How difficult could it be to walk 50 miles and climb the highest point in each and every UK National Park?
It is a question I deliberated almost 10 months ago when I decided that in 2017, I would become the first recorded person to undertake the challenge. It was a spur of the moment decision towards the end of a year that had been a defining one in my short 25 years on this crazy world. Up until the beginning of 2016, I had stalled on the edge of success, never quite realising potential and slowly discovering my strengths, weaknesses and ambitions. 18 months ago, the life of my family and I changed forever. Following the near-fatal accident of my sister in January, an incident that is still to this day both difficult to compute and communicate, a series of events were put into place that have led me here, to a position I would have never dreamed of being in.
To say my sister’s accident jump started my life is maybe a slight exaggeration. Prior to 2016, I had succeeded academically and during my early twenties, I had met the woman of my dreams and sown the seeds of an idea that was to become the business I now proudly work within. Life was good and getting better but nothing could have prepared me for the sudden and earth-shattering phone call received that fateful January morning. At the time that my business, Terrafirma, was slowly materialising from a dream into reality, a snowball gathering momentum and requiring almost all of my energy, I was thrown into the darkest place I had ever been, very nearly losing my sister multiple times during the first few months of 2016. That first quarter of 2016 to this day felt like years. I lost myself in my work, using it as an escape from the tragic reality I now seemed to have found myself in. Every day, I would work 10 hours in the Terrafirma office just south of Bristol, followed by the now infamous hour and half journey to Plymouth to sit by my sister’s side for all of 10 minutes and to put every ounce of emotional energy into wishing her better again. Despite everything, despite the unbelievable odds against her, my sister not only survived but grew stronger and has become an incredible young woman. She is an inspiration to all and has changed the outlook of everyone that has followed her journey to recovery.
Including mine. The sheer determination shown by my sister in the face of absolute adversity subconsciously drove me forward to reach limits I did not believe were possible. I maintained my dream to grow Terrafirma, but my outlook on how and why to grow the business had altered and I would like to think the rapid growth we have had is partly down to the way in which I now view success. By surrounding myself with people I trust wholeheartedly, including my wonderful fiancé and fantastic team, I have been able to invest the energy, time and resource into Terrafirma to allow it to grow into what it is today. In just 12 (very, very short) months, Terrafirma has exploded from an idea to a business now involved in over 50% of all UK property transactions and I am incredibly proud to say it has genuinely changed the way in which professionals perceive, manage and resolve the risks the ground poses in the UK.
Ask anyone that knows me well and they will tell you I cannot stand still for a minute. I am not entirely sure where this boundless energy comes from but I have always had the outlook to use it positively. Towards the end of 2016, despite the personal and professional hardship of the previous 12 months, I was restless. It took me a while to work out why but upon reflection, I realised it was because I felt trapped; trapped in the confines of Terrafirma’s growth and ambition and the emotional aftermath of my sister’s accident. I needed to escape and there was only one way I could do that. For as long as I can remember, I have loved the outdoors, the freedom of an expansive view from the top of a mountain, hill or clifftop and the serenity of being miles from civilisation. Many of my life’s big decisions have been driven by an underlying love for the outdoors and at the end of 2016, I wanted more than anything to get back out into the wild.
I also wanted to give back. Experiencing my sister’s accident from the side of her bed meant that I had a first-hand view of the incredible support offered by everyone involved with both saving her life and returning her to the amazing woman she is. From the bystanders and paramedics first on scene to the ITU nurses, brain and abdominal surgeons that brought her back from the edge, to her friends and family that never ceased to stand resolutely by her side, to the talented team of neuro nurses and doctors that coached her back to health. For me though, I was in awe of the Devon Air Ambulance and their team of heroes. An entirely independently funded charity, requiring over £5 million a year, that has saved countless lives across Devon and the South West and is part of a network of Air Ambulances that save thousands of lives every year, returning husbands to wives, sons to fathers and sisters to brothers. These were the heroes I wanted to give something back too and combined with an innate love for the outdoors, the Walk Wild UK Challenge was born.
I wanted to challenge myself, to push myself to my physical limits and to see the wonderful country we call home. There are 15 National Parks in the UK, from the beautiful bleak moorland of Dartmoor to the soaring heights of the Cairngorms and from the misty marshes of the Broads to the wild clifftops of the Pembroke Coast. I wanted to see them all and what better way to do that than by walking their length and height across 2017. As far as I was aware and from the research undertaken and the messages received, this challenge was unprecedented and had not been attempted/completed before. Personally, I believe that it had but there are no records to prove it. Either way, this was a challenge to give back and I pledged to raise money and awareness for the charity that saved my sister and a thousand others and to ensure that the heroes at the Devon Air Ambulance remain in the air. 50 miles and the highest peaks across 15 national parks in 12 months awaited and I had no idea at the challenge I was about to let myself in for.
January 2017. One year on from the moment that changed our lives and it was time for the first of 15 National Parks. A fitting beginning in the wilds of North Devon and West Somerset; Exmoor is famed for its high moors, deep gorges, rolling hills and plunging cliffs. On a snowy winters morning, I set out on the first of my many miles across the UK’s wildest places and since then I have not looked back. As of August, I have walked over 400 miles and reached the highest point across 8 National Parks, namely Exmoor, South Downs, North York Moors, Brecon Beacons, Dartmoor, Cairngorms, New Forest and Pembroke Coast. At just over half way through my charity challenge, I am privileged to have already seen some of the most breath-taking corners of our country, many only accessible by days of walking to the remotest and wildest parts of the National Parks. Just a handful of my favourite images break apart this blog but words nor images can truly do these places justice.
On the face of it, it may be perceived this is a simpler challenge than I am making out. There are 52 weekends in a year and only 15 National Parks, surely it is not hugely difficult to fit this challenge in? My issue is that I am the CEO of Terrafirma, one of the fastest growing environmental risk businesses in the UK, I am planning to very shortly marry my wonderful fiancé (lots of planning and time required!) and finally the Great British weather is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. Combined, this knocks out pretty much 3 of the 4 weekends a month and leaves little to no time to organise, undertake and importantly advertise my challenge, to raise money and awareness to the incredible charity and heroes that form the underlying reasons as to why I am doing this in the first place. I am confined to undertaking my challenge over a long weekend and up until July, I had successfully managed to fit 50 miles across a National Park, every three weeks. This was until August, commonly known as Summer(!?), where not a single long weekend consisted of 3 days of dry weather, instead replaced by gale force winds, torrential/thundery rain or no visibility. Not easy to plan a trek across some of the UK’s wildest places or an ascent of some of the UK’s highest peaks in those conditions.
I didn’t come into this challenge naively. I knew from experience how difficult it is to walk wild. Over the past 9 months, I have lost almost all the toenails on my feet and had terrible issues with blisters. Throughout the year, I have been camping wild, carrying the kit I need to survive and apart from two occasions, undertaking this challenge entirely on my own. It has instilled a deep sense of willpower into me and although cliché, has taught me to overcome both fear and pain. In May, I became the first person to complete the nationally renowned Ten Tors Challenge, solo. This 57-year-old endurance event saw me walk over 112km in 36 hours across Dartmoor National Park and was one of the most difficult physical and mental challenges I have ever had to undertake and truly sums up the Walk Wild Challenge.
At just over halfway through the National Parks and after an unwanted month long absence, I now have to regain the mental strength to kick myself and the challenge back into action. I still have three mountain ranges to scale; namely Loch Lomond, Snowdonia and the Lake District, the wilderness of Northumberland, the Dales and the Peaks, before finishing in the marshes of the Broads in December. All of this in just 4 short months. This week, I will be heading up to the peaks of Loch Lomond to camp and walk wild, hoping that the freedom of the mountains will entice me back into the enthusiasm I first felt when I began this challenge 9 months ago. I have no doubt it will and even despite the pain and hardship encountered, it is quite simply one of the most liberating feelings being able to lose yourself entirely in the wild, focusing on nothing but your next steps and the stunning views in front of you.
I have, until now, refrained from publishing my challenge out through my professional profile to keep the challenge separate and to allow for a later rejuvenated effort to continue to raise awareness for the Air Ambulance. It feels right that now, with only a few short months and several difficult National Parks ahead of me to revisit the reasons behind why I decided to start this journey. Despite everything over the past 18 months, I consider myself extremely lucky to find myself in this position. I am blessed with a wonderful fiancé and family, the strongest and most inspirational of sisters, an refreshed outlook on life that has helped shaped my growing business and an opportunity to explore some of the most wild, unspoilt and beautiful parts of this little island we call home.
How to Donate?
To sponsor Tom in the Walk Wild UK Challenge, please visit: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/WalkGBNationalParks to donate. I have set myself a target of raising £5000 and I am still a long way from achieving it with time beginning to run out. All money donated to the Air Ambulance goes to the charity and helps fund a team of heroes save lives. To track Tom on his walks, follow the routes through the National Parks and more, please visit his website: www.walknationalparks.co.uk.
Thank you to everyone that has supported him this far.