It's the rare pioneer who can revolutionize the outdoors with one product or idea, but these four did it—and stayed true to their adventurous origins in the process.
A 76-year-old climber, blacksmith, fly-fisherman, and—as founder of Patagonia—conservation and business guru. Chouinard began climbing as a teenager so he could look into cliffside bird nests with the Southern California Falconry Club. Then, in the mid-1950s, he and some fellow climbers (see Robbins, Royal) lived in Yosemite’s Camp 4, scaling the park’s big granite walls. At the time, climbing was done using soft-iron pitons; hundreds were needed for Chouinard’s multipitch first ascents. So in 1957, he bought a coal-fired forge from a junkyard and started making his own. In 1965, he partnered with fellow climber Tom Frost to found Chouinard Equipment, redesigning nearly every climbing tool of the time. He founded Patagonia in 1973, introducing the iconic Synchilla fleece jacket in 1985. Although Chouinard Equipment went bankrupt (it was reincarnated as Black Diamond), Patagonia thrived, pioneering a sustainable business model (see Repurposing), donating 1 percent of sales to environmental causes, and spending millions on R&D to develop greener materials.
A 61-year-old bicycle designer who created the first mountain bike built from the ground up. Many people credit Gary Fisher or Tom Ritchey, but while those two men popularized riding on dirt, the first true mountain bike was made by their soft-spoken buddy Joe. In the late seventies in Marin County, California, all three were part of a crew of bike freaks who slid around Mount Tamalpais on modified 1930s Schwinn balloon-tire bicycles. Breeze, one of the group’s best craftsmen, was riding with a friend named Charlie Kelly when Kelly offered him $300 to build an off-road bike. It took Breeze almost a year—“Joe’s a little bit of a perfectionist,” says Kelly—to complete the first Breezers, which featured diamond-shaped steel frames rather than the Schwinns’ curved tubing. Soon, Fisher and Kelly teamed up to launch the MountainBikes company, creating the beginnings of Fisher bikes and a three-decade-and-counting craze. Breeze still designs coveted Breezers, though he sold the brand to Advanced Sports International in 2008.
A 40-year-old entrepreneur who developed and founded GoPro cameras, the small waterproof, wearable devices that turned everyone into an adventure filmmaker. When Woodman’s dot-com business, FunBug, went belly up in 2001, he took a five-month surf trip to the South Pacific. While there, he wanted to get water shots of friends surfing, so he jury-rigged a surf leash to attach disposable waterproof cameras to his wrist. In 2004, with a $235,000 loan from his parents, his mom’s sewing machine, and a drill, he released the first GoPro, a 35mm camera that he bought from a Chinese company and modified with a strap. In 2007, GoPro released the Digital Hero3, with standard-definition video. The timing was perfect: Google had just bought YouTube, and the demand for user-generated video was exploding. Today, GoPro is the world’s best-selling camera brand, and a GoPro clip is uploaded to the Web every minute. (See Footie, Sick.) Woodman now has a net worth north of $2.3 billion.
The man who keeps us dry in rain and snow without overheating. Gore’s discovery of his eponymous waterproof-breathable shell material is part of outdoor legend: In 1969, at 32, he was a chemical engineer whose family business, W. L. Gore and Associates, developed technological applications for polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), also known as Teflon. Gore was working late at the lab, trying to extend the surface area of heated-up rods of PTFE. Light pulling didn’t work, so he gave the Teflon a hard tug. It stretched out rapidly, extending into a tough, film-like surface that water couldn’t pass through but water vapor could. Voilà: Gore-Tex, the first waterproof-breathable membrane, which Gore patented in 1976. Soon after, Gore succeeded his father, Bill Gore, as CEO, running a company that was relaxed on the inside but tough on outsiders, demanding that those using its material adhere to strict standards. Some have accused Gore of bullying brands that use competitors’ waterproof-breathable fabrics, but Gore-Tex remains the dominant—and most trusted—shell in existence.