Arran’s Goat Fell in December

As the Caledonian Isles approached Brodick on an Arctic – cold morning, it struck me that I had been coming to Arran for nearly 65 years.My parents had had their honeymoon on Arran and of course being Glaswegians, the island was a big family favourite for day trips and summer holidays, just a hop and a skip away from the big city.Yet that 50 min ferry journey really did transport us townies into another world and was once more doing that today.

The winter light on Goat Fell and the rest of the mountain range was absolutely glorious, beginning as a soft dusky pink.Then the sun came up, revealing what seemed to be every nook and cranny of the mountains granite faces and ridges.There can’t be many ferry approaches to any of the islands which are more beautiful than that to Arran. In fact to me, from the sea, the island’s mountains rival the Cuillin in their dramatic, shapely outline.

View to Arran and Goat Fell from the ferry
Goat Fell from the ferry

As the Caledonian Isles approached Brodick on an Arctic – cold morning, it struck me that I had been coming to Arran for nearly 65 years.My parents had had their honeymoon on Arran and of course being Glaswegians, the island was a big family favourite for day trips and summer holidays, just a hop and a skip away from the big city.Yet that 50 min ferry journey really did transport us townies into another world and was once more doing that today.

The winter light on Goat Fell and the rest of the mountain range was absolutely glorious, beginning as a soft dusky pink.Then the sun came up, revealing what seemed to be every nook and cranny of the mountains granite faces and ridges.There can’t be many ferry approaches to any of the islands which are more beautiful than that to Arran. In fact to me, from the sea, the island’s mountains rival the Cuillin in their dramatic, shapely outline.

Arran from Ardrossan
Arran’s shapely outline
Ayrshire from the ferry

The early morning winter light was very soft and beautiful…above, looking across to the Ayrshire coast.

We had two days ahead of us , a last minute splurge with an overnight at the beautiful Auchrannie Hotel ( a big advantage of winter breaks, cheaper rates! ) I must admit, I had been quite happy tucked up at home during the really bitterly cold spell of icy weather in mid December and I wasn’t feeling all that motivated to move and head for the sea and a ferry.But any doubts about the trip soon vanished as Arran’s fantastic outline and beautiful Brodick Bay came ever nearer.

Brodick Bay
Brodick Bay

We spent that first day exploring the west and south of the island and walking to the Machrie Moor Standing Stones.The good start to the day hadn’t lasted and heavy cloud had quickly descended on the summits. All mountains deserve a reasonably clear day but somehow those beside the sea seem to deserve it even more.

But a crystal clear morning on Day 2 and a good hill forecast, found us at the car park at the start of the Goat Fell walk.

Incredibly, it had been 12 years since I’d last climbed Goat Fell. I couldn’t actually believe that until we got home and I checked the date on the photos. That heart strings tugging song of Fairport Convention ‘ Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ is oh so true. On that long ago occasion , it had been a broiling hot summer’s day at the end of a great summer week with the family based at Sannox.

Today the temperature at the car park was around -5C , only 30C colder than that summer’s day! In fact the ice in the car park made me wonder whether heading up another near 900 metres was really a good idea ❓ but it was such a terrific, if Baltic blue sky day, it seemed criminal not to give Mountain of the Goat a go.

The path climbed up initially through the forest, meaning it was ice free underfoot. That was nice after the slithery hopping about we did at the car park.If anyone else had been around we must have looked like a couple of incompetents who had no business venturing into the mountains. 😆 Chris nearly went flying after taking just a few steps and I had to grab the car handle at one point when I slipped on a lump of what must have been black ice.

But with that poorish start behind us, the views opened out as we crossed the car route to the castle, the eastern face of Beinn Nuis lit up magically and looking impressive across Glen Rosa.

December sun on Beinn Nuis
Beinn Nuis at the start of the walk
Heading up the path
Low winter sunlight

As ever I’d plotted our route on my phone’s OS App which suggested that the 5.5km and 874m of ascent to Goat Fell would take us 2hrs 45.This seemed quite long given previous ascent times though as Chris reminded me, we’d almost ran up the route last time so it was hardly comparable. The path must be one of the finest on any mountain but in fact given the conditions further up, this timescale turned out to be fairly accurate today – for us relative oldies at any rate.

There was still a very faint warmth in the sun and the layers started to come off once we left the forest behind and reached more open ground. After an hour, we came to the bridge at the 300m mark, which I always think of as the end of the first section of the hike.

The bridge in the route up Goat Fell
At the bridge…another 584m of ascent to go

The waterfall path coming up from the castle grounds also joins in here but the falls were just a trickle today given how frozen everything was.Our path veered off to the right, across moorland in the rich winter colours of tawny, burnt orange and gold. Once through the deer fence, the path began to get a bit more icy wherever a burn had over spilled it, but it is so wide and the terrain is so forgiving, it was very simple to avoid the worst.

Even at this height, there wasn’t a breath of wind and we stopped often to turn round and admire Brodick Bay and beyond that, the distinctive outline of the Holy Isle.The Firth of Clyde was Mediterranean blue against the emerald green farmland of Ayrshire.The neat houses of Millport on Cumbrae were very clear, another childhood holiday paradise and Island of Adventure.

It felt longer to cross the gradually rising moorland than I remembered. Ice did start to take a bit of dodging as we reached the 600m mark on the ridge of Meall Breac but really, the conditions were very benign for December.

Beinn Chliabhain and Beinn Nuis appearing
The moorland section

Some ice but easily avoided
Ice appearing

Goat Fell is such a beautiful mountain from a distance but also close up.The ridge itself was now littered with sizeable granite boulders – a bit like Cairngorm but the colour was different, the rocks more grey rather than with the pink of the well named Monadh Ruadh. I think that’s because the island granite has less felspar.

DSC_0620.jpg
Towards Millport and Little Cumbrae islands

The ridge meant it was time for a seat and a snack where , stationary, we soon appreciated how incredibly cold, if still, the air was.There wasn’t another soul to be seen; we had the mountain to ourselves- so far.Spying the ferry leaving from Brodick, it seemed likely that there would be several folks over for the day and heading our way.We’d just got a bit of a head start.

A final look
Approaching the ridge at 600m

A flock of birds, very vocal, fluttered across the ridge and for a moment I thought they might be Snow Buntings but they were little Meadow Pipits, enjoying the sunny winter morning too.

Across the corrie, North Goat Fell looked precipitous and impressive, as did Caisteal Abhail. The light was so sharp and clear.

North Goat Fell

Fuelled with a huge breakfast c/o The Auchrannie, we weren’t particularly hungry and were soon up on our feet again. The path weaved its way beautifully through the steeper ground of the final cone which of granite outcrops.The surface of the path was now covered in a layer of powder snow so it did mean taking our time a bit more with each foot placement but thankfully, nothing was too slippery.

Final steps
Powder snow and rime ice

Taking a look behind, Little Cumbria now stood proud above the Firth of Clyde and Bute looked very bucolic a little further north.On the mainland, the Luss hills were clear and much higher summits to the north east looked like snow plastered Ben More and Stob Binnein.

Southern Highlands to the north
Ben More and the mainland hills
Looking south to the Holy Isle
The Holy Isle pyramid beyond Brodick Bay

The final rocky summit cone of Goat Fell looked very dramatic, almost Alpine from below with it’s white coating of snow and rime ice.The path is so beautifully graded that it really is like going up a stone staircase but unlike other similar paths it has been built by people with, thankfully for once , SHORT legs with no great stretching needed to reach the next step!

The route wound it’s way through the granite boulders, avoiding an outcrop of slabs with a traverse across the upper slopes, before a final short zigzag onto the summit.

Wow! It was absolutely breathtaking up there today and the visibility was superb.

Summit views

Cir Mhor looked majestic , an intimidating sharp cone of granite but in air so clear it felt close enough to touch.

Cir Mhor and Jura
Cir Mhor

Caisteal Abhail looked very grand as did the sweep of the A’ Chir ridge.But perhaps most of all, away to the west, I was thrilled to see Jura in all its glory.

Caisteal Abhail

The Paps of Jura have always been one of my favourite views.I love the contrast of their grey scree-covered upper slopes set against the tawny moorland, all rising out of a silvery blue sea.I’ve never seen the Paps from Goat Fell and now here they were crystal clear in deepest, darkest December. To me, they are a clarion call to the wilder parts of the west coast and the beginning, along with Islay, of the Hebrides.Several years ago( who am I kidding, it must be 15 years!) we climbed the highest Pap, Beinn an Oir, on a wild camping trip based on the very remote , empty west coast of Jura.Although it was rough going, I think it might have been an easier, drier and shorter ascent than from the more common approach from the east.

Isle of Jura
Jura

Goat Fell’s summit was heavily covered in snow and ice so we explored it carefully, aware of the sheer drop into Glen Rosa on the west side.

Myself

It was a mesmerising summit to be on in such weather.Mull was just visible to the north west too.Away to the south west, a very distant series of headlands jutted out sharply, one of which we thought must be Malin Head in Donegal.

Malin Head way out to the south west
A distant Donegal

The thousand foot high pyramid of Ailsa Craig looked other worldly.In the mainland, a distinctive white topped building with orange roof was the Turnberry Hotel. Culzean Castle was clear too and the rounded summit of Cairnsmore of Carsphairn rose above the patchwork of green fields and low hills of Ayrshireon Flickr

After 20 mins at the top , the cold was biting so it was time to head down.I could now see quite a few figures ascending so we wouldn’t have the mountain to ourselves for much longer.Lovely, though to have the summit to ourselves.

The descent
Heading down

I took my time descending the initial snow covered steps where a slip might have resulted in a nasty tumble onto steep rocky ground.I’m a bit quicker than Chris these days when ascending, but he beats me hands down on any descent where age seems to have made me much more cautious in terms of balance.

Heading down with Ayrshire coast on the horizon

In ten minutes or so, the ground became less steep and we decided to stop at our earlier spot and enjoy a seat in the sunshine, the hard work over.

A chap about our own age stopped to chat and I noticed that his wife was quite a way behind him. After chatting about what a great day it was, he explained that he was ‘nursing a vertigo sufferer’ up the slopes.Moments later, his wife drew up alongside us, not looking very happy at all.I really did feel for her as I have a tendency towards (sometimes irrational) bouts of vertigo myself with a deep aversion to edges and ledges. This lady confirmed that she’d been up Goat Feel often in the past but was increasingly finding its final slopes too intimidating. Admitting to my own occasional wobbles on some hills, we did add that there was no ice to worry about and after another bit of chat, off they headed. But moments later, we noticed that she had branched off to find a boulder to sit on while her husband continued up.There really is no convincing anyone about the safety or ease of a route; if the eye and mind don’t like the look of it, the game’s up.I know that very well myself.

From the summit

A lot of the earlier ice in the moorland section had melted slightly making progress a bit faster.Apart from the beautiful views of sea and islands on the descent, we met some interesting people making their way up now too. We stopped to talk to a young couple from the Far East who, impressively, were carrying camping gear! They asked about ice further up and given the tendency to become a temporary expert on higher slopes once on the descent we were able to say that there was very little.They were hoping to see the Northern Lights but weren’t sure if they could stand the cold. 😯 I felt a bit envious of them as they headed off but Chris did remind me that camping at this time of year meant being in the tent and in the dark from the back of 4pm till nearly 8am…a LONG time, not to mention the bone chilling cold; it was due to be -8 tonight in sheltered glens(a bit less cold at the sea) so… another 600m up…Tough Cookie territory!

Just before we hit the forest section, two guys in their early fifties I’d guess appeared and given that it was now after 2pm with only a couple of hours of daylight left, I was curious about their late start. But – it was all deliberate as they explained that they were planning a moonlight descent down Cioch Na H – Oighe (which translates as The Maiden’s Breast. ) Even more impressive plans!

Feeling like failures now to have only gone to the summit and back, we continued down…

On such a bright day, even the lower slopes had a certain magic.I’m not usually a fan of swathes of conifers but the trunks of the trees were dripping in moss and lichens, turning them a vivid, emerald green.The winter sun was so low in the sky that shafts of light were illuminating some of the eeriest, darkest reaches of the forest.It gave the whole place a Lord of the Rings quality.

Back at the car, the ice had gone.What a great day out it had been on a very beautiful mountain.5.5 hrs all in, about twice the time of that previous August scamper. But it deserves as much time as anyone can give it, Goat Fell. It’s a delight all the way – and there really is nothing quite like a mountain that rises straight up out of the sea for mesmerising views.

Cloud coming in on Goat Fell
Goat Fell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s