Friday, 24 June 2011

Walking on the Wild Side: Granite Highway

This is the fourth of a series of articles that I am writing for the Voice for Arran about Walking and Wildlife on Arran. This article appeared in June 2011. Hope you enjoy!

“Granite….” The name rolls around my gritted teeth. I’m a lover of granite, and just saying the word makes me want to climb mountains and feel rough crystals against my palms.   If geologists are interested in how rocks are formed, mountaineers obsess about how a rock feels to feet and fingers. Granite is a rock for the tactile. Formed deep in the bosoms of volcanoes, a geologist will tell you that the main constituents of granite are quartz, feldspar and various forms of mica. The sizes of the crystals define its texture. It is featureless, massive, and hard.
            My love affair with granite began with wrestling the gymnastic crags of the Cornish coast, before it flourished on the warm rosy slabs of the Alps. Here on Arran it has matured in to a slow burning passion that draws endless delight from perfect pockets, biting cracks and wind sculpted hollows.  At the end of a hard day in the Northern Hills, my hands are stinging from hours of happy tussling with an unforgiving but eternally intriguing rock.
            Today Arran is shining like a jewel in the sea. I’m looking forward to a day walking a tightrope of granite that hangs from the sky like a twinkling curtain from Sannox to Brodick. I will climb quickly, and then hardly descend until I reach Goatfell, my feet treading a highway in the heavens hewn of solid rock.
            Leaving the main path in Glen Sannox I cut up above the glen towards the Devil’s Punchbowl. Shadowy sunless cliffs loom above me, their mood in keeping with the sinister name. Just below the coire rim, a rough deer track cuts under the slopes of Cioch na h’Oighe.  A loose path weaves between steeper sections of scrambling, and I seek the direct route on bare rock wherever possible. I feel my way up creased slabs of cold granite. Thousands of years of rain and seeping vegetation have worn the slabs smooth and I search out grooves and hidden edges for my boots. Already my hands feel sore and black peat is rammed under my fingernails. The way is steep. 
            Breathing heavily, at last I crest the wave of rock, and I’m perched on the summit of the Cioch that curls upwards in to the heavens. A cold wind hits my face and the sudden sunlight dazzles me. My hands look pink and raw. It is time to hunker down between the summit blocks to refuel for the next stage.  I lie back against a boulder and look up at the blue sky. Briefly, the sickle shape of a soaring kestrel arcs overhead before diving in to the rocks far below.
            Beyond the Cioch, a narrow ridge of jumbled blocks and heathery notches forms a bridge to the massive bulk of Mullach Buidhe. Most of the difficulties can be avoided, but it is more fun I think to pick my way over the tottering blocks balanced against each other on the crest. They look improbable, but the colossal friction of hard crystals and their sheer tonnage mean that they have come to an enduring rest in these positions. In between, the wind and the rain have eroded softer sections of the ridge, leaving treacherous scoops of golden gravel, ready to sweep the unwary into Glen Sannox.
            Before long, I’m labouring my way up the slopes of Mullach Buidhe.  The ridge widens, and, the heather gives way to a miniature rock garden of mosses that cling to the loose slopes in the wildest of weather. Mullach Buidhe itself is a broad peak with several craggy tops and a steep west face. A lone raven sits on the highest, and as I approach, the bird flings itself in to the abyss, before shooting back in to view with a raucous cry on an updraft as if fired from a cannon. On this sunny day, Mullach Buidhe itself feels like a rocky meadow floating high above the world.  The grass here is soft and short, and the gentle gradient gives my hands and legs a rest. Looking down and left towards the sea, I can see the village of Corrie shining in the sunlight on the shore, further out, the Caledonian Isles is emerging from Brodick Bay. It is breezy, and even from here I can see the whitecaps skipping past her.
I drop down from Mullach Buidhe, and begin the climb up to the summit of North Goatfell.  Here I get my first glimpse in to Glen Rosa, and the scrambling begins again.   From North Goatfell there is an escape path that runs along the east side of the ridge towards Goatfell. This is a useful route for those who don’t like heights or in poor weather.  The scramble over the top of Stacach ridge itself although short, involves serious situations and one or two “technical” moves.
            I slither down from North Goatfell over granite slabs and turn my attention to the ridge.  A series of blocky tors bar my way and I must seek out the easiest way up, over and down each one. The largest, involves a series of shelves above a huge drop, known as the “Giant’s Steps”. Climbing these is like getting out of a swimming pool over and over again, and I inelegantly heave my way on to each shelf. The rock here is fantastic. Rough slabs grip the soles of my boots reassuringly while I grapple with coarse blocks and flakes. I get a few grazed knuckles, but it is a small price to pay. I take my time, savouring each moment, as Goatfell looms in to view.
            At the highest point on Arran a magnificent panorama unfolds before me. The deep defile of Glen Rosa drops away suddenly, and each of the buckled peaks of the Goatfell Range rises up to meet me. A ribbon of ocean encircles the island, and beyond I pick out Ben Lomond, the Arrochar Alps, and the Paps of Jura.  I know that I can see Glencoe from this point, having spotted Goatfell in a reverse view, but it is impossible to identify the individual peaks amongst the tangle in the north. To the south, I can see Ailsa Craig like a distant cone floating on the sea, and the shadowy shape of Northern Ireland against the sun.
            At last from here my way is down, and I stick to the natural line of my journey taking the bouldery South Ridge of Goatfell for as long as possible.  Finally, I say goodbye to this fine granite highway just before it plunges steeply to Glenshant Hill, and I turn east down a heathery flank towards the main path, that takes me safely to Brodick.  

Tips for enjoying Arran’s Hills:

  • Make sure you are properly equipped for changeable mountain weather.
  • Always carry a map and compass and know how to use them.
  • Take your litter home with you
  • Leave a route card with your estimated return time.


Anonymous said...

wow...this is the most fabulous writing of a route i followed , with EXACTLY the same deep feelings.....of the tactile it certainly is....oh every step....every option for the 'easier option' denied.....I carved ultimate exposure and revelled in every step of the magnificence.... returning 4 times in 7 months to do it all again, thank you for taking me back step by step...and oh i LOVED the 'technicality' of those gravelly golden granite slipways!!......This is a route that still fills my dreams...... wow!!

Will Herman said...

Beautifully written. I will make it to Arran's ridges sooner or later...
Hope you're still getting use of the boat.

Lucy Wallace said...

Hi Will,
Boat is still great fun, though I never get out in her as much as I would like. Too many toys, too many games to play! We fitted her with a rudder this season and I'm taking her a bit further afield. Makes a huge difference. Hope you are having a good summer. Lucy

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