What It Takes to Be Columbia’s Director of Toughness

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Lauren Steele, pictured here at the top of the Mound Hood, was this year's Director of Toughness for Columbia Sportswear.Photographs by Zach Doleac

Standing at the top of Volcán Cayambe in Ecuador, some 19,000 feet up, wasn’t exactly pretty. My head throbbed, my legs were lead, and my lungs felt like they were being crushed by a boa constrictor. When I look back at the pictures, I see an immaculate morning on a mountain summit. But what Instagram doesn’t capture is one simple truth about every worthy adventure: there will be pain and hardship.  

In August 2015, Columbia Sportswear announced what may well be the raddest job opening in the outdoor industry, Director of Toughness. The description: Two enterprising, athletic individuals were to travel the world for six months testing the latest Columbia gear in the harshest conditions. In September 2015, I was offered the spot and prepared for six months of global travel, gear testing, and storytelling.

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The first confirmation that this new gig was no walk in the park came soon after I met my co-director, Zach Doleac. We flew to L.A. to make an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and then, three days and 3,300 miles later, were standing on the Knik Glacier in Palmer, Alaska, carrying 100 pounds of ice axes, crampons, cameras, tents, harnesses, carabiners, and food.

Neither of us had been ice climbing before, but we met up with a few local guides, learned the ropes, and started across the 26-mile glacier. Physical exhaustion is something I have plenty of experience with as an ultrarunner and outdoor athlete. But placing your life on the line — or in this case, the rope — of people you don’t know while taking on a task you’ve never done is a different kind of push-you-to-the-limit learning experience. 

Just about every day on the job, all six months of it, I dove back in to that self-proving purgatory: Cliff jumping in Costa Rica, skiing moguls in Whistler, tracking polar bears in Manitoba, surfing Pacific Northwest seawater in Oregon, rappelling down waterfalls in Ecuador, paddling Class 5 rapids (with names like Chop Suey, The Bad Place, and The Graveyard) in Uganda, trekking 40 miles through Patagonian mountains in 72 hours, and getting on a red eye flight immediately following each of these above-mentioned activities any and every time — these were the hardcore daily lessons in perseverance.

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But when you’re so focused on the accomplishments, the view at the top, it’s easy to forget the difficult details that comprise them: Hauling the heavy backpack along rocky ridgelines, spending days shivering in sub-zero winds, 3 a.m. wake-ups, walking miles in waterlogged boots, constantly being covered in come combination of sweat/mud/ice/blood, cooperating with the last-minute itinerary changes, and switching time zones every few days. 

I grew up on a cattle farm in rural Missouri where the standing rule was “You reap what you sow.” I took that with me when, at 21-years-old, I was introduced to my first mountains in my post-grad home of Santa Fe, New Mexico. To get to harvest, you have to put in the work. Same goes when you bag a summit or paddle a river or scale a face. 

That’s the reality of adventure that I came to appreciate most during my time as Director of Toughness. Achievements aren’t the celebration of the one victorious ascent to the peak, but the culmination of every strenuous step that got you there. And while looking down on the remarkable view from the top of Cayambe, I knew I wouldn’t trade my heavy legs or aching head for anything.

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