On a bright, breezy day in April 2000 we hovered, noisily, about fifty feet above the Cave on Dow Crag while, first, mountain rescue men, and then our heavy loads were winched down to the screes. Through a window in the huge yellow helicopter I had several minutes for studying the well-remembered neat moves on Eliminate C and the constricting pitches of Intermediate Gully, to its right, from a completely new angle – very close and just straight ahead. I could even work out why I had made such a mess of the top of the first pitch of the Eliminate the first time I led it fifty years ago.
Through the courtesy of RAF Boulmer my daughter-in-law Mary and I were watching from inside the helicopter, the lowering of the new Dow Crag stretcher-box before its bolting on to the crag at the foot of B Buttress. It was a sad day for both of us for the sturdy, bright-blue stretcher box is in memory of my son, Robin Michael Musgrave Griffin, who, inexplicably, had died from a heart attack, at only 58 years of age, in August 1998, just two days after he and Mary had walked over the Old Man and along Dow Crag ridge. Robin, an experienced climber and mountaineer, who had been proposed for membership of the Club, (Fell and Rock) and had attended several meets, had been hoping, at the time of his passing, to hear his application had been successful. In a month's time, he and Mary were to move from the Midlands, on his retirement, into a new home being built for them in Kendal, his home town. Robin had also agreed to take on the wardenship of the Glen Brittle hut in Skye, his favourite stamping ground, for some months each year.
A plaque on the new stretcher-box, with Robin's name, states: These were his first and last hills. He had first been taken, by me, up Coniston Old Man and along the Dow Crag ridge when he was four years of age, and a year later took his grandfather, my father, up the Old Man. This had been my father's first visit to the mountain – or, indeed, to any mountain and Robin, at five years of age, had been the leader. I have a photograph of him, wearing low shoes, shorts and sweater, standing proudly by the cairn. (Later I introduced my father, James Arthur Griffin to climbing and, eventually, he joined the FRCC.) Robin became an accomplished climber, all-round mountaineer and skier and had taken the trouble to acquire mountain leadership and first-aid qualifications. At the age of 18 he and I had done the traverse of the Cuillin Ridge. At that time Robin had been one of the youngest to do so and it was probably the first father and son traverse.
I still remember every detail of that joint adventure,one of the finest mountain days of my life. Four months before his death Robin completed a long‑standing ambition by travelling to the Himalaya and taking part in an expedition to Mera Peak. When the professional leader collapsed with altitude problems Robin was put in charge and succeeded in leading three of the party to the summit, the other six being unable to progress further. Robin was, by many years, the oldest member of the team and, easily, the fittest. In the year or two before his passing he had taken his wife, Mary, up all the two-thousanders in England and they were planning to complete the rest of the Munros together.
When he was living far from his homeland hills, he had become amember of the Wayfarers Club but was very much hoping that he could achieve FRCC membership on his return to. Kendal and so continue the family association with the Club.The original Dow Crag stretcher-box had been installed by the Barrow Mountaineering and Skiing Club for the Coniston Rescue Team in 1966 but had been disintegrating due to its age.Besides remembering Robin,the new strecher-box also commemorates those named on the original box.These were: Jim Shepherd, killed on Dow Crag in September 1952, Ross Porteous, killed on the crag by falling rock in July 1962 and Jack Fisher who died on Helvellyn in February 1972 – all members of Barrow Mountaineering Club. It so happened that I had been the leader of the Fell and Rock meet on Dow in July 1962 and had the sad task of informing Ross Porteous' father in Scotland of his son's passing.
The tricky and hazardous task of lowering the heavy stretcher-box to the foot of the crag was carried out in two flights from Coniston village and Mary and I were invited to take part in the second of these when the main drop took place. Helmeted and securely strapped into our seats we were in radio touch with all the crew, hearing every word that was said and seeing everything that was happening
In charge of the helicopter was Squadron Leader Peter Martin who had the delicate task of maneuvering the aircraft, with its heavy load swinging in a net, right up to the face of the crag, and then hovering, for several minutes, above the screes. Also travelling with the crew were three members of the Coniston Mountain Rescue team including its leader, Roy Cooksey, a FRCC member since 1955. They were winched, in turn, down to the screes above The Cave to supervise the assembling and bolting of the heavy box on to its prepared position on the crag. A large contingent of members of the Barrow Mountaineering Club – several of them FRCC members – also took part in the operation. It was a great privilege to be able to watch the proceedings from the air and to study, in close-up at an unusual angle, the crag on which I have climbed since the late 1920s.
Mary recalls that when they were walking up the ridge of Dow Crag, two days before his passing, Robin pointed out to her the blue blob of the old stretcher-box at the foot of the crag, explaining its purpose. He wasn't to know that a new stretcher-box, to replace this one, was to be his memorial.
A Harry Griffin.First published as 'A Dow Crag Memorial': Fell and Rock Journal 2002.