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A Man and His Planet : He surfs, climbs rocks, paddles a kayak and runs a company that caters to 'dirt bags.' But Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has made saving the Earth his real passion.

January 28, 1994|MATT WARSHAW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — Yvon Chouinard walks the floors of his company headquarters dressed in jeans, a button-down shirt and tennis shoes. No aura of power. No hovering assistants. No outward sign whatsoever that the founder and owner of Patagonia is something of a guru to sports enthusiasts, green capitalists and environmental activists.

The reverence was hard-won. Chouinard made seemingly impossible climbs up and over rocks, mountains and glaciers. He built a very successful clothing business from scratch. He gave away money to environmental groups--and still does. Yet, and perhaps most important in the eyes of his admirers, he seems like a regular guy.

On this sunny morning, a light breeze moves off the Pacific. A dozen preschoolers laugh as they race around the company's on-site day-care playground. And a new surfboard is stashed near the front door, on the slim chance a weak northwest swell will pick up in the afternoon. But Chouinard isn't feeling very good about himself--or the rest of us.

"You want the truth?" he asks matter of factly. "It's hopeless. It's completely hopeless. Civilization is out of control, growing way beyond its resources, and it will destroy itself. Anyone who really thinks we're in charge, that we can honestly change the course we're on--well, they're mistaken."

The doomsday scenario plays frequently in Chouinard's mind these days. He is a man obsessed--not with making and selling more of Patagonia's warm and fuzzy outdoor wear, but with using his position as a podium from which he might persuade corporate America to change.

"I can sit down one on one with the president of any company, any time, anywhere, and convince them that growth is evil," he says.

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Chouinard, 55, grew up in a time--1950s Burbank--when growth was considered a good thing. The son of a French-Canadian plumber and a homemaker, he was a somewhat reclusive kid who took to climbing the Tehachapi Mountains in his early teens. After checking out a book on blacksmithing from the local library, he also began making and selling climbing gear.

In the emptier days after high school graduation, Chouinard would often surf one of his favorite breaks along Highway 1--from Rincon to Killer Dana--in the morning, hammer out a few pitons in the afternoon, then scrounge for soda bottles to redeem for gas money. Surfing has always been Chouinard's favorite sport, he says, "because you can't cheat at it."

By the mid-'60s, though, Chouinard had become a rising star in the then-obscure sport of rock climbing. He and three friends were the first to scale El Capitan's North American Wall, in Yosemite National Park. On a later expedition in Tibet, an avalanche trapped his group, shoving them 1,500 feet downhill. One friend was killed. Another broke his back. In the aftermath, Chouinard became a Buddhist.

"I died on the way down the mountain," he says. "But I came back. And now I have absolutely no fear of death . . . when it comes time for me to eat it, I'll go."

Today, with only a weathered face to hint at his age, Chouinard is arguably one of the world's preeminent outdoorsman: a kayaker, fisherman, skier, surfer and climber. Of team sports, he says: "I love Super Bowl Sunday because I can surf Rincon without the crowd."

In the past few months, Chouinard has traveled to Japan and Christmas Island, and he spends many weeks each year with his wife and two children at his second home in Moose, Wyo., between the Tetons and the Snake River.

No wonder he's a mentor to people whose work simulates play.

"He defined this kind of 'Fun Hog' mentality, which meant he was really into all kinds of non-motorized outdoor sports and did it with a certain environmental consciousness. He puts himself in the middle of these really heavy situations, then pulls it off without leaving anything behind," says Steve Casimiro, editor of Powder magazine.

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What some view as tremendous sporting achievements, Chouinard shrugs off as restlessness.

"I'm kind of an 80% guy. I get really into something for a while, then when it comes down to where you have to get really weird, really anal, about getting to the last stage--that's when I back off. I think it's bad to go that last bit. You become a bore."

After 10 years of making hardware for hard-core climbers in a rented corrugated tin shed behind the Hobson Meat Packing plant in Ventura, Chouinard and a partner started Patagonia in 1974. The shed is still there, virtually unchanged. The plant has been converted into Patagonia headquarters, which, like its founder, seems to straddle two worlds. The entrance faces downtown Ventura and, beyond, the creeping sprawl of Los Angeles County. Behind the building lie the quiet, undeveloped hills of Ventura.

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