'I might have sent my son to his death'

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FOR nearly 15 hours, Kenneth Murray lived with the dread that he had sent his teenage son to his death in the mountains of Glen Coe.

As they climbed the 3,677ft Bidean Nam Bian, Mr Murray had become tired and, with his son Oliver keen to carry on, he decided to let him go alone to the summit of the peak while he waited below.

However, Oliver, 15, a pupil at George Watson’s College, in Edinburgh, did not return as planned. Becoming increasingly concerned, Mr Murray, 42, climbed up the slope and called out in vain for his son before making a two-hour journey down the mountain to raise the alarm.

Mountain rescuers, police and an RAF helicopter scoured the area but were forced to call off the search in the early hours of yesterday morning.

Then at about 8:30am yesterday, Mr Murray was waiting in the car park in Glencoe when he saw his tearful son running towards him, and the 15-hour nightmare was finally over.

Mr Murray, a chartered accountant, who lives in Aberdour, told The Scotsman: "That long walk back [off the mountain] was just horrendous. I’ll never forget that. That was a terrible situation for a father to be in. I spent most of the 15 hours he was away from me convinced he had gone, that he was dead.

"You can imagine what a hole that would leave not only in my life but in other people’s lives. You feel as if your whole life is in the lap of the gods."

On Monday afternoon, father and son had been walking together along Coire Gabhail - the Lost Valley - on the slopes of Bidean Nam Bian.

Oliver, who had climbed nine mountains over 3,000ft previously during expeditions with his school, was keen to reach the summit, but his father did not feel able to continue.

They had a decision to make. They agreed that Oliver would carry on alone and his father would wait. The weather was clear and Mr Murray, who had climbed the mountain before, would be able to watch his son climb most of the route.

"It’s obviously a decision that’s open to criticism and I accept that, but it wasn’t a decision taken recklessly or irresponsibly. We did evaluate what the risk was," he said.

"Oliver is a very fit, quite athletic fellow and he was well equipped. He’s a pretty mature 15-year-old, an intelligent bloke with lots of experience and he was very keen. I had every confidence in him being able to look after himself.

"My last words to him were, ‘Play safe’.

"The alternative would have been to say ‘Let’s go down’. I would have been left with a complete sense of having failed him, being too slow to go up the mountain."

Mr Murray accepts that there will be those who will say he was wrong. "Who am I to say the people saying that are wrong? Oliver would not have done it unless I said yes. It was my decision.

"My own father was quite risk averse. I’m sure he would have said let’s both go down. Maybe I felt he was too much like that.

"Part of parenting is to allow people to develop in such a way that they can evaluate risks themselves. You cannot do that by taking the decision away from them."

He agreed to speak to the media in order to praise the mountain rescue teams and police who found his son.

"I’m quite happy to open myself up to criticism because there’s no comparison with the pain involved in that and what the mountain rescuers have given me," Mr Murray said.

He watched his son scramble up a steep, but wide, ridge and then lost sight of him as he walked on to the summit. As Mr Murray was becoming increasingly concerned, Oliver was becoming disorientated in low clouds, which descended rapidly onto the summit.

Oliver, who lives with his mother, Melanie Johnstone, 42, and two sisters Imogen, 13, and Molly, eight months, in Colinton, in Edinburgh, missed the path down to the Lost Valley and instead headed down a steep slope towards Glen Etive.

"I found myself lost," he said. "I had come down a very steep mountain and couldn’t see a way to get back to my dad. I was in a valley and walked straight along hoping to find a main road or someone to talk to get help. But then it was getting pretty dark so I decided it would be best not to carry on, but to set up camp there and go for a sleep."

He put on all his clothes, using spare socks to replace his soaking gloves, but was woken throughout the night by the cold and rain showers.

The teenager could hear the helicopters looking for him during the night, and in the morning, as he set off to find a road, he was overflown three times before he finally saw four mountain rescuers walking about 40 yards away.

"I grabbed my bag and started running and I was shouting ‘Help, help’. I was very distraught when I first saw them, quite panicky. I was breathing quite heavily and crying a little bit. It was just the relief," he said.

"They were very good, they calmed me down and took my mind off it and we just had a laugh. They were being quite funny."

When they arrived back at the base, he saw his father standing beside the car. "I just ran over and gave him a hug. I didn’t really say anything. He was saying, ‘I’m so happy you’re here’, stuff like that."

Oban Mountain Rescue Team and a rescue helicopter had scoured the area from about 8pm on Monday until 2am yesterday without success. Then at first light, members of Lochaber, Glencoe and RAF Kinloss rescue teams joined their colleagues as fears grew for Oliver’s safety.

PC Andy Cooper, who co-ordinated the search along with Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, said Oliver had acted sensibly in the circumstances.

"He had fairly recently completed an outward bound orienteering course which helped him greatly to survive the night," he said. "He had also taken plenty of spare clothing and waterproof gear and had enough food and water."

PC Cooper said Oliver had been "very scared" when he realised he was lost: "He felt very afraid when he realised he had come down the wrong side and the ground started to get very steep and dangerous, but he had the sense to set down and shelter for the night.

"He acted extremely sensibly. If he had carried on there’s every likelihood he could have had an accident or fallen."

Ms Johnstone, who divorced Mr Murray about 12 years ago, said she did not blame her ex-husband for letting their son go up the mountain alone. "We’ve all discussed it and I understand what happened. It was just purely unfortunate," she said.

She had spent the night wide awake and became terrified when she heard at about 3:30am the search was being called off.

"They phoned to say they had to give up searching because it was too dangerous. I was just begging them to find him, saying, ‘Please, please, you’ve got to find him’," she said.

"But then the police phoned about 8:30am to say they had found him and I just started crying, I couldn’t even speak to them."

Asked if she would let her son continue mountaineering? Ms Johnstone said: "Never. No. He probably will eventually but not if I have my way. Not at least for a very long time. That was absolutely terrifying."