THE butterflies had just settled as I sat having lunch on the tiny summit platform of Sgurr nan Gillean after an exciting scramble up the exposed West Ridge.
The razor spikes collectively known as the Black Cuillin were stretched out in the sunshine on the horizon while their gentler cousins glowed red in the opposite direction.
Just then, a young girl appeared on the narrow crest of the ridge, strolling confidently towards us. Seconds later, a younger boy popped up. She was 11, the older brother eight. I asked if they were unaccompanied. The girl replied that her parents were on the way up with their little brother.
They had come up the ironically named Tourist Route, supposedly the easiest way to the top but still steep, exposed and fraught with problems. The final section is especially tricky. Some experienced walkers will consider a rope for this climb but these youngsters were moving along as if they were in a playpark rather than 3,000 feet off the ground on a rock tightrope with huge drops all around. They simply had no fear.
I’m sure the parents were confident climbers and trusted their youngsters to make all the right moves, but it’s still a great leap of faith to leave your children to make their own way along such a dangerous ridge. Maybe that’s a better way than bringing your kids up to be scared of taking risks.
A mountain guide once told me that 13 is the age you start discovering fear. A child of 10 will clamber up rock ladders that a 40-year-old wouldn’t even consider.
My first encounter with mountain terrors was on the Aonach Eagach, the notched ridge in Glen Coe, way back at the start of my hillgoing days. It was the first time I had realised I could quite easily plummet to my death while enjoying a healthy hobby. Contrast that to my friend Malcolm, who first went along this ridge when he was 12 and found it merely “a bit scary”.
I don’t have that same fear factor now. I have a healthy respect for the mountains and won’t do anything stupid - well, almost - but that’s maybe just experience and maturity. When you have bills to pay and a young family to support, it’s natural you are more cautious.
I noticed a big difference in one friend after children arrived on the scene. From being confident in serious situations, he went to downright terrified when faced with exposure.
I find the psychological factor of fear in the mountains fascinating. I remember being in the Cuillin with seven friends, and most had a case of the wobbles at some point. It was never the same peak or the same reason; each had their own demons.
Just this week the children’s author Julia Donaldson spoke out against what she sees as parents’ over-protection, the stifling of the kind of adventure and discovery that drove us on in our childhood.
This resonated with me, particularly as we prepare to head off on our annual walk up Buachaille Etive Mor this weekend in memory of our friend Trevor Walls, who died on this peak in 2004. Trevor was one of the most fearless people I have ever met. He enjoyed life to the full and wasn’t afraid to take risks. He was a unique character and we will, as always, raise a glass to his memory and his irrepressible spirit.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt said: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Although it should be pointed out that he wasn’t clinging to the knife edge of the In Pin when he said that.