Bleak, bog-ridden, beautiful. Here I am again. I said I would not return, I would never return, but here I am.
Too late, I ask myself why.
The roar of the cannon is still ringing in my head, the surge of people rushing down the hillside, the thud of my heart like a drum in my veins. With that shot, the fear and the doubts that had accompanied us to the starting line had been temporarily scattered: we were confident, we were excited, we were unstoppable. I barely noticed the patchwork of gorse, boulders and elephant grass at my feet, the crisscross of little streams. The moment had come, the moment we had been awaiting for months, and we were giants.
Now, however, every step sends a blaze of pain through me. I don’t know when it was that the fear crept back, unnoticed. It is inescapable as the darkness slowly surrounds us and presses in around us and makes us realise how helpless we are like this, worn out, in the untamed face of nature. The boulders are mountains, the gorse is a forest and the elephant grass is a wild animal to be battled with over and over until I am broken and exhausted. All I can see is the rucksack in front of me, all I can think is that soon, surely, we will reach the next checkpoint; soon, surely, I will be able to lie down and sleep.
The rain beats down on us incessantly; the sky is iron grey. Underfoot, the ground is sodden and tries to suck me into its depths at every opportunity. One step at a time, each step a struggle, again, and again, and again. We had been singing, but we no longer have the energy to utter a single syllable; and anyway, the vicious wind would snatch our words away before they are even fully formed. No wonder the few scattered trees stand so crookedly, barely taller than I am and hunched over, the branches twisted and black against the sky. It’s hard to imagine they ever looked any different: wreathed in lichen, ancient, eternal.
We join forces with another team as we approach the next checkpoint (how many more to go?). They are carrying a flag, but it droops sadly, the name of the school they are representing illegible. As we pass them, one of them laughs, a strange, hollow sound, and asks me, ‘Why are we doing this?’
The very same question I ask myself. And I tell myself, I will not return, I will never return –
We trudge on, one small group of girls against nature at its most inhospitable, and I know I will be back.
The Ten Tors Challenge became part of my life for three years while I was at school. Every year in May, thousands of local young people between the ages of 14 and 19 spend the weekend on Dartmoor in order to take part. It is a challenge of endurance, of pushing yourself to the limit as you and your team walk 35, 45 or 55 miles over two days across some of the toughest terrain in England. You have no contact to the outside world and have to carry everything you need to survive for two days in the wilderness. It is an incredible experience, both physically and psychologically demanding. Having completed the 45-mile challenge, I said I would not return, I would never return, but I could not keep away, and we small group of girls (and one boy) successfully completed the 55-mile challenge.