Archduke Alfonso de Borbon’s 1989 Vail death remains the only dark spot on one of Vail’s brightest moments
BEAVER CREEK — It was the skiing accident that made international headlines and cast a brief pall over (what was then) the most important international sporting event to ever land in Colorado.
It was Jan. 30, 1989, and the FIS World Alpine Ski Championships had finally returned to the United States for the first time since 1950. Aspen had been the last U.S. resort to host, in 1950, after war-ravaged Europe was unable to host in 1950. Vail had been hosting international ski races since the early 1960s when Vail Pioneer Dick Hauserman started bringing them to the valley. For those 1989 World Championships, 42 countries sent teams.
But the death of Spanish Archduke Alfonso de Borbon y de Dampierre just days before the start of racing made for an awkward start to what was one of Vail’s brightest moments.
We’re better for the ’89s
The 1989 World Championships left dozens of positive changes in its wake and Vail is better for it.
• We remember American Tamara McKinney’s gold and bronze medals.
• We remember concerts by Bonnie Raitt, John Denver and The Beach Boys.
• We remember Italian star Alberto Tomba’s response to a question about his World Championship goals: “My aim is to tear down the sky.”
• We remember the Austrian ski team encamped on Pepi’s deck.
• We remember Itzhak Perlman’s brilliant performance, transforming Dobson Ice Arena from a hockey rink into a concert hall. You can trace the origins of Vail’s International Dance Festival to that Perlman concert. The same guy who brought him to Vail for the ’89 World Championships also brought the dance festival to town later that summer.
• We remember the massive snowstorm that postponed the downhill races and the images of several feet of new powder broadcast to snow-starved Europe. It kicked Vail’s international marketing into hyperdrive.
• Besides the World Championships, a train carrying chemicals derailed in Camp Hale.
• Also, serial killer Ted Bundy was executed by the state of Florida. Before he went, he confessed to several murders, including the slaying of Vail ski instructor Julie Cunningham in March 1975 and Michigan nurse Caryn Campbell, who was visiting Aspen at the time of her January 1975 murder.
• We remember that Paula Palmateer organized more than 1,200 volunteers into 14 groups, the foundation for the massive volunteer networks that many local nonprofits enjoy to this day.
We also remember Alfonso de Borbon’s untimely demise.
“It was a terrible accident. It was one of the toughest things any of us have ever encountered,” said John Dakin, then with the Vail Valley Foundation.
Austrian skiing great Toni Sailer skied with his longtime friend de Borbon that afternoon. Sailer, who won three gold medals in the 1956 Winter Olympics, later said the Archduke was anxious about the finish area for the next day’s downhill. A slalom event had run earlier that day, and de Borbon insisted there would not be enough room in the finish coral for the downhillers to stop.
There would be, of course. Dan Conway was moving the Cafe Lavazza banner from the slalom finish at the bottom of Centennial, about 100 yards up the hill to the downhill finish line.
It was just past 4 p.m. and the run was closed, but de Borbon wanted to do the run regardless.
Conway looked up the mountain and spotted them. He signaled up to Sailer that the metal cable was down. Sailer understood and signaled back.
Sailer turned to tell de Borbon. Sailer’s Spanish was not great, so they conversed in German.
Sailer later told authorities that he thought de Borbon understood him. The Archduke apparently did not.
Sailer started slowly down in the dwindling light, mostly sideslipping that final face of the racecourse. Over his left shoulder he said he saw de Borbon speeding toward the almost invisible lowered cable.
“He was finishing it like it was a real race,” said Jeff Beaver, then with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office.
De Borbon’s neck hit that cable, severing his brain stem. He died almost instantly.
Beaver Creek security immediately closed the area. Eagle County Sheriff’s deputies helped make sure it stayed closed.
Arnold Schwarzenegger had been in town and was checking out. Sheriff’s deputies jumped on the investigation so fast that they used his suite for interviews before it was even cleaned, Beaver said.
Later that night
The night it happened, local law enforcement, Vail Valley Foundation and ski company officials gathered in a hotel conference room to write and approve the news release about the incident. They handed out a one-sheet statement to a roomful of reporters.
No one answered any reporters’ questions except skiing legend Serge Lange, who was soon holding court and telling everyone everything he knew. Lange described it as being “guillotined.”
Checkbook journalism fails
Members of the European press offered Eagle County Sheriff’s deputies huge piles of cash for death scene photos — up to $100,000 by some accounts. The photos and everything else were secured in an evidence locker so no one could sneak them out and sell them. Only two people had access to it, Sheriff A.J. Johnson and Deputy Kim Andree. The evidence may still be in that locker, but the Sheriff’s Office still isn’t saying.
“If this had happened today with all the iPhones and video, imagine how many video viewpoints and images we would have had,” Beaver said.
Even when it was over, it wasn’t over.
The next day’s events were postponed and flags flew at half-mast.
A year or so later, the Sheriff’s Office received a letter claiming it was a cleverly developed assassination plot. The Sheriff’s Office turned it over to the State Department.
According to Dr. Jasper Shealy of the Rochester Institute of Technology, most skier deaths are accomplished male skiers, between the ages of 18 and 35, skiing fast on an intermediate trail. They have a lapse of control or attention and crash into a tree, rock or lift tower.
De Borbon was 52 when he died
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and email@example.com.
The ski racer turned hotelier who was close to President Ford embodied the soul of Vail for nearly 60 years.