Hammocking and abseiling on Dartmoor

Once a year the London-based Adventure Training instructors of the Sea Cadets like to get together and have a training weekend in a remote location. Apart from having some time catching up with each other we use it as a time to skill up some of the newer instructors in map reading and climbing skills. Many of them are training to be assessed as Walking Group Leaders. Summer Mountain Leaders or the Single Pitch Award (outdoor single pitch climbing).

So this January we decided to head for Dartmoor as we managed to get booked into the army camp at Okehampton.

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Oakhampton Camp – Our B & B for the weekend – Picture courtesy of Jim Stilgoe

Everyone arrived on the Friday afternoon or evening and we spent our time catching up on things, prepping kit and planning the activities for the weekend. The weather forecast was a real mixed bag with Saturday looking good and Sunday looking atrocious. We decided to do the walking on Saturday and abseiling (and possibly climbing) on the Sunday.
We were up early and had an excellent breakfast before setting out. I had plenty of porridge before a good fry up. There was no one on the counter so I managed to get two sausages and two pieces of bacon 🙂 If you have ever eaten in an army camp you will know how rare that is.
We walked out of the camp and straight onto Dartmoor. It was quite windy but the sun was out so it was a pleasant start to the day. This was the first time I had been out on the hills for over a year and a half so I was looking forward to it.
Jacob took this picture I think on his GoPro camera strapped to his rucksack. That is one bit of kit I would like to get one day. It takes stills and video and you can attach it to just about anything.

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Start of the nav training – Picture courtesy of Jacob Leverett

We decided to have a look from on high at the viaduct we would be abseiling from on the Sunday but on the way we came across a year-old lamb with its head stuck in a fence. The ground was fairly churned up around it so it looked like it had been there for quite some time. Eventually Dan and Jacob managed to free the poor thing and before anyone asks I was not tempted to turn it into supper 🙂

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Lamb rescue

As the guys headed off I went off on my own slightly higher up to see what I could see in terms of plants and tracks. Jim took this picture of me sky lined and I think it is the best picture taken of me on the hills ever. Cheers Jim.

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Wonderful walking – Picture courtesy of Jim Stilgoe

After having a look at Meldon viaduct (with a few gulps) we headed off up to Yes Tor. The streams were very high so we had to follow them for quite a distance to get a safe crossing point. There are few bridges around here and to cross safely you need to be able to do it in one step. Eventually we found a decent spot where everyone could cross safely.
When choosing a spot to cross make sure that you can not only cross over in one step, but that you can also cross back the other way in one step. This is best done where both banks are at the same height.

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Safe Stream Crossing

I spotted a couple of small trees by the side of the stream and asked the guys if they were OK having a break there. As soon as they agreed, out came my little EDC hammock. Normally I just set this up as a chair but the trees were just that bit too far apart so I went for a conventional set up. I really rate this hammock. It crams down to nothing so I can stow it away in my rucksack but in a matter of a minute it can be set up. I normally set it up with an Evenk knot on one end and a Tarp Taught hitch on the other. You can pick one up from UKhammocks for about £15.
Anyway I was happy to get off the wet ground and have a break. Jennifer took these pictures but when I asked if she wanted a go was not too keen (need to convert you to hammocks this year, Jen).

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Who says life on Dartmoor is always tough

Moving on up to Yes Tor the ground became increasingly saturated. Even the rabbit holes were flooded.

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Waterlogged Warrens

I spotted very few flowering plants except some flowers on the gorse bushes (tasted nice) but spotted a few fungi and lichens. The Devils Matchsticks (Cladonia floerkeana) really stood out because of the lack of flowers. Also on the way up I spotted four separate clumps of fox scat and the hairs of the prey were clearly visible. There is a good write-up on the Dartmoor Fox here on the Legendary Dartmoor site.

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Devil’s Matchstick lichen (Cladonia floerkeana) and possible Fox Scat

Someone in the group spotted a puddle with some bubbles in it. After having a good look I could see that the bubbles were caused by escaping ground gas. When I bent down to take a picture I noticed Perry’s reflection in the water. With the walking poles it turned out surprisingly arty.

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Puddle gas bubble

The wind was in our faces the whole way up Yes Tor and we met a number of youngsters out doing the Ten Tors. I was happy to be doing just one Tor in that wind. No reports that night of anyone missing so they all must have made it back. Normally the challenge is in May so these guys had picked a tough time of year to do it.

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Approach to Yes Tor

A quick snap of Jim just after he had tied his shoelaces. It was good to see you back out with us Jim.

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Our Jim just redoing his laces

Up on the summit the wind was so bad you could hardly stand but Dean insisted on a picture. Next to the summit is a large flagpole on which the army hang a red flag if there is live firing in the area.

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Dean on top of a rather windy Yes Tor – Picture courtesy of Dean Barnett

After reaching the top I spotted a little alcove in the rock and asked Ben and Matt if they had any climbing kit to help me set the hammock up. They pulled out a full rack of kit and in no time the hammock was up again.

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Who needs trees when you have climbing buddies with you?

While I was chilling out Dan had gotten his rope out and was practising some abseiling skills as part of his Mountain Leader training under the watchful eye of the boss Perry. The hut in the background is for army personnel to use when the range is in use.

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Rope skills training

After a while, even sitting in the lee of the Tor, we started to feel the bite of the wind. A quick check of the map and we were off again. I think Jen and John were feeling the cold at this point, I know I was as my fingers were starting to stiffen up.

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Planning the next leg of the day

The next stage was out onto the open moorland to do micronavigation with compasses. We were looking for a metal marker out on a spur when we came across this lone pole. Up close you could see the gaping exit holes of high calibre bullets. The tiny marks were from lower calibre bullets that had just ricochted off and I think the small pyramid shapes were bullets that had gone through one side but not out the other. Not something you see very often.

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Impact marks

It was at this point that some of the guys headed off to do some more micronavigation training. I took a wander off down to the artillery range at the base of the valley, which is dotted with little ponds formed out of shell impact craters. The army use this area as the ground is so soft that much of the energy of the shells is absorbed by the peat. I would love to do a survey of this area as there are so many little microclimates dotted around down there.
Next to the impact area is a rock bunker for observers to sit and watch the shells impacting. It was muddy inside but would keep you pretty safe.
I caught up with the others heading back to the camp and had a great chat with Jen and John on the way back. This helped me as my right ankle had really tightened up at this point. A sign of old age, not being on the hills for ages or both (the latter probably).

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Military presence

All the blokes stayed in this building but as Jennifer was the only lady in the group she got one of the new buildings all to herself.

Sunday morning was all change on the weather front. As well as the wind it was the usual Dartmoor horizontal rain. Some of the group decided to walk around to the viaduct (about 2 miles away) and the rest of us took the minibus with all the kit we needed.

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Our accommodation on a rainy Sunday morning

After parking up I came across this elder tree covered in jelly fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae). A real tasty treat for foragers.

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Jelly fungus and lots of it (Auricularia auricula-judae)

Meldon viaduct outside Okehampton is 50 metres high and provides an excellent spot for abseiling. We had permission from the army to do this and were given the keys to access the underside walkways. It would have been far too dangerous to abseil from the centre in the high winds so we picked a spot about a quarter of the way along the span. The height at this point was about 25 metres. Some of the guys wanted to go over the kit that they would be using with Dan so while they did this I cleared the landing spot, set up my hammock again and had a bit of a chill. I needed a ladder for this set up but it was worth it.

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A wet and Windty Meldon Viaduct – Our abseil spot

The set up of the abseil did not take long and was done by Dan, Ben and Matt. Matt went first and I went second followed by Jim. This is a free abseil set up: no bouncing off a cliff face, you just launch yourself off the side and drop down at whatever speed you want.
Matt filmed his descent on his GoPro camera strapped to his helmet. I have not seen the video yet but will link to it when I can.

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Set up and Matt is first off

It was my turn next.

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George is away

Dean had never abseiled before (apart from a quick practice a few minutes earlier on a short section about 10 feet high) so this took guts to do. I remember my first abseil and can clearly remember seeing my legs shaking furiously.

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Deano ready to take the plunge

I took these pictures from the bottom after I had abseiled. Jim is on the left and Dean is on the right.

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Jim and Deano descending

After this I took three videos of the the others that abseiled that day.

Ben’s abseil video

Graham’s abseil video

Dan’s abseil video

We very nearly did not do the abseil at all owing to the atrocious weather earlier on but I’m glad we did in the end.
It was a great finish to the weekend. I got the picture of Graham and myself to show the amount of water flowing over the dam as it was an impressive sight.
Lined up below in the group photo in the Back row (left to right) are Dean Barnett, John Kelly, Jennifer Burdett, Jacob Leverett, Jim Stigoe and Ben MacDonald.
Front row George Aitchison, Graham Brockwell, Perry Symes, Matt MacDonald and Dan Keefe.

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Happy Instructors – Endex

A big thank you to Graham and Perry for organising this weekend, and to all of you for being such great company. To those who could not make it – there is always next time.

Loads more pictures can be seen here in my photobucket account.

Cheers

George

8 Replies to “Hammocking and abseiling on Dartmoor”

  1. Great photos & words about a great weekend, George. I am looking forward to future chances to have this much fun again! Jennifer

  2. Very very very jealous, couldn’t make due to work commitments (again). You seems to be spending more and more time in a hammock these days George…Anno Domini catching up with you perhaps?

  3. Hello George,

    I really enjoyed reading your account of your abseil of Meldon Viaduct! The pictures are fantastic.
    I am secretary for Exeter University Caving Club and our members are really keen to do this abseil. We frequently abseil underground in caves and mines so would love to have a go in the open air! I read in your blog that access requires a key.
    Would you be able to advise us at all on where/how/from whom we may be able to gain access?

    1. Hi Holly

      Glad the post caught your eye. We gained access through the army camp at Okehampton. They booked the key through a local company called Adventure Okehampton – http://www.adventureokehampton.com/

      Might be worth having a chat with them as we had to pick the key up from them. We are hoping for a return trip in May and this time hopefully dropping from the centre.

      All the best, George

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