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INTERVIEW: Yvon Chouinard in conversation with Superfolk. Part 2.

INTERVIEW: Yvon Chouinard in conversation with Superfolk. Part 2.

This is the second part of a two-part exclusive interview between Superfolk and Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard.

Part 1 of our interview focused primarily on the early years of Patagonia’s development and is available here

In Part 2 of our interview, Yvon describes how his outlook in life has been shaped by “passion sports”, Yvon’s time climbing with Fred Beckey, keeping life in balance, creativity, the most unusual products that Patagonia has brought to market, branding and the advice that he offers to small companies trying to do the right thing and stay in business. And, we reflect on his family’s recent big announcement.

 

“How you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top.”

— Yvon Chouinard

 

Early in his climbing career, Yvon Chouinard befriended the legendary climber Fred Beckey. Together Fred and Yvon completed many “first assents”, chartering new climbing routes. At the age of 22, Yvon and Becky were the first to climb the north face of Mount Edith Cavell (Alberta) and later the South Howser Tower (British Columbia). 

Of course, if you have read the first part of our interview, you will understand that the specific challenge of taking the uncharted path would be something that Yvon Chouinard would be drawn to too.

In my research I had read that Beckey had described the ascents, climbed with Yvon, as two of his all-time favourite climbs. Given that Beckey would go on to have a fabled and audacious 75-year-long climbing career with hundreds of first ascents, this felt significant. I mention this to Yvon, commenting that surely this was very high praise when you consider that Fred Beckey was one of the most prolific climbers in history.

“Oh ya?” Yvon replies, his French Canadian accent softly coming through.  “No, I didn’t know that he said that. He was a big inspiration for me. He was a very eccentric character, but I got along great with him. And I learned a lot. He was a real artful dodger. I mean he stayed alive where a lot of his friends died”.

As Yvon describes the focus, endurance, and perseverance that he learned from climbing with Fred Beckey I am drawn to ask about Yvon’s seeming ability to keep things in balance. When you are engrossed in a passion sport, like climbing, it can be very easy to lose yourself to it completely, especially if you are good at it.

In a New York Times article, published after Beckey’s death at the age of 94, the author notes that ‘Mr. Beckey shunned publicity and people. He lived like a hermit in Seattle, holing up to write or vanishing for months on expeditions. He looked like a scruffy hobo — a wiry, stooped nomad with a backpack, a shapeless jacket, dirty pants, and sneakers. [...] He never married or had children, never had a business or sought security. Friends said he just wanted to climb mountains.”

 

1958, “Camping in the Tetons. That’s not my sissy air mattress”

 

‘We lived in this beach shack in San Blas, Mexico for a month in 1957, eating fish and tropical fruit, swatting no-see-ums, mosquitoes, and scorpions, and waxing our surfborads with votive candles from the local church’. Image and caption from “Let me People go Surfing”.

 

“ I certainly had a “dirtbag” period but I also had parents who if I had a dirty room they’d tell me to clean it up. I think I had a sense of … I was able to pull off both I think.”

 

In contrast, while Yvon has been passionately involved in countless adventure sports, from the outside, he never seemed to lose himself completely to any of them. From what I have read, it appears that Yvon has always committed and yet never become consumed by a passion sport. He manages to strike a balance. 

In all those years climbing with Fred Beckey, Yvon didn’t ever go full “dirtbag”. Why is this? I wonder.

Yvon belly laughs.

“I think I had a bigger sense of responsibility, I think… I certainly had a “dirtbag” period but I also had parents who if I had a dirty room they’d tell me to clean it up. I think I had a sense of … well I don’t know, I mean, I was able to pull off both I think. So even though I had a small business and everything I could take off six months out of the year and do my craft, which was climbing. And still, have a business. And so that continues to this day. I’m not a micro-manager. I find the right people and leave them alone. And so I don’t feel like I’m bogged down by business, I never have been really.’ I am reminded of those early catalogues for Chouinard equipment in which customers were told to expect long delays for deliveries during climbing season. 

 

Today, at the age or 83, Yvon still likes to stay in touch with his “dirtbag” self. I’ve been told that he still sleeps in the back of his car at times, while on fishing trips or other adventures. Why even after all these years of business and financial accomplishment does he still sometimes sleep overnight in the back of his old Subaru?”

“Why?” Yvon pauses, “Because I enjoy it. I’ve always done it and I’m going to continue doing it. My wife does it too. My wife and I are pretty small so we can both sleep in the back of my Subaru.” 

He belly laughs some more.  

 

‘Demonstrating piolet ramose, a French technique. For several years while I was working on my book Climbing Ice, I taught classes in snow and ice technique for much needed income and because I thought the best way to learn to communicate a craft was to try and teach it. With each class I learned to describe the technique with fewer words”. Image and caption from the book “Let my People Go Surfing”.

 

“I was rewarded for walking this edge by seeing more sharply what was around me, and I felt more deeply what comes boiling up from within.”

 

I wonder if it might also be something to do with his belief in keeping life simple and then simplifying some more. I have read that the act of simplifying is core to Yvon’s way of behaving in the world. In his essay ‘Zen Lessons” he writes “Studying Zen has taught me to simplify; to simplify yields a greater result [...] The rock climber becomes a master when he can leave his aid climbing, big wall gear at the base, when he so perfects his skill that he can climb the wall free, relying only on his skill and the features of the rock”.

In another essay on ice climbing he writes ‘As I developed new ice equipment, I worked on creating new techniques that relied on less gear [...] The idea was technological inversion: to apply fewer tools with more sophisticated technique. I was rewarded for walking this edge by seeing more sharply what was around me, and I felt more deeply what comes boiling up from within”

 

“The idea was technological inversion: to apply fewer tools with more sophisticated technique”

 

Patagonia have brought all sorts of unusual things to market where the idea of “technological inversion” has been core to their design. There is their mini camp stove, a very, very small wood burning stove designed to work with a minimal amount of fuel.The stove is part of their ‘untethered kit’, promoted with the tagline “Go Simple. Get Deep”. I am also reminded of Patagonia’s range of tenkara rods. Tenkara fishing is a type of simple rod angling traditionally practiced in Japan. Tenkara style fly fishing rods have no fishing reel and so in eliminating a piece of technology and simplifing the rod, the angler is pushed to focus more on the fly and less on the line or managing a reel.  Patagonia also, for a time, introduced ‘tumplines’ to their customers. Tumplines are a strap that Yvon noticed when he was climbing Nepal. The wearer connects the strap from the bottom of their bag around their forehead to help distribute the heavy load of a bag. 

I ask Yvon what he considers to be the the most unusual thing Patagonia have brought to market?

“Well I can think of that little stove you mention. Probably thats the latest thing. But we’ve also got food, we’re in the food business, who would have thought that a clothing company would go into the food business?

 

Patagonia Headquarters in Ventura California. “Lunchtime recreation is only a couple of blocks away”.

 

“By being creative I mean breaking the rules. Not doing everything the way everybody else does. And you have to be on top of that all the time, you have to push that.”

 

Patagonia has always been a creative company. I ask Yvon how they have managed to keep up such a high level of creativity as its grown.

“Well,” he responds “there is a problem being a company of our size as it’s no longer an entrepreneurial company. I’ve got three thousand employees, and I can’t think of very many that are entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs start their own companies, by and large. It’s a challenge to stay creative. By being creative I mean breaking the rules. Not doing everything the way everybody else does. And you have to be on top of that all the time, you have to push that. And you have to make sure that you're not becoming like everybody else and you can’t necessarily depend on other people to do that. You have to…” he trails off. “Its a challenge, let’s put it that way”.

 

Later, as our conversation circles back around to Patagonia’s worn wear initiative he admits “I haven't changed much. I can’t remember when I got a new piece of Patagonia stuff. I wear all the same stuff over and over again.”

I have read that Yvon has been known to turn up at the beginning of long expeditions with gear so old that it falls apart before the expedition even begins. In 2010 Yvon featured the film “180degrees South” with Jeff Johnson. The film retraces an epic and formative1968 journey that Yvon and Doug Tompkins took to Patagonia. More recently, Johnson, the filmmaker recalled noticing that Yvon had worn the very same pair of sunglasses on the trip in 2010 that he had for his first trip to Patagonia in 1968.

The longevity of Patagonia clothing is something our family can personally attest to. Our daughter has recently started her third year of primary school. This year, as I walked her into the school on her first day back after her summer holidays, I realised that she was wearing the very same school coat for the third year running. And I know that when she eventually grows out of it, the coat will be passed on to her younger sister. Ok, so I know that she is not exactly trekking to Patagonia in her school coat, but as any parent with fast-growing young children will agree it’s rare to find a school coat that can see a growing child through 3 or 4 winters. 

In advance of my interview with Yvon, I decide to tell my daughter that I will be talking to the man whose company designed the jacket she wears every day to school. I ask her what she thinks I should talk to him about. She pauses for a moment and tells me that she thinks that I should ask him about all the colours in the sky in the logo.

Indeed the Patagonia logo is a beautiful and unusually colourful piece of design. It is now a classic that has stood the test of time. In my research, I read that while working on the Patagonia logo it was Yvon that insisted that it have colours. And so, keeping my word to my daughter, I ask him why he insisted on having colours in the Patagonia logo.

“I wanted to duplicate the sky” he replies “the stormy sky that you get in Patagonia. Its got the Fitzroy and Cerro Torres and that stormy sky because I wanted to make products for people who are going around capehorn or climbing in Patagonia, ya know, which is extreme. And I wanted the logo to convey that I guess”. 

I smile and think about my daughter heading into school in her coat. She is not going around Cape Horn, she is running around the schoolyard. But I conclude, when you are 6 the school yard is your own independent adventure course. 

 

“The greatest changes come after you become deeply involved in a passionate activity… we are who we are because of what we do”

 

In the book ‘Some Stories’, Yvon includes a beautiful letter he wrote to his daughter in 1994 when she was a child.

In the letter, he is on a fishing trip and describes to her how he has noticed that over time people become like the fish they are fishing for. ‘The anglers who are fanatic steelhead fishermen are different from other anglers. They are tough, eccentric, and more interesting, and seem to have a far-away look in their eyes. [...] Just like the mountains one chooses to climb influences your personality”. He continues “A person is born with certain genetic traits and early childhood experiences will influence you, but the greatest changes come after you become deeply involved in a passionate activity… we are who we are because of what we do”. Time and again Yvon leads by doing.

I ask Yvon what lessons he tries to pass on to his children?

They’re both working in the company. My daughter is head of product design right now which means she’s pretty much running the company because we lead by our products. But, when they were young, he reflects, they had nothing to do with the company. “We’d have a dinner party and they’d lock themselves up in their rooms. But what we didn’t realize at the time was they were listening to everything. So a lot of the lessons that we wished we would have thought them, we did, but we didn’t know it.” He pauses “They’ve grown up a lot more conservative than me that’s for sure. I don’t know why that is…” he chuckles.  “I might have scared them a few times…” he concludes, chuckling some more.

And what advice does he give to a small company trying to do the right thing and also stay in business? How has he built Patagonia while keeping his values intact?

“I believe in Karma” he replies “I can tell you over and over again, just do the right thing and you’ll make more money than you would otherwise. I can tell you that. I mean, we give away 10-20 million dollars a year to good causes and stuff. Even after that we still could very well be the most profitable company in the outdoor industry. Well, there ya go. It always comes back, I really believe in Karma”.

 

Yvon and Rick Ridgeway celebrate after climbing Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America,

 

Yvon on a ten day trip across the Yendegaia National Park, Chile with Doug and Kris Tompkins.

 

“I believe in Karma. I can tell you over and over again, just do the right thing.”

 

Then came the news this month that the entire company of Patagonia has been gifted to a charity to fight climate change. The New York Times ran the headline “Billionaire No More: Patagonia Founder Gives Away the Company” noting that “Mr Chouinard’s relinquishment of the family fortune is in keeping with his longstanding disregard for business norms, and his lifelong love for the environment’.

The news of the sale of Patagonia was captivating and seemingly sudden, bold and surprising. And yet it is also clear that this is a journey that Yvon and his family have been on for many years. For many years Yvon has been committed to using his company to change the way business was done. In a recent letter, he recalls that they started with products and using materials that caused less harm to the environment. Then they began to give away 1% of their sales each year, became a certified Bcorp, a California benefit corporation and wrote their values into their corporate charter so that they would be preserved. In 2018 the company’s core purpose was changed to ‘We’re in business to save our home planet”.

Back in 2009, in the essay “My life on ice” Yvon wrote movingly… “The icefalls and, snow gullies, and glaciers that have carved me into who I am today are melting, and perhaps I am witnessing the last of the great salmon and polar bears, the end of cold free flowing rivers [...] Living a life close to nature has taught me to try and protect what I love by leading an examined life, bearing witness to the evils and injustices of the world, and acting with whatever resources I have to fight those evils. This is something that everyone needs to do in his or her own way.” 

 

So, how did a tiny design studio in the west of Ireland get to interview a living legend like Yvon Chouinard? The simple answer is, we asked. But surely the more interesting question here is … why? Why would he say yes to an interview with a tiny design studio in the west of Ireland? This, unfortunately, is the question that I did not think to ask him but have been asking myself. Like a puzzle I try to solve, I try to answer it for myself.

I can think only of Yvon’s letter to his young daughter “We are who we are because of what we do”.  

 

We are beyond grateful to Yvon and Malinda Chouinard for their openess and generosity of time.

Please take the time to read Yvon’s recent public letter on their family decision to “use the wealth Patagonia creates to protect the source of all wealth”.

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