New on Sidetracked:

Field Journal

Director of Toughness

From The Field
Director of Toughness

The ski-plane took off again and left us on the frozen lake with an address to the extraction point. There were a crew and guides with us for a couple of hours a day, but that’s where the niceties ended. It was very real.

Mark Chase and Faith Briggs made headlines last year as they were appointed to a remarkable position: Columbia Sportswear’s Directors of Toughness. Over a series of interviews, we followed Mark from being a new appointee to being left largely alone in the Yukon winter with only a map and scant knowledge of how to build a snow shelter. 

Story by Mark Chase // Written by Daniel Neilson 

I saw the job description and it looked amazing, like I could do everything I enjoy doing but on a bigger scale and earn money doing it. I was a bit struck by it and I never thought it would actually happen, but initially I applied because it was so simple – just give an Instagram account and website.

I was then asked to do an application form, and soon after I got an email inviting me to the Isle of Skye. I was a little unsure of it, but based on the fact I wanted to go and take some images, I thought I’d go. With nothing but a time and a place on Skye, I turned up in the pitch black. I was one of the first there after a 10-hour drive – one girl had come from Latvia – but we were around 15 people. We were put into a minibus and driven to the Quiraing. It’s a tall, unforgiving landscape. A real ankle-turner of a place with a lot of scree.

The guys at Columbia took us off one by one and we had a regular interview. And when we thought we were finished, they gave us a general direction and told us to get up to the top of the Quiraing for the second part of the interview. It was a pretty big hike, and when I got there a guy on a desk on a cliff told me I was late. He then fired questions at me to see how I coped under pressure. And then he just said ‘see you later’.

The next day I got an email saying ‘You impressed us with your toughness’, and asking me to write about the experience. I took the view I’d do something with a difference, where it had taken me mentally. I wrote about what I felt. I tried to write a different story. A Skype interview came a couple of days later, and an hour after that I was asked if I had any images of me skiing. This was the first time I felt as if I were being considered, so I did what anyway would do and took to a dry ski slope and sent the pictures off to Columbia. And a couple of days later they offered me the job. It was the ski video that did it.

Since landing the job, it’s been a whirlwind of adventure. The first assignment was going to Iceland, with Manchester United’s Denis Irwin, to play football on a glacier. And then a lot of work at Columbia’s head office in Portland, but at any moment Faith and I can be asked to drop everything and travel – which is how we ended up building a snow shelter alone in the Yukon.

Director of Toughness Director of Toughness Director of Toughness

Our guides from Up North Adventures gave us the briefest bit of advice on how to make a quinzee snow shelter, how to drill a hole for ice fishing and build a fire, and then sent us on our way. There wasn’t much light left so we trekked from one lake to the next and found a bit of shelter where we built our quinzee. It was –35˚C, and the quinzee worked incredibly. We had the most amazing night. I got up to go to the toilet – they say you always should because keeping it in uses lots of energy and cools you down – and there was the most amazing northern lights show above us. The aurora was something I’d always wanted to see and I spent an hour outside.

The nest morning everything that was exposed was frozen. My boots that I should have put in my sleeping bag were rock solid, and there was a coat of ice on everything. The sleeping bag was crunchy. It looked very pretty, like a Disney movie, but it was quite demoralising. So we packed our camp and off we went towards the next lake, through the aptly named Windy Pass, with temperatures recording as low as –38˚C – and that was at midday.

We saw the crew maybe once or twice a day, we saw the drone, but it very much felt like a lone survival mission. It was dark by the time we set up for the second evening in a forest. The location was perfect for a lean-to shelter, and we had the fire next to it. So we had some dehydrated food made with melted snow before we bedded down.

In the morning, as we walked down to the final lake, the guides met us with dog sleds and huskies, and took us back to safety. It was an incredible experience.

Director of Toughness
Pictures by Mark Chase

And after the Yukon? Well, he then ran a marathon in the Argentinian Andes and is on his way to a volcano in a remote part of Colombia that’s only just opened up for visitors, but that’s another story. (To be continued…)