We were in Puerto Montt, at the northern edge of Chile's vast Patagonia region, folding ourselves into a single-engine plane for an hour flight through narrow mountain passes, when I turned to Yvon Chouinard with a sudden thought: "Hey, Y.C., on this trip if something happens to us, we're covered by Medicare."
He groaned, reluctantly acknowledging that we were now well into our 60s, setting off on another trip into a wild and remote place at an age when we're eligible for senior discounts and early-bird specials. Yet, here we were, flying through heavy fog and low-lying clouds, often no more than 50 feet from the whitecaps of a southern Chile fjord, buffeted by winds so strong Malinda, Yvon's wife and business partner, was frantically searching for a barf bag.
It was in many ways the beginning of our new lives together, and an extension of an old, slightly odd friendship. I am a New Yorker with more suits in my closet than I care to admit. I move easily between television studios and the White House, mingling with presidents, despots, moguls, robber barons, movie stars, and poseurs. I am tall and talkative.
Yvon is short and reserved. I don't think he owns a suit. He lives hard by the sea in California, where his friends tend to be dirtbag climbers, surfers, expert fly-fishermen, environmental activists, and fellow iconoclasts. He travels widely in search of bonefish, steelhead, and salmon, as well as great waves and walls of rock and ice. His politics are much more radical and pessimistic than mine. He's also one of the best friends I could ever have.
Yvon and I have been getting together for 25 years, since I first met him in Jackson Hole when he was already a legendary rock and ice climber, the inventive genius behind modern climbing gear. He's the founder of Patagonia, the clothing company for everything from winter mountaineering to kayaking to fly-fishing. We were first introduced by our mutual friend Rick Ridgeway, a member of the first American team to summit K2.
Rick and Yvon gave me a short course in rock climbing (very short) and we set off to climb the Direct Exum route on Grand Teton. I was roped up between the two of them and made the summit, too naive to realize what they had put me through with so little training. It was the beginning of three decades of annual excursions with the same formula: Take a step and drag Tom.