Imagine if you will. It is seven o’clock on a misty Dartmoor morning in early May. The camp has been awake since five, a nervous breakfast has been eaten, sleeping bags have been stuffed back into rucksacks, feet have been strapped up, boots have been laced team and the snaking queue of over two thousand young people has been joined.
The queue leads up through Okehampton Army Camp to the start line of Dartmoor’s annual Ten Tors Challenge. There are flags, there is excitement, mostly there are nerves. All of the youngsters have trained hard for this event; some of them have previous experience of the test that is ahead of them. A select few adults (team managers who have worked all year to provide training) ascend the hillside and assemble for the start, the rest gather below. Both have a thought provoking view, those on the hillside can see the routes ahead of their charges, the tracks curving out of sight and the tor tops disappearing into the mist; those below can see the teams, an array of coloured sweatshirts, ranged across the hill and pressing towards the line.
The start is magnificent but quickly over. A prayer, a cannon and a helicopter fly-past and two thousand young bodies swarm purposefully across the moor. Their adults are left behind; and this is the magic of Ten Tors, these young people aged between 14 and 19, in teams of six, will be alone on Dartmoor for the next two days. 400 teams will walk carrying everything that they need for 35 miles, 45 miles or a gruelling 55 miles depending on their age and experience. They will clock in at ten different tors plus some additional safety checkpoints, they will feed themselves and they will wild camp.
Training for the Ten Tors Challenge is vigorous. From the autumn onwards you will see fully kitted up teams of youngsters criss-crossing Dartmoor. With the event being at the start of May, weather can be unpredictable, often with high winds. Team leaders have to ensure that their youngsters are capable of navigating with map and compass across open moorland and, if necessary, in poor visibility. Wild camping training takes place throughout the winter and many wake up to ice-encrusted tents. Teams are expected to quickly become independent and take responsibility for themselves and each other. Mental stamina is as important as physical. Each will come to a point where they think that they can’t carry on.
Make no mistake, this is a tough challenge; but it brings worthwhile rewards. Over the years, phrases such as, “The best thing I have ever done!” And “I can’t believe I did it!” have been uttered to me from youngsters with bleeding, blistered feet and from adults who took part in their youth and still marvel at the experience.
But let’s go back to those adult leaders left on the hillside. How must they be feeling? Imagine the pride, the concerns and the sense of responsibility as they watch their young teams disappear. You can’t work with young people in that kind of intense outdoor setting and not care deeply about their experience. You unsurprisingly get to know them very well (and they you) and you inevitably feel their successes and trials equally strongly. Ten Tors training is, without a shadow of a doubt, a job worth doing; which is why so many of us do it, why so many volunteer to help out on the event weekend, why Dartmoor National Park support it and why the Army run the Ten Tors Challenge each year.
The sister event, the Jubilee Challenge, is run closer to Okehampton Camp and is designed for young people aged between 14 and 21 with a range of challenging conditions who complete one of several routes suited to their abilities. Both events are organised by the Army’s Headquarters South West with support from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force as well as civilian emergency services and volunteers
To navigate during these challenges, you'll need an OS Explorer OL28: Dartmoor
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