For over 50 years the Ten Tors challenge has taken place on Dartmoor, Devon. It’s seen as a national flagship event, with a reputation as a tough but rewarding exercise, targeting youth development and endeavour, and as a result, is supported well by the Army, Navy and RAF – something that will no doubt continue in future years. Kevin Wills reports.
Over the last 50 years lots of things have changed, but the underlying challenge of walking unaided over the forbidding Dartmoor terrain is as tough and demanding today as it has ever been.
To complete the Ten Tors challenge takes considerable commitment and determination, not just from the individuals and teams participating, but also from the adult team managers and group leaders, whose selfless commitment and dedication brings the experience and the love of the wild outdoors to new generations.
Ten Tors helps shape the values, attitudes and fitness of thousands of young people and literally changes lives for the better. The qualities needed to succeed at the Ten Tors challenge lend themselves directly to the type of motivated, focused and determined individuals that the UK military needs in its new recruits. Ten Tors is also integral to the strong relationship that exists between the civilian community and its Armed Forces in the south west of England. Without exception, all the youth development organisations continue to be supportive of the event.
There are three challenges within Ten Tors that all start and finish at Okehampton Camp: a 35-mile route, open to 14-15 year olds, a 45-mile route for 16-17 years olds and a 55-mile route for 18-19 year olds. The Ten Tors Challenge is open for up to 400 teams of six, from schools and youth organisations (such as the Scouts, Guides, youth clubs and cadet forces).
An organisation may apply to enter three teams, one on each of the 35, 45 and 55 mile courses. Each team must have a manager who is responsible for ensuring the team is adequately trained and equipped. The team manger must attend a Ten Tors briefing day, which marks the start of the training season.
19 Tors, a “Tor” being the local name for a rocky outcrop found on the peaks of hills in the South West of England, are selected for the challenge and these are used as check points on the routes. Teams check-in throughout the challenge and their progress is recorded by members of the military who man the checkpoints for the duration of the challenge.
Teams start at 0700 on Saturday and are to return to Okehampton by 1700 on Sunday; part of the challenge requires them to camp out overnight on the moor. It is worth noting that even though the challenge isn’t a race, the teams need to complete the challenge in an allocated length of time. If, on the second day, when many teams tire, a team arrives at one of the latter Tor checkpoints that far behind schedule that they won’t be able to make the Okehampton finish line by 1700, check point staff will refuse to stamp their card and will not allow the team to continue. This may seem harsh, but it is done for the safety of the team members. The team then enters a fall-out system and is returned to Okehampton, usually by road.
There is also a Jubilee Challenge, which is a one-day event for young people with special physical or educational needs. It is organised and run by undergraduate officer cadets from Exeter University Training Corps and while 250 to 300 participants take part, they are not required to stay out overnight on the moor.
The shortest distance is over metalled roads and modern robust wheelchairs are suitable; other routes are across country. Routes vary in distance from 7½ miles to 12.9 miles. As with the main event, all participants are to be properly trained and equipped.
Exercise Wyvern Tor
Exercise Wyvern Tor is the military name assigned to the support of the Ten Tors Challenge. Led by the Army’s 43 (Wessex) Brigade, the exercise is made up by detachments of personnel and equipment from other Army units, the RAF and the Royal Navy.
The Royal Navy provides one of the most vital and visible contributions to the operation. Similar to previous years’ exercises, two Commando Sea King HC4s from 848 Naval Air Squadron, along with a single Lynx HMA8 from 815 NAS, all based at RNAS Yeovilton, deployed, with ground support, to Okehampton Camp for a period of four days.
Wyvern Tor provides the military with a huge training opportunity. The harsh conditions found on Dartmoor are comparable to those found on many frontline operations and the tasks performed whilst on the moor are similar in nature too.
The detachment to Okehampton is on a voluntary basis for the crews, but the posts are usually filled up very quickly, as it can be a very rewarding few days’ flying for those involved.
A near replica of a Forward Operating Base (FOB) is set up at Okehampton and, whilst in situ, the Royal Navy helicopters and crews are utilised on numerous tasks ranging from Casualty Evacuation, replenishment of the Tor checkpoints, observation, search and rescue, under-slung load carrying and general insertion and extraction of personnel and equipment.
The nature of the exercise means that tasking can be very intensive and demanding. Often crews are called upon at very short notice to get airborne and flying can go on around the clock.
This year, bad weather over the moors meant that the challenge for the walkers was even harder than normal. Heavy rain, strong winds, low temperatures and an extremely low cloud base all combined, pushing the competitor’s endurance to the limit. As a result there was a larger amount of injuries and drop-outs than in previous years.
Bad weather makes safe operation of the helicopters more difficult too. The altitude above sea level of the FOB and the Dartmoor terrain make flying in poor conditions very challenging. For several hours of the 2013 exercise, flying was impossible due to low cloud and very poor visibility.
Normal Ten Tors’ operations see the helicopters deployed to Okehampton on the Thursday prior to the Challenge on the Saturday and Sunday. Friday’s movements are usually dedicated to moving equipment, personnel and supplies out to the various Tor checkpoints that are inaccessible by road transport. Throughout the duration of Saturday and Sunday the helicopters are on standby for immediate tasking by the Ten Tors command post.
Whilst most of the flying is performed during daylight hours, a Sea King and crew are maintained on standby for emergency tasking such as Casualty Evacuation and Search and Rescue missions. This year’s exercise saw several out of hours missions flown.
Flying with 848 Naval Air Squadron
GAR was lucky enough to be invited to spend Ten Tors weekend with the Commando Sea Kings of 848 Naval Air Squadron. 848 Naval Air Squadron provides trained pilots, crewmen, engineers and technicians for the two front-line squadrons of the Commando Helicopter Force.
Each year, up until 2013, upwards of 200 qualified personnel have passed out of the Yeovilton-based squadron and onto its two sister units, 845 and 846, allowing them to carry out their operations around the world.
848 NAS has supported the Ten Tors challenge for several years but this year was its last in its current guise. 848 is due to disband in September and a training flight for the Commando Sea King force will be absorbed into the structure of 845 NAS. This will signal a change in the Commando Helicopter Force, with any future trainees going to RAF Benson to train on the Merlin Mk3, prior to that type’s transfer to the Royal Navy.
On our arrival at Okehampton Camp it was clear that flight operations for the day were going to be sporadic at best. The cloud base was on the floor, and the accompanying strong wind and rain showers meant very little flying would be possible for several hours, and there was only a small chance of an improvement being forecast.
After attending the command briefing we had the chance to meet and chat with the aircrew and ground crew detached for the exercise. As stated earlier, nearly all of the personnel at Okehampton had volunteered for the detachment.
The weekend, normally, provides the Squadron and its personnel with a great training opportunity. For the ground crews it provides practice at deploying off-base and the challenge of keeping two ageing helicopters serviceable in the field for several days. For the aircrew, the variety and frequency of the flying tasks are very challenging but equally rewarding. The opportunity to combine many different flying skills in such a small window is very appealing to the motivated crews.
Eventually the weather improved and both the two Sea Kings and the Lynx received a whole host of priority taskings. Because of the severe weather, many of the teams that had set off soon became disorientated, mainly due to the very poor visibility, and the driving heavy rain had quickly swollen some of the rivers that the walkers had to cross, to dangerous levels.
The Lynx was tasked with searching for some of the teams that appeared to be missing after straying off course. The Sea Kings both received a number of casualty evacuation orders.
We were assigned to fly on one of the newer Sea Kings in the Commando fleet, ZG820. Our crew consisted of two pilots and a crewman. Also on board were a Navy doctor and a member of the Dartmoor Mountain Rescue team.
After all the checks were complete we lifted from our Okehampton base and headed off at low level across the moor to our first Tor. It was our first opportunity to look down on this barren and inhospitable landscape. It has a vastness and emptiness that you don’t necessarily associate with the South West of England. One can only imagine how much of a challenge it must have been for the teams and individuals taking part on the ground.
After about ten minutes of flying time we reached the co-ordinates of our first pick up. A team of girls needed assistance as one of their team was suffering from suspected hypothermia. As we approached the landing zone all that was visible was a dayglo orange sheet. Sensibly the girls were sheltering under this highly visible material!
Once the Sea King was safely on the ground, the Navy doctor disembarked to assess the casualty. After checking her condition it was soon realised that she needed to be evacuated back to base camp and was brought on board.
We were soon airborne and after a quick wave from the girls we headed off to our next position. As we flew low across the open moorland we overflew several teams walking. The crews overfly the groups where possible just to reassure them that help is around should they get into difficulty and give them a morale boost.
Our next task was to extract a young man that had slipped on some rocks whilst trying to cross a small, swollen river. The casualty was reported to be in some distress so urgent attention was needed. Our pilots quickly found a suitable landing spot as close as possible to the casualty, something that wasn’t that easy in such inhospitable terrain. The uneven ground was strewn with rocks and was very wet and boggy and required skill and teamwork from the pilots and crewman to get us down safely.
Again the doctor was dispatched to assess the state of the casualty and it was soon apparent that he needed to be transported by stretcher. Assisted by members of the Dartmoor Mountain Rescue teams, the young man was swiftly attended to and loaded safely on to the Sea King. Because of the nature of the two casualties’ injuries it was decided to take them back to Okehampton as quickly as possible to seek further treatment by the specialist medical teams on site.
After a short transit we landed back on the FOB at Okehampton and the casualties were removed from the Sea King. Missions of a similar nature continued throughout the day and into the evening.
The weather forecast for Sunday was initially quite good. Missions were frequent for several hours and the overnight standby search and rescue Sea King had been utilised for several missions during the night, returning at 0700 after taking a participant with a broken ankle to Derriford Hospital in Plymouth.
The weather, however, closed in even worse than it had on the Saturday. Reluctantly it was decided that flying operations would have to cease. This of course would result in a whole new set of problems…
Historically it has always been planned that primarily the Sea King missions on Sunday afternoon are to return equipment and personnel from the Tor checkpoints… When it was realised that flying operations on the Sunday would have to be cancelled completely due to the ever-deteriorating weather situation, a new plan would have to be devised.
It was decided to commence the recovery flights at 0600 on Monday morning (weather permitting) and fly intensively to clear the checkpoints as quickly as possible. One of the Sea Kings was required back at Yeovilton by 0900 to fulfil another priority tasking.
GAR again was fortunate enough to be able to fly on some of these missions. Once more, the skills of the crews came to the fore as the loads needed to be picked up and flown back to Okehampton and loaded on to the back of flat-bed truck for onward transportation.
The weather was a vast improvement on the previous two days, but there was a fairly gusty wind that meant load flying over the undulating terrain was very challenging. When you are flying in the Sea King, the gentle sway of the load gives you a feeling of being on a ship. The two Sea Kings ferried 19 loads between them in under two and a half hours; tough work for the ground handlers and the two crewmen, Paul and Andy.
It was great to see the Royal Navy, Army and RAF so committed to supporting what is effectively a civilian exercise. It reflects the value that the UK military sees in assisting an event that brings out the best in young people and encourages youth development. Let’s hope it continues in the future.
Kevin Wills and Darron Hall would like to thank, 43(Wessex) Brigade, British Army, Joint Helicopter Command, R02 Robert Stevens JHC HQ, Mr Peter Wooldridge and all of the 848 NAS and 815 NAS ground crew and aircrew for their assistance in making this article possible.