Hong Kong-based Natalia Watkins does Canada's 160km Yukon Arctic Ultra race

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 6:16am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 6:16am

Venturing into the unknown takes courage and perseverance. This month we track three brave women who've tackled extreme adventures across land, ice and sea.

Trudging through the snow, pulling a heavy sled near the Arctic Circle may not seem like a holiday, but for one of the city's busy finance executives, it's paradise.

Natalia Watkins took part in the Yukon Arctic Ultra last month: an arduous 160km foot journey in remote northeastern Canada.

The extreme temperatures alone could kill you; forget having to haul a heavy sled further than the distance from Hong Kong to Guangzhou.

"I love big open spaces, it's such a contrast to Hong Kong. And to be able to travel to remote places that some people might never see - it's a gift," says 42-year-old Watkins.

"You meet some real characters who you would never meet in ordinary life … There's adventure in trying something that you don't know whether you will finish."

Moving to Hong Kong six years ago from Britain, she was surprised to discover the city was a home for adventure lovers. "I came across so many people who were out there 'having a go' and I thought to myself, 'Why not try?'"

The Brit soon found herself climbing mountains and running week-long ultramarathons through remote deserts. Having a penchant for cold weather, an escapade through the Arctic wilderness seemed the natural next step.

She began planning for the Yukon Arctic Ultra two years ago, trialling a more accessible 193km sled race in the same region in 2013 and building up to ultramarathons through the French Alps.

"The idea was to get familiar with the weather and learn to cope with it, and then build up my endurance for the distance and terrain," she says.

But nothing could have prepared her for what she encountered on her arrival in the Yukon this time: temperatures lower than minus 40 degrees Celsius.

"All I had in my mind was finishing, with 10 fingers and toes, with no frostbite and preferably in under 60 hours."

Remarkably, she reached her goal, finishing in 57 hours 20 minutes. Out of the 20 starters, only 12 finished.

You have to be regimented to survive out there.

You have mental checklists for everything. To do anything you must take your outer gloves off - you still keep two on - and after only a few minutes your hands start to burn. Frostbite and frost nip are the main reason competitors pull out. You have to be so careful at those temperatures; you cannot afford to make a mistake.

Events like this take you back to basics.

It's sheer adventure. There is some external support, but you must be able to survive on your own for 48 hours if you have to. Hence the sled - it has all your gear.

The first night was the hardest.

It dropped to minus 48 degrees Celsius. I tried to push through the night but I underestimated how exhausting the cold was, combined with dragging something that's 60 per cent of my body weight. I stopped to rest in my bivvy (a lightweight shelter) - a lengthy process as you have to bring all your gear in with you, including your shoes. But it was so cold everything froze. I had to keep moving, even though I was slow and tired.

Quitting never crossed my mind.

I was enjoying myself out there - the scenery, people and sense of adventure were invigorating. Out there, your thoughts have time and space to "be". Being strong is imperative; you cannot survive on running fitness alone in a race like this. My sled weighed 30-35kg. On the uphill you're constantly fighting against the weight and on the downhill it pushes you over.

I have the next three years' worth of adventures already planned.

I love that feeling of having something in motion; I'm not the type to enjoy sitting still. My long-term goal is 300 miles (480km) in the Yukon. The cut-off is eight days. Physically, it's achievable, but mentally I still have a lot of preparation to do. I don't rest well in those temperatures, and for that kind of distance, you need to sleep.

The more you have to work at something, the more satisfaction you get out of doing it.

It takes time and is a massive commitment. But the pleasure you get from doing something that you've worked towards for several years is indescribable. At the end of the day, it's not about being crazy or brave, but being lucky. Part of it is making the choice and having courage, but a lot of it is having the resources to make these adventures possible. It's about having an opportunity and making the best of what you have.