On the way across the campus I stop by the Quonset hut that houses Fletcher Chouinard Designs, where Yvon's son builds Patagonia surfboards. I'd heard Yvon complain for years about the shoddy quality of the boards he was breaking around the world, and 20 years ago his son began to design boards out of new, sturdier, nontoxic material. Son had followed father into risky sports, surfing big waves, 20- and 30-footers, including at Mavericks, northern California's notorious garden of breaking monsters.
"I really enjoy riding the big waves," Fletcher tells me as we talk over the noise of computerized machines grinding boards out of nontoxic Styrofoam. "Mavericks is a scary place, but it's fun being terrified. And I don't let anything come out of here that I haven't ridden."
"What Fletcher has done with surfboards is what I did with climbing gear," says his proud father. "He's reinvented the surfboard, making the best boards out of totally different, stronger materials. He's got a great reputation for big-wave boards because he rides them himself, does his own testing. I'm his old-guy tester."
"He's a real innovator," says Fletcher of working with his dad. "It doesn't even matter whether he's involved in an industry, he always has an idea how to improve on everything."
I meet the old-guy tester in the company lunchroom, where the staff has the choice of a long salad bar or a hot menu. As we sit we're joined by Rick Ridgeway, an old Chouinard friend, award-winning photographer and long-famous adventurer. He has worked off and on for Patagonia for 40 years and is currently vice president of environmental projects.
"Nice to see the two of you alive and well," I say, remembering the story of an emblematic moment in their outdoor careers: An avalanche nearly killed both of them and left them profoundly changed in its deadly wake. I hear the fear in their voices as they describe their terror.
It was 1980 and China had just reopened to mountaineering. Chouinard, Ridgeway, climber Kim Schmitz and photographer Jonathan Wright were at 20,000 feet on a 24,700-foot peak called Gongga Shan. It was midday and just warm enough to loosen the snow, and they were roped together as they started down toward base camp. Just before the steep snow slabs broke loose, Chouinard had a premonition. "I was right in the middle of a sentence, saying ‘This snow doesn't feel——' and, boom, it happened. It was a feeling you can't describe; like a safecracker trying to describe how to crack a safe, you can't do it. It's a seat-of-the-pants feeling, like when you're surfing in sharky waters and the hair on the back of your neck stands up. You don't know why, but you know you should get out of the water."
The four were engulfed, swept down and over a 40-foot drop into a steep gully. Then it stopped, 20 feet short of a 300-foot cliff. They didn't know it yet, but Wright's neck had been broken.
"We'd been tumbled, wrapped in our rope, crampons on, trying to extricate ourselves, and then it started again. At that point I knew a 300-foot cliff was coming up, and I thought we were dead. I expected to die."
The slide stopped for a second time, 30 feet short of the death plunge.
Chouinard, who says he stopped counting his dead friends when the number reached 50, tells me he was particularly depressed after the avalanche, not because he had almost died but because he had come back from death.
"I had accepted death," he says. "I was dead and I was okay with that. And when all of a sudden I was back, it was depressing."
After lunch Chouinard and I sit in the sun at a picnic table in the middle of his success, surrounded by the fruit trees—apple, fig, kumquat, mango—that he has planted all over the property. He hasn't changed much in the 15 years since we last spent time together. His hairline is ebbing, and the lines in his face are carved deeper into his wind-roughened tan. He carries an almost shy aura, but he's not shy when you hit his cranky zone or one of his passions.
He still climbs but not as much as he used to, and his approach has changed. "I've done a lot of first ascents in the past 10 years that I've never written about or even bothered to name. It has taken a while to get there. In the beginning your ego is involved and you want to tell the world about it. But the goal isn't the point. Who gives a shit what the holy grail is? It's the quest."
His current greatest passion is a different way to fly-fish. It's called tenkara, and he can talk the side of your face off about it. It's a Japanese technique developed hundreds of years ago that uses a telescoping pole with no reel or runner eyes. Picture Huck Finn with a bamboo pole. Chouinard's excitement about the method borders on the sexual.
"The tip of this 10-foot pole is so sensitive that with the smallest move I can make the fly do a lap dance in front of the fish," he says, demonstrating with his hands. "They go absolutely crazy. I've been going out with some of the best fly fishermen in America, and at the end of the day they'll have caught six or eight fish and I'll have caught 50. It's exciting because I've always believed in simplicity, though the hardest thing in the world to do is simplify your life."
Chouinard applies tenkara to bigger issues and has used it to draw out the heart of his economic theory. "I take it as a metaphor for society," he says. "We think all our problems will be solved by technology, when what we have to do in a lot of cases is turn around and take a forward step. Technology destroys jobs. The lesson for the next economy is that we have to go back to the old handcrafted, high-quality stuff."
When I ask if he thinks his business philosophies would translate to larger companies, he says, "If they're making the best stuff and they've got their shit together. If they're just making crap, people will buy somewhere else. Every problem we've had at Patagonia has been solved by doing one thing: improving quality."
Despite the fact that he has designed Patagonia to be here in a hundred years, his outlook for the planet remains dour.
"Sometimes I think it's hopeless," he says about the lack of progress toward meaningful environmental change. "We have to try to get a grip on global warming. They told us 20 years ago that we had 30 years to get it together or else, and even if we did it would take a thousand years to repair the damage we've done to the ocean. The storm that hit New York ought to be a real wake-up call."
Chouinard has been a Zen adept since the beatnik days, though he doesn't meditate. "Mine is a Zen of action, not contemplation," he says. And, he claims, it keeps him from despair.
"Thinking dark thoughts doesn't depress me," he writes in Let My People Go Surfing. "In fact, I'm a happy person. I'm a Buddhist about it all. I've accepted the fact that there is a beginning and an end to everything. Maybe the human species has run its course and it's time for us to go away and leave room for other…more intelligent and responsible life-forms."
"Still," he tells me, "you have to do something to save your soul. I want to be a person who sleeps at night knowing I'm part of the solution."
A young staffer stops by and leans into our conversation. He's wearing shorts and a T-shirt, has longish hair and says he heard there's a nice swell building at the ranch.
"Probably ought to check it out," says Chouinard. Then he turns to me and smiles. "Nothing's changed. All I really want to do is go surfing and fishing."