The challenge: To bike and hike Goatfell (between the ferries)
I love an outdoors challenge and I am a huge fan of Scotland’s islands. So when I heard about a fun (and tough) island challenge I took advantage of a day of okay-ish autumn weather to give it a go.
The Goatfell challenge is this:
- Take the Calmac ferry on foot and/or with a bike from Ardrossan to Brodick on Arran.
- Catch the next ferry back, just three hours and 10 minutes later.
- In this time, get to the summit of Goatfell, the island’s highest point at 874m, without using motorised transport.
I set out for the adventure with my friend, Mechanic Nick, a bike mechanic and general challenge seeker.
Scottish weather weirdness
Autumn has changed to winter in the last few weeks and on Friday we were expecting cold and rain. Given that the translation of Goatfell is thought, by some people, to be Mountain of Wind, we were also prepared for a windy hike.
On Friday, remarkably, the temperature was between 16C and 18C. This meant we were badly overdressed for much of the challenge. I ended up so warm that I could wring sweat from my baselayer after the hike.
And it didn’t rain (much) but it was very, very windy and misty towards the top of Goatfell.
Setting out for Goatfell
We caught the 9.45am Calmac Arran ferry. This is meant to arrive at Brodick at 10.40 but was a little delayed due to a rough-ish sea crossing. We left the port of Brodick on mountain bikes at 11am.
We cycled the 2.5 miles to start of the Goatfell walk, near Brodick Castle, from the ferry port, and arrived at about 11.10am.
We decided to ride a little way up the walking trail so we could save time on the descent. For the information of others, it’s easily possible to ride higher up the trail but in retrospect I am very, very pleased that we didn’t!
We locked up our bikes and set off on foot. The footpath is easy to find and while it is a non-stop up kind of walk it’s mostly steady and we found it possible to march upwards at a decent pace.
From the halfway point, the wind picked up and the mist/clouds descended. We were left to hike upwards with visibility of only a few metres in front. It wasn’t cold but it was sometimes hard to stay on my feet due to gusts of wind.
Higher up the mountain the path became rocky and scrambly – and there seemed to be numerous false summits. Many times I imagined we must be about to reach the top only to find the path going onwards and further upwards.
When we met a group of walkers descending we asked them how far it was to the top. “Not far now,” they said. “Maybe 10 minutes, or 15 minutes. Or maybe more. And there are a few more false tops to pass before the summit.”
Looking anxiously at my watch I realised that time was slipping by. Yet we had been walking fairly fast and stopped only once to put on a waterproof jacket and eat half a banana.
We had planned on allowing one hour 30 mins for the ascent but changed that to one hour 20 mins because we were worried about how much of the route we could run on the way down.
At precisely one hour 17 mins we topped out. A quick high five was followed by a hasty descent.
Sadly, there was most likely too much haste and not enough thought and awareness of the path that we were following.
On the way up, the path was obvious and easy to follow. Even in thick mist we could see the trail ahead. On the way down, we also followed the path and kept the wind to our right hand side but what we didn’t know was that the path splits and then runs parallel for a while.
Off track on Goatfell
Sadly, we took the wrong fork in the path. To be honest, we didn’t see a junction at all and because the path looked fairly well trodden (for a while) we kept on descending at a fast pace.
Several times we stopped to look around and discussed whether each of us had seen various parts of the path on the way up but in the wind and mist it was difficult to remember.
Sure, the path looked less walked but there were still footprints of other walkers. Sure the route seemed unfamiliar but we were heading in the right direction and the wind was still buffeting us from the right side.
It seemed kind of right but not perfectly right, if you know what I mean.
But the further we descended the less “right” it all felt. Sadly, we realised too late that we were on the wrong route. By this point we had no choice but to continue.
We reached the end of the trail on a tarmac road and realised, frustratingly, that we were in the village of Corrie, some six miles (!) from Brodick and almost four miles from the castle.
A challenge gone wrong (or did it?)
If we had descended the correct route we would have had ample spare time to catch the return ferry. We know now that the challenge is perfectly possible if you keep the pace up and stick to the right route.
But we were now at Corrie with only 35 mins to reach the port for the return ferry. Even if we had run as fast as we could (and that was not possible on mountain-tired legs) we would have missed the ferry.
We jogged along the road and hoped, against hope, that a car driver would take pity on us. But the few cars and lorries that whizzed by didn’t bother to stop.
Time was slipping by and we were resigned to a failed challenge. The ferry after the one we were about to miss was in another three hours’ time and we felt crushed that we had made a silly route finding mistake.
But for some reason neither of us was willing to walk – and neither of us could totally give up hope of a miracle. Yet we knew we were clutching at straws.
And then a thin straw suddenly appeared. I spotted a car coming towards us and stuck out my thumb. I smiled and willed the car to stop. It did.
We quickly explained the situation to the driver and told him of the need for speed and we held on to one last hope of making that ferry.
But the time was very, very tight. When the car dropped us at Brodick Castle we had only 17 minutes to retrieve our bikes and cycle 2.5 miles to get the ferry. Foot passengers are also meant to arrive a full 10 mins prior to the ferry departure time.
An episode of Challenge Anneka
The next 20 minutes felt like I was re-living a Challenge Anneka TV programme. Still hoping against hope, we dashed from the car and back up the start of the Goatfell path.
We cursed the fact that we had cycled uphill at all. And the bikes seemed to be miles up that track.
As we ran and jogged I felt increasingly sick and wobbly. I’d hardly eaten anything and I was at the end of my energy reserves.
With just 10 mins left, we hastily unlocked the bikes, jumped into the saddles and tried to cycled as hard as we could into a headwind and back towards the ferry port.
By now, my head was pounding, my leg muscles burned and I felt like I would be sick any second. I could see Mechanic Nick making better progress than me and I hoped that if he reached the ferry in time he would somehow make the ferry wait for me.
But then I saw a glimmer of hope. I thought I spotted a car and a lorry coming off the ferry. Against all odds, it seemed that the ferry had been late arriving at the port and it was seeing off the vehicles before letting more cars on for the return trip.
I didn’t dare believe this could be true but I kept on pushing my legs to pedal my seemingly ton-weight bike.
We were in luck after all. The ferry had been late.
As we rode breathlessly into the port, the return cars were still driving on. We had made the ferry with only minutes to spare and the Calmac ticket lady confirmed that they would allow us to go on after all the cars had been loaded. I almost hugged her.
By now, as I got off my bike, I was a shaking, sick-feeling, headache pounding mess. I couldn’t believe that we had somehow completed the challenge despite a detour of many, many miles.
Goatfell challenge: A success or not?
I guess we can’t claim to have completed the whole challenge without the help of a motorised vehicle. But we do know that if we had followed the right route down Goatfell we would have easily ticked off the challenge proper.
As we re-feulled on Calmac ferry cups of tea and cakes we also re-found our sense of humour. It had been a superb day out, we reflected. We refused to dwell on what might have been if we had missed the ferry and instead congratulated ourselves on our unending perseverance even in the face of adversity.
Goatfell by bike and on foot is a brilliant challenge. Next time I might well try it on foot only.
Other Scottish island challenges
Try the five ferries bike ride in the summer months.
For my next challenge I fancy a day of Colonsay Hill Bagging. More of that to come.
Also note that Arran Calmac ferry fares are now cheaper.