International Mountain Day #Mountainsmatter

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

A story of my favourite mountain, on my favourite island, about a favourite group of outdoor women.

I have never climbed this mountain myself, but one day I will. And as I look to that day when I finally summit this enchanting peak, in a place that I call my adventure home; the island that showed me what I thought I’d lost, it pleases me nothing more to tell the regaled summer’s tale of the mountain called Goatfell and the Isle of Arran Belles.

I first met the Belles, or at least some of them, during my very first visit to the Isle of Arran. Back in 2014, a pull to the island that I never knew, a point on a map, the start of my adventure, to unknown places and endless spirit of curiosity. That first trip had taught me so much about myself. After my last stroke in 2008, my life changed. It was just different. Things I had in a past life were to be left there, new horizons beckoned and new opportunities took me further in a very different way. Though my love of adventure never died. Inside that fire burnt as bright as ever, but it was my maiden journey to the isle that showed me just how bright that fire was. My Isle of Arran adventure pilgrimage.

I was driving back to the ferry when I saw a small group of ladies with bikes at the side of the road, looking like they may have had an issue of some sort. I quickly deduced this was a puncture, and knowing I had my hefty track pump in the back of my car, pulled over and offered them to use it to help get back on the road quicker. My car at the time was fully logoed up with my name and sponsor, so I guess it wasn’t too difficult for anyone who wanted to find out who I was to do so. And sure enough, after my brief meeting with this friendly group of lasses and I was back on my way, sometime later an email arrived in my inbox. Introducing the Isle of Arran Belles.

That initial chance meeting had sparked a wonderful friendship. The Belles, a women-only cycling group on the island have become real friends, and I love to catch up with them and join them for a ride when I’m over, which is never enough. I’m even a very proud honorary Belle, a title in my opinion of the highest calibre. There’s a lot more to the story of the Belles which I will indeed write about soon, but for this story I will keep that part short.

The Arran Belles were outdoors women for sure. But by bike. I see regular posts about epic wind-swept cycles, island loop stops at Janie’s or Machrie Tea Room and annual Belles Away days and multi day adventures, like the Hebridean Way and the gruelling NC500, but it’s all about the bikes. And why not indeed, Arran - Scotland in Miniature, riding around the island you have everything. Mountainscapes, rolling roads to the south; far tougher to any unsuspecting cyclist, braw coastline and craggy outcrops with lighthouses and resident seals. Lochs, waterfalls and glens carry the enchantment from inland, as the few roads wind between, always climbing and then always tumbling back down to the awaiting sea. This is my favourite place to cycle, my favourite road climbs alongside the great mountains heading north. And the Arran Belles were bike Belles through and through.

It was June 24th 2018, Midsummer's day. The night sky still covered the world below, as a small bleary-eyed gathering switched on head-torches and stepped into the moonlit night around 1 am. Most of the group hadn’t gone to bed that night, maybe a mixture of excitement and anxiousness, maybe trying to sleep under light skies, far earlier than usual was just too alien, preferring to stay in the present day or night, whichever way it was looked at. The mood was high and much chatter filled the cool night air, an unusual social occasion but one that I’m told felt good, everyone was in high spirits considering the telling of the clocks hands.

There was a mixture of fear and excitement amongst the group of what lay ahead. Much of the group had trodden this path before, but not for many years. Janice, founder of the Belles, born and bred on the island and retiree after owning and running the Arran Post Office for her full working life, had not since her 20s.

Goat Fell or Goatfell as is locally known, is the highest of the Arran peaks at 874 meters. It is one of four Corbetts, the Arran skyline dominated by jagged summits and ridges. Goatfell is now owned by National Trust for Scotland along with nearby Brodick Castle where the mountain stands sentinel above it. Despite its rugged reputation, Goatfell is a fragile environment and with help of the National Trust for Scotland, work to preserve heather and juniper trees, woodland and vital habitats for mountain wildlife along with maintaining footpaths, nature and the environment continue to reside this mountain. Without such work and with effects of human disregard such as not sticking to paths and littering or environmental disturbance, Goatfell like all UK peaks and wild spaces would be lost.

The Goatfell property consists of 2,400ha of mountain environment and moorland, a spectacular example of a landscape shaped by glaciers. To reach the summit of Goatfell can take between 2 and 5 hours, with views island-wide, and of Jura and Ben Lomand and even Ireland on a clear day.

There are a number of routes to the summit of Goatfell. Perhaps the main trail, up past the castle and through the gardens and dense woodland, out onto the wild mountainside alongside the burn. Alternative routes take walkers up from the beautiful shoreline village of Corrie, shorter but steeper, where this route eventually joins the main path on the east ridge. Climbing from the north, a ridge links to the subsidiary top of North Goatfell, a point from which three ridges radiate. A ridge leads to the main summit to the south, a second ridge heads northwest and an excellent opportunity for some scrambling passing over Cìoch na h-Òighe (the Young Maiden's Breast), and the third and western ridge dropping down into bealach known as the saddle, before it continues to climb again towards the summit of Cìr Mhòr.

  The rest of the Belles tell me this was Janice’s idea. It came about while out on a ride one day, unsurprisingly. The ladies told me that every year this gets talked about, and so this year when the conversation came around again, Janice simply put to the Belles “So why don’t we do it?” And one by one, the Belles said yes. Janice also confided in me that that day she went home and immediately thought “What have I done?”

Annie, a retired outdoor leader, has worked on the hills her whole career, and agreed to lead the group on their summer solstice ascent. She made mountain rescue aware what they had planned, seeing as there would be a moving trail of headtorches rising up the mountain in the early hours, the Belles did not want to raise unnecessary alarm. Annie told the Belles what clothing and any equipment or supplies they would need for the climb, prepped them with what to expect and prepared them as much as she could. Training was left to the ladies, a few had done some walking training. Although all fit from regular cycling, this was very different and the hardened cyclists amongst them found it hard to walk.

It took the Belles three hours to reach the summit. Still before sunrise it was cold on the top of the peak, the moon still holding fast. Memories of their time on the summit; all the Belles talk fondly of witnessing a cloud inversion, a blanket of white cotton wool filled the island beneath them, lower ridges and peaks piercing through as they stood together above in their own magical world. Of all the things they expected, this was not one, it was a very special sight and wonderful surprise. The Belles tell me how this challenge had gone far better than any of them had expected, it was genuinely felt as such an achievement for each of them, and as something special together. For many, this was a magical and an emotional experience, with quiet moments of reflection and a release of emotion through tears from some. Every Belle had their own reason for being there and what it had meant to them.

As the sun began to rise at 4.41 am to bring summer solstice, the night’s moon still hanging in the early morning sky, the Arran Belles celebrated that moment and everything that they had carried in their hearts and minds up the mountain with a toast of champagne and strawberries. Looking over their enchanting island, before most islanders had awoke from their slumber, brought together by a special bond, all beginning with a bike. Yet no bikes in sight this morning, this remarkable group of ladies shared a moment all their own. They were at the highest point of their beloved island, but I believe this may well have felt like the top of the world. The Belles stayed up on the summit of Goatfell  for an hour, taking photos and simply enjoying the moment. Nobody was in a hurry to push on and wanted to enjoy every second, to truly be in the present.

After the triumph and elation of summiting and the experience of watching the Midsummer’s sun come up, awakening lands near and far, all told me how coming back down was tough. They were understandably tired and having finally reached their starting point below after 6 hours of walking, many without a night’s sleep, which was very much being felt. Legs were tired and minds were drifting to warm cosy beds, having already summited I can understand the climb down being somewhat of a comedown, quite literally, but of course on any mountain expedition, the summit if reached at all, is only ever half the way there. Moving down was slow and difficult, and psychologically many had expected this bit to be easier, it reality it never is.

Once all finally back down, everyone had said - they’d done it, it was a massive achievement, but they wouldn’t do it again. Moments later over a hearty breakfast of bacon rolls at Auchranie hotel bistro, most quickly had changed their minds. In Janice’s words “It’s a bit like childbirth”. I don’t think that needs any further explanation.

Reflecting on the Belles Midsummer mountain all the ladies agreed, the fact that they had done it together and had each other to motivate each of them, made it. They had shared those special moments on the summit together, no one else knew what it was like up there, no one else witnessed that other worldly feather-bed pillow, weightlessly cocooning the mountain below, and the island eyes wide shut from their world. They had lifted each other’s spirits and if ever one of the group were struggling or had doubts either before or on the mountain, they always had each other to support and be their cheer squad. They all agreed that if this challenge, one out of their known cycling comfort zone, had been planned to be done on any of their own it would have been far easier to pull out and not go through with. By telling each other and collectively saying what they were planning to attempt meant it had to happen. It did happen because of each of them, and it was made because of all of them.

I asked the Belles what advice they might have for any woman wanting to but unsure and fearful about taking on such a challenge. “Just do it”. “You can do it”. “It’s about taking the first step”. “Join a group or get others to join you”.  “Prepare, research and plan”. “Find good walking boots!” Words came without hesitation, without seeds of doubt. The effects of their own mountain was clear, and spread a positivity and confidence to anyone who asked. And indeed, this group of wives, mums, daughters, grandmothers, friends, wholeheartedly speak the truth.

Looking back to that moonlit morning, headtorches switching spotlights onto the darkness, about to take their first steps, filled with trepidation and an amount of fear, I asked the Belles how different that felt once they had achieved what they had. - “Very happy!” It was clear what the sense of achievement had meant and what effects that had had, the girls said they felt confident and really, there was nothing to fear. With the support of each other, they knew they could do it.

My final question to the Belles was of course – Will you consider doing this again? Now sometime after the event, most of the group gave me an assured yes, Janice remarking “I will probably think about doing it again next year”.

Well maybe that is my chance to summit my favourite mountain on my favourite island, with my favourite Belles..

Just before putting down my pen I added - Arran Mountain Belles?? Laughing ensued. “Someone did say to us they didn’t know there was a bike path up Goatfell!”

The Arran Bike Belle identity is strong.

Thank you for continuing to inspire and enchant; the Isle of Arran and all the Arran Belles, and Arran Mountain Belles.

Janice Small | Fiona Carswell | Isla Murchie | Shona Hume | Toni McKenzie | Sue Berry | Annie Lloyd | Carol Boag

If you’re inspired to take on your own Goatfell challenge, make sure you prepare and plan. Wear and take appropriate clothing and footwear and always tell someone you are heading into the hills. And as ever remember, take only photographs, leave nothing but footprints.

Goatfell, The Isle of Arran, Scotland.

OS Explorer 361; Landrangers 62, 69


All images credited kindly to The Arran Belles.