With the others departed, I spend most of the last evening at the bunkhouse with maps and laminated tors spread out on a table in front of me, trying to come up with a route that fits my needs. With a forecast for a couple of virtually clear days with little wind, an overnight route with a wild camp high on a tor is very much the order of the day, or more precisely – night. The evening is spent measuring distances on the map and calculating timings, so that I do most of the work on the first day, leaving me only a shortish walk out to the car in the morning.
Monday 2 February: South Zeal to Wild Tor via Shilstone, Scorhill, Rival and Steeperton Tors
I’m up early and sorting my gear out into two piles – stuff to go into the Mariposa and stuff to go in the car. Not wanting to forget something that I’ll kick myself about later on, I ruthlessly go through every single item and this takes some time. Even so I’m driving off the moor just after 8am, the roads not too bad and the most perilous part of the journey being from the pub car park to the road itself.
The car is left tucked up in the main street in South Zeal, looking none too happy at having been defrosted and warmed up and now expected to sit still and shiver for 24 hours. I head along the lanes towards Throwleigh.
A good pace is achieved, despite several stops to check out paths on the right leading up onto the moor. All of these are ignored in favour of gaining southward distance and a bit of height quickly along the highway.
The road crosses a cattle grid and becomes unfenced – now all I need to do is step off the road when I’m ready. I do so a tad earlier than intended finding myself inspecting hut circles rather than the tor I’d planned. With visible sheep tracks across the side of the hill, I opt to keep the small amount of height I’ve gained above the road. This is a mistake as I find out when I get to Shilstone Tor, a nice clear track away just above the road.
Meantime back at Social Hiking HQ, my nemesis Adventure Bot seems to be in playful mood, and tweets something about randomly replacing all tors bagged over the weekend with hills in various foreign countries. Shilstone Tor is about to be replaced by some obscure hill in Israel. The Bot has to be put in his place and reminded who pays for his WD40. This seems to do the trick and normal service is resumed.
After some initial bog-hopping around Whitemoor Marsh, thankfully mostly frozen over, I climb up out of the mire through dead bracken speckled with snow and as the gradient eases start to enjoy the walk. It’s just me and the beasts at this point – a group of suspicious looking ponies who are clearly plotting something, and a pheasant that deems my presence unwelcome and promptly buggers off. I follow animal tracks through the snow that winds between the dead vegetation.
My mobile phone ringing shatters the peace – signal is quite decent here, as it is on a lot of Dartmoor. I only seem to get these work-related calls when I’m out on a walk – I’ve even been known to go out on a walk in the hope that I will encourage a call I’m expecting to happen. I don’t generally mind these interruptions – dealing with these things is an integral part of the deal that allows me so much time off work for walking.
I rest awhile on the top of Buttern Hill and try to relate the hills and tors I can see to the west to the map. Since this area is new to me, I don’t have familiar landmarks as reference points, so it’s a matter of working back from the obvious high point of Cosdon Hill.
The walk over Gidleigh Common to Scorhill Tor sees the first of only two people I will see on the moor today, and even then they are passing across my path some distance away. Apart from them and their dogs, I have this part of the moor to myself. I crest the down and walk down to the tor, pausing to decide my next move – whether to try for the Tolmen Stone or not. A read of the relevant laminate clarifies its position as being actually in the River Teign. I’m not tempted to descend all that way unless it looks quick and easy – already I can feel the small advantage of time I’ve gained by walking along the road to be slipping away. I descend a short way for a recce, and then decide to bypass Tolmen – I’ve got plenty to do anyway and from what I can see view-wise I will definitely be wanting to come back to the North Teign.
I follow a leat that will eventually become Gallaven Brook and which should take me almost to Rival Tor (Rippator) – a convenient handrail. It’s a bit boggy in places – largely due to other feet having passed this way, and so my course is a bit crooked. The moor is deceptive as several inches of snow lurks beneath the sea of dead grass. On the way there’s a stone circle.
I eventually climb up onto Rival Tor and from that viewpoint it’s a lot easier to assign names to tors and get a sense of the rest of the route.
I walk up onto Kennon Hill – a gently sloping hill that seems to take ages to reach the top of, and the sort of hill that you appreciate there being a cairn to confirm the summit. I’m feeling that with the extra weight of backpacking kit today, I may not make it all the way out to my intended camp spot on Watern Tor. Maybe I’ll stop on Wild Tor instead.
The next destination, though, is Hound Tor which involves crossing a mire that I seriously don’t want to encounter outside of winter. Even with it frozen, it’s very obvious where it is and how extensive. In these conditions, though, it’s not too bad and although I pick my way across with care, there’s no real danger of wet feet today.
The climb up to Steeperton Tor is leg-sapping and I’m glad to reach the top. Getting to camp is the foremost thought in my mind now. So much so that I eye up a patch of flat snowy ground to the south of the summit outcrop. I designate this my back-up pitch in case I don’t see anything I like on the next hill.
Having now cut out my originally intended loop around Hangingstone Hill, I’m making straight for Wild Tor, with a crossing of Steeperton Brook in the depression. I climb up onto the tor and find several well-spaced outcrops with a lot of flat ground between them. You could camp a lot of people here. I pick a spot a little away from the main outcrop and so as to be able to see any sunset or sunrise that may present itself. That seems unlikely with the dirty black cloud that’s about to overwhelm the tor.
I quickly put up the Scarp and bundle most of my stuff inside. The plan now is to have a quick dash over to Watern Tor to save me doing it in the morning. Moreover, to tease Paul who claims Watern as his camp spot, I’m going to stop my Spot tracking when I get there and let him think I’ve camped there – at least for a couple of hours.
The weather gods have different ideas though, and I’m no sooner on my way than I’m engulfed by a hail storm which quickly obliterates the view. I soldier on for a bit, almost reaching a lone tree, and decide to turn back. It’s really not sensible.
As I approach the tent again, a flash of red over by the tor reveals the second person of the day. I quicken my pace as I always feel a little nervous when people are around my tent and I’m not. He walks over to me as I’m stood by Monica and turns out to be a member of Ashburton DSRT – he’s even wearing his special jacket. We have a nice chat – he’s out exploring a part of the moor he’s not familiar with (that makes two of us then). Of course he was probably also covertly checking I was ok, but betrayed no sign of it. He could see I was properly equipped and pitched, knew where I was and what I was doing. He heads off in the direction I’d just come from and is swallowed by the hailstorm.
I’d pitched a little earlier than originally expected, so a longer night is in prospect, and with nothing to see outside the tent and nothing to do except get a face full of ice, I hunker down inside. Hot drinks aplenty, a nice chilli and my Kindle help the time pass. Sleep comes and I settle down for the night.
Tuesday 3 February: Wild Tor to South Zeal via Cosdon Hill
During the night I’ve lost a little bit of air from under my torso to the foot end of the sleep mat – one of the downsides of preferring a not fully-inflated mat. It does mean that as the snow compacts underneath me during the course of the night, a little bit of cold creeps up to shake me awake. A peer out of the tent shows the first signs of daylight over Watern Tor.
I get up, packing and not bothering with a brew. I want to get on my way and anyway water has frozen which will slow things down. I have enough still left in my flask from the day before and still warm enough for my breakfast needs. I pack up Monica as a weak sunrise builds to the east of the moor, remembering too late to take some photos of the pitch. Hands are too cold to faff about restoring the pitch, so I make do with a partially taken down tent against the sunrise. It’ll do.
Cath is pestering me on Twitter for temperatures, and so the Windoo is deployed. Unfortunately, because it’s come from a warm place into the full cold outdoors, it takes a while for a temperature reading to sink down to the right place. With hands numbing, I give up waiting at -1C, noting simply that it’s lower than that and was even colder earlier. Wind is only 12 mph, but I can feel it building as it has done since I woke.
I recover the ground from yesterday’s abortive quest, my footsteps still clearly visible in the snow – it’s not really snowed and any cover over is probably due to the wind. The key difference today is that I can see where I’m going and this helps my pace considerably.
A careful descent to cross Walla Brook sees me selecting the least bad place to bridge the “just too much for comfort” gap between the banks. I make it and recover the path up onto the tor, visiting first Thirlstone and then the main bulk of Watern Tor.
Someone’s built a snowman by the Thirlstone, and I add my Pacerpoles to serve as temporary arms in order to take a picture of the snowman etched against the sunrise.
Watern Tor’s another good one and would have been a fine place to camp. The wind is, however, much more noticeable here and I’m happy that I opted to stick with Wild Tor. It’s no condition to be standing around, and with the car waiting patiently for me in South Zeal, followed by a 4-5 hour drive home, it’s time to get a move on.
It’s a straightforward route home now – a descent down the north ridge of the tor to re-cross the Walla Brook and pick up a track that will take me up onto Hound Tor, past Little Hound Tor and up onto the final hill of the trip – Cosdon Hill. With tall tussocks of brown grass on the moor, they obscure the snow caught in them, meaning that the worn down area of the path is a pure white runway showing the way. It’s crispy underfoot though and several times I hear and feel ice cracking. I avoid the darker patches which contain puddles beneath the ice.
I pause briefly at the Stone Circle and again at Little Hound Tor, both of which lie just off the main path. Then it’s the drag up Cosdon Hill, where I find more people than I’ve seen on the whole of the rest of the walk. A couple on a dog walk and a runner who madly runs up to the top of the hill, touches the trig point and then simply runs down again. This seems like questionable fun at best.
I take a look down the west side of the hill and decide not to bother with the detour to visit Ladybrook and Ivy Tors on the way down – they’ll delay me and the morning is already fast disappearing.
Wanting the shortest and easiest route back to the car now that I’m heading off the moor, I follow the runner, and her route takes me to the cist and stone row at the top of Cheriton Combe. These deserve a pause to take in the sight.
I continue down finding the bridleway between the field walls that I was aiming for and arriving back on the Throwleigh road. A short while later I’m back at the car, warming up.
The moor disappears in the rear view mirror as I head up the A30 and home.
I’d looked forward to this trip and meeting up with Paul and Phil. Adding Rich and Neil obviously made for enhanced craic on the walk and in the pub, but the bigger mob did tend to leave me at the back of the group on the walk. So it was nice to enjoy a couple of days walking at my own pace, or rather at a pace where I knew the only one I was affecting was me. This was one of the things I liked particularly on my New Year trip to Dartmoor – a mix of company and solitude.
In cold conditions, which I have to say aren’t my favourite, a single night’s camp was enough to sate my appetite. Yes of course I could have done more, but this was about enjoying the experience, not proving a point. Both on this trip and the last one, the night chosen for the camp has been the best weather of the trip (yes, really despite the hailstorm which soon passed), and has really shown the quality of the forecasts I’ve been using from Mountain Forecast, which I’ve found to be astonishingly accurate. It helps that they’re forecasts by peak or hill, even if I do have to use a nearby tor as a surrogate.
Walking in snow is hard work, and the additional weight of camping gear was just enough to make me happy that I’d pitched the length of the walk about right, and with plenty of options for cutting short if I decided. It was right to omit Tolmen Stone, Hangingstone Hill, Whitehorse Hill, Ladybrook Tor and Ivy Tor, and even more right to call it for the night on Wild Tor, which at the time seemed to be living up to its name. It is no hardship to have to return to these places. And I’d done enough to secure second in the Dartmoor chart on Social Hiking. That would do nicely.
Whilst the forecast was for some snow on the tors, I think we got a bit more down at street level than expected and this obviously affected how our plans as a group for the weekend worked out. In the end, I was happy with the walks we did over North Hessary to Great Mis and around Royal Hill. We might not have done the walk I’d hoped, but they were all new tors to me. That walk on Yartor Down though was hard work, and there wasn’t even any snow on the ground. Winter did at least help ensure the gorse and bracken was down as much as it was possible to be.
I think I came to the conclusion on this trip that in winter conditions Dartmoor suits me better than somewhere more mountainous. I’m not a great fan of steep snow-laden slopes and am not overly confident using ice axe and crampons, although I do know how to. In winter I enjoy the snowy vistas, but my desire to be on a snow-packed corniced ridge is somewhat less. A more gentle snow-bound landscape is perfect. I had ice axe and crampons with me, but never needed them all weekend. Even the microspikes stayed at the bottom of my pack. The snow makes for starker images of the moor and best of all freezes over the bogs that are so troublesome outside of winter, making for some much easier route planning. Of course, the main downside is that the streams and leats are at their fullest, so the greatest perils lie in crossing those.
I think I’ve found my winter playground. I’ll be back for more.