Arthur Helsby 

Editor’s note: The following obituary, written in 2002, is included here as a historical artefact. It has not been previously published by this journal. 

Johnnie Lees who has died aged 74, played a key role in the development of the RAF Mountain Rescue Service and won the George Medal for a cliff rescue. 

Safety in an intrinsically risky sport was central to Lees’s approach to mountaineering.  He was a Team Leader and organiser of RAF mountain rescue in North Wales and the Scottish Highlands during the 1950s, and the expertise and commitment for which the service became renowned was in part, credited to his energy and mountaineering skill. Although the major objective of the teams was to provide search and rescue cover for military aircraft that crashed in mountainous terrain, the teams were always on call too, to rescue civilian climbers in difficulties. 

John Rodney Lees was born in Chingford, Essex, on December 18, 1927, and then moved with his family to Hexham, Northumberland, where he went to the local grammar school. He joined the RAF, hoping to serve as aircrew but, as there were few opportunities with the return of peace, he became a physical training instructor.  On moving to Otley in the West Riding, he first started rock climbing on the Yorkshire gritstone outcrops during his leaves. 

A powerful, athletic physique and natural confidence soon placed him among the “tigers” of his day. Lees was befriended by such leading climbers as Arthur Dolfin and Peter Greenwood, and he rapidly developed into a consummate outcrop climber. On being posted to the South of England, he continued to perfect his skill at Wealden sandstone outcrops, notably on classic test pieces such as Slimfinger Crack on Harrison’s Rocks.  By 1950 Lees had joined the Climbers Club and the RAF Mountaineering Association; he had experienced several Alpine seasons and was deemed to be one of the more gifted climbers of his day. In 1955 he joined the first RAF Mountaineering Association expedition to the Himalayas, which reached the summits of eight unclimbed peaks. 

The significant moment in his career came in March 1951, when a Lancaster bomber on a night navigational flight to Rockall with eight men on board crashed into Beinn Eighe at Torridon, Inverness-shire.  Its wreckage was located a few days later on the great triple buttress of Coire Mhic Fharchair. The existing rescue services in Scotland, which were based at RAF Kinloss and whose members knew personally the men feared lost, were inadequately equipped and lacked the mountain expertise to reach the fuselage of the plane, balanced precariously on the 2000 foot-high cliffs. The last body was not recovered until August and rumours – certainly without substance – circulated that men had lived in the wreckage for days after the crash. 

As a result, there was great pressure on the RAF and MoD to act. Although Lees had scant knowledge of rescue techniques, his reputation and record as a climber with the RAF Mountaineering Association brought him an invitation to help organise the first training course for the rescue service in Snowdonia, later that year. In 1952, aged 24, he was posted to RAF Valley on Anglesey as Mountain Rescue Team Leader there. It is no exaggeration to say that the entire modern edifice of mountain rescue – both service and civilian – owes its sophistication and rigour to that appointment. 

As team leader, Sergeant Lees was both demanding and inspirational. He insisted on the highest standards from his men in the line of duty and got them.  The winter and summer courses he ran were exemplary, and the esprit de corps he built up formidable. One recruit recalls that in the initial pep-talk  he was  told: “If you’re on an  aircraft call-out, you will walk until the blood wells from the lace holes of your boots; then stop, wash your feet    in the nearest stream, put on plasters and dry socks – and walk  on!” 

For ten years he was a key figure in military and civilian rescue operations, mainly from Anglesey but also from the RAF base at Kinloss in northeast Scotland. The service was transformed into a highly efficient rescue organisation that won respect from aircrew – and also from civilian climbers, who were beginning to take to the hills in increasing numbers. 

It was typical of Lees’s practical approach that he insisted that his teams be equipped with 500 ft ropes that would not jam as a casualty was lowered down a cliff; that rescuers should be able to communicate using miniature walkie-talkies; and that police escorts should help to speed rescue vehicles to the scene. 

He kept a keen eye on developments abroad and was impressed by a continental device called a Tragsitz.  This was a frame made of leather and webbing in which a casualty could be carried on the rescuers back, and their weight is taken separately on ropes from above. 

On 3 January 1958, Major Hue Robertson, a climber from the Army Mountaineering Association, was climbing Amphitheatre Buttress on Craig yr Ysfa in Snowdonia, when he fell 30 ft fracturing his skull. He lay trapped on a ledge high up the ice-covered cliff. When Flight Sergeant Lees and his party arrived at the peak and lowered themselves down to him it was pitch dark and Robertson had lain delirious in freezing temperatures for six hours. It was obvious that Robertson had severe head injuries and would not survive if the lengthy process of evacuation by stretcher were implemented. 

Speed was a matter of life and death. Using a cradle of ropes Lees improvised a Tragsitz harness and with the 14 stone soldier strapped to his back and struggling in delirium, was lowered hundreds of feet into the vertical darkness to the foot of the cliff. The speed and efficiency of the rescue, in bitter conditions, undoubtedly saved Robertson ‘s life. The operation was a triumph of teamwork, and for his part, Lees was awarded the George Medal. Robertson made a full recovery and after obtaining the admired harness from Austria, he presented it to the rescue team. 

Another significant development in Lees’s life took place in 1952 when he met a young woman who was staying with her baby daughter in a mountaineering club cottage in Snowdonia. This was Gwen Moffat, who became the first woman mountain guide in Britain, and later embarked on a series of books that established her claim to be considered the finest female mountain writer. 

She described his climbing at the time: “On the ground, with his long legs and loosely built frame, he looked as if he could scarcely move without knocking something over. Climbing, he was superlatively neat … his movements slow and deliberate . . . he never made a mistake, never advanced where he couldn’t retreat . .. his slow, steady caution made a deep impression on me”. 

The two married in 1955. It was a relationship that, from the outside, seemed both mutually respectful and fueled by a volcanic sexual antagonism – she cat-like, volatile, utterly female; he solid, laconic, detached. Throughout their time together they addressed each other as Moffat and Lees. 

Lees’s excellence at training rescuers was not achieved at the expense of his own climbing career. He qualified as a mountain guide in 1955 and became one of the very few to receive the guiding qualification in winter mountaineering issued by the Association of Scottish Climbing Clubs in the same year. 

The following year he took part in television’s first climbing outside broadcast. The route chosen was Suicide Wall in Cwm Idwal, arguably the most difficult rock-route in North Wales at the time. The leader was Joe Brown and the Everest climber George Band was intended to second him. But, despite wearing rock-shoes, Band had to retreat, and Lees, in boots intended for nothing more technical than mountain walking, eased his way up the tiny holds of the vertical face with complete aplomb. 

In 1961 his concern for improving safety in mountains led him to propose, along with other guides in North Wales, a training system for leaders of school parties venturing into the hills. Their ideas contributed to the foundation, three years later, of the Mountain Training Board and the Mountain Leadership Certificate. 

After demob from the RAF in 1961, Lees worked for the Outward Bound and as a guide and instructor at mountain centres in Scotland and the Lake District. In 1966 he joined the Peak District National Park and became a warden service officer, then ranger training officer, and secretary of the Peak District panel of assessors for the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. His manner was forthright and his concern for safety strong, and Lees would not hesitate to make his feelings known to anyone he saw tottering off into the hills with inadequate footwear or clothing. 

After retirement in 1985, Lees was made an “honoured guide” by the British Association of Mountain Guides and remained keenly involved in the work of the British Mountaineering Council. For three years he had been chairman of its safety committee and remained a long-term member of its Peak area committee. In 1962 his services to mountain rescue were acknowledged with the award of the British Empire Medal. He also received in his later year’s many awards from within the mountaineering, mountain rescue and guiding world. He received these with his customary wry grace. 

He and Moffat divorced in 1970, and in 1975 he married Dorothy Pleasance with whom he lived a life of quiet, ripe contentment in their cottage at Over Haddon until her death in 1994. There were no children from either marriage. 

A humorous, kindly, quiet man, Lees was watchful and reserved, bracingly reactionary, and ready to engage to mischievous effect in any debate. 

John Rodney Lees GM, BEM, mountaineer and rescue worker, was born December 18, 1927. He died of cancer on August 15, 2002, aged 74.