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How could The Crown exploit a widow’s very private tragedy?

There is no monument or commemorative plaque to explain what happened, no cairn of stones to mark the spot where a roaring avalanche swept all before it.

For those involved there is no need: the events of that day in March 1988 will never be forgotten.

But there is now a memorial of sorts, thanks to the new series of The Crown. For it has used the events in which the Prince of Wales narrowly escaped death from what he described as a ‘whirling maelstrom’ of snow and ice as a metaphor for his disintegrating marriage with Princess Diana.

Of all the bogus claims dressed up as fact in this, the most controversial season of the Netflix drama, the Klosters skiing disaster is perhaps the most egregious.

The Duchess of York, Princess Diana and Prince Charles pose on the slopes the day before the tragedy 

For the real victim of the avalanche was not the domestic unhappiness of the Prince and Princess, but a close friend of the royal couple who was killed, leaving a young mother-to-be a grieving widow.

Last week it was revealed that Sarah Horsley, 67, had urged the makers of The Crown not to dramatise her late husband Major Hugh Lindsay’s death, and was ‘extremely upset’ when her appeal was ignored.

Mrs Horsley had been married for less than a year and was pregnant with her daughter, Alice, when Major Lindsay, 34, a former Equerry to the Queen, died.

She said she was ‘horrified’ when she learned that the incident was going to feature in the series, and was ‘very concerned about the impact on my daughter’.

She wrote to the producers, asking them not to include it. ‘I’m dreading people seeing it. I suppose I’ll have to grin and bear it, but for me it’s a very private tragedy,’ she said.

At the time of the accident, Mrs Horsley was working in the Buckingham Palace Press office — and actually fielded calls about the disaster before her husband’s death was disclosed. Her character features in several scenes of the show’s fourth season.

While episode nine, entitled Avalanche, does not show the dramatic events that took place when the Prince and his friends were skiing off piste in the Swiss Alps, it does show Charles having flashbacks of the accident.

Nor does it convey the shock and panic which overcame the party as the horror unfolded on the slopes, 5,600ft above the picturesque village of Klosters, where the Prince had been a winter visitor since his bachelor days ten years earlier.

Ski tragedy: Prince Charles and rescuers carry a stretcher after the Klosters avalanche in 1988

Ski tragedy: Prince Charles and rescuers carry a stretcher after the Klosters avalanche in 1988 

He could only watch helplessly as the thundering wall of snow hurled Major Lindsay and another friend, Patty Palmer-Tomkinson, over a precipice to fall for 400ft before hitting the slope again and falling another 400ft down the mountain, where they came to a halt buried under several feet of snow.

The Prince helped to dig out Mrs Palmer-Tomkinson, who had suffered multiple fractures but was alive and drifting in and out of consciousness, talking to her to keep her awake as they waited for help to arrive. She later described his words as ‘a lifeline’.

It took seven operations and months in hospital to fix her broken limbs, which needed 40 screws and six metal plates in her legs before she could walk again.

When news of the accident broke, it flashed around the world. And for a brief moment the world held its breath, wondering whether the unthinkable had happened and the heir to the British throne was among the casualties.

In those days, long before mobile phones or social media, the wait for information seemed interminable. I was among the reporters in Klosters desperately waiting for details of what had happened and to whom.

It is hard to describe the frenzy among the journalists who had descended on the alpine village — the Prince and Princess of Wales’s skiing holiday was one of the big events of the royal calendar — but also among those in the royal party who were not on the mountain.

Of one thing we were certain: Princess Diana was not with her husband. She had not skied at all that day, after arriving in the resort earlier in the week with flu.

But what of the daredevil Duchess of York, who was then 14 weeks pregnant with Princess Beatrice? She had, we knew, been skiing with the royal party earlier in the day.

She was also certainly accomplished enough to have joined the group on any forays off-piste.

Dramatic license: Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Alana Ramsey as Sarah Lindsay (now Horsley) in The Crown

Dramatic license: Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Alana Ramsey as Sarah Lindsay (now Horsley) in The Crown 

Thursday, March 10, had dawned with the promise of a magnificent day’s skiing.

The previous day, when the royals had posed for their official photocall — at which Diana had slipped and fallen — the weather had not seemed promising. Despite the storyline of The Crown, things between Charles and Diana were actually rather good.

They had recently returned from a hugely successful tour of Australia — their third in five years — with friends claiming it had breathed new life into their seven-year-old marriage.

Now, after several days of snowfall and with the prospect of sunlit mountains, Charles, Fergie and Major Lindsay, who was the Prince’s guest, were anxious to make the most of the conditions.

Joining the party were Mrs Palmer-Tomkinson and her husband, Charlie, a brilliant skier with whom the Prince shared a love for the solitude of the mountains. The Prince is godfather to their novelist daughter, Santa Montefiore.

With none of the royal bodyguards good enough to ski with them, Swiss policeman Sgt Stefan Cadruvi completed the party.

At lunch they were joined by Bruno Sprecher, one of the resort’s most experienced guides, who had been invited by Fergie.

They decided to take a cable car to the top station, the Gotschnagrat, and then follow the Haglamadd, an unmarked and difficult route which lay between two runs they had skied in the morning.

It took them to the entrance of a steep and narrow gully which had sheer rock on one side and a precipice on the other, and where they paused for breath.

Their destination was the ‘Wang’ — one of the most challenging and forbidding runs in Europe.

Just before 3pm, the clatter of a rescue helicopter swooping at speed above our heads was the first warning that all was not well.

Rumours spread quickly that there was an emergency involving the royal party.

We soon established that Fergie had returned to the royal chalet at lunchtime and was with Diana. Prince Andrew who was on Naval duties, was not on the trip.

It also emerged that earlier in the day, while skiing with Charles, the Duchess had fallen heavily, and had plunged into a rocky ravine and ended up upside down in a mountain stream.

Badly shaken and with icicles hanging from her hair, she was helped to the bottom of the run and then taken to a clinic for a medical check-up.

On any other day, such perilous behaviour would have led to coverage about her posing such risks to her unborn child. But things were about to get a lot worse.

In their secluded chalet at Wolfgang, a hamlet between Klosters and Davos, the two royal sisters-in-law also heard the helicopter and were filled with foreboding.

Prince Charles later talked about what had happened. Suddenly, he said, there was a great roar of noise. Looking up, he saw slabs of snow crashing towards them. ‘I’ve never forgotten the sound of it,’ he recalled, ‘the whole mountain apparently exploding outwards.’

Sprecher took the lead and shouted ‘Jump’ and ‘Go, sir, go’. The Prince instinctively obeyed and joined him on a ledge on the other side of the gully.

So, too, did Mr Palmer-Tomkinson and Sgt Cadruvi.

But ‘to my horror, Major Lindsay and Mrs Palmer-Tomkinson were swept away in a whirling maelstrom as the whole mountain seemed to hurtle past us into the valley below. It was all over in a terrifying matter of seconds’.

Sprecher was first down the slope while Cadruvi called for help. He quickly located Mrs Palmer-Tomkinson, thanks to the avalanche bleepers they were all wearing.

By the time the Prince and her husband arrived, Sprecher had dug out her head and was giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

He thrust a shovel at Charles to dig her clear, and the Prince used his hands, too, while Sprecher went looking for Major Lindsay.

He found him 15 yards away under 3ft of snow. He had suffered a fractured skull and had died in the fall.

All this time the Prince was working on Mrs Palmer-Tomkinson. Her face was blue, and at first there was no reaction, but he kept talking to her, reassuring her that all would be well.

It was so cold that when a doctor arrived in the rescue helicopter, he could not give her a morphine injection because the drug had frozen in the syringe.

The Prince, however, remembered that when Patricia Brabourne’s life was in the balance after the IRA bomb that killed her father Earl Mountbatten, it was the sound of the doctors talking at her bedside which she believed had saved her.

Charles recalled: ‘When people are unconscious, the great thing is to talk to them, and encourage them. I went on talking and said: ‘Patty, it’s going to be all right. There’s nothing to worry about. We’re going to get you out. Gradually, she started to mumble.’

Charles did not stop talking until Mrs Palmer-Tomkinson was safely inside the helicopter for the flight to Davos hospital.

None of this was known down in the valley where Prince Charles’s Press secretary, Philip Mackie, had arrived at the royal chalet.

He didn’t know there was anyone there, and so the Duchess and the Princess heard him on the phone saying: ‘There’s been an accident’.

Diana and Sarah shouted down from their bedrooms, asking what was going on. Mackie, a blustering Scotsman and former newspaper executive, tried to shrug off their questions, but Diana would not take no for an answer.

He told them all he knew: there had been an accident on the slopes and one of the party was dead.

For what seemed like an eternity, the two women sat at the top of the chalet’s stairs, waiting anxiously for news.

Then a call came through that the victim was a man, and moments later Prince Charles himself rang Mackie to tell him that Major Lindsay had been killed.

Both Diana and Fergie were overcome with shock and grief. They adored Hugh, who had been with them at Royal Ascot the previous summer when they were photographed in the Royal Enclosure playfully jabbing him in the backside with umbrellas.

Avalanche victim: Major Hugh Lindsay and his wife Sarah

Avalanche victim: Major Hugh Lindsay and his wife Sarah 

Before Charles returned, Diana packed Lindsay’s suitcase, including in it his signet ring, wristwatch and a black curly wig which he had used for an Al Jolson impersonation that had the chalet in uproar only the night before.

But the full horror of what had happened was yet to sink in, and there was an endless stream of visitors to the chalet, including a Swiss official who wanted an account of the accident.

Charlie Palmer-Tomkinson returned from the hospital, where his wife had been stabilised and, evidently still in shock, was talking about returning to the slopes in the morning.

Prince Charles was more concerned about protecting the reputation of Bruno Sprecher, whom he feared would be pilloried by the media for recklessly leading them to disaster. (In fact, the criticism was largely directed at Charles.)

Princess Diana, however, was insistent that it was their first duty to return to Britain with Major Lindsay’s body. It was the least they could do for his widow, Sarah, she said.

The following day they flew back to RAF Northolt, where a guard-of-honour from Major Lindsay’s regiment, the 9th/12th Royal Lancers, met his coffin.

The Prince and Princess continued their support for Mrs Lindsay in the months and years afterwards. Charles is godfather to Alice, and, until her death, Diana was a constant source of strength to Sarah, who was invited to Highgrove and to Kensington Palace.

‘She was a dear friend, someone I could ring at midnight and say: ‘Life is pretty grim’,’ Sarah later recalled of the Princess.

Diana told her she would never return to Klosters, and she kept her word. Charles and the Palmer-Tomkinsons came to a different conclusion: because of what had happened to Hugh, they felt they could never go anywhere else.

Mrs Horsley, who remarried in 1996, fully understood all of this. But despite receiving ‘a very kind letter’ from the producers of The Crown, which assured her they dealt with such difficult matters with integrity and sensitivity, her wishes, she said, were ignored.


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