We look at the outdoor industry’s top businessman—before he created Patagonia.
An original series where we unearth the story and style behind iconic photos.
There’s a youthful earnestness to the 75-year-old Yvon Chouinard. False pretense melts away, and he’s got the undeniable authority of an experienced, accomplished maverick of industry and sport.
He’s arguably the most influential figure in the outdoor industry, and he’s one of the preeminent environmental activists of our age. But he carries himself with the air of a laid-back adventure bum. Which, of course, is what he is.
Chouinard’s passion for climbing started in the mid 50s. As a fan of falconry, the teenage Yvon was taught how to rappel down cliffs to investigate falcon aeries. Eventually, he and his friends learned how to climb up the rock, and he was hooked. In the next couple decades, he took his falconry training, and participated in a handful of monumental first ascents.
The image above is of Yvon in Yosemite in the sixties (also the name of Glen Denny's great photo book). It was during this time that Chouinard taught himself how to blacksmith, and he formed his first company, Chouinard Equipment, Ltd. He sold steel pitons out of the back of his truck.
Eventually, Chouinard saw the steel affecting the cracks in the rocks and abandoned his primary source of income (the steel pitons). He began advocating for “clean climbing,” and in 1974, he wrote on the subject: Employ restraint and good judgment. Remember the rock, the other climbers—climb clean.
He began making aluminum chockstones, and they quickly revolutionized the climbing industry. By the early 80s, Chouinard had established the company that’d him on the global map—Patagonia. The roots of the company were firmly planted in environmentalism and employee wellness (in 1984, they had a then-unheard of on-site cafeteria and childcare facility), and the company thrived as a beakon of technical gear and innovative style.
In all of his diverse interests—climbing, surfing, kayaking, falconry, fly fishing, commerce—Chouinard has remained loyal to his convictions. He’s an advocate for “slow companies,” and he's worked to preserve over 2 million acres of land in Patagonia.
And despite his enormous successes, he’s kept a clean vision of what is important. He keeps a climber’s perspective, which you hear well in his own words: Mountains are finite, and despite their massive appearance, they are fragile. It's a gentle touch by the outdoor industry's leader—and it's this iconic humility to the land that's been his compass to success.
For your own climbing adventure, we’ve assembled a Yvon Chouinard-inspired style guide:
For more on Yvon’s story, watch 180 Degrees South.
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