Sqn Ldr Lester Davies

Leading figure in Outward Bound
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The Independent Online

Lester Davies, pilot, mountaineer and mountain-rescue leader: born Wye, Kent 8 August 1919; Warden, Outward Bound Centre, Ullswater 1957-81; MBE 1979; Warden, Kinarut Outward Bound School, Borneo 1981-90; married 1942 Anne Pilbeam (two sons, and one son deceased); died Eskdale, Cumbria 20 September 2003.

"Met Squib yesterday." The enigmatic telegram sent from Fremantle, Western Australia, to a Bombay hospital in 1941 brought relief and joy to the nursing auxiliary Anne Pilbeam. Decoded, it meant that her fiancé, the pilot Lester Davies, was alive and returning to India.

When first handed the telegram, Pilbeam had feared the worst. Davies, serving with 27 Squadron in the Far East, had disappeared off the map as the Japanese invaded Malaya. But the code devised by the couple using "Squib", the name of Davies's Ford car, spelt out marvellous news.

Davies and a band of fellow airmen had evaded capture in an adventure and exercise in self- reliance entirely appropriate for someone who would become a leading figure in the Outward Bound movement. The British airmen slipped away in a sampan to a coaster offshore that carried them to Batavia (now Jakarta). After a three-week trek across Java they managed to float an old tramp steamer and stoke it themselves all the way to Australia.

Soon afterwards Davies was back in what was then part of India, supporting operations on the Burma Front. Crated aircraft would be shipped to Karachi and it was Davies's job to test-fly and ready them for action. He had joined the RAF in 1937 and was first posted to the North West Frontier. In his 20 years in the service he flew 65 types of aircraft.

Lester Davies was born at Wye, in Kent, and went to Dover College. His father was an agricultural engineer tutoring at an agricultural college in Wye and was perhaps the source of Lester's mechanical streak, manifest in his activities as an amateur inventor and model-railway builder. Davies also had a passion for mountain exploration and in 1958 was elected to the Alpine Club.

He ventured into the Gyantse area of Tibet in 1940; ascended virgin peaks in Kulu and Lahoul (both Indian Himalaya) in 1941; and in 1943, with Anne (whom he had married the previous year) and their two-month-old son, trekked from Kashmir into Ladakh. Altogether he made seven visits to the Himalaya, most notably the 1955 RAF Mountaineering Association exploration of the Spiti-Lahoul watershed.

The expedition notched up seven first ascents, but for Davies, who acted as transport officer, photographer and interpreter, it was memorable for more mythic reasons. One early morning he was called from his sleeping bag to investigate a set of footprints, each 12 inches long and eight inches across. The Sherpas were sure they had been made by a yeti or "abominable snowman". Davies took hundreds of photographs and sent them to the British Museum but the tracks remained a mystery. In those less knowing times many Westerners, let alone hill people, were prepared to believe there could be yetis out there in the unvisited mountain wilderness. Davies thought such a creature might one day be found. "When it is, I hope that it will be well treated," he wrote.

In 1957, Davies left the RAF and gave up Himalayan expeditioning to join the Outward Bound School on the shore of Ullswater in the Lake District. It was the start of the most satisfying stage in a full life as he helped establish Outward Bound as the pre-eminent provider of challenging outdoor education in Britain. Davies was a personal acquaintance of Kurt Hahn, co-founder of Outward Bound, and a follower of his teaching of self- realisation and character-building through adventure. When Davies was appointed MBE in 1979 for services to OB and mountain rescue, he told the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald:

We see people come here tensed up from the city rat race and they work together for a common cause. Outward Bound is like a civilian equivalent of the services but with the emphasis on self-discipline.

In his 23 years at Ullswater, Davies was instrumental in introducing more than 23,000 young people to the challenges of the great outdoors. With Helvellyn, England's second highest mountain, to one side and the aquatic playground of Ullswater on the other, with miles of wild fell, crag and foaming gorges in between, there are few better places to test oneself.

Davies's no-nonsense, patriotic approach to outdoor education is not so fashionable today. None the less, his instructors remember him with great affection - "Lester stories" abound - and respect for his understanding of the fine balance between risk and adventure. Davies widened OB's age catchment with courses for eight- and nine-year-olds - so-called "midges" - and for older people. He was also the first warden to appoint a woman instructor to the OB staff.

The school's location makes it an ideal co-ordinating point for mountain rescues and Davies committed himself and the school wholeheartedly to this life-saving role. He personally responded to more than 450 call-outs and was a member of the Lake District Mountain Rescue Association council. Applying his inventive mind to the problem of getting injured people off the hills in the days before regular use of helicopters, he built a motorised stretcher - the "Ullswater Fellbounder". Anne Davies was its first test-victim on a steady chug up Helvellyn.

Davies carried his outdoor teaching methods overseas. In 1967, as one of the first Winston Churchill Fellows, he and Anne, who was President of the British Girls Exploring Society, toured OB schools in the US and helped establish another in Canada. Then, in 1981, the couple swapped the Lake District for Borneo, where Lester Davies became the founding warden of the Kinarut Outward Bound School in the state of Sabah. Part of the challenge was choosing and clearing the jungle site for the $3m purpose-built school. The forest and waterways proved an ideal substitute for the terrain of Lakeland.

The Davieses remained at Kinarut until 1990, when they returned to the Lake District and settled in Eskdale. An important factor in their choice of the home at Eskdale Green was that the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway - "La'al Ratty" - with its diminutive steam locomotives runs past the bottom of the garden.

Stephen Goodwin