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The eco-pioneer

Yvon Chouinard, climbing pioneer and founder of outdoor empire Patagonia, donates around 10 million dollars to environmental protection each year. We talked to the visionary about flying high, the call of the mountain and why being rich makes him uncomfortable.

Text:
Interview: Caroline Micaela Hauger, Michael Bösiger
Photos:
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“I never wanted to be a businessman.”

School? Not interested. Instead, teenage Yvon Chouinard went climbing and surfing, living off 50 cents a day at times. He was part of the Big Wall clique, a tight, fearless group, always looking for the ultimate adventure. In 1964, he completed the first ascent of the North American Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. Four years later, in 1968, Chouinard and a group of friends drove his converted Ford pickup truck from California to Patagonia, where they climbed Cerro Fitzroy – without fixed ropes. The mere thought of this sends shivers down our spine. For lack of money, Chouinard crafted his own equipment, having been taught blacksmithing by his father. He soon started selling his novel pitons and carabiners from the boot of his car. In 1973, he founded Patagonia, named after the raw beauty of the southern Argentinian and Chilean landscape. Today the company employs 2,000 people and continues to set new standards in sustainability. Patagonia is one of the founding businesses of the «1% for the Planet» alliance, a voluntary coalition of companies that pledge to donate 1 per cent of their total turnover or 10 per cent of their profit (whichever is greater) to environmental organisations.

Yvon Chouinard, now 78, still inspires generations of outdoor fans.

Yvon Chouinard is considered a big-wall-climbing pioneer. In the Yosemite National Park he undertook sensational first ascents. To this day, he spends more than 140 days of the year outdoors.
Trendy and sustainable: Patagonia is the only company that has been using organic cotton since 1996.

What do you feel when you have reached the top?‍

Passion and relief. Even though I have only made it halfway. I love spending time in the mountains. If I rushed up the hill and down again, it would feel as if I didn’t respect the mountain.

Are real adventures still possible?

I once said: “When everything goes wrong – that’s when the adventure starts.” Every adventure comes with a risk, be it financial, mental or physical. It means leaving your comfort zone and being prepared to make decisions that could turn out to be wrong. Everybody should be free in doing what they want to do. Sadly, athletes nowadays are equipped like astronauts.

What achievements make you proud?‍

I was lucky in that I helped advance so many different sports like kayaking, ice climbing and telemarking. We were a wild bunch that set standards in sports equipment which are still in place today. I created a job for myself that allowed me to spend half the year in the outdoors. The company ethos is quite unique, with hierarchies being flat and employees thinking on their own and enjoying lots of freedom. I don’t care what hours they work as long as they are having fun. They are even free to go surfing during working hours!

What is your role at Patagonia?

I am the company philosopher. The business is running smoothly even without me. I lead a simple life in Wyoming where I go kayaking, mountain climbing and fly fishing. I don’t live in a palace or drive fancy cars. I’m not interested in stuffing my pockets with more money. In fact, it makes me uncomfortable.

Your commitment to environmental projects is rad­ical and revolutionary …‍

Sadly, I am rather pessimistic when it comes to our planet’s future. Earth is on the verge of an ecologic­al collapse. Every outdoor activity mankind indulges in pollutes our mountains, rivers and oceans. That’s why we invest in sustainability and donate 1 per cent of our net turnover – about 10 million dollars each year – to environmental projects. It’s a moral and ethical decision for the sake of our nature. We can neither save our planet nor stop climate change but we can contribute to the protection of our resources.

Would you share with us your recipe for success?‍

It is much more difficult to follow the rules than to break them. I advise young people to do their own thing because anything is better than leading a life of mediocrity. From the day we are born, we are competing. This constant trial of strength and competitive thinking keeps us from reaching important goals – it’s the reason why we don’t get things right in this world. At Patagonia, we don’t compete, we cooperate because working together rather than against one another is the only recipe for problem-solving.

Adventure is calling! Every business that makes a positive impact on the increasingly negative outdoor world invests in the future of generations to come.
Worn Wear is better than new: Since 2011, customers can bring in their clothes for repair and even have items that are no longer bought back. Yvon Chouinard: “The endless cycle of consuming and discarding is the biggest problem.”
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