King of the Dirtbags

Going core with Yvon Chouinard—leery capitalist, walking contradiction

Chouinard in the flow on the south face of Mount Arrowhead, Wyoming     Photo: Mark Jenkins

Chouinard in the flow on the south face of Mount Arrowhead, Wyoming

YVON IS LEADING. He's guiding his feet along a lip of rock, maneuvering himself out under an overhang. Positioned directly below the obstacle, he slides his hands up into a fissure and leans back. He holds himself horizontal, 700 feet of empty Wyoming air beneath him, studies the problem, and begins to climb.

He doesn't narrate the possibilities, nor does he appear to make any cerebral calculations; he just moves. His body—his hands and his feet coming in direct contact with the rock—will solve the problem.

He's focused; there's no wasted movement. His right hand shoots up and grabs an edge, quickly followed by his left hand, and then he steps up both feet. For a moment he is hanging upside down, crouched like a monkey about to leap for a branch. But he doesn't leap. He pushes out with his legs and pulls in with his arms, and his body smoothly shifts to one side.
It would seem an awkward position for a man, pushing and pulling simultaneously, but somehow it creates a kind of dynamic tension, an internal, counterbalancing opposition. Yvon Chouinard is struggling precariously but also magnificently, paradoxically balanced. He's using a classic climbing technique called the lie-back: a difficult albeit direct solution to overcoming a crux. Another solid handhold, another foothold, and he rises gracefully onto the overhanging face. No hesitation, no desperation. Two more moves and he flows up and out of sight.

Then I hear him roar with delight.

"DON'T BRING THOSE damn cams," Yvon had grumbled over the phone. "Don't need them. A few stoppers and hexes, that's enough. And don't bring those heavy ten-millimeter ropes. Ridiculous!"

He was just back from salmon fishing in Iceland. (Or was it trout fishing in Newfoundland? Or perhaps bonefishing in the South Pacific?) We were planning a climbing trip into Wyoming's Wind River Range. For 30 years Yvon had had his eye on a stunning, unclimbed line on the south face of 12,972-foot Mount Arrowhead. "And we don't need a tent," he bellowed. "I've spent a hundred nights in the Winds without a tent."

When I mentioned helmets, he scoffed at that, too, and said he'd only used one once or twice in his life. How about a headlamp? "I prefer to stumble around in the dark."

On the other hand, the fact that I wasn't intending to bring a fly rod represented a serious problem. "It's practically a crime to walk through the Winds and not fly-fish," Yvon said gravely. And when I suggested that a few cans of sardines and a tub of peanut butter would suffice for the week, he said tersely, "I'll do the cooking."

As a shakedown for an impending Andean expedition, I wanted to try using llamas. I volunteered to be the llama wrangler. Yvon had invited along two brothers from Hawaii, George and Kent Kam, so I figured the llamas could carry all our climbing gear and food, and said so. Yvon's response: "Don't need them."

WE MET AT THE Elkhart Park trailhead, on the west side of the Wind River Range, at noon on a forest-fire-dry day in August. I had the gear and the llamas, Josey Wales and Guy Sado; Yvon had the food and the Hawaiians, George and Kent.

It would be hard to find two more good-natured brothers than the Kams. They're Yvon's buddies from another of his life passions: surfing. George, 40, is as ebullient and outgoing as a maître d'. He had retired at the age of 32 after making a small fortune as a marketing manager for apparel companiesin the surfing industry.

"It's just fashion, really," George said, smiling. "But everything's fashion. For every real-life surfer, or climber, or fly fisherman, there are a thousand wanna-bes."

Kent, 42, is quieter, but equally open. He had designed and built surfboards, then worked as a commercial pilot, and now is a firefighterin Honolulu, where he lives with his three-year-old daughter and his flight-attendant wife.

We weren't on the trail an hour, Guy Sado trotting along like a trouper and Josey Wales already showing ominous signs of being an outlaw, when out of the blue Yvon said, "Who needs a $450 raincoat?"

He was apparently reacting to the conspicuously outfitted backpackers we'd been passing on the trail, many of whom looked to be carrying the entire inventory of a small outdoor shop.

"What's wrong with getting wet!" Yvon cried.

When I reminded Yvon that Patagonia Inc.—the $223 million clothing company that he founded and owns, lock, stock, and barrel—sells precisely such items, he groused, "I know. I know. But they don't need them."

Hypothermia is what's wrong with getting wet, of course. And Yvon knows it—few men have spent more time in the mountains. Climbing together in Yosemite for a week last year, we'd talked for hours about shell design, and he'd gone on at length and in exquisite detail about the engineering of seams alone. Still, Yvon is prone to radical pronouncements. He's like an old philosophy professor of mine who started every class by posing a new existential problem: "Who can prove to me that the world wasn't created ten seconds ago, complete with memories, fossils, and computer files?"

"Yvon likes to say and do things for the shock value," says Doug Tompkins, a fellow climbing pioneer and business-man who has been Yvon's close friend for over 40 years. "It shakes people up. Gets them thinking."

While George, Kent, and I each carried a pack with shoulder straps and a hipbelt, Yvon carried his with a tumpline strapped across his forehead. He learned this trick 20 years ago during a 45-day expedition across the Himalayas. He claimed the United Nations had done a study on tump-lines and found that, once your neck and back muscles were sufficiently developed, they were more efficient than shoulder straps and hipbelts. "I had chronic back pain until I started using a tumpline," Yvon declared. He'd sent me one and I'd tried it, but found I was walking miles staring at my feet instead of the landscape—just like the women I'd seen humping conical baskets of rice all across Asia.

On our first night in the Winds we camped in a brittle alpine meadow beside seemingly fishless Seneca Lake. I put up our tent—Yvon had relented on this issue—while he gave dryland fly-casting lessons until dusk. Kent was a natural. George, in his enthusiasm, sometimes forgot the ten-and-two dictum. (Norman Maclean: "It is an art performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o'clock.") I was no better with a rod than I had been as a kid.

After dark, sitting around the camp stove, Yvon said he knew a guy in Bozeman, Montana, who lived for years in a stainless-steel, tubular camper that you entered from underneath. He was a master welder and was working on fuel-efficient stove designs at Yvon's bequest.

"You know, your average kitchen stove is a total piece of crap," he said. "They're over 80 percent inefficient. Imagine if the pot set down inside an insulated casing. The heat lost to the air would be minimal, the fuel efficiency dramatically increased."

It was a good example of the way Yvon's mind works: constantly questioning, rethinking, reformulating, innovating. As George told me, "It's Yvon's instinctual quest for the best. He's always looking for ways to improve everything. How to make it better, simpler, lighter, more environmentally friendly. I don't know anyone like him. In everything he does, he strives for perfection."

"You should hear him talk about board design," says John McMahon, a California stockbroker who's another one of Yvon's surfing buddies. "He wants to create the perfect surfboard."

It galls Yvon that most surfboards break so easily; he's offended by anything that's disposable but doesn't have to be. Quality and simplicity have always been guiding principles for Yvon and his wife, Malinda. Their son, Fletcher, 26, spends his days working on the problem, building and shaping surfboards in a shop less than a stone's throw from the shed in Ventura, California, where his dad once shaped pitons. Their daughter is a designer as well—says Yvon, "She has a very clear sense of what is practical and functional."

Where Yvon can sometimes be caught up in his own ideas, Malinda is the pragmatist. She interprets their vision, she sends the e-mails, she makes things happen. She is the nexus.

"Yvon has always been willing to push forward without a template," says novelist Tom McGuane, a passionate fly fisherman and a longtime friend. "He is not bound by psychological cintures like so many of us, but it is Malinda who has given him this freedom. Malinda allowed Yvon not to lose contact with his instinctive ability to take great leaps forward. She is always there. Malinda is a visionary just like Yvon, but she's the tactician, the one behind the scenes. Without Malinda, many of Yvon's ideas would never have seen the light of day. What Yvon and Malinda have, really, is a very productive, very creative partnership."

ON OUR SECOND DAY in the Winds, Yvon told us that "the most important thing I ever taught my kids was how to eat roadkill."

He explained: "We hit a sage grouse on the road one day when they were young, so we stopped and picked it up. I taught them how to skin it, then I taught them how to cook it, and we ate it. Then I taught them how to tie flies with the feathers. Then we went fishing with the flies and I taught them how to catch fish."
This was Yvon the survivalist talking now, another distinct character among the dozen or so of his multiple personalities. Designer, climber, writer, kayaker, environmental activist, lover of rivers and fish, philosopher, surfer, businessman, ascetic, aesthete—at the age of 62, he morphs from one role to the next effortlessly.

Here is Yvon the pessimist: "I knew Man was doomed when I realized that his strongest inclination was toward ever-increasing homogeneity—which goes completely against Nature. Nature moves toward ever-increasing diversity. Diversity is Nature's strength. Nature loves diversity."

And you don't get diversity without adversity, according to the Chouinard theory of the universe. We'd talked about this extensively in Yosemite.

"Adversity is what causes organisms to change and adapt," he'd said. "Adversity is the catalyst for evolution. Take away adversity and evolution stops. And what do you have then? Devolution: America."

Late that afternoon, we camped at the northern end of Upper Jean Lake, the south face of Mount Arrowhead looming above us. Yvon cooked the first of five straight dinners of his bowel-busting, carrots-and-onions tsampa. When Kent happened to mention the profusion of pine needles and dirt in the entrée, Yvon replied, "They're good for you!"

And then the lesson: "You know, I absolutely forbade my children from washing their hands before they ate. Weakens their immune system. You have to learn how to handle germs. I drink from every stream I fish for the same reason."

I asked him if he'd ever had giardia.

"Oh, God," he cackled. "So bad the farts would clear out a bus. But that's not the point. The point is, I'm trying to adapt myself to the environment. Not the other way around."

Later that evening I reconned our approach to the base of Arrowhead while Yvon gave George and Kent more fly-casting lessons. Studying the south face with my monocular, then swinging the lens down onto Yvon beside the lake, it occurred to me that he was far more focused on showing his Hawaiian pals how to cast than on climbing a new route.

"Yvon's a big-time sharer of knowledge," says John McMahon. "At this point in his life, I think he's more interested in teaching than doing."

THE NEXT MORNING, we rose at 5:30. I thought it a late start for climbing a new route, but Yvon seemed unconcerned. It took the four of us two hours to hike to the base of the south face. George and Kent intended to scramble to the summit via the west ridge, while Yvon and I had identified the gorgeous, curving line that creased the thousand-foot face. It went straight to the summit.

When Yvon discovered that, despite his admonitions, I'd brought a number of cams, he cut the biggest ones off the rack. He also cut a third of the slings and carabiners. He climbs with no helmet, no chalk, no tape, no headlamp, no sunglasses, no sunscreen. This is his way of adapting to the mountain.

"I've cut everything superfluous from my life," he declared.

Even though I knew it was yet another bit of Chouinard hyperbole, I still chewed on this sentence for the first several pitches of the climb. Yvon is a man who owns three homes: an oceanfront house in Ventura, an oceanfront home made from recycled materials on California's Central Coast, and a home in Wyoming with a jaw-dropping view of the Tetons. Yvon is a man who flew to South America five times last year just to fish. But he doesn't use chalk.

The climbing was pure fun, compelling but not difficult. We didn't say much. We simply climbed—smooth, in sync, swapping leads.

I was watching Yvon lie-back through the overhang on the sixth pitch, his movements poised and precise, when I remembered something else McMahon had told me: "You should see him surf. He just glides. He has no hesitation throwing himself out onto huge waves."

One time, I don't even remember what Yvon and I were talking about—writing, freediving, business—he suddenly said, "Forget about the end result. It means nothing. The end result is we die. What matters is the process. The process is everything."

It was hackneyed Buddhist rap, but here's the thing: Yvon, despite—or perhaps because of—his many contradictions, lives it. For Yvon it wasn't the fact that we were climbing a new route in the Winds; it was all about how we were doing it. To him the ascent became more elegant each time something unnecessary was eliminated. Gear, chalk, words, signals. He believes, with all his being, in the Saint-Exupéry line that regularly appears in Patagonia Inc. literature: "In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything left to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away."

WE COMPLETED our directissima of Arrowhead's south face in three hours, and then spent the afternoon back at camp in a pleasing, post-exertion fog, erratically debating this and that. At one point I told Yvon that I thought Patagonia clothing was too expensive.

"Not compared to Calvin Klein," he responded.

He went on to defend his company by saying that, because of the renowned durability of Patagonia apparel, everybody from dirtbags to billionaires buys it.

"Dirtbags don't buy anything," I exclaimed. "They schwag it. I know—I used to be one."

"I still am one!" Yvon countered.

Now hold on...Yvon does wear the same old clothes for days on end. And he did sleep with his clothes on the whole week we were in the Winds. And no matter the protean conundrums of his mind, he's snoring in less than two minutes. And most of his climbing gear belongs in a museum. And he's completely satisfied eating sardines with a piton. And he doesn't need a shower. And he flies economy just like the rest of us. And he sleeps on friends' couches instead of paying for hotel rooms. And he drives vintage beater Toyotas. But...

"C'mon, Yvon, you're a multimulti-millionaire."

"I give it all away. I don't even have a savings account."

True, I already knew that Patagonia Inc. had given millions upon millions to environmental causes.

"But that's not even the point," he continued. "Being a dirtbag is a matter of philosophy, not personal wealth. I'm an existential dirtbag."

"You're not a dirtbag anymore, Yvon, you're a businessman. A very successful businessman. Dirtbags don't own companies. Somewhere along the way you must have wanted to be a businessman."

"Never!" There was real vehemence in his voice. "All I ever wanted to be was a craftsman."

"He's in denial," George told me later. "He's an entrepreneur. He's a capitalist. He just can't bear being lumped in with all those businessmen he doesn't respect.

"But he also isa dirtbag. It's a statement as much as anything else. You know those Patagonia ads—'Committed to the core'? Well, Yvon is the core."

THE NEXT DAY we continued trekking north. I was hoping we might make one more ascent, but I think Yvon had already gone back to trout-fishing dreams.

We stopped for lunch at Summit Lake. It was the geographic fulcrum, the halfway point between our start at Elkhart Park and our finish at Green River Lakes. George and Kent and I lolled in the tundralike hummocks while Yvon cast a line.

It was high noon, that unluckiest of fly-fishing hours, but a cutthroat took his fly and promptly snapped his 5x tippet. He replaced it with a 4x and immediately caught a one-pounder, then a pound-and-a-halfer. As he was popping the fish off the hook with a one-handed flick of the wrist, a big sloshing sound rolled across the water. Yvon looked back over his shoulder just in time to see the splash. In a seamless series of motions, he let go of the hook; began snapping the line in great big sky S's, streaking out more and more line; spun 180 degrees while the hook was floating in the air; cast, throwing all the line off the reel; dropped the fly bull's-eye inside the concentric circles; and caught a two-and-a-half-pounder before the one-and-a-half-pounder had time to swim away.

He issued his familiar, exuberant roar, and then allowed himself a brief commentary: "Now that's...that's fly-fishing."
TWO HOURS LATER it was raining, and Josey Wales had sat down on the trail for the hundredth time. We'd climbed our climb and caught our fish and now the trip was about to fall apart, even though we were still a three-day walk from the trailhead. George volunteered to cajole and kick Josey along the trail while the three of us double-loaded Guy and hustled down to Three Forks Park.

The downpour kindly commenced only after we got our tents up. By the time we'd eaten Yvon's homemade tsampa, we were bone-cold and drenched. George and Kent hit the sack, but Yvon and I couldn't help ourselves. We hung around our miserable little campfire, choking on smoke, watching a heavy mist come off the high park grass and drift into the trees. We took swigs of Glenlivet and let ideas bounce and tumble around us.

Yvon told me about the time his son, Fletcher, speared a wild pig and cooked it using one of Yvon's recipes. He told me about his dream of inspiring the biggest companies in the world to give 1 percent of their gross sales to environmental causes, just like Patagonia Inc. does. He called it a revolution, and his eyes showed white in the dark.

"Imagine! Just imagine if Conoco and IBM and Microsoft and GM and United Fruit and Hughes all gave 1 percent. It would be billions of dollars. It could save the planet!"

("People criticize Yvon," says Tompkins, "but 99.9 percent of these people can't match what he's doing for the environment. Yes he owns a big company and he could do more—I could do more, you could do more, we all need more courage to do more. But for everything Yvon takes out of this world, he gives back more than anybody I know. And that's the bottom line.")

Yvon, the maker of his own myth, was growing tired, but he had to tell me about this freediver he knows who has adapted himself so well to the under-water environment, has become so tuned-in, that fish will guide him to lobsters, that dolphins have saved him from shark attacks.

Yvon, a Henry David Thoreau and a Ralph Lauren and a Muhammad Ali all forged into one, was tired, but he wanted me to understand that sustainability is the only hope for the planet. "Sustainability, sustainability..." He repeated it like a mantra.

Yvon, the master of market semiotics, was so tired, but he said he has been trying to write a book for nearly a decade. "Writing is too hard," he complained. It's a book about business. What else. "You know what the business of most businesses in America is? To sell the business. The business is to sell the business. Cash out. Go golfing. Well, not me, goddamit."

We were standing hunch-shouldered in the dark, rain draining off the bills of our baseball caps, mist flowing into the black woods like a river, the campfire long since drowned. Yvon had to sleep now, but first he had to tell me something. "I am guilty." This in reference to his profligacy, for his burning fossil fuel to stand in icy water on some remote river and try to think like a fish instead of a human.

He was going to his sleeping bag now, but before he did he wanted to tell me his favorite joke. He'd told it to me before. "There once was this Zen master sitting on a small stone bench, studying his small Japanese rock garden..."

There are only five rocks in the master's garden. Each was chosen for its individual perfection, as well as its unique relationship to the other stones. One day a visitor comes to the garden. The visitor steps slowly around the tiny space, contemplating the rake-grooved gravel and the stones. Eventually the visitor turns to the Zen master and exclaims, "It is perfect." The Zen master shakes his head solemnly and says, "No, it will be perfect when there are only three stones."

Yvon chuckled and said good-night. I offered him my headlamp, but he waved it away and stumbled into the dark.

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