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- August 08, 1983
- Vol. 20
- No. 6
After a Lifetime of Risk in High Places, a Mountain Man Strikes It Rich at Low Altitude
Yvon Chouinard, now 44, grins wryly and looks up into Wyoming's Teton Range, where America's premier mountaineer has been climbing for fun and profit since 1956. Snow still shrouds the sharp crags, and a low morning light casts blue bruises of shadow on the glaciers. The day before, Chouinard had climbed to 11,000 feet and then skied back down—but he noticed that the snow was getting soft and would soon be gone. He'll fill in the rest of the summer with rock-and ice-climbing, white-water kayaking on the treacherous Gros Ventre River and lesser Teton chutes, and of course plenty of fly-fishing for the region's big, shy trout.
Fun and games, to be sure, but all of it is aimed at insuring better fun and more games for America's ever-increasing mob of outdoor exercise freaks—or "funhogs," as Chouinard affectionately calls them. For in addition to his credentials as a bipedal billygoat, Chouinard is also—to his occasional chagrin—a classic American Big Businessman, a kind of hip Horatio Alger hero who took an offbeat, almost antisocial skill and manipulated it into megabucks. His Great Pacific Iron Works, headquartered in Ventura, Calif., last year grossed $18 million, and all predictions point to $100 million in sales just five years up the trail. An economist from the Stanford Research Institute who recently visited the Iron-Works to help Chouinard & Co. draw up plans for future growth came away awed. "You're not a company," he said. "You're a movement."
The company has grown from Chouinard's uncanny talent for inventing and improving mountaineering equipment—crampons and carabiners, pitons and ice axes, and strange little nutlike devices used to support climbing ropes, things called Hexentrics and RURPS and Crack'n Ups. Chouinard's hardware, though expensive, is durable and reliable, always a few handholds ahead of the competition in design. Yet it accounts for only about $2 million in annual corporate sales. The big bucks come from his Patagonia line of jackets, vests, sweaters, shirts, climbing shorts, gloves, parka shells and polypropylene underwear made of that miracle fabric that wicks away sweat. The clothing is built tough, with no emphasis on high style or frilly appearance. Like the hardware, it's high-tech stuff made for function, not fashion.
Chouinard sometimes steps back and views what he hath wrought in business with an awe tinged by self-reproach. "I'm appalled at what's ahead of me," he says. "I'm still looking at myself as a reluctant blacksmith, a beatnik mountain climber who hates businessmen. I've always been happiest with one foot on ice, the other on rotten rock, and here I am studying balance sheets."
It is indeed a strange fate for a self-described "geek at the Gedunk Stand of Life," whose main ambition since childhood was to get away from cities and up on some cold, bleak mountain peak. Yvon Vincent Chouinard was born in Lewiston, Maine of French-Canadian parents and grew up in nearby Lisbon, where he spoke only French until he was 7. His father, a plumber, moved the family to Burbank, Calif, at the end of World War II. "You can't get farther from Maine than Southern California," says Yvon, "both topographically and culturally, and I guess it kind of threw me." He became a loner with an instinct for bolting to the nearest high ground—in those years, the Hollywood Hills. "More than anything then, I wanted to be a trapper, and I read everything I could about the wild, high country, the land of Jim Bridger, Jedediah Strong Smith, Hugh Glass and Peter Skene Ogden—tough, rugged loners who could handle the mountains."
Too shy to date and too proud to dance, he palled around with the other geeks, those kids you find in every high school class sitting in the back row, staring sullenly out the windows. Then he joined the California Falconry Club and found his métier—cliffs. "We spent all our spare time on weekends hunting for hawks' nests, clambering down to them from fixed ropes and banding the young birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Then a guy named Don Prentice taught us how to rappel—bending the rope around your body and sliding down. We went nuts for it." Until one day, descending from a 400-foot overhang, he got hung up and dangled, semiconscious, for three and a half hours before working free: a valuable lesson in caution.
Chouinard honed his climbing skills on Tahquitz Rock, a 1,000-foot granite knob near Idyllwild and Palm Springs. When Chouinard got his first car—a beat-up 1940 Ford he rebuilt in his high school shop class—he took off for higher spires: Wyoming's Wind River Range and the Tetons. "It was a life straight out of a Jack Kerouac novel," the big businessman says wistfully. "I started spending my summers in the Tetons. One year we cleaned out a huge concrete incinerator and lived in it when we weren't hanging from some rock somewhere. We ate anything and everything, from blue grouse to porcupines. We'd head up into the high peaks with nothing in our packs but a grouse, a bannock and a bottle. We were tough."
Between summers, Chouinard studied geography at a junior college in the San Fernando Valley for two years and worked as an assistant private eye with his brother, Gerald, in the L.A. area. He also bought a secondhand forge and began making carabiners—the oval snap-clips used by climbers to link ropes—and selling them to other mountain men. Then came pitons, the eyed spikes hammered into rocks as climbing aids. Following the lead of John Salathé, a Swiss eccentric who pioneered many new routes in Yosemite, Chouinard forged his "pegs" of chrome-molybdenum steel rather than the soft cast iron traditional in Europe. The hard steel spikes were less likely to bend and pull out; they were also reusable. The Chouinard Equipment Co. (later Great Pacific) was born.
Drafted in 1962, Chouinard was stationed in Korea. He hated the army, loved the climbing near Seoul. In 1964, after his discharge, Chouinard was picked for the four-man team that made the first successful ascent of the sheer North America Wall of Yosemite's forbidding El Capitan. Chouinard and the others took nine days to make the top, lugging 200 pounds of gear and rations, and sleeping in slings hung from pitons on the vertical rock. Their success helped to make rock-climbing big sporting news in the U.S. and brought American climbers the kind of prestige that had been reserved for the heretofore exalted Europeans.
From that point on, the world was Chouinard's jungle gym. From Scotland's Creag Dhubh to the Fitzroy Massif in Patagonia, from New Zealand's South Island glaciers to the Diamond Couloir of Mount Kenya, he has carried his antigravity act to every continent but Antarctica, where access is restricted to scientific expeditions.
Strange things happen in high places. Hiking through the Khyber Pass alone a few years ago, he camped out one night with a band of Pakistani smugglers. They were carrying not the traditional opium or transistor radios, but life-size, inflatable Marilyn Monroe dolls, replete with detailed secondary sexual characteristics. Another time, attempting a successful first ascent of Los Frailes, a pair of smooth rock spires that mark the tip of Baja California, Chouinard and his partner were irked to find a boatload of tourists photographing them from the waters below. "We came up from opposite sides and met at the tip," he recalls, "but you can't even sit down up there, it's so thin. We're holding on and these people are yelling for us to say 'Cheese.' To hell with that. One-handed, I flashed them a full moon."
Chouinard's most harrowing experience, though, came in October 1980. At 24,900 feet, Gong-ga Shan, near the Tibetan border, is the highest mountain in China proper. Chouinard and a party of Americans had gone there at the invitation of the People's Republic. "We had been out all day stocking an advance camp at 20,000 feet," he recalls. "It was late afternoon, and Rick Ridgeway, Kim Schmitz, an ABC cameraman named Jim Wright and I were heading over snow back to base camp when we triggered an avalanche. The whole mountain slid out from under us. I remember snow and sunlight and big chunks of ice whirling around me, and I knew—we all knew—we were dead. Then, miraculously it seemed, the avalanche stopped. For a moment. We were roped together and the rope was stuck under the ice. I was yanking at it, hoping to rip it free so we could scoot the hell off of there. Then the snow started moving again, toward a 60-foot cliff dead ahead."
The avalanche poured over the cliff and bounced up like surf, only to surge over a 30-foot cliff farther on. When it stopped, Chouinard was amazed to find himself alive, albeit with broken ribs. Schmitz had a broken back, Ridgeway was merely bruised. But cameraman Wright's neck was broken. "He was still alive, but he couldn't breathe," says Yvon. "He died."
For three weeks the survivors were depressed to near catatonia. It wasn't just the death of a friend. "There's a 10 percent chance of dying on any mountain expedition," Chouinard explains. "I stopped counting dead climbing friends when the number reached 50—a long time ago." Even more numbing was the shock of having given up on life, only to find it returned. "Too much," he mutters.
Though still an active climber, Chouinard feels there are few challenging first ascents left to try. "Oh, Antarctica still has some big mountains to be climbed," he concedes, "but it's not really all that challenging. You have plenty of advance warning of approaching storms at the Pole. Weather systems move very slowly down there and you can see them coming a long way off. Anyway, expedition climbing bores me: you have to begin planning so far in advance. If I block in April, say, for a climb, then if anything more interesting comes up in April, I can't do it. Also, the real danger is gone from climbing nowadays. In YoSemite, if you get stuck on a vertical face with no retreat, they can pick you off the wall of El Capitan within a matter of an hour or so. We did it without a net."
Chouinard speaks with thinly veiled contempt of today's so-called "risk sports." Says he: "Wind surfing is the perfect sport of the '80s—you can learn it in a few hours, do it close to home, there's no risk, no pain, no need to drive for days on end to bash your head against a rock on some lonely mountain face. And best of all, you have an audience. It figures, though. Today the kids all have to go to law school, and they need to work in summer to pay for it. Climbing was at its best in the '60s and early '70s. We did it out of rebellion."
Chouinard's latest risk venture is white-water kayaking. "There's a link somewhere between climbing and running white water," he says. "Maybe it's in reading the flow—of a rock face as you move up it, or the water as you shoot downstream. Most of my kayaking buddies are ex-climbers. They hike up the east slope of the Sierra in California, put in at the headwaters of the Kern, the Kings or the San Joaquin River, and head on down. It's total commitment. Sometimes they run gorges with 1,000-foot walls on either side—no way you can stop to scout the next rapids. You shoot them blind."
When he's not on rock or in churning white water, Chouinard spends summer days with his wife, Malinda, 36, and their children, Fletcher, 8, and Claire, 3. Their house in long-haired Moose, Wyo., just down the road from tony Jackson Hole, is a log home Yvon built, taking special care to make the lodge-pole-pine walls a challenging climb. He built the Rumford fireplace of smooth boulders from the nearby Snake River, and when things get slow around Moose, the whole family literally climbs the walls. Blonde, button-nosed Claire, the family extravert, claims she can climb the fireplace "to the tippy-top—then I just jump down, boom!" but later admits she can only make it to three stones from the bottom. Fletcher, small, grave and wide-shouldered like his father (who at 5'4" weighs 135 pounds), can reach the mantelpiece. Already he is contemplating the smoothest line to the roof beam.
Tiny, honey-haired Malinda Pennoyer Chouinard, whom Yvon met some 16 years ago while climbing in Yosemite ("He accused me of stealing his campsite—and then asked me out for a hot fudge sundae") and married in 1971, keeps him healthy and fit with fine vegetarian meals and joins him in everything but fishing. "The first time he took me fishing," she says, chidingly, "he left me on a rock in a snowstorm for five hours. When he came back, he wasn't even aware it had been snowing. I can't blame him, but...never again."
The house, which looks out over a meadow full of yellow-flowering balsamroot, blue lupine and nodding tulips, is chockablock with toys—kayaks, fly rods, waders, a slingshot made from a deer antler—and more books than are owned by the combined rosters of the NFL's Central Division. In the guest room is not only a well-thumbed volume of The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers but a piece of furniture that Jeffers made famous in his poem The Bed by the Window. Chouinard got the bed in 1977 from a friend who had lived near Jeffers' cabin in Jolon, Calif. A simple cast-iron frame painted with ivory enamel, it affords a nepenthean view up into the gray, twisted bleakness of the 13,776-foot Grand Teton itself. Jeffers' verse reads:
I chose the bed downstairs by
the sea-window for a good
...We are safe to finish
what we have to finish;
And then it will sound rather
When the patient daemon behind
the screen of sea-rock and
Thumps with his staff, and calls
thrice: "Come, Jeffers."
"I think someday I'll open an Old Climbers' Home here," Chouinard says with his wry grin. "They'll sit out on the porch looking up into the Tetons, thumping their canes and swapping lies about spooky falls to the end of the rope, about Yetis and avalanches and pitons that pulled out like rotten teeth. Then when the Patient Daemon comes I'll escort them into old Jeffers' bed." He laughs at the quiet conceit.
"Well," says Malinda, laughing too, "you'll have to get another partner then, dear."
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