A memorial service will take place to enable friends and family to pay tribute to an Ilkley man who is missing, presumed dead, after failing to return from a hike in the Russain Caucasus mountains.
John Stiles, a 52-year-old father-of-two has been missing since Sunday, November 10, when he set out on a ten-hour hike in the mountains near Vladikavkaz in North Ossettia.
The weather and conditions were excellent and John, an experienced mountaineer, expected no difficulties for the straightforward hike he had planned.
But he failed to return at the agreed time and his driver immediately raised the alert and a mountain rescue team was mobilised.
EMERCOM, the emergency relief organisation working in conjunction with the Russian Civil Defence sent up a patrol of experienced mountain rescue workers the following day, who set up camp in the mountains.
Unfortunately, on day three snow arrived and became heavy, making the search very difficult. Finally, after complex negotiations, a private search helicopter surveyed the area two weeks later, but it ended without success.
Ever since John’s wife Isabelle, 45, has been working tirelessly from their home in Ilkley, to keep up the search for her husband.
John had been working in Grozny as a country director for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) for the past two years.
There he helped Chechen families displaced by the wars with Russia on housing, legal aid and income generation projects.
He had been commuting between Russia and Ilkley every three months where Isabelle and his two children, Hugo, 14, and Poppy, 12, live.
Isabelle has struggled to obtain accurate information and the endless paperwork and legalities to secure a visa for travel has taken over two months to organise. Last Sunday, she returned from a week in Russia to meet with EMERCOM and enlist the help of all the authorities including the British Embassy for a renewed search.
Supported by DRC she also collected John’s belongings, met with his staff and went to the mountain where he started his hike to place a few personal items in memory of him.
“I was very grateful to be so close to him and privileged to meet his Chechen and Ossetian staff, who were missing his open-minded and encouraging leadership,” said Isabelle.
The family, including John’s parents Alan and Patricia Stiles and younger sister Cathryn, remain determined to maintain a search for his body or belongings, which should happen anytime from the end of May when the snow starts to melt.
“It is a very difficult time for all of us,” added Isabelle. “Coming from a family of mountaineers and climbers, John and I are fully aware of the dangers and risk, but nothing can prepare you for the anguish of not knowing what has happened to him, not finding him.”
John was born in Croydon, but his connections with Ilkley go back nearly 30 years when he came to the town to study his first degree at Ilkley College in the 1980s. He went on to study a Masters in International Development in York and his work then took him away from the UK, undertaking humanitarian aid projects in North Iraq, where he met Isabelle through their work for the Kurds.
The family travelled together abroad for seven years on projects in Angola, Serbia, Macedonia and Pakistan and when they needed to settle back in the UK, John insisted on returning to Ilkley.
Passionate about outdoor pursuits, he has always loved the town, and cherished the moors and dales in particular.
He has also been a dedicated scout and scout leader in his youth and volunteered for the 1st Ben Rhydding Scout Group.
With his family settled in Ilkley he has continued projects in both Afghanistan and Chechnya, returning home as often as he could.
“We have been touched by the support and kind messages of so many people locally in Ilkley and friends across the world too,” said Isabelle.
“The memorial service is an opportunity for anyone who has known, worked, walked, run, climbed, caved or maybe canoed with John over the years to come together and share our thoughts at this devastating time. John was a positive and easy-going man, with a contagious smile and liked by so many.”
The memorial service will be held at Burley St John Fisher and Thomas Moore Catholic Church on Saturday, February 1 at 2pm.
Friends of the family have also set up a campaign to raise funds to help finance a new search operation in the spring and summer, providing extra resource for the authorities and support the family during this distressing time.
Complex legal issues make the financial situation for families of a missing person extremely difficult as no life insurance can be claimed for seven years.
Anyone wishing to make a donation can do so by sending a cheque (made payable to “John Stiles Fund” by post to JPA Communications, 2 Ben Rhydding Road, Ilkley LS29 8RJ or by calling Jane Paul at JPA on (01943) 604994.