Yvon Chouinard still possesses, in the proud parlance of the climbing community, the “dirtbag” sensibility. In the 1960s, he lived to climb and made do selling handmade climbing gear so he could devote himself to the mountains.
Even today, at the age of 83, when he visits my wife and me in our New York City apartment, he’s likely to spread out his sleeping bag on our sofa when he retires for the night.
I know Yvon best as a rock climber, fly fisherman, family man and visionary. With a genius for invention and design, this self-taught blacksmith founded Patagonia, the outdoor clothing retailer, and turned it into a global brand. He had lots of help. The Patagonia staff brought in sophisticated merchandising techniques and new styles to go with old favorites.
For decades, Patagonia gave away 1 percent of its sales to environmental causes. Last week, Yvon announced that he, along with his wife and children, had given away the company, valued at $3 billion, to a trust and a nonprofit group. Now the company’s profits of some $100 million a year will be used to fight climate change and safeguard some of the planet’s dwindling wild places.
He explained his decision in an open letter: “If we have any hope of a thriving planet — much less a thriving business — 50 years from now, it is going to take all of us doing what we can with the resources we have.”
Yvon Chouinard has been my friend for 40 years. He has risked my life on many occasions on rambling adventures at the ends of the earth. “Just do what I tell you,” he would assure me. And believe me, I did.
Our families are close but have different lifestyles — New York versus the Pacific Coast. But we share common values, especially when it comes to the environment.
Yvon and I first met through a mutual friend, Rick Ridgeway, the mountaineer, adventurer and writer who made it to the top of K-2, the world’s second-tallest peak, known as the “savage mountain.”
Rick also introduced me to Doug Tompkins, who, like Yvon, had lived a hardscrabble life as a climber (and skier) before also building a fortune as a co-founder, with his first wife, Susie Tompkins Buell, of the retailing giants The North Face and Esprit. Doug and his second wife, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, used their money to buy and protect more than two million acres of land in the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina. Like Yvon, Doug had a zealot’s passion for preserving pristine lands and waters.
Yvon and Doug were part of a small group of climbers, surfers, skiers and kayakers who called themselves “the Do Boys.” They generously included me in their adventures, but I always put an asterisk after my name. As I once explained, knowing them was and is a privilege.
(I did earn my place in the group during a snow white-out on Mount Rainier in Washington State. Doug was about to lead us over a steep cliff when I pulled out my 50-year-old compass and realized we were 180 degrees off course.)
They took me places physically and philosophically that I may never have visited otherwise. So much so that I stepped down early from the “NBC Nightly News” so I could spend more time with them.
We made the long hauls to Iceland and the wild southern tip of Argentina and Chile. We did winter ski trips in Yellowstone and took fishing excursions to South America.
On one of those trips I got up early so I could be ready to go before Yvon geared up. Somehow he arose later and still beat me to the river. (In 2015, Doug died of hypothermia when monster winds flipped his kayak on a Patagonia lake on a Do Boys outing I missed. This was a crushing loss. He always seemed indestructible.)
On those excursions, we rarely talked business except about how to make big companies more environmentally responsible. Before we lost him, Doug was a long-playing record on our obligation to the environment. At one point, I said: “I spend my working days documenting environmental failures. If you don’t shut up for a while, I’m walking home.” He laughed that off; we were kayaking at the time in remote wilderness in the Russian Far East.
These two self-made men, distrustful of business, approached their singular passion for wild lands in different ways. A 2016 Harvard Business School working paper took note (though well before Yvon’s latest move).
“The Chouinard strategy represented best practice green entrepreneurship, which if widely adopted might markedly reduce the environmental impact of business,” according to the analysis. “The Tompkins dual strategy of exit from business and application of entrepreneurial skills to conservation resulted in large environmental gains, including sequestering and storing an estimated 80 million tons of carbon.”
Both men were uncomfortable with attention or the routines of others not on their wavelengths. Another way of saying it: They could be cranky.
On one trip, I remember a couple of Icelandic businessmen eager to connect to Yvon. He was not much interested, so they said, “Is there anything we can do for you?” He said, “Yeah, can you change my leftover Icelandic money?” And with that, he handed them the equivalent of a dollar in change.
Yvon is old-fashioned and has very strong values that he doesn’t hesitate to express. For a long time, I argued that he was too pessimistic. Recently, with the invasion of the coronavirus, the continuing assault on the world’s remaining wild places and the ever-rising temperatures, I have moved sharply in his direction. I have become impatient, too.
Even though he had an iconic outdoor clothing business, his personal wardrobe seems to consist of extremely well-worn climbing trousers and an old Patagonia shirt or jacket. When I arranged for him to talk to a gathering of Silicon Valley whiz kids, he let me know he didn’t have a sports jacket.
That didn’t keep him from lecturing his audience on their failure to spend more time and money on saving the environment. “Brokaw and I are going to hell for not doing enough,” he told them, “but you still have a chance.”
He knows his time is running out on his crusade to save the planet. He’s trying to do his part and he’s impatient with the rest of us.
A mutual friend, the writer and sportsman Tom McGuane, calls him “the tiny terror.” With his latest move, Yvon has once again set a gigantic standard for others to consider.
Tom Brokaw spent more than a half century as a journalist at NBC News, including 22 years as the anchor of the “NBC Nightly News.” He is the author of numerous books, including “The Greatest Generation.”
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