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Yvon Chouinard: What I’ve Learned

Yvon Chouinard: Inventor, Entrepreneur, Owner of Patagonia, Inc.

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I was brought up with a sense of responsibility. As a young kid I was told that if you make a mess you clean it up. You don’t let somebody else do it.

***

A lesson I’ve learned from climbing is that you don’t exceed your resources. If you’re a 5.10 climber, you don’t solo 5.10 because you’re going to kill yourself. It’s the same thing with business; you don’t exceed your resources. And a lot of businesses do. They’re all on a suicide course. I’ve always believed in living within my means—personally and also in business.

***

When we backed away from pitons and switched to chocks it was good business. We knew the market. We were the market. I love change, but I do my homework. Being in the forefront of climbing in those days, I knew that it was inevitable. People were going to switch over [to clean climbing]. So it wasn’t a risk at all.

***

Every time we came back from the mountains we had ideas on how to improve the gear. That was the way we developed things.

***

I’m testing stuff all the time. I can’t help myself. I’m always coming up with different ideas. The ideas come from being a user instead of being owned by a venture capitalist or a group of venture capitalists who don’t even do these sports. They see any change as a risk because they don’t know the market, because they’re not in the market.

***

I love Patagonia, and I thought the name itself was cool. In those days nobody knew where Patagonia was; it was a mysterious name. So I thought that would be a great name for a company because once you know the place, you know there are hundred-mile-an-hour winds there, tremendous storms, Cape Horn, and mountains and rivers. I thought it was the perfect name for the company. Plus, it can be pronounced in every language.

***

There are all kinds of climbers. There are guys that solo some of those 10-day routes we did on El Cap, and they’re down before lunch.  That’s absolutely phenomenal.  One man climbing alone is the simplest form.

***

If you take risk out of climbing, it’s not climbing anymore.

***

There are no great lines left in Yosemite. There are 45 routes or so on El Cap? A lot of them run into each other, a lot of them share a pitch or two here and there with another route. The great lines are gone. A sense of adventure is gone, a sense of discovery. [El Cap] is a canvas that’s pretty much filled up.

***

But there are other places around the world. When I first came to Korea [in 1962 as an American G.I.], I was asking my Korean friends when we did some popular route, “How many times have you done this route?” They said, “Oh, about 75 times.” And I said, “Why don’t you do new routes?” They said, “Well, why? These are perfectly good routes.” They were happy to just keep repeating the same things. Then I spoiled them. When we started doing new routes, it was all they wanted to do.

***

I haven’t been climbing recently. I’ve just been fishing [laughs]. I’m getting kind of long in the tooth. My balance isn’t very good, and I broke my elbow a few years ago bouldering. I’ve got some strength issues in my left arm. And here in the Tetons it’s really a long ways to get to any rock. But if there was some rock or a cliff close by, I would be climbing.

***

For me the ultimate is in doing new routes. I don’t like following other people, whether in business or in life. I like to go my own way.


This interview with Yvon Chouinard appeared in Rock and Ice issue 224 (February 2015).


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