Life Advice from Yvon Chouinard

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This article first appeared in October 2010 issue of Men’s Journal

What adventure most changed your life?

Taking six months to drive down to the tip of South America in 1968 — surfing, skiing, and climbing the whole way. There were tons of adventures, from having to overhaul the engine in the streets of Santiago to waking up in the middle of the night with guns pointed to our heads in Guatemala — these 16-year-old soldiers thought we were bandits because we were sleeping next to our car. That trip was when I fell in love with Patagonia.

What should every man know about women?

They’re just as insecure as we are.

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What tool should every man own?

A pocketknife. When I say pocketknife, I don’t mean a Swiss Army knife with a blade made of stainless steel. Look at that guy Aron Ralston who had to cut off his arm. He had a terrible time. If you’re going to cut your arm off, you’d better have a good knife. Boker makes one. Carbon steel.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

A bit of advice I’ve never forgotten is that you have to use your body for a certain amount of time each day. I mean really use your body, whether it’s playing tennis or chopping vegetables.

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Have you ever cheated death?

In about 1960 I was trying to do the first ascent of this overhang wall in the Tetons. I was using the first kernmantle European-style 9mm rope in the United States, which was given to me by the famous climber Hans Kraus. I pulled a handhold off and took a 160-foot fall. The rope probably saved my life because it was so elastic.

How should a man best face his fears?

After that fall, I had a real loss of confidence, especially while face climbing. Anytime I was on small holds far out from protection, my legs would shake. Finally, after two or three years, I overcame it. There’s no secret — you just have to keep at it.

What’s the best survival skill you know?

I’ve been preparing myself for tough times by drinking out of every river I fish in ever since I was very young. So I got a good gut. I can go to any country and eat out of the bazaars, and I don’t get sick.

What skill should every man have?

The ability to fix things. You’ve got a lot of insecure people these days because they can’t fix a drippy faucet. We’re getting weaker and weaker as a species. I think the bugs will take us over pretty soon.

Do you have a scar that tells a story?

I have a scar on my wrist from being attacked by a black bear. In the early ’60s, my friend and I were probably the only climbers left in Yosemite in November, and the bears were going nuts, attacking everything, trying to eat as much as they could before hibernating. They ripped off the top of my old Model A Ford. I got so mad I got this one bear up in a tree and just pelted him with rocks. That night I was sleeping on the ground, and he attacked me in my sleeping bag and tussled me all around. I don’t know whether he bit into my forearm or clawed me, but I had a cut there. I screamed my head off, and he finally left.

What should every man do before he dies?

I’ve read that you should build a house, have a kid, and write a book. I’ve written a book and have two kids. I didn’t actually build my house, but it’s made of busted-up sidewalks, and I was out there for weeks with a cold chisel and a hammer making the bricks.

How should a man handle getting old?

You have to keep physically, mentally active. Americans tend to give up when they turn 40. As the Chinese say, when your house is built, you die.

What’s the best way to find food in the wild?

I was in the Canadian Rockies with a friend, and we were starving for protein, so we started eating ground squirrels. We used your typical Boy Scout trap, where you put food under a pot and a rock on top, and you lift one edge with a stick. When the squirrel goes in, you pull a string on the stick. But then how do you get this pissed-off squirrel out? Well, you put white gas around the pot’s edges and light it, and that sucks all the oxygen out of the pot. Wait a minute or two, lift the lid, and there’s a dead squirrel.

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