Yvon Chouinard: Hopping Freight Trains to Success

Mark Trautmann
May 21, 2015 · 11 min read

By Mark Trautmann | Bio-kinetics Major, Psychology Minor

Yvon Chouinard is walking in a place that’s never been seen by human eyes before. He will be the first person to make the ascent on Mount Corcovado in Patagonia. “Fear of the unknown is the greatest fear of all. But we just went for it.” Says Yvon in the movie 180 Degrees South [2010 Malloy]. He went on one of the most epic adventures I’ve ever heard of. Him and his friends are traveling across Chile in an egg white Volkswagen van they bought for twenty dollars and have been hiking for days to get to where they are now. Standing at the base of the mountain looking up with excitement, anticipation, and anxiety, he begins the journey up the uncharted land. At this time Chouinard is in his mid 20’s and just graduated from Stanford’s school of business. Yvon Chouinard became successful by putting everything on hold to attain his 10,000 hours of climbing and blacksmithing-climbing equipment, living in a demographic trough for climbing and living in an area with great places to climb.

The light from park rangers flash lights are shining all through the forest and you squish your head into the dirt and try and hold as still as you can in order to not be seen. You’re holding your breath and finally they leave. This was how Yvon’s life was when he climbing in Yosemite. Him and his friends took pride in their ability to evade the Park Rangers after their two-week camping limit according to Patagonia’s website. They don’t care about what the rules are, they aren’t hurting the land and that is their main priority.

They’re a bunch of rugged, some would say dirt bag, climbers who just want to go against the rules because they can. Chouinard writes in his book Let my People Go Surfing that “Most of the damage we do to the planet is a result of our own ignorance” (204) this doesn’t sound like the philosophy of dirt bag climbers. This is what separated them from the rest. They had a deep respect for the land and did all they could to help preserve it. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers he talks about a rule to success. He calls it the 10,000-hour rule and he comes up with the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours in order to master something. At this time Yvon had just graduated Stanford and was living in his van, climbing, and catching rodents for food. Before he departed on this adventure he bought a crate of damaged cat food tins for food. This is someone who doesn’t have any money but is doing all that he can to attain his Gladwellian idea of 10,000 hours of climbing and blacksmithing, next thing he knows he’s a millionaire. The Beatles are perhaps the greatest band ever but they didn’t start playing sold out shows. They had a humble beginning in Hamburg Germany playing in clubs for eight hours at a time practically every day. They did this for two years until they landed their first major record deal. By the time they had left Hamburg they were well over 10,000 hours of practice. Similar to The Beatles Yvon Chouinard didn’t just become the best overnight, he spent weeks at a time in Yosemite climbing and making equipment for his friends.

In 1957 he bought a small coal-fire-forge and taught himself how to make his own climbing gear for him friends and himself. That was the beginning of his first company Chouinard Equipment that turned into Patagonia in 1970 when they started a “minor fashion craze in the United States” says Chouinard was selling the pitons to his friends and local climbers for $1.50 a piece. Pitons are pieces of climbing equipment that allows ropes to be secured into rock wall. This was a very slim profit margin for him, but he didn’t care. He was doing this for himself so he could become less dependent on the skills of others. It became apparent that he was going to need to redesign his pitons so they wouldn’t damage the rock. He partnered with Tom Frost, who was an engineer and fellow climber. In his book he says, “The more you know, the less you need” (Chouinard 90) and this has been his attitude for over twenty years. He’s teaching his family and friends to depend on your own skills and by doing that you’ll take care of the planet. This is a philosophy that Yvon has taken into his company Patagonia.

These two developed their products to be strong, simple and functional. Their experience with climbing and living in the outdoors inspired them to make gear that would last and be effective. Yvon’s company is known to have the best equipment and every thing that is made by Patagonia has a lifetime warranty. Patagonia gear is expensive which has been perplexing the market since it has become more successful. This is because Yvon and his company make some of the best gear out there and it is very eco friendly. In his company the environment is one of his biggest concerns and he’ll do whatever it takes to make his company more eco-friendly. Just like National Geographic photographer Brian Lehman said in an interview, “I do whatever it takes to be the best at what I do” and this is Yvon’s attitude when it comes to helping the environment.

He isn’t just trying to make his company more eco-friendly, but also his competitors. He is trying to make companies more transparent and that requires his own company to be completely honest about their products. A few years ago Patagonia was accused of live plucking geese to make their signature down jackets. It turns out that they weren’t live plucking the geese but they were being fed a very unhealthy and cheap substance. Right away they changed where their geese feathers came from. In their attempt to be a more transparent company they told the truth and owned up to the problem said when interviewing Chouinard. This was a very risky decision but earned his company a lot more respect. It seems like major corporations are trying to make excuses for their mistakes in order to save money and prevent a lawsuit. The company’s use of recycled materials and producing his clothes in an eco friendly way make Patagonia gear much more expensive. But it doesn’t seem to matter to the consumer because people want to be seen wearing Patagonia apparel. It seems like everyday you see somebody wearing a shirt with the silhouette of those jagged mountains and the signature blue and orange Patagonia colors.

In the book Outliers, Gladwell points out that location is also a key to success. Bill Gates grew up with a very privileged childhood. His parents had enough money to send him to a private school called Lakeside in Washington. This gave him the ability to use computer software and begin his 10,000 hours. “ Most colleges didn’t have computer clubs in the 1960’s.”, giving Gates the ability to be one of the first kids to use programming software, “Even more remarkable was the kind of computer Lakeside bought” (Gladwell 160). When Gates was in high school he had the ability to walk up to the University of Washington and use their cutting edge computer. Outliers spoke directly to the fortunate circumstances that Bill Gates was exposed to at an early age. He was able to use computer software from a young age and lived within walking distance to the University of Washington’s super computer. Helping Yvon Chouinard become more successful was the fact that he grew up in Southern California had the ability to climb in Yosemite when he got older. At this time he was climbing during what was called the “The Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing” and Yvon was one of the best in the business. He was the Michael Jordan of rock climbing and that knowledge translated to his ability to make climbing equipment and apparel.

Living in California Yvon found himself surfing whenever the surf was good and this philosophy is one that still exists at Patagonia headquarters in Ventura, California. If the surf is good, employees can go quickly run to the beach and surf for a while. Yvon has a very laid back management style, “I purposely try to hire people who are really self motivated and good at what they do, and then I just leave them alone” he said in an interview with journalist Liz Welch of

A bird comes flying down from the sky at 200 miles and hour and swoops at a small rabbit only a few yards from you. Then you see the falcon go land on some guy’s arm with a cowboy hat on. The art of Falconry is one that Yvon grew up practicing and this is where he was introduced to climbing. They learned how to rappel down cliffs from their instructor Don Prentice. This is a very unique circumstance but it’s how Yvon Chouinard got his start in climbing and where he developed his love for the outdoors. As Gladwell says in Outliers “Lucky breaks aren’t the exceptions in billionaires and rock bands and star athletes. They’re the rule.” (Gladwell 56). Being introduced to climbing through the rare art of Falconry is a very lucky thing just like Bill Gates living down the road from University of Washington’s super computer. Yvon was also born into a so-called demographic trough for climbing just like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were being born in the 1950’s. In the early 1980’s computer programming was just beginning to change the world with its capabilities to connect with one another and find information.

When he was 14 years old Yvon was hanging out at a place called Stoney Point every weekend and it was there that he met his group of dirt bag friends. They would go to the San Fernando Valley and teach themselves how to climb the walls ad rappel down them. In 1964 Chouinard made an ascent on the North American Wall in Yosemite during what is called the “Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing” and Yvon was leading the way in rock climbing. Surfing is also one of Yvon’s favorite activities and his experience with surfing helps him make high quality surfing apparel. Yvon acknowledges the fact that it is difficult to compete with the larger companies like Reef and Quicksilver who focus on just surfing. At Patagonia they sell running, surfing, camping and climbing gear and with only 1,350 workers it is hard to keep with companies like Nike who have around 30,000 employees. But this doesn’t matter to Yvon; he is fearless when it comes to running his company “I’m kind of like a samurai. They say if you want to be a samurai, you can’t be afraid of dying, and as soon as you flinch, you get your head cut off. I’m not afraid of losing this company.” says Yvon. He isn’t in the business to make money; he’s in the business to make things that people all around the world can use and to help educate the world on how they can help the environment.

Flying over beautiful mountains and rivers in his own private plane is something that Yvon loves to do. This sounds like the life of an eccentric millionaire and in some aspects he is, but the reason that Yvon is flying is to survey all the land that he purchased and saved from major Chilean manufacturing plants. He uses his money to help save the environment. The movie 180 Degrees South talks a lot about how Yvon and his friend (and founder of The North Face) Doug Tompkins are saving land in Patagonia and turning them into national parks. Yvon Chouinard is a very typical success story in the eyes of Malcolm Gladwell, he was exposed to climbing at a young age, grew up in a demographic trough for climbing, graduated from Stanford, achieved his 10,000 hours, had lucky opportunities and lived in a place allowing him to climb and develop his love for the outdoors. Just imagine that you and your friends are walking down the train tracks trying to balance on them when all the sudden a train comes. If you were Yvon and his friends you would hop on that train until you see something that you want to climb. The San Fernando Valley was where the group of dirt bag friends would hop off and go climb. He did whatever it took to climb more and attain his 10,000 hours. He went as far as hopping on freight trains like a hobo, hiding from park rangers and living in his egg white Volkswagen van to get to where he is today and that’s what it takes to be successful.

Works Cited

Archer, M. (2005, October 31). Founder of Patagonia became a businessman accidentally. USA Today. Retrieved March 9, 2015, from

Chouinard, Yvon. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Back Bay , Little Brown, 2008. Print.

Isenman, Lois. “Unconscious Intelligence.” Project MUSE. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.

Malloy, Chris, dir. 180 Degrees South, Rick Ridgeway, 2010. Netflix.

Stevenson, S. (2012, April 26). Patagonia’s Founder is America’s Most Unlikely Business Guru. Retrieved February 26, 2015, From


Mark Trautmann is majoring in biokinetics and has just finished his freshman year of college at Bethel University and has lived in Chanhassen, Minnesota for 18 years. Trautmann enjoys slalom waterskiing behind his 1981 shimmery blue Stars and Stripes Mastercraft, hunting with his new 870 semi-automatic winchester shotgun and fly fishing in the mountains of Montana.


I’ve learned that sitting on your Apple computer staring at a long article about Yvon Chouinard doesn’t actually mean that you learn something about him.

The key to a quality paper is telling a story then ending that paper with the story that you started with.

Small details about what you ate for breakfast that morning make the story more interesting.

I’ve learned that not all Gen Ed’s are pointless .

Good writers take you across the ocean and make you feel like you’re living in that place with them.

You know that moment in a song when you think the bass is going to drop but you’re actually like 5 seconds off? That’s what good writers do.

Naming the dog something cute and adorable like Fluffy makes me hope that Fluffy doesn’t get “taken out back.”

The awkward silence when you’re waiting for someone to share their story really isn’t that awkward if you just step up and share your own paper. Because at least you tried and it seems like after that others will share their story.

Hearing the words that you were just too afraid to hear are what great writers write about. They’ll make you feel like crap but at the same time give you the kick in the butt you need to make the change.

When writers make a characters breakfast more detailed than the moral of the story they did something right.

Sometimes smelling, tasting, touching, hearing and seeing the story are more important than just reading.

Writing sentences that contrast between greasy McDonalds’ Big Macs and Burger King’s fat filled Whoppers help you become a better writer.

An old blocky coke machine flies into the sunset with eagle wings. A sentence like that has never been written before.

Writing isn’t about who’s the best speller or who has the best grammar. It’s about who can make you feel something when you read the story.

You don’t have to be as good as Michael Jordan to be successful but have to be just as good as Metta World Peace.

When a writer makes you question the meaning of life, they’re doing their job right.

Chicken and bean quesadilla is flying all over the hall as you run to make it to the bathroom and the stench of your puke clears everyone out of the bathroom. Sometimes it’s necessary to leave those details out of the story.

Gladwellian Success

A college writing project by students at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minn.

    Mark Trautmann

    Written by

    Gladwellian Success

    A college writing project by students at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minn.