Back in November, I helped at an incident hike run by my old university Scout and Guide Club.
For those interested in incident hikes, I highly recommend Marathon. I am of course biased, and I’ve never been to any other incident hikes (oh, apart from the Malvern Challenge, now I come to think of it), but every year it’s well-run and well-attended. It’s open to Scouting and Guiding teams aged 14+, including adults. Essentially, teams are given grid references for 26 checkpoints (hence the name “Marathon”) and have 9 hours to visit as many as they wish, to win as many points as they can.
It’s a bit strategic: if a team doesn’t plan to visit all the checkpoints (which would usually mean walking about 25-30 miles), they have to decide whether to go for ones that are closer to HQ but worth fewer points, or ones that are further away and worth more points. There are also four manned checkpoints, where they can do an activity to win more points, scored for teamwork as well as completion of the challenge.
It takes a lot of volunteers to run an event like this: helpers are needed to brief and debrief the teams at HQ, monitor the radios, keep track of scores, man the checkpoints, drive minibuses and cars, and cook dinner for everyone. I didn’t realise it when I was a student, but seeing it now, it really is a huge achievement for students who you might expect not to have the time, resources or experience to run a complex large-scale event. (Gratuitous plug: they run another hike in spring for 10-14-year-olds.) Having co-ordinated it myself a few years ago, I know all too well how much they rely on alumni (aka “fogies”) coming back to help and pass on the dubious benefit of their wisdom (and their cars), so I try to go back as much as I can.
This year I was based on a checkpoint, along with a couple of other fogies whom I already knew, and an amicable first year whom I hope we didn’t frighten too much. Our task was to set ourselves up in the designated place, wait for teams, and offer them water refills, hot drinks, and the chance to do a challenge. When there were no teams (i.e. most of the day: on average we got a couple of teams every hour) we sat, chatted, cooked on a stove, and generally entertained ourselves. I always find it very peaceful to spend the day resting in the outdoors and knowing you don’t need to be doing anything else. When I was a student, I really appreciated it as a calm interlude in the middle of an intense term, and a chance to break out of the city bubble into the “real world” and see some of the local countryside.
We were lucky to have dry, relatively mild weather. We were given a tent, but decided not to put it up, since we weren’t likely to need shelter and it would just be a pain to take down at the end of the day when we were tired.
The challenge at our checkpoint was “sheep herding”. Everyone in the team was blindfold, except for one member who had to guide them through a course using only a whistle. As fast as possible.
We set up the course with ropes tied round trees – it included a hairpin bend, a slalom around logs, and a tight passage between some bushes. When it got dark, we put glowsticks on the ropes to help the sheepdogs.
It was interesting to see the different teams’ techniques. They tended to either work out a complex signalling system (“one whistle blast for left, two for right, three for stop, four for duck…”) or go for a simple “follow the sound” approach. Both approaches worked well for some teams and less well for others. I winced at times, when the sheepdog herded his or her teammates into the logs, through branches, or into a complete U-turn!
Altogether it was a most enjoyable day – everything seemed to run smoothly as usual, with no disasters for helpers or teams, which as I recall is the main objective.