Warrnambool adventurer Paul Watkins tells of amazing race across the Arctic Circle

A race against the clock and the elements has left Warrnambool's Paul Watkins with an inspirational tale to tell which he will share at a school fundraiser this week. He told KATRINA LOVELL some of his story.

The last thing you expect to see wandering the snow-covered icy plains of the Arctic Circle are giraffes, but that’s exactly what Warrnambool’s Paul Watkins did see – except they weren’t real. 

Paul was three days into one of the world’s most gruelling races in temperatures of -40 degrees celcius when he started to hallucinate.

“The in joke was who hallucinated the best things because you just didn’t sleep,” he said.

For some it was seeing tree people, for another he felt like he was walking the streets of Chernobyl surrounded by derelict buildings, but for Paul it was giraffes.

“The first night you kind of heard some stuff and you’re like ‘pretty sure that’s not real’ and the second night you’d see things and you’re like ‘pretty sure that’s not real’ and the third night you’re ‘Oh there’s giraffes up here, that’s really cool. I didn’t know they had giraffes up here’,” he said.

“You’d see people and things coming up out of the road at you and I’d have talk to myself and say ‘it’s not real’.”

Paul Watkins, who owns Crossfit in Warrnambool, trained for a year before he flew to Canada to take part in The Artic Ultra 6633 which is billed as the toughest, windiest, coldest marathon on earth.

“It’s exactly that,” he said. “You’ve got years, no one finishes.”

While the location is breathtaking (both figuratively and literally speaking) it is also trying to kill you 24/7, Paul said.

On average, 80 per cent of competitors pull out of the eight-day race. This year 17 of the 24 didn’t finish. The first competitor pulled out on day one, many didn’t make it through the first night. Paul made it 250kms and four days into the race and was one of the last competitors to pull out. 

“My body had packed it in,” he said. Pulling out didn’t mean you get to go home but rather piling into a cramped support van with everybody else and following those that were still in the race until they’d finished.

“I was lucky I got the chance to go and do it and come back with 10 fingers and 10 toes and loved it,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve got to make a smart decision. A wise choice.” He said while he wanted to be an inspiration for his son, he also wanted to come home to his family.

But he hasn’t ruled out having a second attempt at the 566km race which is half on an icy roadway before it turns into the icy road of the frozen McKenzie River and then out over the frozen ocean. 

This video shows how strong the winds are during the race.

It took him two attempts to successfully climb South America’s highest peak, Aconcagua. The first time he made it two-thirds of the way to the summit.

That day three other climbers continued on and reached the summit but they ended up with third-degree frost bite and had to be helicoptered out. The next year Paul returned and was the only climber out of a team of 10 to reach the summit.

So, after a year of training – even if that meant dragging a tyre up and down his driveway for hours – Paul flew out for Canada. It was a 30-hour journey of flights and transit followed by a two-day drive on the Dempser Highway to Eagle Plains. 

With a population of eight, the only building in town is a roadhouse/hotel and just outside is the start line. 

“They’d warned us about static electricity. They said ‘anytime you touch anything you’re going to get fried’. I could actually get my room key to arc from the key to the door handle. You could see it. It was really bizarre,” he said. 

On March 9, after one night’s sleep the race began.

With no map or GPS coordinates, just a starting and finishing point, the competitors took off along the road made famous by the TV show Ice Road Truckers.

There were seven checkpoints along the way which provided respite from the wind, hot water but no guarantee of a place to sleep. 

“You’re just on ice the whole time pretty much,” he said.

With support crews of medics traversing the trail as the competitors spread out – which grew to as much as eight hours apart – it was Paul against the clock and the elements.

Each competitor had to pull their own sled of supplies – clothes, food, medicine, solar panels and battery packs.

Each day came with 15 hours of darkness, but that didn’t mean that sleep was easy to come by. After all it was a race and after pulling a sled for 20 hours, Paul said he would struggle to drop off. At times it was like sleep walking. He would often “wake up” and look back to see his tracks zig zag from left to right in the snow.

The first half of the race traverses snow covered terrain with trees. “After about the halfway point there’s nothing, literally nothing at all. It’s just a blank white sheet,” he said. “It gets pretty lonely when you’re there 24/7 just nothing out there. It just becomes a war of attrition. How long can your body hold up?

“It went very quickly from competitive race event to ‘let’s all just live long enough to get to the end’.

“When it gets that cold for that long weird things start to happen.” Aluminium poles and wheels on the sled would shatter, the top of his canvass-like duffle bag froze and snapped off. “The goal was to have enough layers with zips that you could adjust as you went, because you can’t sweat. If you sweat, it’s water, it freezes and turns to ice,” he said.

“You have to plan. You want to eat something? Cool. What are you going to eat? Where is it? How frozen is it? How long will it take to warm up? Where are you going to warm it up? Probably in an armpit or down your pants or under your top or something. And then to eat it you have to take off a couple of facemasks or googles….Everything becomes logistics.”

Even the winter-mix fuel for his little stove would freeze. “You’ve got to warm the gas, to light the stove, to melt the ice to have a drink. It’s not like, ‘I’m thristy, I’ll have a drink’, that’s going to take me at least an hour and I’ve got to stop to do it so I’m freezing to death while I stop.”

Eating lots of food is essential because you burn through the calories – one competitor lost 14 kilos in six days. When nature calls, you need to be quick. “Even that becomes a strategy,” he said. Just staying upright is a battle with part of the trail dubbed Hurricane Alley where the winds are so strong they could “rip you clean off your feet”.

Despite having pulled out, Paul rejoined the race as a non-competitor after a day’s rest just so he could experience walking along the frozen McKenzie River. He walked another 60km over 18 hours before he and another withdrawn competitor he was travelling with pulled out again due to severe hypothermia risk. “We were literally freezing to death.”  Paul said his experience in the Arctic Circle was like a dream. “It was over very quickly. It was so intense.”

A Japanese documentary film crew captured the action of the race that Warrnambool's Paul Watkins participated in March. It is in Japanese but it does show some of the conditions Paul had to face.

The high-altitude climber has conquered the highest peaks on four continents, but the Arctic Circle was one he hadn’t ticked off his list.

He once accepted an invitation to climb Mount Everest, but he decided that do it, he would first climb Denali in Alaska – the third ‘highest’ of the world’s Seven Summits but the world’s ‘tallest’ if you measure from the base to the summit. “So I went and did it. Failed. Had a terrible climb, came back, regrouped, went back, was successful but it was a really tough climb. There was a lot of fatalities that year. There was a lot of evacuations. It was a tough season,” he said. “For me it was like my climbing limit.”

Paul started high-altitude climbing over a decade ago “by accident”. He’d owned a couple of pharmacy businesses and was burnt out. “I said ‘I’ve got to go somewhere that doesn’t have phone reception. Kathmandu, that sounds really remote, let’s go there’.

“I went there and did a little hike and thought ‘this is fantastic, let’go back and do something bigger’ and the next thing you know you’re hitching a ride out of South America to go to the Antarctic and doing crazy stuff.

“The opportunity to do that and to go places where very few people have been. It just seemed a crime not to do it.”

  • To hear more of his story, Paul will give a talk at the Hammond Centre at Christ Church in Henna Street as part of a Grassmere Primary School fundraiser on Wednesday at 7.30pm. Tickets $20.
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