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Mountain rescue hero is rewarded for bravery; Rare silver medal for cadet leader who risked his life.

Byline: Dan Warburton

A TEACHER who saved the lives of seven stranded climbers in the French Pyrenees will travel to London today to collect a royal award.

Flt Lt Will Close-Ash, 32, was leading an expedition of Tynemouth-based air cadets in June on the Pic Du Canigou mountain when he saved seven ill-equipped tourists who were minutes from death.

And the Bedlington High School assistant head teacher will have his efforts recognised when he is presented with the Life Saving Medal from the Order of St John.

The silver medal, which has been awarded to only 170 people in the last 100 years, was confirmed by the Queen in October and is awarded for someone who shows "a conspicuous act of gallantry while endangering his own life".

Today Flt Lt Close-Ash will travel to London with his mother, Patricia Close, 55, from Wallsend, North Tyneside, to receive the award. He said: "My mumthinks it's brilliant. She's so excited, she's even bought a new hat - but I'm quite nervous. The kids at school have been great, too. They keep asking me to tell the story again, which is really nice.

"I'm delighted to receive the medal, but even more pleased that all of the men survived. I'm proud of the work my cadets and staff did on the mountain that day, and without their efforts those men would have died."

Flt Lt Close-Ash and his team of teenagers from 346 (Tynemouth) Squadron Air Cadets were scaling the Pic Du Canigou mountain in the south of France when they saw patches of blood-soaked snow.

After discovering two Belgian tourists who had fallen hundreds of feet, Flt Lt Close-Ash began a three-hour rescue mission, cutting steps into the ice to reach them. Five more tourists were spotted on a ledge 600m above, wearing only shorts and T-shirts in the freezing conditions. Flt Lt Close-Ash, 32, who is also from Wallsend, and his team led the stricken climbers half way down the mountain before official rescue teams arrived. He said: "The tourists were so relieved to see me. I tied a rope to them and began leading them down, using my axe to protect us."

Flt Lt Close-Ash will receive his award from the Grand Prior, Sir Brian Jenkins GBE, at a special investiture at the Priory Headquarters in Clerkenwell, London. The Venerable Order of St John is a Royal Order of Chivalry with the Queen as head. It originates from the Knights Hospitaller founded in 1080 to care for the poor.

No more than two people are presented with the award each year and fewer than 170 Silver medals have been awarded since they were instituted in 1874.

Kieran McGrane, principal at Bedlington High School, said: "This is an extremely rare and prestigious award and all of the staff and students are delighted that Will has received it."


SAFE AT LAST Tynemouth air cadets in action during their rescue mission in the French Pyrenees. Seven lives were saved.; BRAVE Flt Lt Will Close-Ash went into action after spotting patches of blood in the snow. Picture: Tim McGuinness ref: 01188080
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 11, 2008
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