OtH 2016 – OBITUARIES 

EMLYN JOHN MOSES THOMAS 

Died 6 July 2016 
Aged 82 Years 
Born 1934 

Twenty years ago, in South Island New Zealand, I stood on a  coastal path high above the sea. In the distance, a lonely couple walked towards me, snippets of their conversation carried on the wind, their Welsh accent unmistakeable. 

“You’re a long way from home then?” I said. 

“North Wales” the gentleman replied.  “Bettys Coed” 

“I have a friend, in Llanwryst.   Do you know him?” 

“I’m the Chief Constable and know everyone but Emlyn Thomas is a very good friend.” 

Make of this what you will. It’s highly unusual, if not improbable that one can travel to the Antipodes and on a remote and isolated promontory, meet a complete stranger who shares such a unique bond. There must be something there that transcends our human understanding of a friendship that runs so deep it will travel with you to the ends of the Earth.  

Emlyn John Moses Thomas 

 A Squadron Leader in the Royal Air Force, Physical Training Instructor, Climber, Skier and Mountaineer, Expeditioner and Explorer, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Linguist, Writer, Raconteur, Musician and Homeopath, and not least; a proud Welshman of some distinction.  

Emlyn was a born instigator, a motivator, always drawing attention and inviting interest, explaining possibilities, and allowing scope for talent to emerge.  He had a personal passion for mountains but this was never overstated.  He never flaunted his skills, but his quiet competence instilled confidence in those less sure. He was respected and widely admired for his skills, for his knowledge and his capabilities, yet some found it difficult to get close to him. He was quick witted and observant, controlled and thoughtful, daring and cheeky sometimes, always pushing boundaries, but he was I think, very much focussed on exploring people and in particular, the interesting relationship that exists between mankind and the challenge of the mountains.  

Brought up in these valleys and steeped in rugby lore he gained a degree as a teacher in Physical Education at Cardiff University. Joining the Royal Air Force he embarked on his profession; first at the RAF School of Physical Training at Cosford, from where he began his first alpine climbing adventures, skied the Vallee Blanche and played rugby for the Royal Air Force. Later, at the RAF Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court, he worked with great satisfaction, to restore the minds and bodies of severely injured and handicapped servicemen. I know for sure that this period of his life had a profound impact on his further development as an instructor and his interests in homeopathy treatment. 

My own relationship with Emlyn was born out of rugby and mountains and was in essence a kind of coming together of like-minded personalities. Arguments were few but often instigated by Em’s innate propensity to initiate and stimulate constructive discussion and create vibrant social interaction, a key facet in leadership skills and something in which he excelled.  

As a young Flight Sergeant, I first bumped into Emlyn, quite literally, on the rugby field in Cyprus, fifty years ago. We had never met but were playing against each other as wing forwards for the Episkopi A and B teams respectively, in competition for a place in the back row of the first fifteen. 

Running from the back of a line out, side by side towards the ball and the next expected breakdown, “OOPS, Sorry“ said Emlyn as he gave me a deliberate, hefty shove sideways, to send me flying to the ground. Of course I incurred nothing worse than a bruised ego and today, we call that gamesmanship. But Em was giving me a lesson in one-up-manship and would remind me later, that life can sometimes be tough… you fall over, you get up, and you get on with it. 

My new adversary became my friend. He was the Physical Education Officer at RAF Episkopi and then involved in a nation-wide development programme, the Mountain Leadership Training Scheme. Inevitably, he invited me to join a Course that he had organised. 

On one beautiful autumn day he took a small group of us to a remote location high in the Troodos mountains. Round a bend in the forest track we came to an awesome, precipitous drop. Here, a large loose scree slope fell away steeply to the forest floor some 600 feet below. 

“Down we go Lads” was the cry as Emlyn took off into space, arms spread like ‘Batman’. “Follow me”.  

Jumping and plunging his boots deep into the scree, the loose stones became a moving platform and in a series of similar leaps he quickly reached the bottom.    Petrified, we had no option but to follow our leader. 

In all my years of mountaineering experience, and with a few scree runs under my belt, this, my very first scree run remains indelibly etched in my memory; one of exciting floating movement and a tingling buzz of adrenaline. 

We spent many happy days together in the Troodos mountains, and there I discovered that Em was either mean or a minimalist. His rucsac was always ergonomically packed and it carried no surplus or excess whatsoever. On one occasion at a lunch stop, Em called to me, “Can I borrow your knife Charlie”? “Where’s your own”? I said rather grumpily.  “I didn’t bring one. I didn’t need to ‘cos I knew that you would”.  With that, using the knife to peel skin from the one apple he’d brought for his lunch, he graciously accepted gifts of chocolate, biscuits and sandwiches donated by others now only too ready to lighten their overburdened rucsacs. 

Cheeky perhaps, but an illustration of Em’s remarkable awareness, insight and understanding of human behaviour. 

But he could be generous too. I often enjoyed his hospitality in Limassol and at his homes in Llanwryst and at Trefriw. Often, quite unexpectedly and almost as an afterthought he’d give me a bottle of wine as a gift, brought back from a recent trip abroad.  

In 1979, England played Wales at Cardiff Arms Park and Em invited me to join him there for the game. It was hard to witness a friend, a proud Welshman handle his misery at the final whistle as the Welsh fans withdrew from the stadium, in a heavy silence, stunned by defeat. I don’t think he bought a ticket for an Englishman ever again! 

A kindly smile from the mischief maker. How many of us who knew him must have struggled up the last steep path, swearing and cursing under a heavy load to be met at the top by Emlyn with a broad welcoming smile, blissfully unaware that at the last lunch stop, he’d secretly smuggled a few large pebbles into your unattended rucsac.   

In a mountain hut in Greece, while we waited for the kettle to boil for a much needed brew, Em proffered some dry biscuits and “Pemmican” from a small round tin whose contents were described in Greek that none of us could understand. Em insisted it was “OK”, he’d learned to speak Greek in Cyprus he said. We all thought it tasted a bit fishy but he later conceded that it might have been a dog or a cat food he’d bought in the tiny village shop. We never did know for sure. He had an uncanny knack of always keeping you guessing! 

Homeopath, yes. Physician, no. Many of us will have benefitted from his enthusiastic and generous prescriptions of some homeopathic remedy for our ailments. But as a physician, Emlyn lacked the gentle touch.  On our trip to the Pindus mountains, wearing boots I’d borrowed, I developed some nasty heel blisters. Em came to the rescue and cheerfully applied some sticking plaster with a wide grin, “Let’s see how it goes tomorrow.”   Next evening, after a painful day, it was time to see. With a swift, full arm movement, Em ripped the plaster off and with it, a 3mm slice of epidermis, the size of a half-crown, and likewise on the other foot. 

I was now definitely “hors de combat.” It was the end of my expedition, and, to add insult to injury, the borrowed boots belonged to Em. Em never did anything by halves. 

While in Cyprus he went to Mount Demavend in Iran with the Mountain Rescue Team and came back with badly frostbitten toes.  Only days later, in a night parachute descent over the Salt Pans at Akrotiri, he landed badly and broke both of his ankles. 

More impressive still; during a RAFMA Annual Dinner weekend in the Lake District, much to his embarrassment, he took a fall on Shepherds Crag in Borrowdale. Attending to the urgent needs of nature he slipped unceremoniously from his stance, to hang upside down from his rope, somewhat distressed, trousers round his neck, and with a broken femur. Thankfully, he was safely recovered by the Keswick Mountain Rescue Team. Happy on a floating cloud of morphine, Em missed his dinner of course; strung up with cables, wires and pulleys in hospital, caring much less about his femur than his wounded pride. 

During those early days in Cyprus, Em taught me to climb on the fine limestone outcrops at Happy Valley. I quickly got the bug and we climbed regularly, at every opportunity. He introduced me to the best of mountaineering literature and I read all of the books he kept in his library at the gymnasium. One of these, written by the legendary French mountaineer, Lionel Terray, significantly changed the course of my life: Terray’s view was that: 

Mountaineering differs from other sports in that there is in principle no contest for glory among men, only between man and the forces of nature or man and his own weakness. With a few rare exceptions, the climber has no renown to hope for and no audience to encourage him apart from his companion on the rope. Alone among the silence and solitude of the mountains he fights for the joy of overcoming his chosen obstacle by his own unaided powers. In its simple original form no other sport is so disinterested, so removed from human considerations, and it is precisely in this kind of purity that much of its grandeur and attraction lie.” 

These thoughts instantly struck a chord with me, were completely aligned with Emlyn’s philosophy and with the path I personally wished to explore. Long after Cyprus, we both became steeped in the activities of services mountaineering. Emlyn had a spell as Commanding Officer of the RAF Outdoor Activities Centre in Snowdonia at Llanwryst, where many air force personnel went through his hands and benefited enormously from the training regime. At RAF Swinderby in Lincolnshire he was deeply involved in the training and development of new recruits to the Royal Air Force.  

Freed of these responsibilities in 1978, when moved to a Command Staff appointment, he organised and led a major Joint Services Expedition to Himachal Pradesh, conducted jointly with the Indian Mountaineering Federation. This was a hugely successful expedition, both in terms of climbing achievement and in international cooperation with the Indian authorities, laying important groundwork for several later expeditions to the Indian Himalaya. 

In 1981 Emlyn was the climbing leader for the RAF Expedition to Masherbrum, at 25,880 feet (7880m) a Himalayan giant in the Pakistan Karakorum. This was a tough challenge and was almost successful but in the end, defeated by impossible weather conditions, the team were forced to retreat.   

Bad weather high on the mountain led to the isolation of the two lead climbers and their enforced bivouac for three days in an ice cave at 23,500 feet (7,200m). Dangerous snow conditions made further progress impossible and during a brief break in the weather they tried to get down. But the storm quickly returned and they were forced to bivouac once more, for another three days. Now out of food and fuel and from lack of fluids, one succumbed to snow blindness, became delirious and unconscious, with high altitude sickness and cerebral oedema. To seek specialist help, his colleague left him and descended in terrible conditions, knowing that he would have to return. 

Against almost impossible odds, in horrific weather, Emlyn encouraged and somehow motivated his exhausted team, all now stretched to the utmost limits, to go up once more into the treacherous conditions, to support their Doctor and bring down their unconscious teammate. Unquestioningly, they went out into the raging storm. The recovery took another three days of unbelievable, unrelenting hardship. Thankfully the unfortunate casualty survived and is well, but only because of some super human individual efforts and the outstanding teamwork and leadership demonstrated on that mountain in such harrowing circumstances.  

In 1986 Emlyn became Chairman of the RAF Mountaineering Association and led his last and perhaps most successful service expedition to Sri Kanta, a 6000 m peak in the Garhwal Himalaya, a fine ending to his long career. Bad weather in the later stages seemed to undermine progress but persistence – one of Emlyn’s true qualities, paid off. On the last summit push, the skies cleared and another high mountain was successfully climbed. 

Emlyn had gained a reputation for being able to organise an expedition on the back of a “fag” packet.  He certainly knew what was required and cleverly achieved this by delegation.  He was also a ‘canny’ fund raiser, quite worldly wise, and on more than one expedition, team members found much of their personal financial contribution handsomely returned at the end of the trip. Magic ! 

In an article about Sri Kanta, written for the Himalayan Journal in 1987, Emlyn wrote:  

An expedition is like a jig-saw puzzle.  Just make the pieces and shake them up in a bag and hope that with a bit of help, they’ll all fit together when you empty them out. One of the exciting problems about planning is that you have to give the responsibility for making many of the pieces of the jig-saw to other people and hope that they get them right. Often there’s no way you can test the pieces before you get to the point where they either fit together or the expedition fails.” It certainly worked for his Sri Kanta trip. 

In 1989, Emlyn retired from the Air Force and returned to North Wales where he set up his first Homeopathic Clinic in Llanwryst, and later established an NHS clinic in Bangor. There he found time to write a book on Homeopathy for Sports activities, and to enjoy his music, playing trombone with the band from Bangor University. He immersed himself in local affairs as a councillor for Plaid Cymru, and also took time out to go freelance guiding, globetrotting with Bespoke Mountain Holidays and with World Challenge Expeditions. 

Then he met another homeopath; Christine, who took him off to Australia, where they married. Sadly their time together was all too short, but he continued to peddle Arnica to his friends and even in the latter days of his dementia, play trombone with an Aussie band he surely believed were his old mates from Bangor University. 

To Emlyn’s family and friends; to Christine; to his sons David and Steven and their families; both as a personal friend and on behalf of our many colleagues and associates in the RAF Mountaineering Association and the RAF Mountain Rescue Service who cannot be here today, we extend our heartfelt condolences for your loss. 

Occasions like this are undeniably sad, but we are reminded of the strong bonds that brought us together however long ago, for however short a passage of time, to share life’s tumultuous journey. Our individual memories will differ but for me, my experiences and the friendships so formed have left indelible impressions in my heart and soul. Fifty years ago, Emlyn introduced me to mountains and to a generation of people who were drawn to them by the same irresistible forces. My personal life was so enriched by a succession of mountains and mountain experiences in many parts of the world, for which I owe to Em immeasurable thanks. As we mourn Emlyn and celebrate his life, I am sure that many of you will have been similarly touched in some remarkable way by my dear old friend, this colourful, amiable, erstwhile rogue, and truly inspirational Welshman. 

We give thanks for his life and for his works, and for his presence with us, and in words that he taught me so long ago, we honour him and say our last farewell: 

Calon onest, calon lân. 
Calon lân yn llawn daioni. 
Tecach yw na’r lili dlos, 
Dim ond calon lân all ganu, 
Canu’r dydd a chanu’r nos. 

Translation: 

Honest Heart, Pure Heart, 
Pure Heart full of goodness, 
Fairer than the Lily White, 
Pure Heart forever singing, 
Through the day and through the night. 

(Eulogy for the late Squadron Leader Emlyn Thomas, D Phys Ed, FRGS, RAF Retd 

Delivered by: Squadron Leader  John (Charlie) Cartwright, FRGS, RAF Retd, Chairman of RAFMA 1984/85 
Church of St Michael, 
Pontarddulais,17 September 2016. 

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