10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Founder of Patagonia
Maybe you already know this, and maybe not: Patagonia may be best known today for its fleeces, Baggies shorts and backpacks, but its roots lie in blacksmithing. In 1957, before Patagonia was Patagonia, its founder, Yvon Chouinard, picked up a coal-fired forge, an anvil and some tools from a California junkyard. He started hammering out pitons — metal spikes that rock climbers pound into cracks to use as anchors — for himself and his friends to use on the walls of Yosemite. He sold them for $1.50 each.
As demand grew, Chouinard expanded production, created new products and named the whole thing Chouinard Equipment. Clothing, and Patagonia, came later. How the company grew through the decades to become the icon it is today is a history that’s been documented often and thoroughly. Now Chouinard himself has compiled the stories between those timeline moments — accounts of mishaps in the mountains, of undocumented waves and catching mythical fish — into a book called Some Stories: Lessons From the Edge of Business and Sport.
The book, which includes articles, letters and musings that Chouinard wrote throughout his life as well as a collection of gorgeous photos, paints a picture of a founder whose interests and passions influenced and shaped an entire culture. It lights the path from self-proclaimed dirtbag climber to concerned environmentalist. But you already knew those things about Chouinard; courtesy of select excerpts from that book, here are some things you didn’t.
1. He did time. “In Albuquerque we delivered the car to an old bitch who accused us of driving all over hell and gone. She refused to reimburse me for repairs because her contract said it was supposed to be delivered by October 20. I didn’t even leave New York until the twenty-third! The cops came and agreed with her side of the story and gave us twenty-four hours to get out of town. We had ten dollars between us so we hitched to Grants, New Mexico, where we were thrown in jail for seventy-two hours.”
2. He nearly died (multiple times — here’s one). “After an extremely rotten and difficult pitch, [Fred] Beckey was belaying me up when Doody yelled, ‘Rock!’ I quickly ducked and a rock the size of a grapefruit hit where my head had been. This was one of the ‘high flyers’ that were dislodging from 500 to 1,000 feet up. Doody had the same experience when he came up. We all huddled under a steep wall. Beckey and I were jumpy, but Doody was very quiet and calm.”
3. He tested his mettle in Yosemite but doesn’t like what it’s become. “Perhaps I have given the reader the impression that I feel that Yosemite is the only place to climb and that its philosophies and ethics are the last word. Personally, I would rather climb in the high mountains. I have always abhorred the tremendous heat, the dirt-filled cracks, the ant-covered, foul-smelling trees and bushes that cover the cliffs, the filth and noise of Camp 4 (the climbers’ campground), and worst of all, the multitudes of tourists who abound during the weekends and summer months. Out of the nearly 300 routes in the Valley, there are less than 50 which I should care to do or repeat.”
4. He had a run-in with the Guatemalan army. “We were sleeping on the ground around the van when an army patrol woke us, a sixteen-year-old kid pointing his machine gun from my head to Dick’s. We managed to convince them we weren’t CIA agents, just tourists on a surf trip, then made a beeline for the border of Costa Rica, which had the only sane government in the region—and great surf breaks.”
5. He turned 30 in a snow cave in Patagonia. “I spent a total of thirty-one days confined to a snow cave. I had skewered my knee with my ice ax while cutting ice for the stove. So while the others left periodically to go down and rustle a sheep to augment our meager food reserves, I stayed on my back staring at a gloomy ceiling of ice melting inches above my face. Every time we started the stove to cook, the walls dripped onto our down sleeping bags, which became useless wet lumps as a result. We were perpetually cold and hungry. I turned thirty years old inside that cave; it was a low point in my life. But it honed me to handle adversity, it was a high point too.”
6. He carries backpacks with his head. “I noticed how the local people all had huge fillets of muscle running down both sides of their spinal columns. They spent their lives carrying awkward loads in excess of one hundred pounds over high passes. And they were doing all that carrying with just a crude, plaited bamboo tump line… The rig I now use is very simple. It’s a two-inch wide piece of soft webbing that goes over the head and narrows down to three-quarter-inch webbing with an adjustment strap. This goes along the sides of any soft or frame pack and then around the bottom. I like the strap to go across the top of my forehead so I can press forward and build up my neck muscles, although for minimum effort it should be slightly more on top of the head.”
7. He thinks athlete sponsorship might be detrimental. “Sponsorship of climbers by the outdoor industry is a no-win situation for the climber in the long run. Being paid to climb forces one to compromise one’s values; it encourages the alpine climber to seek routes that make good press, and it can force an otherwise wonderfully eccentric sport climber to act out a role in order to be more sellable to the media. It can often pit one friend against another. I don’t even think it’s good business for the sponsor. I mean, who really cares that Joe Blow used a particular pack on Everest?”
8. He doesn’t believe in perfectionism. “Over my lifetime, I have been seriously involved in many outdoor sports: mountain climbing, telemark skiing, spearfishing, kayaking, surfing, and fly fishing. I have thrown myself passionately into each of these activities until I achieved 75 percent or so proficiency. Then I would move on to something else. Even with climbing, I would specialize in one form of alpinism for a time, such as bigwalls or jam cracks or expeditions to the highest peaks, until I reached sufficiency, but not perfect mastery. Overspecialization, the last 25 percent, did not seem worth the effort.”
9. He’s been caught in three avalanches. “The first time was in Scotland: Doug Tompkins and I were well into the day on a climb when I asked him for the rope, and he said, ‘You’ve got it.’ Well, I didn’t, and we weren’t about to go all the way back to the lodge. So we decided to drop down into the cirque and solo some Grade II routes on Hell’s Lum. It was blowing a blizzard up on the plateau but not snowing lower down, and there were patches of blue sky. Frost feathers were growing on our wool clothes, and our eyelids and nose hairs were all frozen over; it was a typical day in the Cairngorms.
Doug was ahead, cramponing and traversing across what we thought was hard, wind-packed snow. All of a sudden my rectum clutched like a poodle’s after it sees a bulldog. And I said to Doug, ‘Hey man, this snow feels really funny. Let’s get…’
Pop! And off it went. A yard-thick slab broke off right at our feet, and we were both left hanging by our ice axes, which, luckily, we had planted high.”
10. He believes guides can only get you so far. “The purpose of doing passionate sports like fly fishing or mountain climbing should be to learn and grow, and ultimately, to effect some higher personal change. It won’t happen on Everest if, before you ever step onto the mountain, there are 28 ladders in place and 6,000 feet of rope, and you have a sherpa in the front pulling, and one in the back pushing.
Learn all you can from a guide or teacher, but at some point, you need to cut loose from the catered experience and, for better or for worse, muddle through on your own.”
In the newly revised second edition of Simple Fly Fishing, Patagonia’s founder argues that fishing with less is better. Read the Story