He's Not Worthy
A portrait of a millionaire at a crux.
By Craig Vetter
To the world that once made him happy, he says:
To the company that still makes him famous, he says:
YOU'RE NOT GOOD ENOUGH.
To the customers who continue to make him rich, he says:
And to himself, he says:
WHY AREN'T I CONTENT?
"This is where I'm going to hole up," says Yvon Chouinard as we watch purple martins flick in and out overhead, looking for a place to nest where heavy wood beams meet stone walls in the main room of his unfinished dream house. Out the open frame where the front door will hang, the view rolls over a pristine coastal hillscape scattered with grand old oaks and eucalyptuses. On the other side of the bungalow, a bank of windows looks a hundred feet down to what is perhaps the best surf line in California, a series of reef breaks on the central coast that slide out of the Pacific onto a beach as secluded and perfect as the bluffs above it.
"Gorgeous," I say, remembering out loud the way the northern California hills where I grew up looked 40 or so years ago, before being bulldozed and built over along with most of the oceanside from San Francisco to San Diego. My little reminiscence gives Chouinard the kind of opening that tends to set him off.
"I've been surfing here since 1958," he says. Those were the early days of his sporting life, a time when his compact body healed quickly, when his weathered face was smooth, when every surfer on the coast knew every other surfer by a nickname and there were plenty of waves for them all. "Nowadays, there are times when it's just too crowded," he says.
To most surfers these private, nearly inaccessible reefs would be the loneliest they'd ever ridden. But for Chouinard, who has the time and money to fly off to the most exotic and empty surf in the world, two people on a wave is a crowd. And even the exotic places depress him these days. In fact, to hear him tell it, there's hardly a spot on the planet that hasn't been fouled.
"More and more I'm just fed up with the world," he says. "No matter where you go, there's this creeping monoculture. People in yurts in Mongolia watching Baywatch on television. Pizza Huts in Santiago, where there used to be little empanada shops."
It's not exactly whining, but it's close, coming as it does from a man who spends six to eight months a year traveling the very places he complains of, not only to surf, but to climb and fish--a wealthy man, one of the richest in the outdoor business, the founder of Patagonia, whose name over the years has become synonymous with adventure and the kind of fun that most people get in sips rather than guzzles.
But fun for Chouinard is always tinged by a conscience that sees the human smudge--including his own--virtually everywhere. He's quiet and thoughtful, not much good at small talk, which often lets in the awkward kind of silences that make you wonder whether it's you or he who has nothing to say. But hit on one of his peeves, and the misanthropic curmudgeon who smolders just below his shy facade will go on a rant that makes Chicken Little look like a raving optimist. Almost any subject--the environment, sports, religion, politics, business, all the way down to the quality of the tomatoes in the dinner salad--can set him on the kind of depressing tirade that occasionally has even his wife, Malinda, and their two children avoiding meals with him for fear that the conversation will inevitably spiral toward the black sum of what he believes.
"It's hopeless," he sighs. "Completely hopeless. Civilization is out of control, growing way beyond its resources, and it will destroy itself. Anyone who really thinks we're in charge, that we can honestly change the course we're on, well, they're mistaken."
Standing here with him in the dazzling sunshine, looking out across the 100 flawless acres of his one-man hideaway, it's hard to know whether such hopelessness is honest despair or just the rhetoric of a privileged evangelist. A little of both, probably. Chouinard talks the doomsday side of the game relentlessly, convincingly, but there is hope in the way he acts. He has designed this house to last 200 years, he says, and almost all of the materials in it are recycled and nontoxic, which seems to argue some small faith in the difference a man can make, the example he can set, by doing the green thing. He has also rejiggered Patagonia to make it sustainable, he hopes, for "the next hundred years" and continues to give 1 percent of the company's gross annual sales to grassroots environmental groups--a grant program that Chouinard refers to as an "Earth tax."
Then again, if his worst dreams are true--if we're all just whistling through a graveyard at the ragged end of an evil century--he couldn't have chosen a lovelier spot to hunker down, surf out the apocalypse, and leave the ruins to the birds.
Not that Chouinard is an altogether unhappy man, nor should he be. At 57, he has earned and been blessed with a life that already has the feel of a legend.
Born in Maine in 1938, he spoke only Canadian French until he was seven and his parents moved to Burbank, California. His late start with English cast him as a geek and turned him toward loner pursuits such as surfing and falconry, which got him climbing rocks. By the late fifties he'd discovered Yosemite and had taken up residence in Camp Four with the other dirtbags who were living poor and simple. Before long, he was authoring monstrously difficult routes, such as the first ascent of the North American Wall on El Capitan--climbs that caused a stir in the small world of rock athletes roughly equivalent to the splash that followed the first works of the beat writers that Chouinard was toting around in his backpack at the time.
The empire-builder as blacksmith, in the tin
shed where it all began
Something of a monument to those beatnik days still sits on the rustic grounds of Patagonia's headquarters in Ventura, California. It's a ratty little tin shed, Chouinard's first blacksmith shop, and he still spends some of his favorite moments in the dusty light that streams across the hearth through cracks in the corrugated walls. During a visit there, I spent an hour watching him take a flat steel bar back and forth from the fire to the anvil, until he'd hammered out a piton like the ones that started him in business some 30 years ago, when he made them on a portable forge and sold them to his climbing buddies from the trunk of his car.
It was a gypsy operation back then, a way to earn enough money to keep climbing, a way to occupy his natural talent for tool making and design while he traveled from one rock pile to another. In 1964, he handed out a single mimeographed page of hardware offerings, which included the first of what would be many Chouinard innovations: hardened chrome-moly pitons. Six years later, Chouinard and climber Tom Frost took the wheels off the forge, rented the tin shed, incorporated as Great Pacific Iron Works, and distributed a catalog that included "soft goods"--knickers, mittens, rugby shirts--in addition to hardware. In 1972 Patagonia was born, and somewhere the nine-headed dragon god of entrepreneurs smiled with all nine of his mouths.
The galloping success that followed has always seemed to embarrass Chouinard somehow. Coming out of the sixties as he did, he'd always thought of businesspeople as "greaseballs," and despite the fact that he was now one of them, responsible for a multimillion-dollar enterprise, he continued to call himself a blacksmith and to ignore the warnings of his money managers: that he was hiring people at a reckless pace, some of them climbing buddies and other unqualified outdoor friends; that the corporate culture was splitting into fiefdoms that weren't accountable to the financial officers; and that in general the company was growing at a suicidal rate. His passion was limited to what he thought of as the creative side of the business and to making the workplace--with flex time, day care, and other liberal benefits--one of the most humane anywhere. How the company was going to pay for his freewheeling corporate ideal was something that Chouinard refused to think about. In fact, whenever he was forced to consider company finances, he likened it to "getting do-do on your hands."
"Yvon has no respect for accounting people--people who wear coats and ties," Steve Peterson, one of several CFOs who have left Patagonia, once told Inc. magazine. "It's almost a loathing. But that stuff is part of business. It's like hating your left arm."
By 1991, his disdain for "the suits," along with his profligate hiring and a recession, almost sank the company. He had already suffered a blow two years earlier, when his hardware division, Chouinard Equipment, went into Chapter 11 after a spate of lawsuits sent its liability premiums sky-high. He sold the business to a group of employees; it's now Black Diamond Equipment.
"When Yvon first started climbing," says Peter Metcalf, former general manager of Chouinard Equipment and now CEO of Black Diamond, "it was pretty straightforward: man versus the mountain. By the eighties it had become man versus the competing climber. So Yvon put on the brakes. It's ironic, really. Once he'd been a catalyst for change. Then suddenly he'd become a force trying to stop the change."
The low point came in the summer of 1991, when Chouinard was forced to lay off 120 people, nearly a quarter of the Patagonia staff. "That was rough," he says. "Some of the people we let go were good friends. But we had to do it to survive. We finally admitted that we were businessmen and decided that if we were going to be in business it would be on our own terms. We had to stop the runaway growth and get ourselves to a place where we measured success not by profits but by how much good we'd done at the end of the year."
Admitting that he's a businessman has been a long, slow process for Chouinard, and in many ways it has vivified the distance he's traveled from the dirtbag Yosemite days and made him nostalgic for them. While we were together, he talked about recovering some of the spirit of those old times, when all he had to do was look into his pocket to see how much money he had, when the only personnel decision he had to make was who to climb with that day. "I need to simplify," he said bluntly, as if a step or two back from his complicated life could somehow make a difference.
Chouinard calls himself a "deep ecologist" and will tell you that he considers everything to be alive, including rocks, and that mankind is simply part of the great evolving organism that is the earth. It's a belief that traces back to high school, when he discovered Zen and gave the ancient Asian wisdom his own lazy California cut. We found ourselves with Zen in common when we met 13 years ago, and at the time we laughed over an adage that probably neither of us would have the courage to live up to no matter how hard we tried: If you see something you want, ask for it. If you get it, that's wonderful. If you don't get it, that's magnificent.
"Zen is more a philosophy than a religion for me," he says. "I don't have statues of Buddha around, I don't chant, I don't meditate." Maybe not the kind of meditation where you sit in the lotus position with your eyes closed, I think, but what about the physical meditations you're so passionately attached to: lashing 50 feet of line back and forth over your head as you walk the bonefish flats. Or climbing, where the moment in which your mind wanders out of the now may be your last. Or even blacksmithing, hitting hammer to anvil for hours at a time until the pure repetitive rhythm of the work overtakes whatever worries you've brought to the forge with you. "Time in the shop is my tea ceremony," he acknowledges.
After Patagonia's near-crash in 1991, Chouinard used the golden rule of Zen--first, do no harm--to steer the company back toward magnetic north on his moral compass by ordering a sweeping audit aimed at minimizing the pollution caused by the company's operations. The most daring change to come out of the audit was the announcement in 1995 that henceforth and forever Patagonia's cotton products will contain only organically grown fiber. The risk, of course, is that the higher price of the cotton may cut sales significantly. But it's a chance Chouinard is willing to take, he says, "because once we knew the harm, to do anything else would have been evil."
When rich men talk about good and evil, it's hard not to picture a camel trying to walk through the eye of a needle. Even for Chouinard it's a tight squeeze, considering the many ironies and contradictions of his life. But doing the right thing seems more than a sanctimonious mea culpa.
"Chouinard's not financially driven," says Bill Bussiere, another former Patagonia CFO. "He just doesn't give a shit. He and Malinda could make millions if they went public, but they don't want to. Yvon feels he could be a better instrument of change if he keeps things in his own hands. His main concern is to be a force."
If Chouinard makes it sound like his company is a spiritual movement that just happens to make fleece jackets, it's because holding any other image of the enterprise, however naive it may seem to some, makes him feel like a greaseball. Being in business has to involve the grand struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And Chouinard's energy for the fight flows out of his conviction that evil is winning.
"Evil is stronger than good," he says. "I firmly believe that. I've seen every institution, every religion, every government, every sport, every company become more and more evil rather than more and more good. Which is why you can't ever let up. You have to foment revolution. Patagonia's an experiment, really, an attempt to prove that being ecologically responsible works. And every time we've done the right thing, it's ended up making us more money."
Indeed. Patagonia grossed $154 million in its last fiscal year, which the company says was its best ever. And there have been other payoffs. Last May Chouinard was invited to the White House, where Bill Clinton praised him for making Patagonia an employee-friendly, socially responsible company. More formal recognition came in 1995, when Yale conferred on him the honorary degree of doctor of humane letters for his "contribution to the protection of the environment" and for making his company "a model of social responsibility."
When he got the letter announcing the award, he says it didn't particularly impress him. "I think the title confused me. I thought, 'Humane letters? Shit. I don't even like humans. I like trees.' But Yale has a school of forestry, so I figured what the hell."
Chouinard and I made the hour-and-a-half drive from Ventura to the new house in his 1990 Toyota station wagon ("the greatest car in the world") with two prototype Patagonia surfboards riding on the roof rack. He and a design team had made them out of the highest-quality materials they could find, he said: "I just got tired of breaking the cheap boards that the whole bogus surfing industry has been making since I started to surf." He went on about it for miles and, as one tirade about slipshod quality led to another, the petulant Jesuit in my soul overcame the Zen and I began to bicker with his no-compromise, everything's-going-to-crap rap. It started when he took off on this magazine.
"'Adventure travel' is an oxymoron," he griped. "Adventure is when you screw up and your neck's on the line and you've got to get your ass outta there. When you sign up for one of these adventure travel trips, you're guaranteeing there won't be any risk, which means no adventure. And Outside sends someone along to write about it because the readers aren't interested in something that takes a lifetime to learn. They want accessible experiences, something they can take a few lessons at and go out and do right away."
"Outside runs a lot more stories about real adventure than you're giving it credit for," I argued, citing a couple of expeditions that I and others had written about recently in which risk, lifetime commitment, high peril, and even death were all deep in the weave.
"There are some good things," he admitted. "But the other stuff is just a reflection of who's in the outdoors today--yuppies driving those limited-edition SUVs."
A lot of them in Patagonia togs, I noted. "That's true," he said, "and it's part of the reason we got into trouble. We'd grown so big that we depended on people who were buying the clothes not because they needed them, but because they were the hot thing."
The two of us went back and forth about who was outdoors these days and what the hell arrogant business it was of ours who reads the magazine or buys the clothes. Despite the elitist ring that's often in Chouinard's jeremiads, there's rarely any ill will--until he gets around to politicians. "A bunch of greaseballs," he says, using an even uglier emphasis on the word than when he's talking about businessmen. "But the truth is, we get the government we deserve."
When I asked him what he'd do if he were president, he laughed. "The things I'd do wouldn't be very popular. In fact, they'd gross Americans out. First thing, I'd turn the Corps of Engineers into dam-busters. There are 40,000 silted-up dams in America, and I'd take every goddamn one of them down. Then I'd close the borders, not let in any outside labor, force Americans to pick their own food. If enough crops went unpicked, maybe the price would make it attractive for people to go to work. And I'd move the Coast Highway about a mile inland, no roads between it and the ocean, no development."
What about his new house, on its beautiful, no-access land? "My house included," he said, as if it would be a small price to pay if he really had a shot at derailing the technology-driven jitney to hell that he feels we're all riding.
"Why do we have to accept technology just because it's there?" he asked. "It's all part of the overconsumption that's using up the world's resources. I've never touched a computer, and I never will." He seemed to be forgetting that down the road in Ventura was a staff of 300 using computers for him. And he seemed to be doubling back on something else he said to me, dropping into one of the contradictions that often mark his purist diatribes about progress. He was talking about the difficulties of keeping the company supple, evolving. "The toughest thing to do is to get people to change," he said. "I love change, I thrive on it, and I don't understand why everybody else doesn't."
Finally, I asked him, "Do you ever feel like an old fart?" He laughed, a big enough laugh to deepen the lines in his tanned face. "I am an old fart. I'm an analog person in a digital world. Complexity drives me nuts."
When I asked about his own conspicuous consumption--three houses, frequent airplane trips to faraway places--he shrugged. "There are a million holes in my philosophy. It's kind of like being a sinner. You go to confession, do your penance, then you go out and sin again. It's a process. But at some point you have to stop sinning. That's why I'm building this house. To prove to myself that I don't need all this shit."
"So how much is this place going to cost?" I ask as we step over power tool cords and around piles of lumber.
"Oh, God, I've never asked and I never want to know," he says. "It's a fortune. The materials and especially the labor are very expensive." Whatever the price, it's nowhere obvious in the small (1,300 square feet), simple look of the place. The house was designed by Santa Barbara architect Robert Mehl along strict guidelines drawn up by the Chouinards. The walls are made of old sidewalk, broken into blocks and used like flagstone. The window frames are cut from timbers that were once a bridge in Ojai; the beams are from an old Ventura pier. There is not a scrap of plywood anywhere.
"Plywood has formaldehyde in it," Chouinard says. "We've tried to build this place without using any of the 5,000 toxic chemicals that go into the average house, which isn't easy. These guys come up to me and say, 'We have to caulk around the windows with silicone.' I say, 'You can't use silicone. You fucked up. You have to work to closer tolerances so you don't have these big gaps around the frames. What you need is some cotton thread and beeswax.' And they just roll their eyes. I can't imagine what they say about me when I'm not around."
In fact, the pricey little house on the bluff has been built along lines that might be called conspicuous denial. The lighting plan is sparse ("He'd just as soon go room to room with a lantern," says the construction boss), the bedrooms are tiny, there's not even a fireplace.
"There won't be any TV," he says, "and no electrical appliances. If I have to chop something, I'll chop it by hand. And no storage space; when I finish reading a book, I'll give it away. I'll only be able to keep the things I use." When I ask how much time he thinks Malinda will be spending here, he says, "Not much right now, probably. She still likes chaos, lots of people around."
Chouinard lets one of his silences fall and linger. When he speaks again, it's about a role model of his. "I have a Japanese friend whose father is 75 years old and lives alone on the coast of Japan. He fishes, has a garden, trades extra fish for rice, and basically lives on $200 a month. He's very self-sufficient, no drain on the economy, lives a very Zen life. That's what I aspire to."
Pursuing the pleasures of conspicuous denial near his new beachfront home
With a little surfing thrown in, of course: A quarter-mile walk down the grassy bluff with board and wetsuit takes him to an isolated beach where he can do a little yoga to stretch his aging joints before hitting the water.
"Being 57 sucks," he says. "With a lot of Motrin in between."
The surf is small today--two to three feet--but it has a nice shape. "Lucky me," Chouinard says, as he waxes one of the new boards that Patagonia hopes to market by the holidays. Until then, there's test driving to do in his beautiful new front yard.
"This was sacred ground for the Chumash Indians," he says. "They were very advanced. They had plenty of food and spent a lot of time on leisure activities. They called one of the points around here the Western Gate. It was the place they believed their souls would jump off and go to heaven."
Sort of a limited-edition SUV type of tribe, I think, but I keep it to myself, because finally, despite his charmed life and sometimes cranky outdoor elitism, Chouinard has always spent most of his energy trying to share and repay his good fortune.
The surf is building as he paddles furiously to catch the first of perhaps 30 short rides. He's incredibly fit and moves almost like a young man, although I can't help wondering, as I watch him sit between sets, whether he's filled his life with sports not so much to keep his body strong as to keep his demons at bay.
Not long before going into the water, he recalled an experience that had somehow put things into perspective. In 1980 he and three friends were climbing 24,900-foot Gongga Shan, in southeastern China, when they were caught in an avalanche. Chouinard, Kim Schmitz, and Rick Ridgeway survived. Jonathan Wright was killed.
"I'd been in a lot of close calls," he told me. "And afterwards there was always this incredible elation to being alive. After the avalanche there was none of that; in fact, I went into an incredible depression. But when I came out of it I had lost all fear of dying. And it's helped me to cope with my feeling that mankind as a species has ended its days. That thought used to really get me down. Now I think, hey, we're all gonna die. Maybe all at once, and so be it. We're an incredibly damaging species, and we're pulling all these other beautiful species down with us, and maybe we ought to just get out of here. You do what you can. Then--even if you're burning gasoline to get there--you just have to say fuck it, let's go surfing."
Craig Vetter, a contributing editor of Outside, is working on a book about his father, who died in the 1945 battle of Okinawa.
Photographs by Frank W. Ockenfels 3
Copyright 1997, Outside magazine