"It's Brokaw's stories that have kept me from similar adventures," says Harrison Ford, a neighbor in Jackson, Wyoming, where Chouinard owns a home. This month, Ford will present Chouinard with the Riverkeeper Environmental Excellence Award for his conservation-minded work ethic. "I've gone fishing with Yvon and I've played tennis with him," says the actor, "but I have not gone up a mountain with [him]. I don't trust Yvon to know the limits of a natural human being."
"One day he was looking at the magazine Earthwatch," says writer Rick Ridgeway, "and it had this picture of a spire on this island, and he said, 'Hey, we oughta climb that sucker.'" It was 1988, and Chouinard, at 50, had begun to wonder if he still had his edge.
A few months later, Chouinard and Ridgeway, with Doug Tompkins and Jim Donini, a fellow climber, were on a fishing boat steaming from Puerto Natales, Chile, in search of the unnamed peak. They didn't even have a map. The captain steered for the island by looking at the photo Chouinard had ripped from the magazine.
"The boat left us on this uninhabited archipelago with a month's food, our climbing gear, and our kayaks," says Ridgeway. "We didn't even know if we were in the right place." After a few days, the weather cleared – and there was the peak, right above them. But the wind had kicked up, blowing so fiercely that every time the men tried to stand, they were knocked to the frozen ground. They spent two weeks hunkered in tents, waiting.
As soon as the weather broke again, Donini and Chouinard quickly began an ascent, both thinking they'd make a few pitches, look around, and return to camp. Soon, the men passed some mental point of no return. They continued climbing for 14 hours, hammering pitons and fixing ropes, finally summitting the 4,000-foot peak in frigid darkness.
Chouinard and Donini were forced to crawl back down the mountain through the night. Ridgeway and Tompkins were lying in their tents, weeping, certain that their friends were dead. In the morning, the two half-frozen climbers reappeared, their clothes shredded. And now they faced a 75-mile paddle to the mainland.
"The winds were so strong," says Ridgeway, "that you had to do everything to keep from flipping over. Chouinard was flipped in one of the worst gusts, and it just held him down." Bobbing in an ocean laden with icebergs, he turned hypothermic but managed to climb back onto the upturned boat and paddle himself to a nearby island, where his friends built a fire to thaw him out. They finally made the mainland the next day.
"I really scared the shit out of myself on that climb," Chouinard tells me. "Before, I'd always had enough to take it right to the edge. I came too close to going over."
"When we pulled the kayaks up on the beach in Ushuaia," says Ridgeway, "we all looked back at what we'd just come from. And I'll never forget it: Yvon suddenly got this big grin on his face. And the first thing he said was 'Well, that's just what I needed!'"