Michael Holton

Mountaineer and civil servant
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The Independent Online

Michael Holton, civil servant and mountaineer: born London 30 September 1927; staff, Ministry of Food 1948-54, Air Ministry 1955-61, MoD 1961-68; Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Defence 1976-87; Secretary, Countryside Commission for Scotland 1968-70; Secretary, Carnegie UK Trust 1971-75; Secretary, European Conservation Year Committee for Scotland 1970; Honorary Secretary, Royal Society for Nature Conservation 1988-93; married 1951 Daphne Bache (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1987), 1987 Joan Thurman (née Hickman); died London 24 March 2006.

In 1955, Michael Holton was Secretary of the Royal Air Force Mountaineering Association (Rafma) expedition to Kulti Himal of Lahoul. Crossing the Rohthang Pass, they climbed eight peaks between 18,000 and 21,000 feet. The membership included several from the RAF Mountain Rescue Service and part of the expedition's justification was to give them altitude training.

An odd quirk of military history had provided the RAF with more than its fair share of competent, even outstanding, mountaineers. During the Second World War, military aircraft had been hitting the high ground with sickening frequency, and in 1943 the RAF Mountain Rescue Service was formed. The service overcame an organisational crisis in 1951, and by 1955 it was well-established, well- respected and attracting climbers. A large part of the credit for that goes to Holton.

Born in 1927, Michael Holton was educated at Finchley County Grammar School; he read Geography at the London School of Economics and, naturally, joined the LSE Mountaineering Club. Serving as a radar mechanic during his National Service, in 1948 he was a founder member of Rafma, and on leaving the Air Force and joining the Civil Service later that year, initially at the Ministry of Food but later at the Air Ministry, retained his membership.

The Mountain Rescue Team at RAF Kinloss was already experiencing a busy 1951 when, on 13 March, a Lancaster left Kinloss on a navigational exercise, and on its return leg, at night, hit one of the buttresses of Beinn Eighe (3,313ft). The wreck was spotted from the air on 17 March, and the Kinloss team was called out. They got within sight of it, but initially were unable to reach it, and it was August before they were able to recover the last body. Like other mountain rescue teams at the time, they did not lack courage and determination, just mountain expertise and good equipment. Rafma had been making noises about these deficiencies.

"The Air Staff seemed quite determined not to let climbers in," Holton recalled in 1992.

The [Rafma] committee had a fair idea of what was needed - experienced Rafma members to

be posted to stations with teams, in particular MOs [medical officers]; Rafma courses to be set up; a training handbook written and an expert adviser appointed at officer level to Air Ministry.

Most of these things happened, and within a year or so, completely turned the service round. Holton was seconded from the Ministry of Food to the Air Ministry, and was reading the files in October 1951. His main task was to write the new handbook, which came out in 1953 under the unexciting title of AMP299 (standing for Air Ministry Pamphlet 299). It is still used, is updated regularly, and was on public sale for years. The seventh edition has just been published, with a new preface by Holton 55 years after the first.

Those drafted in during the aftermath of Beinn Eighe included Johnnie Lees, a physical training instructor and a leading climber (and winner of the George Medal for a mountain rescue of 1958), to be senior instructor. The service has never ceased to attract such people since.

Holton's civil service career, in the meantime, prospered; by the mid- Sixties he was a Principal in the Air Ministry, with the equivalent rank of group captain, and retired in 1987 as Secretary of the Air Staff Secretariat at the Ministry of Defence.

Michael Holton's great contribution to mountain rescue, mountaineering and outdoor activities generally was in administration. He was Rafma's representative on the committee of the British Mountaineering Council, and became the BMC's honorary secretary from 1955 to 1959. In 1968-70, he was Secretary of the Countryside Commission for Scotland. Controversial matters frequently tested his negotiating skills: access to crags, the provision of mountain huts and bothies, a contested proposal to build a bridge at Camasunary on Skye.

But above all, with Johnnie Lees, he was one of the saviours of the RAF Mountain Rescue Service; and for that, many aircrew and many more climbers must be grateful.

Frank Card