A Jolly Old Wheeze, or, the Assault on Goatfell

Avid readers of these hallowed pages may remember a reference in a trip report harking back to February 2016 that I was lacking in the fitness department while trudging up the easy route up Plynlimon from the A44. The eagle eyed among you will also have noted my comment that I was actually at that point slightly fitter then than I had been previously. That reference was a veiled hint at the appalling state of fitness within which I took on the challenge of the Isle of Arran’s highest peak (and my first Corbett), Goatfell.

Goatfell. A mountain which had loomed large in my mountain consciousness for many years, ever since I first started thinking of an eventual trip to this gem of an island just off the coast of Scotland, replete as it was with peaceful glens and a working distillery. For the Isle of Arran is more than just a small island off a windswept coast; billed as “Scotland in miniature” by the tourist board, it nevertheless has many features that justify this characterisation, from a highland and lowland zone, sweeping and magnificent mountain arêtes, herds of red deer, abundant wildlife, extremely changeable weather and a feeling of remoteness that belies its relative proximity to several modern, sophisticated and urbane Scottish cities.

Goatfell is the mountain which reigns supreme over this island fastness, one of Scotland’s Corbetts (mountains between 2500 and 3000 feet) blessed with a stereotypically ‘mountain’ shape, a huge pyramidal cone rising precipitously from the surrounding valleys and commanding the attention of all who approach this island from the Scottish coast. It is one of several Corbetts and Donalds on this island but is unquestionably the most popular with the boatloads of tourists who flock here year round. It was one of the main reasons for my own visit (besides the obvious charms of the distillery, of course) but my purpose here was not simply to climb a hill. No, for I had a ghost to lay to rest.

A ghost, you say? How very metaphysical of you! Indeed. For many years ago, I’d had the chance to visit this island with my non-mountain walking twin brother and some friends, but at last-minute had been called in to work and had been unable to make the trip. My twin had ascended this lofty peak, and so now I had a point to prove, for if my non hill walking twin could tackle this mountain, it should be well within my powers. This September day was in fact a day of destiny, for today I would show them all How It Was Done. Yeah!

So it was that I shouldered my pack and trudged up the steep path behind the Arran brewery, my partner hiking behind. And so it was that I began my date with destiny, and, more pertinently, chronic unfitness, lack of cardiac conditioning and a startling realisation of how devastating a full year of not hiking any proper hills can be to your general health and wellbeing. Because, like it or lump it, I had to admit to myself that I was struggling a bit.

The path gradually began to flatten out as we left the forestry plantation we’d been hiking within behind, and followed a burn into the glen. It was then that Goatfell’s proportions really began to his home. This was a high peak with pretty steep slopes, and it was clear that if I’d been struggling on the approach walk through and into the glen below, then the assault on the flanks of this peak would be fairly brutal. To make matters worse, the weather was steadily deteriorating, a coastal breeze flinging the occasional rain squall our way. My general lack of fitness was really taking its toll on my mood. I’d always prided myself on being a hill walker, and here I was, finally doing my thing, climbing hills, after a long break away, and my body wasn’t playing ball. In fact my body was whingeing at me with every step, sapping away at my morale as I plodded along.

After what seemed like hours (and probably was, given my general lack of conditioning!) we looked up from the glen to the precipitous slopes above, rising at a rakish angle. Apparently, this was the only way to the summit. I checked the map again and sure enough, we were in for a contour-heavy, lung-busting pull to the top. I got moving, my partner taking the lead. Having been training in Kung Fu for several months beforehand she was in a far better state of fitness than me and the ease with which she was able to make the ascent underlined it. I, by comparison, really laboured along, struggling to maintain even a moderate pace uphill, and having to stop every few hundred feet to catch my breath. Cruelly, the path steepened the higher we climbed, and as we approached the first of several false summits I began to curse the mountain, and (something I’ve never really done before) question why on earth I actually did this. I may even briefly have said that if I actually got to the summit, I’d never be climbing Goatfell again.

Almost imperceptibly however, the fickle weather was starting to clear up, and a late September sunshine began to break through the fleeting clouds. Gradually, I stumbled from one false summit to another, cursing my lack of fitness, my appalling breathlessness, the general, clumsy, leaden-footedness I felt and my aching, sore muscles as I trudged grimly upwards. One curious thought kept me going. If I, the mountain man of my family, was finding it this hard going, how had my non-mountain dwelling twin got up here? If he’d done it, I had no excuse. To turn back would have been unthinkable…..it was more than a matter of mountain honour….it was sibling rivalry. It was personal!

It was as I was nearing the end of my tether that I finally spotted the unmistakable lines of the familiar O.S. trig pillar above and ahead of me, and my spirits soared. We’d done it. I’d finally done what I’d hoped to do years ago, and conquered those closely bunched contour lines, and got to the top of Goatfell, one of the most iconic peaks in Scotland. And what’s more, we’d been blessed with a view out to sea, and back over to the west, to the coast of the mainland. For a few minutes, we had the summit all to ourselves, and never have I felt that I’d had to work as hard to attain a summit as I felt on that September day on Goatfell. I drank in the view, and began to regret cursing this brilliant gem of a mountain as all the effort began to be rewarded.

We were joined at the summit by a chap who’d travelled up fast and light and was planning to do several more peaks before the evening. He lived on the island and this was a regular haunt. I was utterly sandbagged, and the thought of doing any more hills today was totally out of the question. Still, I’d done Goatfell. It hadn’t been pretty, in fact it had been bloody ugly, but I’d done it, finally, thank God!

Gradually we picked our way down the slopes and retraced our steps as the fickle weather changed again and a bitter wind picked up, matched by a cold rain which sluiced down from the heavens above. We were both fairly worn out, and the hike back down turned into more of a route march as time crept on and we realised that town would be closed if we lingered too long….going to bed on an empty stomach after a trudge like that didn’t appeal to either of us. Finally, something of my long practice hiking in the hills started to return to me, just when I needed it, as I engaged Bloody Minded Trudge Mode, set my eyes to Middle Distance Stare and blocked the surrounding world and weather out, just putting one foot in front of the other and focusing on getting down off the hill.

It was several hours later that two completely knackered and very bedraggled hikers stumbled out of a car in Lochranza and got into the nearest bar serving food. The hike was over and the all-important recovery began. Finally I could say that I’d settled an old score, and hiked that mountain my twin had done all those years before.

Several weeks later, fresh from my brush with death by exhaustion on a Scottish hillside, I asked my twin how he’d got on climbing Goatfell, not, of course, hinting how bloody difficult I’d found it. Well, he said, he’d simply deployed his usual grade-A mountain busting hiking technique. He’d taken one look at Goatfell from the glen below, put on a brew and buggered off back the way he’d come.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you don’t play games of sibling rivalry with a Machiavellian genius.