All The Tors Challenge – The Full Story

Emily Woodhouse Adventure Stories, Big Adventures

I don’t know where to start with this. It’s so big, it still hasn’t really sunk in yet.

Last week I finished the All the Tors Challenge. I’m not sure I’ll ever do a challenge that means quite so much to me. I shared the story of where the challenge came from before the walk (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). But, as a Dartmoor girl, this really was the ultimate undertaking.

Instead of inflict a 5000 word blog post on you, I’ll pull out some of the moments. And, you know me – it’ll still be a long one! I took a camera with me, so have some great 4K footage of my daily struggle. In time this will become a YouTube series – watch this space!

At the moment, it still hasn’t quite sunk in that it’s happened. Plus I’m still fending off requests for interviews and articles from the media (equally surreal).

A Bad Beginning

When the lady on the radio tries to keep you on the line, you should know there’s something up. I’d just done a stilted, nervous interview on BBC Radio Devon breakfast show.

“Emily, before you go, you might just want to listen to the radio a minute whilst they do the weather. There’s going to be a weather warning…”

“No thank you,” I said cheerily. “I know what the forecast is thank you.”

Abysmal. The forecast was abysmal. Tail end of a hurricane sweeping straight across Dartmoor and one look out the window to tell me it was thick fog across the moor.

It was not what I wanted to see. I was already as nervous as a 35 staring down the start line for Ten Tors. The firing times meant that I had to start today. I just needed to start, then everything would fall into place.

My First Solo Wild Camp

By the end of day one, it felt like everything had fallen into place. Once I’d escaped the start line and the press, the mist had burnt off into a glorious sunny day. I got ahead of my route card and, after a stressful half hour trying to get my tracker map to update correctly, I settled down to my first solo wild camp.

Verdict: very much like wild camping in a group, only quieter.

But Then The Weather Came…

On day 2, I walked up into the cloud on Hare Tor and never came back out. I had to count every pace I took from 9am to 6pm, just to stay on track. The visibility was so poor that I could only see 10 metres in front of me, lining up bearings on tufts of grass.

Only just in line with my route card, I crawled into my tent that night and curled up in despair.

“I just want to be able to see!”

Never had I imagined having difficulty finding the tors… I couldn’t manage another 9 days of this. All I wanted was for someone to tell me that it would be alright tomorrow. But there was no phone signal. I was completely alone.

After a windy night, I peeked out of the tent. Fog. Thick fog.

“You have got to be kidding,” I shouted at the weather and got back into the tent.

My gamble of not walking to Dinger Tor – exchanging a rougher night’s sleep for easy nav in the morning – hadn’t paid off. I was furious and exhausted.

But there was no choice but to go on.

The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

I had climbed the highest tor on Dartmoor by 9am that morning. Then, miraculously, the cloud lifted enough that I could see 50 – even 100 metres in front of me. I was jubilant. By the time I’d been round most of the day’s tors, the sun had come out enough for a rainbow. My raincoat was packed away.

I was dancing around and punching the air in happiness, to the backdrop of a stunning panorama over the north moor’s ridgelines. Incredible.

It was such a good feeling that I tried to get back ahead of my route card. Bathing in the sunshine (ok I was wearing a belay jacket for the wind) I started to amble towards Hound Tor and camp. There was a herd of brown cows spread out along the left hand side of the unmarked path that curves around the bog from Watern. The birds were singing. The sky was a glorious blue.

Cows can be a bit funny in September, particularly if they have calves with them. But I was cool with that – just don’t walk between mummy cow and baby cow and you’ll be fine.

I was almost past the herd when I looked up and saw two calves ahead of me, a bit apart from the rest of the herd. That was my first mistake.

I looked up, saw the calves and then turned around to see several tonnes of cow hurtling down the path towards me.

It takes a lot to make me scream, but scream I did as I sprinted into the bog – 60L rucksack and all. The cow stopped at the edge of the long grass and I squelched slowly away, heart pounding in my ears. That was the second mistake.

As I watched the herd move on, I realised that it was a bull that had charged me. Well, either that or it was a cow who liked charging walkers and then dry humping other lady cows to make itself feel better…

Exhaustion Setting In…

My night on Hound Tor was disjointed. By some fluke of aerodynamics, nowhere round the tor was out of the wind. This would have been fine if it wasn’t forecast at 35 mph wind with 50 mph gusts. In fact, it was so bad that I had to get up in the middle of the night and drag my already-pitched tent round the corner of the tor, as the wind changed direction.

If you saw my tracker route to Shilstone the next morning, I completely blame it on my lack of sleep that night.

Wet, wet, fog, wet

I sat on the floor outside the public toilets at Fernworthy Reservoir (both locked), hiding from the rain. As dog walkers pulled up in the car park, I munched absently on a peanut butter wrap. I was wet, fed up of having to walk through bracken to avoid cows and devastated that the toilets were shut. For the toilets, but also for drinking water.

The mist was coming in again and after my circular route to Shilstone that morning, my brain was in no mood to micro nav. I was too exhausted to make it pace properly. My feet were so sore that I was coming up short on my usual 100 metres anyway.

I was heading out into the great unknown of the east moor and I was almost out of water.

I Almost Quit

Crawling on my stomach to stay out of the wind, I peered over the edge of Mel Tor and down into the Dart valley. All I could see was thick gorse and bracken and trees. I was supposed to be walking down to Luckey Tor, near the river, but I couldn’t see it for the undergrowth.

Although today was sunny, I was walking into a solid westerly wind – strong enough to have me leaning into the gale and getting blown off my feet occasionally. I’d just made the mistake of trying to cut a corner on the way to an interview with Dartmoor National Park. Just a few paces off the path and I was fighting with head-high bracken and getting tangled in brambles.

“That is not what I call OPEN access,” I said to myself.

Now, gazing down at where Luckey Tor should have been, I had a growing sense of doubt. Was it actually accessible? Where did I draw the line about what “accessible” meant, even if it was on Open Access Land.

I very nearly didn’t try. I nearly called it inaccessible and moved on to the next tor.

But I couldn’t bear the thought of being a disappointment. It felt like a cop out to say, “I went to all the tors except one because it looked really hard to get to…”

Cue the next hour of bashing through gorse bushes, swimming through head high bracken and crouching under trees, getting caught on my huge rucksack. But I made it.

The River

I was stuck. Trapped. Between Sittaford Tor and Lower White Tor, there is a river called the East Dart. Usually it’s fine to cross in several places – I spent the morning wondering which point would be the best route tactic.

It should have been a clue that the wall was underwater where it crossed the river. But I decided to follow good practice and walk upstream (at a good distance) looking for a spot. Waterfall, the next usual crossing point, was flooded. Sandy Hole Pass was under. Maybe just a bit further, I thought.

Now I was several kilometres up the river, almost to the range poles… and they were firing in the range. The river was still a torrent and I couldn’t get any further. The only option was to walk all the way back to Postbridge, cross on the road bridge, and walk all the way back out the other side.

It was a devastating decision.

I had wasted over a hour, added miles to my long day, got even wetter and maximised time walking into the wind. The river probably could have been crossed if my life depended on it. But it would have been a case of throw your bag over, then throw yourself over. If anything went wrong and I ended up in the river, that could be death. Plus there was no way I could risk having me stuck on one side and everything to keep me alive stuck on the other.

Breaking Point

Since writing the above, I’ve been going through the video footage I took, taking out stills for this post and for press images. I wanted you to see this photo of me.

It’s the moment that I almost break on camera. I’m sitting on Bench Tor, talking through my next steps. The rain is so hard I can’t take the camera out of the dry bag. The fog has come in to 30m visibility and I have no idea how to get to the next tor. All I want is to be able to have something to navigate off. Worse, I’m so tired that I’ve started thinking that the cows are all out to kill me and am imagining them in the mist.

Yes really.

I wanted to share this, because it’s easy to spin adventurers as tough and brilliant, defying odds – always staying strong. This is what staying strong actually looks like. Continuing when there’s nothing left inside you, except the will which says GO ON.

This photo also jumped out. Once I’d cleared Shipley Tor I was headed down towards Ivybridge and excited for the prospect of a good solid path towards where I was going. But the moor was so wet that the Two Moors Way looked like the Two Moors River. It was flowing several inches deep or standing water deeper than my boot.

That night, everything was wet – including my tent from the night before. My down sleeping bag was starting to get damp. If it keeps raining like this tomorrow, I thought, I’m going to get hypothermia. I had no way of getting anything dry.

The Final Countdown

By some miracle, the rain stopped at about 10am the next day. Within hours the sun had come out and a stiff breeze as drying my clothes. I got to tor 100. The end was in sight.

What confused me more than anything was that I wasn’t excited. I thought I’d be dancing around, but I wasn’t. Part of the problem was I’d worked out I could have seen off the last few tors on Monday afternoon. But we had a big finish planned with the media on Tuesday morning. My motivation dropped to zero.

Nice easy weather meant that I had a lazy afternoon and just one more night’s camping. In my head I’d already finished, but there was one more thing to do.

The next morning was pretty surreal. I ticked off the last two tors, then met a TV crew along the railway track into Princetown. After several takes of interview and walking back and forth for different shots, I was released into Princetown. I ran to the finish line and was amazed to be greeted by a hoard of Dartmoor Rescue Tavistock members and a flask of hot chocolate.

Thank you so much to everyone who came – and to everyone who showed support towards me on this expedition.

That’s just tipped me over 2000 words, but thank you if you made it to the end. It feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface… So please, ask me anything! I’ll do another post soon answering all your questions – put them in the comments below so I don’t miss them on social media.

And don’t forget, if you have some spare change to put towards new waterproofs for my Dartmoor Rescue team, we’d really appreciate it. At time of writing we’re on almost £1500 out of £5000 required: