Written by:Anne Gavin

Editor’s note: This post is a continuation in Anne Gavin’s series about returning to Scotland after a wonderful first visit last year. Read about why she, like Claire, had to go back and about her time exploring Glasgow. And if you want to relieve Anne’s first trip last year, here’s a link to get you started. Let the virtual travel begin!

We arrived the Isle of Arran full of anticipation but slightly WET. Too busy chatting away with locals on the boat, we had no idea that while making our 55-minute crossing from Ardrossan that the clouds had moved in. As we walked down the gang plank of the CalMac ferry, the skies had opened up. Typical Scotland. What is also typical Scotland is the wonderfully kind hospitality of those that live there. The effervescent Brian Deary of Corrie Cabs and Visit Arran was there to greet us and drive us the 30 minutes to our seaside cottage where we would stay for the week. I had been corresponding with Brian for several months regarding Arran and our need for possible rides to and fro while there. A wonderful Scotsman, indeed, Brian regaled us with many tales of the island and its history as he whisked us quite rapidly on a very narrow two-lane track towards the southwest side of the island and our cottage.

One thing I couldn’t help but notice as we drove out of the ferry terminal, however, was the very large and looming Goat Fell mountain dead ahead. I shuddered a little staring at it. It was hard to look away, actually. It looked foreboding – with dark, black clouds near the summit. It was my first up-close and personal view and did not seem at all as friendly as many of the photos I had seen. Quite shear and rocky, the mountain jutted upwards from sea level narrowing into an angular tip at the summit surrounded by boulders on all sides. This was our challenge, however, to make sure we got up Goat Fell at least one of the days we were on the island. I thought I was ready… but didn’t think it would be so soon. Here is our story of climbing the merciless Goat Fell.

We were not all disappointed when we arrived at our cottage – Torlinn Beach House. The property was an old farmhouse that had been restored with several nearby buildings still under renovation. The location was magnificent. I’ll make a non-Outlander  reference here crossing over into Poldark territory, but I really was expecting Ross Poldark to gallop across the hillside at any moment.

The house literally sits at the precipice of a steep cliff overlooking the ocean – with farmland on either side and behind. It’s a short walk down hill to the sandy beach below and there are no other homes visible, save for a stone ruin or two in the distance. It was truly better than I had expected. The interior was very comfortable, well equipped and cozy with radiant heated floors. I will put in a plug for Arran Island Cottages for the quality of the property and for the professionalism of the rental process. What I saw online when I booked, is what I got and then some.

Once settled in, the ladies and I relaxed and starting thinking about what lie ahead. None of us could really comprehend what it was going to mean to trek 65 miles in 6 days. And, for me personally, I really had no expectations and no conditions for this trip except for one  – the one thing I had insisted on with our intrepid guide, Dave Lawson, was that we find a clear day to hike Goat Fell. I couldn’t imagine doing all that work and then getting to the summit and not being able to catch what I knew would be stunning views. But, sunny, clear days in Scotland were not the norm and the forecast, which I had been obsessively checking, was looking grim. First up, though, a relaxing night’s sleep with the sound of the waves crashing against the cliffs below. Sorry, Jamie Fraser, but it was Ross Poldark galloping headlong into my dreams that evening.

View of Goat Fell at sea level

After a leisurely morning, we waited for our first set of guests to arrive. Colin Bell and I had “met” only virtually through the very first Outlander Facebook group I ever joined – Outlander Fans United. It seems like ages ago!  Over the years, I enjoyed Colin’s online quips, his newbie interest in Outlander and his candid reactions to watching Season 1, which he often shared online. I had hoped to meet him at some point and his partner, Rhona Walker, so it only seemed natural to invite them to Arran. Rhona and Colin live in Fife, just outside of Edinburgh. I had noted Colin’s love of a good outdoor adventure (and Rhona, too) and thought they might be game for some of what we had planned. Colin and Rhona arrived at the cottage mid-day and it was like we were long lost friends! Such warm people and they came bearing lots of snacks and alcohol drinks and enough party food for the next several days!

The plan was to meet up with the rest of our Arran crew that afternoon in Brodick to start our walk with a short trip down the beach (only a few miles) to Brodick Castle. Unfortunately, the castle was closed for renovations. But, it was a brisk walk nonetheless and we had a chance to meet up with Dave Lawson, our guide, his niece, Lauren and her boyfriend, Gary, and the rest of Dave’s family and friends who would be serving as support crew for the Coastal Way trekkers. This included eight Cavalier Spaniels and one Labrador Retriever!

Dave had checked the weather and the tentative plan was to try for the Goat Fell ascent first thing the next day. What? I thought I would have more time to fret about it before actually attempting it! The plan was made, though, and we all agreed to meet up the next morning at the starting point – the bottom of the mountain at sea level (this is an important detail I will elaborate on later) near the Castle. Again, I started obsessively checking weather for the next day. My one condition was tantamount in my mind. No climb if the weather was questionable. When I awoke the next morning, the sun was shining over the ocean. But, when I walked outside and looked back in the direction of Goat Fell, there were threatening black clouds sitting squarely over that part of the island.  However, we all piled into Colin’s vehicle and made our way to the agreed upon starting point. The crew was there when we arrived including three Cavalier Spaniels and the Labrador – Milo. It was cloudy, but did look like it may clear. So, off we went.

Goat Fell sits 2,867 feet tall – just a few hundred feet shy of a Munro. In Scotland, a Munro is any mountain, 3,000 feet or higher. Anything less than 3,000 feet is classified as a Corbett. However, not all Munros begin at sea level, like Goat Fell does. And, I was told on the ascent that sometimes Corbetts can be tougher climbs than Munros. Really?  Now you tell me?

The best part of the lower part of the climb was that the sun, indeed, did come out. So much so, that as we trudged forward and started expending a lot of energy, we all stripped off two to three layers of clothing and by the time we were over an hour into the ascent, we were all down to t-shirts. At this point, my heart was pumping and I was feeling the elevation. But, what I couldn’t really comprehend was that it seemed as if every step I took, I got no further. I knew this couldn’t be true but the mountain just seemed relentless. It went on and on and on. Thinking back, I am guessing this is really just the impression of a novice hill walker. I mean – clearly we were steadily moving upwards, but having never done anything of this magnitude before, it just appeared to me that the distance between me and the summit was increasing not decreasing. Perhaps it was the steady vertical nature of the trail and the lack of few, if any, plateaus.  Or, maybe it was that we were over an hour in to the climb and progress just seemed painfully slow. Either way, I was beginning to think that perhaps I didn’t have the stamina to make it. Plus, as I stared at the summit – made glaringly visible by the now brilliance of the sun – there appeared to be no actual trail. Just piles of boulders piled up to a pointed jagged peak. Dave kept saying, “Aye, the trail winds around and takes you to the top.” But, that wasn’t what it looked like to me. How would we navigate that pile of boulders at the peak?

I began feeling a bit dejected, as I noted some of our group seemed to get further away, obviously climbing faster and with greater ease than me. I was cheered, however, by the presence of the dogs, who enthusiastically dashed forward and then back to check on us, then forward again. Milo, the Labrador, in particular, seemed in his element. Any trickle of a waterfall, a stream or a small puddle, Milo ran full speed into it. I have really never met a Labrador with such a sixth sense for the presence of water. He could spot it a mile away. Or maybe he smelled it? I don’t know what it was, but it was cute and made me laugh. This was good because at this point in the climb, I wasn’t feeling too jolly. We finally reached a point in the climb where the trail literally disappeared. And, then there were the boulders. I could actually see the marker at the summit – an actual cairn that people would tag when they reached the top. But, despite constant forward movement, which included a steady scramble looking for stable rocks to step up and on, again, the summit seemed to remain very far away. Relentless.

At one point I said to Dave, “This is like the Devil’s Staircase!” Dave corrected me and said, “Och, no, the Devil’s Staircase is in Glen Coe and is part of the West Highland Way.” Well, I didn’t really care at this point. This was my Devil’s Staircase and it was getting the best of me. But, it wasn’t really an option at this point, to quit. I mean, where would I go? I was over 1,500 feet into the climb and I wasn’t going to suddenly start walking down. No. Not an option. There was several of the group that had pushed past me and were likely already at the summit. It seemed like it took over an hour to make that final push. But, the reality was it was only 30 minutes. However, it was a very labored 30 minutes and, in that short time, the wind whipped into a frenzy – 30-mile per hour winds at least. It was to the point that not only was I worried about hoisting myself onto a stable rock, but now I had to worry about getting blown off the mountain. And, cold…so cold. How could it be that I was in a t-shirt not 45 minutes ago but now layered back up with coat and hood as freezing rain was spitting occasionally on those last several hundred brutal feet.   
This, they say, is the Scotland hill walking experience and why so many people get caught off guard while climbing with sometimes dire consequences. I was fortunate to have an expert with me and was so grateful for it. Everyone was hanging tough, including the dogs. “Not far now,” Dave kept saying…although what Dave meant by that was not anywhere close to my definition of “not far.”

When I did FINALLY get to the summit, I was surprised at my reaction. Utter exhaustion, yes. Wonderful to see all of my fellow climbers there, of course. We hugged and congratulated each other as we were taking in the spectacular views, but I could feel it rising inside me. Waves of emotion. Hot tears and an inability to catch my breath for holding back the tears. It became impossible to swallow this emotion, so I did the only thing I could think to do. I walked as far away from the group as I could and just sobbed. VERY unlike me. But, it just wasn’t possible to contain what I was feeling and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I think it was the anxiety that had been building up for the last several hours. Maybe it was fear, self-doubt and the tension in every part of my body that had labored up that relentless hill. It was truly not something I had ever felt before. I honestly didn’t know how to handle it and I am sure my abrupt “walk-off” came across as very cold and dispassionate to my fellow climbers.  These feelings were alien to me. I honestly didn’t know who that person was who made that climb.

But, I looked down and around at the beauty of Scotland and I knew. Yes, it was me. This was My Peak Challenge and I was standing at the top. The views were magnificent. Other-worldly in many ways. The sun appeared again and I quickly tried to snap some photos to capture the moment. But, I knew I could never really capture the vastness of the peaks surrounding the summit and how they skimmed gently under the blue sky and gently hovering clouds. No. You actually had to be there to really appreciate it. And, I was there. Somehow. I had made it.

Despite my desire for a helicopter to appear and whisk me down the mountain, I knew that what went up, must come down. So, we left the party atmosphere of the summit and started our way down the other side of the mountain with the intent to land in Sannox, the small village on the other side of our start point. Boulder filled section, after boulder filled section, we plodded straight down. How could it be that going down was harder than going up? My knees were being pounded with every step. My legs were rubber and I was so worried I would slip and fall down hard. The possibility was more than real. I had really slowed down. My anemic pace up the mountain seemed like a sprint compared to my pace down. I was actually praying every time we reached a gate, that there were would be a road or any even surface on the other side. But, it was just more stones. Stone after stone after stone.

We finally reached the sea…only to find out that according to Dave, we still needed to walk another mile to the official ending location. At this point, no one was happy. And, certainly no one was happy with Dave because we all knew that when he said one mile, it likely meant three miles. Enough was enough. We had started at 9:30 that morning and it was now 4:00 p.m. But, on we did walk until Dave stopped us at the designated spot and called it a day. Dogs all accounted for, fellow climbers all accounted for. We had done it. But, all we wanted to do was sit down in the car and take off our boots.

Goat Fell. Relentless.

The marker I left behind at the start of Goat Fell, my MPC. 

Have you ever hill walked in Scotland? Would you if given the chance?

Missed the previous entries in the Scotland Diaries?  Find them here:

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Source: OCB

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