How It Feels to Be Yvon Chouinard
Credit: Jean-Marc Giboux / Getty Images
In a world of shrinking horizons, Yvon Chouinard has come to embody something near-mythic: a life lived hard-on-the-edge, perfectly and gracefully. These days, even as supermodels sport Patagonia jackets at art galleries, climbers are still wearing them on Everest. Almost single-handedly, and with just a handful of patents, Chouinard has democratized adventure by inventing and manufacturing outdoor clothing so effective that even your grandmother might survive a journey to the North Pole in it.

In many ways, Chouinard wishes this were not the case. "An adventure is what happens when you screw up," he tells me. He insists that adventure is something you'll never really find on prepackaged trips or by donning one of his mountain parkas. Still, he acknowledges that he's selling a dream: "Everyone wants to play."

He speaks politely, with a tiny drawl – perhaps the way Henry Fonda would have sounded if Henry Fonda had been a California-bred surfer. Now, however, Chouinard is a surfer whose company tallied sales of $180 million last year, and who is quite possibly having as much fun as anyone on the planet. He's climbed in Nepal and Chamonix. He has skied the Alps. Lately, he's surfed in Australia, salmon-fished in Iceland, and bonefished off Christmas Island in the Pacific. Next, he's planning a trip to Chile and a 46-day trek through China. Between expeditions, Chouinard kayaks rivers in the American West and surfs the point-breaks near his solar-powered house just north of Santa Barbara.

Of course, his life hasn't always been fun. During the '80s, Patagonia's ­profits soared, but in 1991, recession forced Chouinard to lay off 120 of his 620 employees, a step that he found extremely painful, priding himself as he does on providing a vibrant and supportive work environment. He emerged from the crisis with a bold purpose: He would change American business by using Patagonia as a model of "sustainable industry," one that neither harms the environment nor grows so quickly that its own viability is jeopardized.

Patagonia shirts and pants are now made of organic cotton, its jackets are spun from recycled plastic bottles, and Chouinard annually donates more than a million dollars to eco-groups that otherwise might receive no funding at all. Business schools invite him to lecture; Yale has awarded him an honorary degree (doctor of humane letters); and President Clinton has praised him as a "responsible corporate citizen." He counts Tom Brokaw, Harrison Ford, and novelist Tom McGuane among his friends. Life is good.

Yet the good life for Yvon Chouinard has little to do with the cachet of running a multimillion-dollar company. He has always preferred to categorize himself as a craftsman-turned-businessman. Even now, he refuses to read the business section of a newspaper, so Malinda, his wife of 30 years, peruses it for him. You learn that he doesn't have a savings account because he plans eventually to give everything away. He dreams of living on $200 a month, without electricity and eating whatever he can raise in a garden or catch by fishing. He dreams, in the end, of owning absolutely nothing.

Which is partly why he loves Tierra del Fuego. On the Río Grande, he's in search of what he has always looked for outdoors: the Perfect Moment, a flash of "lucidity, focus, and emptiness," the psychic intensity that hardship brings. But there's a slight problem. Though the fishing has been great – superb, in fact – the Villa Maria, part of the historic Estancia José Menendez, a ranch outside the town of Río Grande, has come to seem, well, too plush. Chouinard wants something more. He wants to test himself, even in his favorite place. He wants more hardship, period. His longtime fishing companion Tom McGuane explains it like this: "Whenever he gets comfortable, he gets suspicious of everything, and he sort of smells a rat. We have a camp on the Dean River [in British Columbia] where we have warm beds and where somebody cooks for us, and I know that bothers him." McGuane adds: "He always wants to do things the hard way."

So we'll fish the Río Grande in comfort for now, and then we'll do something Chouinard has always wanted to do: We'll disappear up a nearby river that he once glimpsed, for a moment, from an airplane, and whose image has lain in his memory, burning and beckoning. We'll scrounge for food and eat with our fingers; we'll sleep under the stars beside the silver river. Maybe we won't catch anything at all. We'll suffer; we'll know happiness.