klosters. While he got away with a shock, his friend died in the snow. The accident had drastic consequences.

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw has a PhD in history and is a performance poet and author. He regularly publishes historical books.

In episode 9 of season 4 titled "Avalanche", the Netflix series "The Crown" portrays it as a key moment in the life of the Prince of Wales, while today, at the scene of the event in Klosters, nothing reminds of the accident. It was on March 10, 1988: After four days of cloudy skies and 50 centimetres of fresh snow, the sun was finally shining again. The day before, the royal family welcomed around 80 photographers from England, Germany, France and Switzerland on the ski slopes in Klosters – for just three minutes! Prince Charles poses in a mouse-gray, one-piece ski suit, his then wife Diana in black with narrow red and green stripes and his sister-in-law Sarah Ferguson in purple. The royal trio makes a few turns at the Salfranga ski lift, the photographers click as fast and as often as they can. When Diana plumps down for a brief moment, the hours of waiting for the paparazzi paid off. The photo of Diana sitting in the snow would go around the world.
The royal family on a ski holiday in Klosters. YouTube

The whole mountain crumbles to the valley

But then, the next day, it happens. Prince Charles is skiing with a five other people in the Gotschnagrat area. At 2:50 p.m., the group of six takes the "open Gotschnawang" for the third time. The English indulge in so-called variant skiing, that is to say, enjoy the fresh deep snow outside the marked slopes, although the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research has warned of the "considerable risk of slab avalanches". A larger slab is triggered, Prince Charles later said, that "the whole mountainside seemed to hurtle past us". The avalanche caught two people of the royal group and dragged them down around 450 meters. Bruno Sprecher, a former ski racer and mountain guide who accompanied the English, acts immediately. He alerts the police, orders a rescue helicopter, rushes to the avalanche cone in order to locate and dig those buried with a search device. Sprecher finds the seriously injured woman, administers mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and hands the shovel to the prince, who tries to uncover the woman further. In order not to hurt her, Charles digs with his bare hands. The buried Patty Palmer-Tomkinson survived thanks to the immediate help of Sprecher and Charles. The rescue workers find Hugh Lindsay in the avalanche almost 100 meters up the slope, but the 34-year-old major is already dead. Lindsay had previously worked as a stable master for Queen Elizabeth II and served as a soldier in Northern Ireland, Germany and Oman. Prince Charles describes him as a "close friend". He leaves behind a pregnant wife. As the rescue helicopter landed in the avalanche area, the prince is said to have sobbed and trembled, eyewitnesses report.
Image of the accident site from March 10, 1988.
Image of the accident site from March 10, 1988. SLF Davos

The prince takes the blame

Little by little, more details of the accident come to light. At first it was said that a mountain guide headed the group and led them into the avalanche slope. Later, it is rectified that the mountain guide Bruno Sprecher only traveled with the group as a private guest. Charles says of the Swiss mountain guide: "He lived up to his noble profession. We will always be grateful to him." Presumably, the royal family wants to protect the local mountain guide, after all, Charles enjoys diplomatic immunity and can avoid a possible prosecution in Switzerland. This is probably why the prince takes the blame in front of the media. "It was the prince who led the group down an extremely steep slope, despite massive warnings of slab avalanche risks", it said in a report by the press agency "spk". The British media target Charles: They criticize the Prince of Wales for his inclination to dangerous sports and ask him to refrain from such senseless and dangerous pastimes. But Charles also has to go to the hospital in Davos briefly and is in shock. He wants to continue his skiing vacation. Diana, who passed on skiing that afternoon, convinces him otherwise. She urges Charles to break off the vacation immediately and, out of piety, to fly back to London with Hugh Lindsay's coffin. The Prince of Wales wants to hold a press conference in London, but Diana and the Royals' press relations office convince him to only publish a message on his behalf.
Princess Diana and Prince Charles skiing in Klosters on March 9, 1988.
Princess Diana and Prince Charles skiing in Klosters on March 9, 1988. Keystone / Str

Consequences for Charles and Diana's marriage

The disaster in the snow has fatal consequences in the married life of Charles and Diana. The royal biographer James Whitaker writes: "The day the Klosters avalanche was triggered was the day Diana finally hardened her heart against her husband." After the plane landed in England, the couple separated immediately. Charles hides in the private residence, Highgrove House; Diana, on the other hand, goes to Kensington Palace to comfort Lindsay's pregnant widow. The story is so dramatic that it has found its way into the Netflix series "The Crown". But the accident also had consequences in the canton of Grisons. The public prosecutor's office starts an official investigation. Is the prince to blame for the misfortune, as he himself said? Is it the fault of the mountain guide who should have known the avalanche slope? The investigation, in which the English prince also participates, takes four months. But on June 27, 1988, the Grisons public prosecutor closed the case. It argues that the mountain guide did not accompany the group in an official capacity, but as a private acquaintance. And because no one single person led the group into the avalanche slope, it is a "risk-bearing community" of which no one is to blame.
Prince Charles in Scuol-Tarasp in 1963: Here he learns to ski, which will become his passion.
Prince Charles in Scuol-Tarasp in 1963: Here he learns to ski, which will become his passion. ETH Library
Prince Charles in Klosters on January 5, 1999.
Prince Charles in Klosters on January 5, 1999. Swiss National Museum / ASL
Today, there is no reminder of the tragic accident at the site. The mountain railway of Klosters honored Prince Charles, who has been visiting the ski resort for 40 years, with a cabin on the Gotschna cable car, which was henceforth called "Prince of Wales" and was labeled accordingly. However, the label has since been removed, instead the advertising space went to a finance company that is now promoting its asset management there. And the avalanche slope is still unsecured, but has been ruled out as a game reserve, so nothing more should happen.

The Royals are coming

13.03.2021 03.10.2021 / Forum Schweizer Geschichte Schwyz
The list of royal visitors to Switzerland is long – and equally impressive: Emperor Wilhelm II, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Queen Elizabeth, Astrid, Queen of the Belgians, and Queen Victoria. These are some of the many crowned heads who have visited Switzerland. Their reasons for doing are so as varied as their backgrounds. Whether for a state visit, rest and recreation, or even exile, crowned heads have long favoured Switzerland as a destination. The exhibition reflects the diversity of royal visitors to Switzerland and features fascinating stories and impressive mementos of their time here.

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