Yvon Chouinard Tells ‘Some Stories’

Looking back on avalanches survived, the glories of backcountry skiing, and the golden age of Yosemite rock climbing, the Patagonia founder argues for a life of adventure.

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard at his Tin Shed blacksmith shop in Ventura, California.
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard at his Tin Shed blacksmith shop in Ventura, California.

The global brand Patagonia grew out of Yvon Chouinard’s first business: forging pitons—the steel blades climbers of the era would drive into cracks in the rock with a heavy hammer to anchor themselves to the wall. Chouinard writes, “My first blacksmith shop was a chicken coop in my folks’ backyard in Burbank…hammering out my first pitons in 1957.… I’d often climb for half a day at Stoney Point in Chatsworth, then go up to Rincon [to surf] the evening glass, [and] after I’d free-dive for lobsters and abalone on the coast between Zuma and the county line. I almost always got my limit of ten lobsters and five abalone.”

The Patagonia founder’s life is so packed with good stories that even this huge book, titled Some Stories, can’t hold them all. We are treated to a treasure chest of them, though—tales of his participation in the golden ages of seven sports. Most of us would be thrilled to encounter a single golden age in a lifetime. In his list, only spearfishing caught me by surprise. Oddly, it’s the one he doesn’t elaborate on.

Chouinard has always been an excellent storyteller. During the 1970s, we worked together on a book about ice climbing. The best passages were the anecdotes he inserted between chapters on technique. Stories from the cutting edge of a sport he was reinventing, told with a SoCal surfer shrug. Nine pages of Some Stories are excerpted from that book, Climbing Ice, yet this tale didn’t make the cut: “So there I was locked on, unable to move either up or down and my legs were crapping out. It was snowing hard by now and spindrift avalanches were coming down in waves. A good-sized slide came down and began to build between me and the ice. I couldn’t lean out to let it pass because my balance was so precarious. There was one point you could have knocked me over with a straw.”

He went home to his forge—which was and still is within hearing distance of one of the great Ventura surf breaks—and developed tools that would better cling to ice during climbs, so that would never happen again.

Chouinard’s Some Stories: Lessons from the Edge of Business and Sport (Patagonia Books, 464 pages, $45).
Chouinard’s Some Stories: Lessons from the Edge of Business and Sport (Patagonia Books, 464 pages, $45).

Some Stories is also a social commentary, a narrative that progresses to the radical environmentalism of present-day Patagonia. Indeed, the closing pages of the book are devoted almost exclusively to that message, reprinting promotional images for 1% for the Planet, a movement Patagonia started that has been joined by more than 2,000 members, as well as the company’s famous Black Friday ad “Don’t Buy This Jacket.”

The branches of Chouinard’s evolution sprouted during his teens. “The fifties were the easy years in California. With full employment from the Korean War, we were enjoying all the fruits of the fossil fuel culture. Gas was a quarter a gallon, used cars could be bought for twenty-five dollars, campgrounds were free, and you could easily live off the excess fat of society. Those of us in the counter cultures of climbing and surfing were, as climber Pete Sinclair said, ‘the last free Americans.’ ”

Rock climbing has grown so much more difficult since then. Alex Honnold soloing thousands of feet up El Capitan at 5.13 feels like an irrational number. (The Yosemite Decimal System accords the park’s difficult climbs a 5 rating, with subdivisions maxing out at .15.) During that time, Chouinard shifted to ice, to backcountry skiing, onward to business (“It took me twenty years of being in business before I would admit that I was a businessman,” he quips), and to the environment.

His reasoning each time he moves on is illuminating. He devotes humble attention to craft and diligent training. But beyond that, there’s what might be called the Fun Hog credo. “I say that the last 10 percent of the way to perfection takes so much of your life that it isn’t worth the effort.… You have to kiss off sex, your friends, all the ‘nonessentials,’ and devote your entire life.… This overzealous attitude is what creates religious fanatics, body Nazis, and athletes who are exceedingly dull to converse with, unless you want to talk about their particular specialty or their bodies.”

Chouinard exemplifies a type of personal growth we’ve been seeing ever since John Muir: climber and environmentalist. It happened to David Brower, who became executive director of the Sierra Club, and to Galen Rowell, who became involved with the World Wildlife Fund. Honnold, too, has followed the progression: his Honnold Foundation installs solar panels on mud huts. Thanks to Patagonia’s huge success, Chouinard has been able to amplify his messages of conservation and sustainability.

He has written extensively about the so-called Edge of Business in recent decades, beginning with his Let My People Go Surfing (2005), which details revolutionary practices that left old-school institutions like Harvard Business School scratching their heads. Reread it for the practical applications of humanistic, progressive attitudes. In Some Stories, though, most of the emphasis is on adventure—or, as Chouinard calls it, the Edge of Sport.

The book is sprinkled with exotic destinations. I won’t soon get to the Indian Ocean’s Andaman Islands, where Chouinard surfs off North Sentinel, which is “inhabited by between 50 and 400 indigenous people.… There is no one in the world who can speak their language.” He writes surely about such remote places. His global, environmentalist point of view is never far beneath the surface, drawing us to wider conclusions.

The venues keep shifting, and the book’s photographs help you feel like you’re right there on Christmas Island, where a shot of Chouinard barreled in a perfect curl would do justice to the cover of a surf magazine. Those Patagonia photo editors go beyond catalog shoots, and the writing is just as vivid: “walking barefoot along the coconut palm-lined path to the surf break…someone singing in the distance.”

Best known for his rock climbing, Chouinard has traveled the world in search of the perfect wave. In 2007, he surfed Yuigahama beach near Kanagawa, Japan.
Known for his rock climbing, Chouinard has traveled the world in search of the perfect wave. In 2007, he surfed Yuigahama Beach near Kanagawa, Japan.

His view on nature and nurture comes into focus in a letter to his daughter, Claire, as she leaves home for school while he is steelhead fishing in British Columbia with writer Tom McGuane. He likens her setting off to “those steelhead smolts going out to sea. What an adventure!” After giving a nod to the formative influences of genetics and early childhood experiences, he goes on: “But the greatest changes come after you become deeply involved in a passionate activity. The falcon, the steelhead, the waves.… We are who we are because of what we do.”

It feels difficult to convey here the sheer scope of Chouinard’s adventures. Some Stories includes pieces I read avidly in the 1960s (before meeting the man), like the section that describes the spiritual quest of living in Yosemite’s Camp 4, sweating onto its slippery granite—certainly the finest of this planet’s rock. Also included are compelling introductions to books I had no idea existed—about surfing (which I’ve always admired but can’t do) and fishing (little interest, but he awakened my curiosity). I gleaned new insights into each.

The only fly, if you will, in this environmentalist balm is the jet-setting. Chouinard brings back illuminating stories from far away. But jet travel is the biggest carbon load created individually by each of our lives. One flight to New York exceeds the planetary fair share of even a dedicated bike-to-worker. Sorry, but someone’s gotta be the climate curmudgeon here. “Recreate Locally,” anyone?

Doug Robinson is a professional mountaineer known internationally for his climbing, guiding, and backcountry skiing, as well as for his poetic writings about the mountains and why we climb them.
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