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The Great Outdoors: The Goatfell Challenge is a tall order… then add bad weather and a silly error

© Shutterstock / The Vertical ViewIsle of Arran, with Goatfell towering in the distance.
Isle of Arran, with Goatfell towering in the distance.

Daytrippers to the Isle of Arran have around three hours and 15 minutes to explore between each return ferry in winter – if they choose to accept the challenge.

The ferry from the west-coast town of Ardrossan to the island’s port of Brodick is timetabled to take 55 minutes. Of course, there’s no rush to leave and there are later ferries, yet three hours is also the perfect window for a challenge – to bike and run to Arran’s highest point and be back in time for the next ferry home.

The adventure seemed plausible. From Brodick to the start of a southerly ascent on the mountain of Goatfell is 4km (2.5 miles). From the base to Goatfell top is just over 5km (3 miles) – from sea level to summit it is 874m (2,867ft). To return, I’d simply reverse the route.

I expected the challenge to be tight for time. Websites suggested the fastest walking time for Goatfell was four and a half hours in summer conditions. At running pace, I hoped to cut the time 50%.

Like many best-laid plans in Scotland, however, on the chosen day the weather forecast for my autumn Goatfell Challenge had changed from cold and clear to warm and wet. A choppy sea also delayed the CalMac ferry, so it docked at Brodick 15 minutes later than the expected time of 10.40am.

By the time I’d pushed my bike up the ferry ramp, it was past 11am. I had no idea if this would affect the times for later ferries – and I didn’t waste time asking.

I turned on to the Arran coastal road and pedalled with haste towards Cladach Visitor Centre, where I would leave my bike and start running. There was a headwind, but I decided having it at this stage was better – a tailwind later on would be helpful.

At first, the main path on Goatfell winds gently up through woodland and I enjoyed a comfortable running pace. Every so often, I was treated at one point to a beautiful view of Glen Rosa below – but I was grateful for the cover of the trees. The damp air had turned to drizzle and the higher I ran, the wetter it became.

This was not my first time on Goatfell and, as the forest gave way to open moorland, I was sure there should be views of the mountain. Despite the lowering clouds, I enjoyed the autumnal tapestry of warm browns, russets and oranges.

So far, there had been no need for a map and compass, although, as I pushed upwards and into denser cloud, I kept a close eye on the ground ahead. By now, the wind was at buffeting speed and the air temperature had dipped. I stopped to add a layer of clothing and gloves.

The mountain is craggy higher up and the path had become rockier and less defined. Heading towards the eastern shoulder of Goatfell, I could feel a quiet determination ignite in me.

In clear weather, the summit direction would have been obvious, yet in cloud I was a little disorientated. I noted a fainter path heading east, while the main route goes west and on to the steepest part of the ascent. All around were huge boulders and I walked and scrambled over the wet and muddy terrain.

There were numerous mini summits but no sight of the summit, and I realised time had slipped by. I’d hoped to do the climb in 90 minutes but I needed to be quicker because the descent was not going to be straightforward due to the conditions.

At an hour and 17 minutes I topped out. The usual reward for making it to the peak is a fabulous vista of the granite ridges of other Arran mountains and even a sight of Ireland. I simply felt fortunate to be able to see my watch. There was no time to stop and I quickly about-turned.

Sadly, I was too eager to get off the mountain and a silly error made the return a high-speed chase. On the way up, the path to the coastal village of Corrie had seemed obvious enough to avoid. In retrospect, I can’t recall seeing the junction.

My pace had quickened and I was making excellent progress downhill in what seemed to be the right direction. But, surrounded by cloud and rain, I couldn’t see more than a few metres ahead. The more I descended, the less “right” it felt. By the time I knew for sure I was off-route, it was too late. Instead of returning south, I’d gone east – joining a gravel track that came to an end at the A814 at Corrie.

From Corrie, it was 9.6km (6 miles) to Brodick, although fewer to my bike – with only 25 minutes before the timetabled ferry to the mainland. Even on fresh legs, I doubted I could cover the distance in time.

I don’t like to give up easily, however, and I’d spotted an alternative to the road, on a section of the Arran Coastal Way. A tarmac run might be quicker, but it would be along a busy road, and the coastal way slightly cut a corner.

Keeping my eyes peeled for the right path, I ran as swiftly as I could along a forest track. Autumn had again painted the flora a gorgeous palette and, now I was below the clouds, I could see the sea shimmering.

The coastal path crossed the southern path on Goatfell and, as I reached it, I turned left, urging myself to speed downhill.

The bike was still attached to a tree and I hastily unlocked it and jumped on. I still didn’t dare look at my watch. By now, my head was pounding, my leg muscles burned and I felt nauseous.

But then hope glimmered. I thought I could see a ferry at the terminal. Closer still and I saw passengers disembarking.

The hoped-for tailwind propelled me on and I joined a small queue of walkers and cyclists, sighing with relief.

I was still catching my breath as I boarded the ferry – delayed due to the weather – elated that I’d completed my Goatfell Challenge, albeit with a detour.