The great irony of Yvon Chouinard is that he will always be known more for starting a clothing brand — a company called Patagonia — than for his role in shaping the entire sport of climbing. As a young man in the 1960s, the barrel-chested Southern California native spent summers in Yosemite with pals like Royal Robbins and Tom Frost, putting up one new route after another that would go on to become classics. But Chouinard was unimpressed with the equipment he had to use, in part because it damaged the rock he was scaling. An amateur blacksmith, Chouinard invented and forged new gear as needed (including the revolutionary reusable piton known as a PURP). Almost by accident, those innovations became a company, Chouinard Equipment (which later became Black Diamond). Using this new gear, he put up first ascents all over the world, including The California Route on Fitz Roy in Patagonia. Then, as he did with climbing hardware, Chouinard began making clothing able to withstand the demands of scrambling around granite in everything from sun to snow. Fellow climbers couldn’t get enough of the new duds, and Patagonia clothing went on to become one of the most globally recognized outdoor brands in the world. True to his SoCal roots, Chouinard couldn’t stay out of the water for long and rededicated himself to surfing and fly-fishing in the 1980s and '90s. And as Patagonia grew, it simply reflected his own passions for playing in wild places and leaving them as pristine as he found them.
• He had a first ascent of the North America Wall in 1964 on Yosemite's El Captain.
• One year later, Chouinard bagged the Muir Wall of El Capitan, also a first ascent.
• He was the first to ascend the southwest ridge, known as The California Route, of Patagonia's Fitz Roy in 1968.
The Last Word
Patagonia’s gear is impressive. But Chouinard pioneered an entirely new way of doing business, bringing a deep environmental ethic to manufacturing and corporate culture. In doing so, he changed American business culture forever.