The weather was kind on Dartmoor this weekend as more than 2,000 teenagers from across the South West took part in one of the biggest adventure challenges for young people in Britain; the annual Army-run Ten Tors and Jubilee Challenge.
Brilliant sunshine dominated from start to finish with Okehampton Camp - the HQ for the events and where both finish - festooned with hundreds of picnicking families, many joining their loved ones to camp for the duration, transforming the austere base in to a patchwork of technicolour... a mini Glastonbury on one of the last true wildernesses in Britain.
It all began at 0700, precisely, on Saturday morning as a bugler from Exeter-based TA unit 6 RIFLES and two 105mm light guns from Plymouth-based 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery got the Ten Tors Challenge under way. The usual silence of the moor bursting into life with jubilant screams and cheers of thousands of youngsters and spectators.
The army-run event is now in its 52nd year. Schools, sports clubs, Scouts, youth clubs and Armed Forces Cadets from all four corners of the region take part in it in 400 teams of six. Some teams cover more than 40 miles in one day to make sure they keep on schedule, this over some of the toughest terrain and highest peaks of Southern England.
They’ve had to find their own way as a team; navigating across 35, 45 or 55 miles of desolate and gruelling moorland without any help from adults and carrying all their essential kit, clothing, food and water as they went.
But many teams manage to find room in their bursting backpacks for fancy dress costumes and this year was no different. Crowds gathered at the finish were treated to the amusing if somewhat surreal sight of jubilant teenagers dressed as anything from blue-faced Smurfs to bananas as they crossed the finish line!
45 miles - 24 hours
Although not a competition, the first team to cross the finish line just before 9 o’clock on Sunday morning was Torquay Boys Grammar School who completed their 45-mile route in little over 24 hours.
"It's amazing really, we walked most of yesterday. We weren’t expecting to be the first back but it’s fantastic," said team captain 16-year-old Noah Sprent.
"We've got really great trainers and it makes all the difference having people who know the moor and all our teachers have been so supportive – we wouldn’t have done it without them definitely.
"I think doing Ten Tors is really good, as it gives you something to train for all year, and it sets you apart from everyone else. All the Army people are really friendly on the tors and we’ve had a laugh along the way.’
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Special-needs Jubilee Challenge
Running alongside the Ten Tors Challenge was the Jubilee Challenge and 236 youngsters with special physical or educational needs took part this year. Their challenge starts just 30 minutes after the Ten Tors on Saturday morning and takes them up to 15 miles across Dartmoor. The routes can be completed as part of a team or as individuals, but everyone is accompanied by an Officer Cadet from Exeter University Officer Training Corps.
EUOTC is made of students from Exeter and Plymouth Universities. Many of those who volunteered to help with the Jubilee Challenge put revision for exams on hold to make sure they could take part in an event which is as memorable for them as it is for the children.
An emotional awards ceremony was held on Saturday afternoon with VIP guest Major General Boag presenting Jubilee Challenge medals as a crowd several hundred-strong looked on.
Axel Bluer, from Lipson Community College in Plymouth, completed the 12-mile course, sprinting up a steep hill to the finish line. "As soon as I came in every one was cheering and applauding me and it made me feel I was special for today," explained the 16-year-old.
"My feet are killing me and trying to survive the aches of my feet was the toughest part. It’s pretty warm out there today, as soon as we got to the first hill we had to take our coats off, that’s how warm it was. The team around me was very supportive, we worked as a team together and the teamwork was amazing and it was just a lot of fun."
Both the Jubilee Challenge and Ten Tors are a daunting expedition for the teenagers taking part. Some trained for as many as eight months to make sure they were fit enough to complete their allotted routes. The Ten Tors is is a rite of passage which has played a formative role in the lives of more than a quarter of a million people from across the region over the last half a century. It’s something those taking part will never forget.
"It’s difficult to put the sense of achievement and pride into words here at the finish," said Brigadier Piers Hankinson MBE, Commander of 43 Wessex Brigade and Director of Ten Tors.
"The way that these events bring on young people is fantastic, both individually and as teams and I’d like to congratulate everyone who has taken part in both the Ten Tors and the Jubilee Challenge across this spectacular national park. We’re proud in the Army to lay this on… it’s a way for us to pay back the debt we owe to society which supports us so well here in the south west."
Army closely monitors progress
Safety is at the heart of Ten Tors and the Jubilee Challenge. One of the thrills of the Ten Tors for the youngsters taking part is their sense of achievement and pride in trekking across miles of open moorland together and taking responsibility for their friends to make sure they all complete the challenge safely as a team.
They might feel like it, but in reality the youngsters are never alone as the Army closely monitors the progress of all 400 teams back in the control room. Sea King and Lynx helicopters are never more than a few minutes’ away.
Figures released by the Army team which runs the fall out centre at Okehampton Camp show that 251 of the 2,400 youngsters who started the Ten Tors Challenge this year had to drop out. These were mostly due to the usual sprains and strains which are seen every year at Ten Tors. The Army is happy to report there were no serious injuries.
At roughly ten percent of the total number of participants, this fall out rate is a very similar figure to the last two years.
Some of the teenagers who dropped out were picked up by one of two Sea King Mark 4 Helicopters from 848 Naval Air Squadron based at RNAS Yeovilton, which were on duty this weekend.
Their recovery was successfully coordinated by military teams on the tops of the tors, directed by the dedicated Ten Tors Ops Room working with another South West TA unit, the Royal Wessex Yeomanry who run the fall out cell at Okehampton Camp.
The Ten Tors Ops Room is a tri service military/civilian effort run by Head Quarters Staff from 43 Wessex Brigade who are ultimately in charge at Ten tors. It sees the Army, Royal Navy and RAF working shoulder-to-shoulder with The British Red Cross, Devon and Cornwall Police and other emergency services and Dartmoor Rescue Group.
Technology is an important extra layer of security at Ten Tors and civilian IT experts are on hand to operate a ‘tracker’ satellite tracking system which gives regular GPS locations for every team taking part in Ten Tors.
This works in conjunction with a separate ‘Emit’ satellite system which electronically tags teams as they pass through each tor checkpoint and automatically send them information back to the Ops Room. Together these systems ensure there whereabouts of teams are constantly monitored.
Vital military training
As well as being an incredible adventure for those taking part, Ten Tors and the Jubilee Challenge are also an important civil contingency training exercise known to the military and civil authorities as EXERCISE WYVERN TOR.
It is a high-level multi-agency operation which takes place in the public eye and under the scrutiny of the media. It enables 43 Wessex Brigade, the part of the Army which runs Ten Tors, to build vital relationships with Devon’s police, rescue services and councils in the event that an emergency means the Army is required to help local people in the South West.
"Ten Tors could not be run by the Army on its own. It is a tri service event run with the Army, Navy and RAF. I must also thank the National Park Authority and the Commoners and the land owners who allow us to use this wonderful wilderness"
‘I also couldn’t run it without the British Red Cross and other rescue services, particularly the Dartmoor Rescue Group. The police have been instrumental in helping us run this and also the local council. It’s a big group effort and I’d like to thank everyone involved and on duty for their efforts to make Ten Tors 2012 the great success that it was.’
‘Ten Tors gives me an opportunity to deploy with the whole of my Brigade from logistics, through to communications to infantry to armoured corps’ said Brigadier Piers Hankinson, Commander of 43 Wessex Brigade and Director of Ten Tors. ‘It’s really important that we practice this.
EXERCISE WYVERN TOR also provides helicopter pilots from the Royal Navy and RAF, who have piloted Sea King and Lynx aircraft on duty this weekend, with crucial search and rescue and low level flying experience.
The Sea King Mk 4 from 848 Naval air Squadron is used for training pilots and crews in advance of deployment to the frontline, with the Commando Helicopter Force. There are currently a number of these helicopters in theatre in Afghanistan alongside their surveillance counterparts of the Royal Navy Sea King Mark 7.