Interview by Kelly Bastone | Photograph by Tim Davis
Yvon Chouinard helped pioneer big wall climbing and whitewater paddling, reinvented climbing hardware with his company, Chouinard Equipment, Ltd. (which later became Black Diamond), then founded a little apparel company called Patagonia, which became the archetype of sustainable business—donating more than $55 million to environmental initiatives—which led Chouinard to co-found 1% for the Planet (an organization of which Mountain is a member). Today, Chouinard lives in Ventura, California and Jackson, Wyoming. Fishing is his current frontier: He recently coauthored Simple Fly Fishing, a book on Tenkara fly fishing (no reels) that hit shelves this April.
The more you know, the less you need. I’ve always tried to simplify my life as much as I can, to simplify sport.
The climbs that I did in Yosemite took 10 days, hanging from hammocks and putting in hundreds of pitons. Now, high school guys in their gym shorts do them, and they’re back before noon. Then they have lunch and go and climb the north face of Half Dome. That’s the way sport should go.
Tenkara has taught me to learn the basics. What started out as a novelty for me has turned out to be the most effective way to catch fish.
There’s a stream in Jackson that’s Class IV in high water. It drops a hundred feet a mile, and there are very few eddies. I decided to do it without a paddle one day. A paddle is a powerful tool, and it can make up for a lot of bad technique. I had to look way ahead, and anticipate where I was going to go. To turn the boat, I had to put it on edge like a pair of skis and carve around things. That’s really the day I learned to kayak.
I’m lucky. I was immersed in the golden age of all those different sports. My passions now are fishing and surfing.
If you can get me to the rock, I can still climb it. But the approaches kill me.
The French climber Lionel Terray said that when you get older, you start repeating the climbs of your youth. Closing that circle. When you’re young, you’re trying to prove yourself. Now, just the feeling of moving over rock is pleasure enough.
I love the mountains and the ocean almost equally, but I don’t want to live in the mountains. I need to see the horizon. When I paddle out on my surfboard, I’m facing Antarctica. It’s the beginning of the world. I made a conscious decision to visit the mountains, but live near the sea.
My friends who live in mountain towns end up not climbing anymore. It gets too familiar. Whereas if you visit the mountains, then you’re all excited.
I’m a total pessimist. I’m a doombat. Every single empire in history has collapsed. Empire building is against the laws of nature. Nature loves to spread things out. It loves diversity. It’s always trying to make new species. It hates monoculture and accumulation. Humans are trying to pull everything to the center, and the center doesn’t hold.
What’s the difference between an optimist that says, “Everything’s going to be fine, don’t worry,” and a pessimist that says, “Things are screwed, don’t bother.” Either way, nothing gets done. I’m a pessimist that puts a lot of energy into trying to be part of the solution. Then I can sleep at night.
We all have to do what we can with whatever resources we have. We need people who love rivers. Because you protect what you love. People who don’t love rivers turn them into sewers. I’ve got this company that is really visible and respected around the world. People listen when we say something, so that’s my responsibility.
Simple Fly Fishing is a metaphor for society. I want to show that a simple life is not an impoverished life.
From the Early Summer 2014 issue.