Climbing Goatfell

It had been half a lifetime since I'd climbed a mountain. That first time was almost a stroll, on a well-marked path with a group of people from my summer camp, in sneakers, stopping halfway up to pick raspberries. But the view from the top was wonderful: the patterns of sun and shadow from the clouds made sense of the weather, and looking at the little beach at the south end of Lake George made me glad that I'd gone up the mountain with a few people, not swimming with the rest of the camp and a crowd of strangers.

Goatfell was a bit different. I was climbing alone, I had planned ahead, and I even had some equipment. Nothing fancy, but I got good hiking boots, and carried a sweater, juice, and a light lunch.

I paid my two pounds to get onto the land, and asked directions. "They'll tell you at the ranger station--and let them know that you're trying it." I did, but the ranger didn't seem terribly excited, or even ask for my name. It's not a huge mountain, just under 3000 feet, and it was a sunny day in Summer.

Along the path, over the stile, and into the rhododendron forest. The only trail markers were color-coded, to help you choose between paths through the gardens, but I had a map to tell me which color to take when, and eventually found myself on an upward trail.

Up, always up. A dry, rocky, dirt trail, with grass, heather, and boulders alongside. Every so often, I said hello to another hiker who had stopped for a rest, a smoke, a soda, or who was climbing faster or slower than I was. Sometimes I stopped for a rest, some juice, or to look down at the harbor. The water kept seeming further, the summit no closer for a couple of hours. I knew better, but the shape of the rock somehow loomed larger but no nearer each time I looked up at it.

It was a very quiet mountain, with almost no birds. The dominant sound was the wind in the long grass, occasionally interrupted by a human voice or a bit of water. I walked through a cloud, and sat through a rain shower.

Finally, around the time the summit started looking closer, the trail ran out. From then on, it was a matter of picking my way among the rocks, guessing whether the left or the right side had better footholds. Real climbing, not the mountain walking that the British call it. I was glad of my boots, glad everything else was in a knapsack and I had hands as well as feet to work with.

The top of Goatfell, the highest point on the Isle of Arran, is a narrow ledge of rock, sunlight, cold wind, and a view of the Atlantic.

The climb down was harder than up: it's easier to lose your footing going down, and of course I was more tired. I was very glad of the hiking boots I had bought for the trip, and broken in wandering around suburban London, though I saw people climbing in sneakers, one man in sandals, and a bicycle chained to a tree halfway up the slope. I wonder how the rider got it that far, and why she picked that point to stop and walk.

I stepped wrong going around a rock, part way down the mountain, making the rest of the climb slower and less joyful than it would have been. The best part of the descent was a stream flowing across the path. Instead of using the little bridge, I stopped to drink, and walked across on the rocks in the stream. Wonderful fresh clean water, the best thing in the world, especially after hours of hiking and in the middle of a dry summer.

And so down the mountain, back over the stile, which was not meant to be crossed by people with sore knees, and just in time for the last bus back to my hotel for a long hot bath and a pint of cider in the bar.

My knee ached for days afterward--I could do anything except walk down stairs, it seemed--but it was worth it, for the view of the harbor, the wind in the grass, the water, and the knowledge that I still have it in me to climb a mountain.

copyright 1995 Vicki Rosenzweig

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