How It Feels to Be Yvon Chouinard
Credit: Jean-Marc Giboux / Getty Images
It's now midday at a pool called Nirvana, and Yvon Chouinard has just hooked a trout. It's a big one, getting bigger as he reels it in. Chouinard's back is curved like a violin, his knees are braced against the current, and he's not making a sound. The fish's only apparent effect upon him is registered in the flexing of his jaw muscles, in the minute adjustments of his black eyebrows. All morning, we've been blasted by the howling, line-tangling wind, and I've caught zip. Chouinard has landed and released three gorgeous brown trout, none under 15 pounds.

Then, as if no longer able to stand his own concentration, Chouinard lets out an invigorating chortle, crescendoing into a cry that his friends later describe to me as his "cave-man laugh," as in: "AHHHH ... HAAAAA!" It's startling, to be sure, yet so heartfelt that you can't help but love it.

"God, what a trout!" he says. The huge silver fish leaps and then drops back from its skyward course as if repelled by the sun, descends beneath the surface, and holds there, trembling, on the river bottom. Chouinard kneels, cradles the exhausted fish – which he guesses weighs 20 pounds – and rocks it gently in the current. A fish to remember.

"You know," he says, after releasing the trout, "fishing this place is one of the few things in life that keeps getting better. When I first came here in '68, I thought I was stepping back in time."

That year, Chouinard – along with Doug Tompkins, the founder of the North Face; champion skier Dick Dorworth; climber/filmmaker Lito Tejada-Flores; and an English climber named Chris Jones – piloted a secondhand van 18,000 miles from California to Mount Fitzroy, about 400 miles from where we are now. The journey, which took six months, was a traveling circus of surfing, skiing, and mountain-climbing – a road trip à la Neal Cassady, with a soundtrack by Mingus. "The whole point of the trip," jokes Chouinard, "was a search for the perfect flan."

In its scope, the excursion was akin to taking a hang glider to the moon. The group's successful ascent of the 11,000-foot Fitzroy – the third ever – took 60 days, many of them spent trapped in snow caves by hideous weather. On the summit, the four men unfurled a flag that read "VIVA LOS FUN HOGS!" It was a landmark climb; no American had ever summitted Fitzroy before. "It really opened up Patagonia," says Dorworth. "It really changed our lives."

You might think Chouinard was a bankrolled hippie with a lot of free time on his hands; actually, he was the son of a French-Canadian couple of limited means. Chouinard recalls that, as a young boy, he watched his father sit down with a bottle of whiskey and a pair of pliers and pull his own teeth – all of them – because he felt the dentist was charging too much for dentures. "Because I inherited some of these genes," Chouinard wrote years later, "I have a preference for learning and doing things on my own."

He discovered climbing while pursuing falconry, which he'd taken up at age 12, rappelling to the birds' nests high in the mountains of the San Fernando Valley. By 1957, when he was 19, he had already revolutionized mountaineering by creating a piton that could be nailed into and then removed from rock, unlike the European kind, which had to be left in place. He could make two in an hour on his portable forge, and he sold them from the trunk of his car for $1.50 each.

"His first ascent of El Capitan was, in its time, the hardest climb in the world," says Tom Frost, a photographer and fellow gearhead who accompanied Chouinard in 1964 as he pioneered a route up the massive North American wall in Yosemite. In 1968, the year of his epic journey with the Fun Hogs, he finished designing his now-legendary climber's ice ax, one of which is included in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection. When he wasn't pushing the limits of his craft, Chouinard would sit around Yosemite's infamous Camp 4, the vortex of America's burgeoning climbing scene, copying aphorisms from books he was reading – Camus, Nietzsche, the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. He was cultivating a lifelong credo, he says, based on Zen-like ideas of simplicity and impermanence.

"Every one of those friends of mine... [we] never wanted to work, we never wanted to become stable citizens. All we wanted was to climb, forever. It was as valid a life as anything we could think of."