It’s mid-may and we have lit a fire just to take some of the chill out of the air. As I sit inside warm, dry and questioning the logic of this season called spring, I can’t help but wonder how those teenagers managed the Ten Tors Challenge which brought many of them walking past our house this past weekend, some hiking over 55 miles in two days.
Every May, 2,400 teenagers, in teams of 6 people, aged between 14 and 20, take part in an annual two-day event across the forbidding terrain of Dartmoor following one of 26 different routes. Without adult supervision, the groups set out to face the challenges of navigation, bivouacking and field cooking all the while, attempting to visit the checkpoints of Ten Tors that are staffed by volunteers in order to get their route cards stamped. These kids have to be self sufficient while on the moor and so each team member carries his or her own tent and provisions, such as food, clothing, stoves, fuel, navigation equipment, maps, emergency rations and first aid kits.
The event is organized by the British Army and is about more than just physical endurance and hardship; it’s about teamwork! And it would have to be as there is no satellite navigation, just an Ordnance Survey map, compass and good sense. Even on a clear day, navigation is difficult on Dartmoor, let alone the challenges faced in low cloud or at night.
Dartmoor is one of the last wildernesses in England and this national park occupies 368 square miles of hills, many of which are topped by spectacular granite outcrops called ‘tors’. At its lowest point Dartmoor touches 325 feet and 2,018 feet at its highest. The valleys between the hills carry streams and rivers that can rise swiftly following rain. The land is peppered with bogs that can trick the unaware walker into danger.
In addition to the challenging terrain, the potential of the extreme weather conditions Dartmoor has on offer is significant. While the sun may help navigation, it drains energy and burns exposed body parts. The mist hides landmarks, easily disorientating the less capable navigator. Gentle rain can be refreshing, but, when it becomes heavy, it can swell rivers so that they cease to be fordable and, when accompanied by dense mist and gale force wind, can even become life threatening. During the 1996 Ten Tors Challenge, a snowstorm and sleet showers resulted in poor visibility and freezing temperatures, necessitating a mass emergency evacuation of the teams. In contrast, in 1998 the temperatures rose above 26ºC and many of the teams suffered from dehydration. While I sit inside with the wind and rain hammering our newly planted vegetable garden, I am mindful of the group of seven boys from Wiltshire who were airlifted off the moor after becoming disoriented and lost in low cloud and worsening conditions in April this year during a practice trek for this challenge.
This past autumn, I set out with Sam to do a long hike in an area I hadn’t yet explored. This was not going to be anything like the Ten Tors experience mind you, but still a small challenge, as I prefer to explore with Roger who is an excellent map reader! The weather prediction was “cloudy with sun” and not too cold. Given that the previous few days had seen heavy rain, the promise of a dry day held out hopes for a good walk. With a positive forecast, I packed provisions, including the OS map, and headed a short distance away by car to begin my walk.
I’ve never been fabulous with directions, but I do okay. My straightforward plan was to head north for about 4 miles along a bridle path and then circle round a valley back to where I parked. Generally bridal paths in Dartmoor are friendly under foot, clearly marked and often have groups of all ages walking along them, many of whom have no intention of consulting a map. About 30 minutes into the walk, I noticed that what should have been a clear path seemed faint to the point of being non-existent. I stopped to consult the map. What I discovered is that somehow, I had lost the path and Sam and I were on the wrong side of the river. Oops. Heading down a steep and rocky hill, I elected to not retrace my steps and instead, cross the river.
Rivers in Dartmoor are bipolar when it comes to rain. One day a river is a beautiful babbling bit of water, spilling over boulders, accompanying the birdsong in the air. On another, that same body of water becomes a raging torrent of deep, cold, fast moving power. Crossing the river seemed a sensible decision at the time. After all, it would save me time and get me quickly back on the right path. As Sam and I cautiously made our way through the deep water, I slipped on a moss covered stone and got soaking wet. What had seemed such a good idea quickly became a misery and we were forced to abandon our walk and head back to the car. By Ten Tors standards, this was not an auspicious start.
The great thing about the Ten Tors Challenge is that it is a walking activity. But, it is also a team event that demands strong leadership, spirited companionship, fitness, skillful navigation, focused determination, and a dose of luck. Every year teams of teenagers join the Ten Tors challenge and it is an impressive accomplishment, I think, to decide to participate, let alone complete it. When we moved to Dartmoor and took on the projects at Crockern, we knew we were moving to a wild and rugged landscape that would provide challenges. The team approach is key and I don’t think Roger or I could pull this off without the other. For me, when Roger is around I know if I get soaked from a misstep in the river, he’ll listen to me moan and then prepare me a nice hot beverage while I dry my socks.