“Do you think it’ll be cold tonight?” asked Graham. “No, we’ll be fine.” I replied. Wrong. True, I was fine – in my four season sleeping bag, bought to complete the Italian ski mountaineering Haute Route in winter. It coped with Dartmoor in April rather well, thank you. Graham, however, had bought his bag for a “bargain” £4.99 from Lidl. It may have seemed a bargain at the time . . .
To recap briefly, we (me, Simon from Penzance, Ru and Graham from Dartmoor) had entered a team in the Shelterbox Dartmoor Challenge. Our best achievement had been raising £1,200 in sponsorship. All we had to do now was complete the thing: a mixture of orienteering, hiking 30 miles over Dartmoor, team challenges and cryptic puzzles. Each team of four also carried a Shelterbox with them, which contained their tent and food for Saturday’s overnight camp.
We met on Dartmoor Friday evening, had our kit checked, collected our map and route directions and headed for the pub to plan. Several pints later, it was all falling into place. The map was covered in lines, grid references and doodles. As logic receded and speculation grew, we agreed it would all be obvious on the ground the next day.
Saturday dawned cold and gray. As bodies, moving slowly, appeared from tents and vans all over the site, it was soon clear that our team was not only older than most (did I mention we were all 49), but also hungover and sleep deprived. Part of the challenge is working out how to carry the box, so everywhere people were sizing up the methods used by other teams. Here we were on a roll.
Graham had found an old frame rucksack at a car boot and our box was soon taped securely in place. There was a quick briefing telling us what to do if evacuated by helicopter – basically keep out of its way – and we were off. One of the things I enjoy about orienteering is how it tests your own convictions. We charged off down the lane with two other groups and came to a junction. We were planning to carry on: one group turned left and the other disappeared off on a footpath to our right. Whose map reading was correct? How well had we read our maps and assessed the difficulties of the route? Great fun.
And so it went on for the next eight hours and 20 miles. We were passed by some teams; we passed others. We met teams going in the opposite direction! We saw teams on the skyline heading towards Exeter! And eventually, at the end of the afternoon, we reached the overnight campsite.
We put up the tent, ate as much as we could and drew lots for the single sleeping compartment in the tent (the other three shared a somewhat intimate space).
Ru won the draw, but it didn’t matter really. No one slept apart from the smug b****** with the four season bag.
Sunday morning and the busiest people were the first aiders dressing the blisters. Imagine raw blisters the size of 2p coins – and lots of them! And there were still 10 miles to go. We seemed in reasonably good shape and off we went. The sun was shining and all was well with the world. But not for long. Soon it was hot and we were too. At about this time it became clear we had committed the cardinal sin. We had dropped our guard and chatting in the sunshine, blithely followed the three groups in front. We were sure the path lay roughly in that direction. Wrong. We had stuffed up and gone that extra mile. True, we realized our mistake sooner than the ones in front and at least did not disappear into the depths of the valley. When we next saw them, they were very red and p*****d off. But we were soon on the last leg. Over ten check points lay behind us and we could see and hear the crowds waiting at the finish. A last minute jog/shuffle/limp and we were over the line – 9th out of 38 and in our age category surely 1st out of 1.
All 38 teams finished and there was a big crowd to welcome in the last team – three lads aged fourteen and one fifteen. The whole event was well organized and the Shelterbox volunteers never less than enthusiastic. They were always happy to chat when we weren’t on the move – we learnt a lot about how Shelterbox works. In total the Challenge is estimated to have raised almost £40,000.