The Columbia “Directors of Toughness” contract was for only six months, but it was arguably one of the outdoor world’s toughest six-month contracts to attain. So when Lauren Steele and Zach Doleac won the job, it was like they were experiencing an adventurer’s dream.
“The main concept is that we are testing Columbia’s gear in some of the harshest conditions around the globe,” says Doleac, an adventure travel and sports photographer.
Doleac and Steele started their journey in Alaska in 2015 and ended in Uganda in late winter 2016. In between they hit Ecuador, Chile, Costa Rica and took on a variety of U.S.-based experiences, from skiing in Utah to hiking in Tennessee. Along the way the duo put Columbia’s gear through rigorous testing, experiencing as many climates, activities and conditions as possible to run the gamut of outdoor adventur. They provided feedback to Portland-based Columbia designers every step of the way.
“We are brand ambassadors getting our hands dirty,” Steele says. “We met with the design team, giving feedback about zippers, hoods, materials.”
Columbia did a nationwide search for their two Directors of Toughness, using rounds of interviews in New York and Portland to finalize their choices. “We are the people buying the gear,” Doleac says. “Before this we were the weekend warriors. We can look at it from a different perspective from a professional mountain climber or professional sea kayaker.”
The Directors of Toughness also worked with Columbia’s Performance Innovation Team, a segment of Columbia’s Portland headquarters that manages the on-campus labs to develop the newest technology, often years out from actual production.
The program was about being brand ambassadors, sure, but it also was about giving these self-proclaimed weekend warriors the chance to experience gear in a way they never before would have thought possible. Sometimes the pair picked out what to bring by visiting the Columbia employee store. Other times, the performance innovation team—dubbed the pit crew—had them try out some of the latest technology.
Doleac says he learned the importance of versatility and of finding gear that could match the occasion. “I like to have shells to choose when to layer or not depending on how cold it is,” he says. Columbia introduced Doleac and Steele to a its new OutDry Extreme line, featuring a breathable waterproof system. “I can wear it with a T-shirt in warmer climate or when more active, but on top of a mountain, I want it water- and-wind proof and throw an insulated down underneath it. Whether hiking on a beach in the Olympics or on top of Mount Cayambe, versatility is key.”
That trip to Mount Cayambe in Ecuador, a peak just under 19,000 feet, was one of the highlights for Doleac. “That was a really incredible experience,” he says. “Ecuador has a wide variety. They have the beach, volcano, cities and jungle, a little bit of everything in a small country.”
But the experience wasn’t all about sightseeing. It contained plenty of challenges too, such as that Ecuador experience that had the pair climbing in the dark for hours before experiencing the sunrise at above 18,000 feet. For Steele, the trip to Alaska—her first time there—really stood out. “It was a chance to see what kind of can of worms we were really opening up,” she says. From ice trekking, running, camping and ice fishing, these already-avid adventurers were exposed to so much more. "[We got to see] the grandiosity of that state and seeing how wild parts of America still are.”
For Doleac, a Pacific Northwest native, a trip through the Olympic Peninsula that included leaving their Chevy Colorado truck on dirt roads to hike in the national forest or find a swath of coastal sand gave a different feel to the experience. Steele, who is from Missouri, but has lived in New York and New Mexico, had never really experienced the Pacific Northwest, so Doleac says hitting the ground there was akin to a road trip on which he showed a friend around his big, beautiful backyard.
Moving forward, with the Directors of Toughness gig in the books, the pair both look back on their experience as not only a way to better understand how to pack for trips and select the right gear based on the environment, but also how much there remains to explore.
“I had spent a lot of time traveling internationally,” Steele says. “I was either running trails in New Jersey or down mountains in Chamonix [France]. There is a lot bigger backyard than just Jersey. I’ve seen the Olympics; I’ve seen Utah. It is much more accessible than Chamonix. For me, it has been about really embracing the U.S. as a travel hub and a place I can get outdoors where I am.
“I think we are both kind of figuring out the world is our oyster now.”
Tim Newcomb covers sports aesthetics—stadium, sneakers and gear—for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.