Service for widely-liked charity boss missing after hike in Russia

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Friends and family are to pay tribute to a charity director who is missing and feared dead after a hike in the Russian region of North Ossetia.

Father-of-two John Stiles failed to return from a day trekking in the North Caucasus mountains near Vladikavkaz in November.

The 52-year-old, from Ilkley, had been working in Grozny as a country director for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) for the past two years, helping Chechen families displaced by the wars with Russia.

A memorial service is to be held next month for the experienced mountaineer, who had been commuting between Russia and his Yorkshire home where his wife, Isabelle, and two children, Hugo, 14, and 12-year-old Poppy live.

Mrs Stiles said: “We have been touched by the support and kind messages of so many people locally in Ilkley and friends across the world, too. 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.”

On November 10, 2013, Mr Stiles organised a 10-hour hike in an area that he was familiar with and where had trekked before.

He had arranged his usual drop-off and pick-up later that day and so when he failed to return at the agreed time, his driver immediately raised the alert and a mountain rescue team was mobilized.

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.

But snow arrived on the third day making the search very difficult. A private search helicopter surveyed the area two weeks later, but ended without success.

Mrs Stiles, who has worked from her home to maintain the search, recently returned from Russia where she met with Emercom and enlisted the help of local, national and international authorities including the British Embassy for a renewed search in the spring.

She also collected her husband’s belongings, met his locally-based staff and visited the mountain where he started his hike to place a few personal items in his memory.

Mrs Stiles, 45, said: “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.”

The family remains 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,” said Mrs Stiles.

“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.”

Over the years Mr Stiles’s work took him to European and Asian countries including Macedonia, Kosovo, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Angola.

He rejoined DRC in 2012 as country director for the Russian Federation with focus on North Caucasus.

In the weeks following his disappearance, Ann Mary Olsen, head of international department, DRC, said: “We will all remember John for always having contributed with dedication, professionalism and loyalty to the many tasks, with which he has been involved.”

Mr Stiles, who was said to have always loved Ilkley, volunteered for the 1st Ben Rhydding Scout Group.

The memorial service will be held at Burley St John Fisher and Thomas Moore Catholic Church on February 1 at 2pm.

A campaign to raise funds has been set up to help finance a new search operation, provide extra resources for the authorities and support the family.

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.