Thousands of teenagers are preparing to descend on Dartmoor this month to take on the challenge of a lifetime. Chrissy Harris talks to the people involved in the British Army’s Ten Tors expedition.

Great British Life: Major Ruth Gilbert. Major Ruth Gilbert. (Image: UK Ministry of Defence/Crown Copyright)

Impressive, emotive and rewarding

Major Ruth Gilbert is in full planning mode. It’s just a few weeks before the nation’s largest military-led outdoor youth event kicks off and everything has to be ready.

Ruth is one of the lead organisers of the Ten Tors challenge, a mighty operation that sees around 2,800 teenagers tackle 10 of Dartmoor’s famous tors on a two-day trek across the national park.

For the participants, it’s a chance to put months of hardcore training into action as they battle through the miles, the terrain and whatever the weather throws at them to cross that all-important finish line.

For Ruth and her close-knit team, it’s a chance to deliver a complex but hugely rewarding event that will have been in the planning for more than 18 months.

‘The only thing I can compare it to is being on operation or on tour,’ says Ruth, who took over the Ten Tors role three years ago. ‘I’ve worked in a brigade operations room before and it’s a similar kind of feeling in one way but totally different in so far as it’s this amazing, positive, life-affirming event. Everyone you talk to has got a smile on their face.’

Ten Tors started as a British Army Junior Leaders’ exercise in 1960 and has evolved into a challenge open to youngsters across the UK.

The trek, which starts and finishes at Okehampton Camp, covers varying routes of 35, 45 or 55-miles. The Jubilee Challenge and Jubilee Challenge Plus are designed for young people with special educational needs and disability (SEND).

Great British Life: Ten Tors participants are usually made of stern stuff. Ten Tors participants are usually made of stern stuff. (Image: UK Ministry of Defence/Crown Copyright)

For the two-night exercise, each team of six is entirely self-sufficient and has to rely on traditional map and compass navigational skills, plus participants must carry all their food, water, bedding, tents and essentials on their backs.

These days, they also carry global positioning system (GPS) trackers, which Ruth and people from other agencies in the ops room, including police and Dartmoor Search and Rescue teams can monitor at all times (much to the relief of the teenagers’ parents, one imagines).

‘The thought of running the operation in years gone by when they didn’t have that system makes me feel slightly uncomfortable!’ says Ruth, pleased to being doing this job in a technological age. ‘We can see at any one time where everybody is.’

Ruth went to school in Okehampton and had heard about Ten Tors but says nothing prepares you for being part of an event that involves so many different services and groups and volunteers and families.

‘It’s really difficult to articulate just how impressive and emotive and rewarding it is,’ says Ruth, adding that no one gets much sleep in the run-up to the start date. ‘Then suddenly, everything comes together.’


Great British Life: Amy Harrison had to cut the challenge short last year, but she's well prepared for 2024.Amy Harrison had to cut the challenge short last year, but she's well prepared for 2024. (Image: Amy Harrison)

I’m never giving up

Amy Harrison, 15, took on Ten Tors last year but had to cut the challenge short when one of her teammates became unwell and had to be airlifted off the moors. Shortly after, another member of her group dropped out. The remaining team pressed on but then their compasses broke and they decided to call it quits. This year, Amy, a GCSE student at Torquay Academy secondary school, is determined to go the full distance with her Explorers group.

‘The fact that we got through to the second day last year is impressive, even if we didn’t cross the finish line,’ says Amy, who has been in training for this year’s 35-mile challenge since last year. ‘It’s really hard, to be fair, especially if it’s your first time doing it. It’s such a big distance and you’re carrying this huge bag.’

Despite the miles, the heavy load and the weather (fog is the worst, apparently), the spirit of Ten Tors drives you on. Amy says there’s a real sense of comradeship as soon as the expedition starts.

‘I love the atmosphere of Ten Tors and I’ve met so many people through doing it,’ she says. ‘Your phone goes in your bag and you’re just walking on the moors. It’s quite easy to make friends because you’re talking all the time and going through the same thing together. You’ve got something that connects you.’


Great British Life: Craig Scollick, from Dartmoor Search and Rescue's Ashburton team. Craig Scollick, from Dartmoor Search and Rescue's Ashburton team. (Image: Liam Morrell)

Ready to rescue

Members of Dartmoor Search and Rescue Group’s four regional teams - Ashburton, Tavistock, Plymouth and North Dartmoor - work together to support Ten Tors. The highly trained volunteers have expert knowledge of the moor and are a vital part of the expedition’s safety net.

Craig Scollick from the Ashburton team has been covering the event for 18 years.

‘If the weather’s nice, quite often, nothing happens for us, which means it's going well for the Ten Tors participants,’ he says. ‘But on other occasions, it can be ridiculously busy and you’re just going from one incident to another.’

Ten Tors participants are usually made of stern stuff, however, and Craig says he and his fellow volunteers are always impressed by the level of fitness, commitment and navigation skills shown by the teenagers.

Great British Life: Ten Tors is an epic adventure for thousands of teenagers.Ten Tors is an epic adventure for thousands of teenagers. (Image: UK Ministry of Defence/Crown Copyright)

‘It’s really quite remarkable to see all of these teenagers marching across the moorland, carrying such big loads,’ says Craig. ‘It can be truly humbling.’

Each Ten Tor team now carries an emergency beacon that can be activated if the youngsters get into difficulty. Once that signal comes through to the Army's Ten Tors control room, a decision is made on how best to respond using the search and rescue teams and other agencies. That could be anything from walking the young person off the moor to sending out an expert navigation team with a stretcher or even helping to coordinate a helicopter rescue. Craig has done his fair share of all three and says it’s a great way of putting their rescue team training into practice.

‘We get to use all of the search and rescue skills that we would deploy during a normal call-out and that’s really satisfying,’ says Craig. ‘It’s also a great opportunity to hang out with your teammates for longer than just a training night or exercise.

‘It’s brilliant for teambuilding and this benefits us in callouts during the rest of the year.’


Great British Life: Insp Jonathan Hollis. Insp Jonathan Hollis. (Image: Liam. Morrell)

Struggling through

Because Ten Tors is such a major event, Devon and Cornwall Police work closely with organisers to keep everyone safe. Two small teams of officers - some equipped with drones - volunteer to cover the challenge, outside of their normal day jobs. They will coordinate any search and rescue calls and are there to cover any safeguarding issues.

Inspector Jonathan Hollis has been involved with Ten Tors since 2000. ‘As police officers, we’re there to provide that contingency for the Army,’ he says. ‘Being part of such a massive event is fantastic,’ he adds. ‘You get to build these relationships between all the different agencies.’

Like many of the people who help to make Ten Tors happen, Jonathan says the event is one of the most rewarding two days of his working year.

‘Watching these young people coming over that line at the end after they’ve gone through so much to get there… well, everyone has a tear in their eye,’ he says. ‘Especially with the Jubilee Challenge. The struggles these children have gone through to get to the start line, never mind the finish line, makes it all worthwhile.’


Great British Life: Dave Wainwright (7th from left) with some of the Ten Tors team leaders for Teignbridge District Scouts. Dave Wainwright (7th from left) with some of the Ten Tors team leaders for Teignbridge District Scouts. (Image: Dave Wainwright)

A nerve jangling wait

Dave Wainwright is one of the Ten Tors team leaders for Teignbridge District Scouts. The organisation usually puts forward between 40 and 60 youngsters for the event each year, once they have completed a comprehensive eight-month training programme the scout group has been running for nearly four decades.

Dave, who ‘got drawn in’ to being a leader 20 years ago when his kids were training, says he gets annoyed when people start moaning about ‘the youth of today’ because he sees how determined and resilient so many of them are.

‘If you pardon the phrase, they go on this journey of understanding themselves,’ says Dave. ‘For many of them, this is going to be the first time they do something that they are responsible for.

‘It’s nerve jangling for us as leaders because you’re so keen for them to succeed,’ he adds, describing packing off his trainees before the long wait at the finish line, alongside thousands of other supporters. ‘We say to our teams, we’ll be making more noise than anybody else - just ignore us!’ says Dave. ‘We get so excited.’

This year's Ten Tors runs on May 10 to 12.

Great British Life: Reaching the finishing line.Reaching the finishing line. (Image: UK Ministry of Defence/Crown Copyright)