They stood four abreast, a mournful group on the tarmac at Northolt, a Royal Air Force base 11 miles west of London. At one end was Prince Charles, grim-faced and wearing a dark-blue suit; at the other end, the Duchess of York, dressed in black. Between them, also in black and, at times, holding hands tightly, were Princess Diana and Sarah Lindsay, 35, a palace press aide. The object of the quartet's grief, heartbreakingly obvious, was the battered figure in the union jack-draped coffin, which members of the 9th/12th Royal Lancers Regiment were so carefully carrying from one of the Queen's jets to a waiting hearse.

The dead man was Maj. Hugh Lindsay, 34, Sarah Lindsay's husband and the father of the child she is expecting in May. He was also a longtime friend of the royal family's—Di was a guest at his wedding last July—a former equerry to Queen Elizabeth and a skiing companion of Charles. It was in that last capacity that he lost his life two weeks ago, on a mountain in Switzerland, when he was buried in an avalanche near the resort of Klosters. A day later, as his body was returned to England, Charles, Diana and all Britain were well aware of how easily the prince himself could have been killed.

A licensed pilot, a trained parachutist and an avid polo player, the 39-year-old Charles has never been known for playing it safe. There is a feeling in England that he relishes the role of man of action, testing the limits of a life that seems bounded on all sides by public functions. It was in keeping with the prince's character—and his skills as a highly accomplished skier—to take on the Gotschnawang run and the unmarked one beside it, both considered among the most treacherous slopes at Klosters. On previous visits to this small Swiss resort town near the Austrian border, Charles had skied the "Wang" (pronounced Vang) nearly a dozen times.

On the afternoon of March 10, as Diana, an unenthusiastic skier, relaxed at the royals' rented chalet with the pregnant Duchess of York, Charles set off to conquer the Wang once again. With him were Major Lindsay, his longtime skiing pals Patti and Charles Palmer-Tomkinson, a Swiss policeman (the prince's Scotland Yard guards were not up to the run) and Fergie's off-duty Swiss mountain guide, Bruno Sprecher, whom Charles had invited as a guest.

Apparently the group ignored avalanche warnings that had been posted at the Davos weather center nearby. They were resting between runs on a ridge 6,500 feet up the mountain when suddenly, according to a statement handwritten by the prince and issued the day after the accident, "the avalanche started with a tremendous roaring." Sprecher yelled to him, "Go, sir, go, go, go!" and Charles, Sprecher, the policeman and Charles Palmer-Tomkinson managed, barely, to ski out of harm's way. Not so fortunate were Lindsay and Patti Palmer-Tomkinson. They were, Charles said, "swept away in a whirling maelstrom as the mountainside seemed to hurtle past us."

Sprecher immediately told the Swiss policeman to radio for medical assistance and then skied down to find the two victims, who were wearing bleeper devices, as do most off-trail skiers. Charles and the others quickly followed and, after digging furiously for 10 minutes with Sprecher's spade and their bare hands through 12 feet of snow, uncovered their companions. Sprecher revived Mrs. Palmer-Tomkinson with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She had a collapsed lung and had broken both legs, but survived. Lindsay was dead from a blow to the head.

Almost immediately, there was speculation about how such an avoidable tragedy should have occurred. Charles, who was leading the group, was assigned—and readily accepted—much of the blame. "I can't understand what the royal group was doing on the Wang," said one local. "It is notoriously bad for avalanches." Many in the resort town felt that Sprecher should have kept the party from even attempting the run. "Personally," said a senior instructor at the Klosters ski school, "I would have told the prince's group that they were totally mad to go skiing in that area." Charles, in his statement, thanked Sprecher for his "invaluable help."

Swiss authorities say Charles cooperated with them fully, giving a complete statement concerning the accident. It would appear that he is in the clear since the Swiss examining magistrate says that "whatever the outcome, he will not have to answer charges." It remains to be seen how he will square Lindsay's death with his conscience. He was visibly distraught at the scene and was quoted as muttering, as helicopters evacuated his dead and injured friends, "I am to blame." The fear among some royal-watchers is that the prince, a thoughtful and sensitive man, may retreat still further into introspective isolation. "I personally believe he will never ski again," says one. "He is a deep and caring man, and as a result of his action a friend has died."

The grieving prince met with his mother, Queen Elizabeth, at Windsor Castle immediately after his return to England. Sharing his sorrow, she nevertheless is believed to have told him he is too close to the throne to continue, in the name of sport, to court such danger. Yet Charles Palmer-Tomkinson, whose wife is still hospitalized in Switzerland, said last week that he doubts that the prince will become a stay-at-home. "He is not a man who is put off by anything. He is a man of great spiritualism and resolution," he said. "The perception of danger was something we often talked about. We found that danger acceptable."

—By Bonnie Johnson, with Jonathan Cooper in Klosters and Rosemary Thorpe-Tracey in London