“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.
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.
Yvon Chouinard was born in 1938 in Maine, USA, and brought up in California. As a youngster, he spent his time spearfishing, diving for abalones and watching falcon aeries on Malibu’s rocky coast. He was later part of the “Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing” era. He founded Chouinard Equipment, which grew into the biggest manufacturer for climbing equipment in the United States, before founding Patagonia in 1978. The father of two is married to Malinda Pennoyer, a former art student he met in the Yosemite National Park.
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