Ten Tors Reflections

It has been just over a month now since the Ten Tors Challenge, and I have had sufficient time to digest and analyse the experience. I have calculated some of the statistics, but what is more important and interesting to me are my reactions.

I have included the raw data at the end of the post for information, but first I will state my reflections and what I learned.

1. The more I walk with and lead groups in mountainous areas, the more I realise that people management is as important, if not more so, than skills such as navigation and map-reading. I often felt like a Colour Sergeant, motivating the team to keep moving. I was daunted by the thought that if I abdicated responsibility for that aspect, whether because of tiredness or irritation, who else would fill the role? Responsibility lies heavily on a leader, especially when bad weather or accident increase the seriousness of a walk; my nightmare scenario was a Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) call-out to a stricken ML aspirant.

    Map reading is unique on Dartmoor

    2. During the second day of the walk, my irritations increasingly affected me mentally, which worried me, as my role as a leader was to serve and protect the members of my party. It is often too easy to become emotional with those nearest to oneself – friends or family – but as a mountain leader, this cannot be the case. One’s care, and in certain instances, customer service, is to those who follow behind. I am learning now to treat every walk or trip with the same attitude of selfless care and responsibility.

      Crossing one of the many streams

      3. Although I felt the burden of care towards my team, there came a point when I did too much. Particularly at the overnight camp, I could have delegated better the various camp tasks such as cooking, water carrying and tent erecting. Part of the joy of leading in the mountains is introducing others to the ways and the crafts. Moreover, it was interesting to note that although we discussed the various individual roles before camping, exhaustion or forgetfulness meant they were not adhered to. I suspect that tiredness was starting to cause an onset of self-preservation – a real threat to team welfare.

      The joys of outdoor cooking

      4. In the current generation, people increasingly do not like to be told what to do. However, mountains are one area where it is imperative that order and hierarchy prevail. It was noticeable that our team had not clarified my leadership or any other roles. This often left ambiguity at decision times. Fortunately, we did not encounter any truly serious or life-threatening situations, but the lack of clear leadership caused me to feel somewhat impotent, and affected other members of the party.

      There were other, more minor reflections, but to finish, I was pleased to experience a real encounter with a wild place. My frailty and weakness as a human were soon apparent in the turmoil of the bad weather and demanding terrain. However, rather than feeling wounded or dismayed in the face of Dartmoor, I respected the moors for tolerating our brief foray. Indeed, my testing, physically, mentally and emotionally has increased my desire to sharpen myself in such an environment.

      Wet and tired feet

      Now, if you’re interest has not entirely waned by this point, here are the numbers from the Challenge. We followed an amended version of Route A of the official Ten Tors event which took place between Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 May 2009.

      Total Air Distance 52.49 km
      Total DMT Distance 52.62 km
      Min. Altitude 243.9 m
      Max. Altitude 581.2 m
      Average Altitude 450.9 m
      Total Ascent 1,479.8 m
      Total Descent -1,281.7 m
      Total Ascent Distance 26.33 km
      Total Descent Distance 20.02 km
      Total Level Distance 6.27 km
      % of Ascent 50%
      % of Descent 38%
      % of Level 11.90%

      Ten Tors Challenge, Dartmoor

      As part of a recent fundraising event on Dartmoor, which I organised and participated in, I wrote the following report. It is perhaps hopeful to think that many will exercise enough patience to read it to the end, but I include it as the inaugural post.

      The process reminded me of my time as captain of Wadham College Boat Club when I regularly used to write race reports. The idea for the walk was borrowed from the official event organised by the British Army, to whose website much credit is due for help with planning.

      “We were content, travelling to Dartmoor, that all had been prepared in advance. However, as we approached the National Park, the fine evening weather was replaced by brooding cloud cover, and the moors themselves appeared in view – low, squat and menacing, qualities which were amplified by the onset of night. The tall, narrow Devonshire lanes hemmed us in as we approached our Friday-night accommodation, and it was with a sense of foreboding that we turned in, anxious to rest before the physical exertions begun.

      The night’s sleep was fitful, but morning brought hope with the glimpse of blue skies, and a refreshing breeze had sprung up. Excitement rose over breakfast and as we stuffed food and equipment into bulging rucksacks. We reached Okehampton Youth Hostel ahead of schedule, and there was no option but to set off, with the words of the official Ten Tors Prayer ringing in the fresh, early morning air:

      “O God who has made the Earth of great beauty, and who has given us the Spirit of Adventure,we thank you for the beauty of the world, for the courage and vigour of young people, for the companionship and for the opportunity to enjoy all these gifts.

      We pray that you will keep them safe on this great venture and grant that they may meet each challenge and difficulty with unselfish courage and so find the true spirit of comradeship as shown to us by Jesus Christ, our Lord”.

      Setting out

      The Student and Staff teams followed the first part of the route together, although the Staff opened up an early lead, which helped to avoid the distractions of the Students’ fancy dress costumes – a forfeit for losing a sponsorship race. The route followed a tarmac road into the moors before diverging as the Students tackled the western moors and the Staff the eastern ones. We passed Okehampton Camp, an MOD site, perched on the very edge of the area, quiet and empty, just like the moors ahead of us.

      The road belied the difficulties of the manifold bogs, river-crossings and ankle-turning tussocks to be encountered. However, our speedy progress meant that we soon struck out off-road to reach Watern Tor. The tors themselves are remarkable pieces of rock architecture, sculpted by thousands of years of fierce weathering. Their imposing presences often correspond with suitable titles – Wild, Black, Beardown – whereas others revealed a more light-hearted encounter: the Sphinx-like profile surely inspired the affectionate Kitty Tor.

      The moors, though, were certainly not affectionate towards us. After four hours, the strain of the difficult ground was beginning to tell on the team and the weather had closed in, heralding the forecast rain showers. Unfortunately, this coincided with a decision to venture off-route and across blank ground in order to save time and energy. The gently sloping hills conspired with the low cloud and driving rain to deflate the soul and quietly stoke a sense of panic. It felt that we had become entangled in the tentacles of a mythical monster, as we attempted to cross one of the many rivers that sinuously traverse Dartmoor. However, we escaped unscathed, and, trusting in the compass and map, discovered a recognisable location and the prospect of lunch beckoned.

      The afternoon worn on, throughout which we gradually lost altitude as Princetown approached. The mid-moor town was populous compared with the wastes we had just trodden. However, the same sense of foreboding and entrapment remained – not dissimilar perhaps to past inmates of HM Prison Princetown – knowing that we were at the heart of Dartmoor and had yet to return through the same moors that were gradually sapping and draining us. However, our rendezvous with the Support Team revived our spirits and we made swift progress before making camp for the night.

      A quick breather on the second day

      We were now fully in the clutches of Dartmoor, for the weather closed in overnight, and we began the next day walking through thick mist and gloom. Nevertheless, we made good progress, starting out at 5:00am, hastily bypassing the treacherous depths of Foggintor Quarry, now disused, but another gaping maw eager to swallow us. We were steadily climbing now, heading back into the higher reaches of the North Moor, despite frequently losing and gaining height over undulating terrain. By 9:00am we had conquered our penultimate tor and victory seemed assured. However, several miles of unknown moor still remained and the now bright weather masked the immensity of covering them.

      Deciding on another alteration to the route, we again crossed open moorland, navigation via the bright white and red poles that demark the MOD training area. The rain showers returned, and we tramped steadily onwards along a newly beaten path to our penultimate river crossing. The pace began to slow as the exertions of the morning took their toll and overall exhaustion overtook us. We crossed the river, finally reaching it down a steep slope, painful to the feet and joints, but caring no longer whether we immersed our boots in the water below. The river was dark and angry, fuelled by peat washed off the slopes upstream, and seemed almost violent at our trespass. The final tor, Kitty, felt close.

      Foul-smelling bogs and crippling fields of tussocks of grass now afflicted us. Edging slowly away from the river, we found some respite on high ground, but were soon forced to cross one final bog, The Scad, consisting of several small streams and waist-high rushes. We were physically wasted, and differing route-finding opinions stretched our unity to the limit. We regrouped. The pace was agonisingly slow, and yet there was no easy escape. Green Tor, a waypoint, appeared in view and disappeared. People were stumbling and falling. However, eventually we reached our tor, slumping down, unsure whether we could rise again for a last push to the finish line.

      Painful tracks at towards the end of the Challenge

      Another rain shower unleashed itself upon us, which was sufficient impetus, with the ensuing cold, to leave. Our bodies were struggling to regulate their temperature through exhaustion and lunch was unappealing. We needed to leave. We needed to leave Dartmoor. A hail and rain shower spurred us on to cross our final river and leave the valley which separated us from the finish. The river appeared impassable from high up on the slope above, were it not for a note on the map, ‘Sandy Ford’. We prepared ourselves for a cold and wet encounter with the river. However, on reaching it, Sandy Ford was almost idyllic. We could imagine in different circumstances the gentle sound of the river, a soft breeze and warm sunlight, as if reclining at a picnic. Fortunately, a geological discrepancy had caused the river to become very shallow at this point, so we eagerly waded through, forgetting the picnic spot for another time.

      Now was the end. We had made it, and yet the relief and exultation were kept in check by stabbing pains throughout our bones and joints. Our backs and shoulders rebelled at the weight and straps of the rucksacks. We almost wished for soft peat to soothe our footfalls – the track was harsh on sore feet – but knew what struggles lay hidden in the peat bogs. We collected ourselves one last time, finishing with a semblance of team about us. Dartmoor had granted us brief passage.

      The final stretch

      It was clear who the victor was, as if we could now say that we had challenged such a wild piece of land. The moors had asked everything of us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We had seen ourselves more clearly and discovered our shortcomings. We were also enriched through an encounter with a rugged, desolate and lonely place, yet appreciative of its beauty for those qualities.”

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