"Avalanche," the ninth episode of season five of The Crown, is one of the Netflix series' most powerful yet—and not just because of actress Emma Corrin's spot-on rendition of Princess Diana's instantly iconic dance to Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl." Perhaps even more intense than the marital issues shown to be rapidly bubbling up between Diana and Prince Charles, both before and after her gutsy performance, is the episode's exploration of the March 1988 avalanche that killed a close friend of the royal family.
That tragic accident really did happen, taking place during one of Charles and Diana's regular trips to the swanky Klosters ski resort in Switzerland with their closest friends and family. Though Diana was fortunately not on the slopes that fateful day, Charles was, but miraculously avoided being caught in the snowslide, which injured one member of their group and killed another, Major Hugh Lindsay, a former aide to Queen Elizabeth. Here's the true story of the avalanche and its aftermath.
Was Prince Charles trapped by the avalanche?
Luckily, no, though he was on the slope when it happened; meanwhile, Diana and Sarah Ferguson, who was then married to Charles' brother Prince Andrew, had stayed back to spend the day in the party's chalet. According to a March 1988 report from The Guardian, the palace said in a statement that Charles, Lindsay, and two other members of their group were standing on Gotschnagrat Mountain, away from designated ski runs, when a cascade of snow began moving down the very steep slope.
Everyone was able to escape the avalanche's path except Lindsay and Patricia Palmer-Tomkinson, who broke both legs in the accident. After the snowslide had ceased, Charles and the rest of the group immediately began digging out the two trapped skiers. Lindsay was reportedly pronounced dead on arrival after being airlifted to a hospital in nearby Davos. When Charles was rescued from the slope by another helicopter, he was reportedly "visibly distressed" and "weeping," according to eyewitnesses that included the helicopter's pilot.
According to a June 1988 report from the Los Angeles Times, a subsequent investigation found that while Charles could not be charged for Lindsay's death and Palmer-Tomkinson's injuries, his entire group was determined to be at fault for the accident, since an avalanche warning had reportedly been issued that day, and the group had willingly followed Charles, a very experienced skier, down a challenging, unmarked slope.
How did Charles and Diana react to the accident?
The royals and the rest of their group cut their trip short and returned home shortly after the avalanche, with Diana telling her biographer Andrew Morton that she took charge of the plans since her husband was still very shaken up by the accident. Charles and Diana attended Lindsay's funeral a week after he died, accompanied by Queen Elizabeth, Prince Andrew, and Sarah Ferguson.
Despite this seemingly united show of support, however, the accident reportedly exacerbated the already sizable strain in Charles and Diana's marriage. According to Tina Brown's biography, The Diana Chronicles, Diana not only "blamed Charles for his recklessness in choosing such a hazardous run," but also chose to spend subsequent weeks not with her husband but by the side of Lindsay's widow, Sarah Horsley—a close relationship that would continue for years to come. Charles, meanwhile, was feeling intense guilt over the tragedy, reportedly later writing in a letter that "I still find it hard to understand why I survived and he didn't.
As palace housekeeper Wendy Berry summed it up, per Brown's book, "The tragedy affected the rest of their lives, in several ways, since it appeared to spell the end of any mutual support."
Despite the sorrow attached to the ski resort, the royals have continued to retreat to Klosters often in the years following the fateful avalanche, with Charles bringing his sons, Princes William and Harry, to learn to ski on the elite slopes several times through the '90s and early 2000s. Harry went on to spend a chunk of his gap year in Klosters, and Williams first photograph with Kate Middleton dates back to a 2004 trip to the ski town.
Has the royal family commented on The Crown's portrayal of the avalanche?
In line with the precedent they've set since The Crown first premiered, the queen and her family have refrained from making any public comments on this or any other episode (though they've been rumored to be avid watchers of the show throughout its run). However, Lindsay's widow did speak out about the onscreen depiction of her husband's death.
Horsley, who was six months pregnant with their daughter at the time of Lindsay's death and was then working in the Buckingham Palace press office, told The Sunday Telegraph that she contacted Netflix in advance to ask them not to dramatize the horrific accident. "I suppose members of the royal family have to grin and bear it, but for me it's a very private tragedy," she said. Horsley reportedly received a "very kind" letter in return explaining that while the show's creators understood her wish, they couldn't grant it, but hoped that she would "feel that they deal with difficult subject matters with integrity and great sensitivity."
Horsley said she was "horrified" at the prospect of her husband's tragic death being recreated onscreen, noting that she was especially worried about its potential impact on their daughter (whose godfather is Prince Charles). "I won't be watching it, it's just too upsetting to see something like that," she said, adding, "Perhaps at some point in the future, Alice and I will watch it quietly together. It will be tough. My daughter has only heard about the accident from me, because she wasn't even born when it happened."