Adventure is out there.
Hunter Nelson is on a mission to find it.
The 21-year-old from Washougal is one of hundreds of finalists in the running to become a Director of Toughness with Columbia Sportswear. He is interviewing for the job today in downtown Portland, and he has no idea what to expect. He’s been waiting for this opportunity his entire life.
“Adventure has always been a passion of mine,” Nelson said. “At 14, I was already camping alone. It all started in my backyard and practicing survival skills. Before long, I was hiking a little further away and camping in the wilderness and on mountains. It just kind of spiraled out of control.”
Two Directors of Toughness will spend six months traveling to iconic locations around the world and testing Columbia Sportswear’s apparel, outerwear, footwear and equipment against unpredictable weather and harsh terrains. The journey will be documented by these directors, televised on shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live and shared through various social media outlets.
Nelson said thousands of people applied for the job. He is one of about 150 to receive an invitation to the headquarters in Portland.
“It’s pretty much the wildest adventure you could go on,” Nelson said. “People from all over the US are applying for this. Just to make it past the first round is mind blowing.”
When he started working on his senior project at Washougal High School, Nelson had this crazy dream of becoming a paragliding instructor. He had already logged 75 hours of training on the ground, but he needed a mentor. Nelson’s teachers helped him arrange a mock interview with Matt Henzi, a flying instructor with Cloud Surf Paragliding. After the interview, Henzi took Nelson on his first tandem flight in the Columbia River Gorge.
“That’s all she wrote,” Nelson said. “I’ve been flying ever since.”
Henzi helped Nelson make one of his biggest dreams come true. The two spent about eight hours hiking and climbing up Mt. Hood before paragliding off the top.
“The next adventure is always my favorite one,” Nelson said. “Probably the one that’s closest to my heart was flying off Mt. Hood. I’ve done things that were crazier and harder, but nothing so special. That was the mountain I saw off in the horizon my whole life. It’s something I always dreamed of doing.”
Nelson felt accomplished when he reached the top of the mountain. But, before the fun really began, Henzi read him a passage by mountaineer Edward Whymper. He was the first one to ascend Matterhorn Mountain in the Alps.
“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of the lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”
Nelson said those were the exact words he needed to hear during such a crazy moment.
“It was humbling,” he said.
Nelson watched his instructor and videographer take off in tandem. Then, it was his turn to make the biggest leap of his life.
“At that moment, I realized I was up there alone. It was so profound,” Nelson said. “It took years and years of training to make that moment possible. I almost flew halfway around the mountain and back. I flew for miles. It was insane.”
Although these adventures are rewarding to Nelson, he is also aware of the dangers. On July 29, 2011, a 17-year-old Nelson and his friend Danny Riat were hiking and climbing around Archer Mountain, in rural Skamania County. The ledge Riat was climbing on gave way and he fell 50 feet to the rocks below. He broke his back and his ankle. Nelson climbed down to find Riat unconscious but still breathing.
For nearly five hours, Nelson gave Riat water, kept him immobilized and as warm as possible to prevent him from going into shock. Nelson communicated with rescuers as they searched for them in the dark. They finally reached Riat and Nelson by helicopter after midnight.
Riat made a full recovery. Nelson received the 2012 Red Cross Youth Good Samaritan Hero Award for his resourcefulness under pressure.
Nelson idolized Dean Potter, who died in a Wingsuit jumping accident off Taft Point above Yosemite Valley on May 16, 2015. National Geographic described Potter as one of the most influential climbers, high liners, and BASE jumpers of his generation. He was 43.
“Dean was the best in the world,” Nelson said. “To see the best of the best go out like that reminds you at no point are you exempt from the reality that you are human.”
Nelson surrounds himself with supportive mentors and training partners. He has open conversations about life and death with Henzi and Cameron Petersen, a friend from Woodland he met during a Clark College field trip to Steens Mountain.
“The people you want to be with out there, you are talking about the reality and the risks,” Nelson said. “If you aren’t having those conversations, you’re probably with the wrong person.”
Nelson and Petersen planned to spend next two months exploring the Amazon River and filming a documentary. Instead, they are home illustrating their desire to become the two Directors of Toughness for Columbia Sportswear. It’s an adventure too good to pass up.
“People tend to live within their limits, find excuses and don’t believe they can do the things they want to do,” Nelson said. “Anything you can dream up, you can do.”