‘When Climbing Was Dangerous and Sex Was Safe’
By John Heilprin, AAC Board Director / Chairman of AAC Information & Marketing Committee
The American Alpine Club hosts hundreds of events every year, but the most anticipated is the Annual Benefit Dinner. With Yvon Chouinard as our special guest in Denver last weekend, nearly 600 members enjoyed a rare opportunity to hear the climbing and business legend speak out. His talk focused on the Golden Age of climbing in Yosemite, and the freedom and pioneering spirit of those early days. AAC board member John Heilprin recounts Chouinard’s unforgettable stories from a night, and weekend, that will long be remembered.
“This is the ’60s now.” He smiled fondly at a photo of young climbing dirtbags—himself included—lounging around Yosemite’s Camp 4. “This is when climbing was dangerous and sex was safe.”
Yvon Chouinard’s keynote presentation Saturday night focused on his lifelong philosophy to “Do More With Less” that drove his success on Yosemite’s big walls and in business through the decades that followed. To explain how he wound up at Yosemite in the first place, he recounted growing up in Lisbon, ME, a French Canadian who couldn’t speak English. At the age of eight, his family of six sold everything and piled into a car for a “Grapes of Wrath migration” to Burbank, CA. “So there I couldn’t speak English, was the shortest kid in school. Ran away from school immediately and pretty much took a different path for the rest of my life,” he began. “Had an alcoholic father, had a family that was bickering all the time, fighting, had to get out of the house. Anybody else here have a situation like that? Every climber I know!”
“I tried a few team sports, and I was pretty good, but every time it came time for a game, I fumbled the ball,” he continued. “So I decided early on that if you want to be a winner, invent your own games.”
Chouinard, who is now 75, got into climbing at the age of 12 while training hawks and falcons, and talked about how in business, like in climbing, “you don’t focus on the end result, you focus on the process.”
And, finally, there was Chouinard, who said the corporate world can learn a lot from his simple climbing ethic. He gave a compelling look behind the scenes at his life and what drove him as he got into business making reusable hard pitons to help him climb harder but have as little impact as possible on the environment.
“Our attitude was you climb the mountains and you leave no trace,” said Chouinard, who initially made two pitons an hour and sold them to friends. “I sold them for a dollar and a half each, and at the time European pitons were selling for 15 cents. But, you know, the best kind of business to be in is where you make addicts of your customers.”
Around the time of his first climbs, like the Lost Arrow Chimney and North Face of Sentinel Rock, he was climbing in Yosemite from April to July, then when it got too hot he’d head for the mountains, and spend summers in the Tetons. He’d find some natural shelter, he said, and didn’t even own a tent until he was 40 years old. “It’s amazing what you can do without a tent. You know, you can always find little caves, overhanging boulders, an Alpine fir, a tree—if you can crawl underneath the low branches, you’ll never get a drop of water on you. It’s kind of the beginning of Light and Fast,” he chuckled.
His heroes were European climbers who focused on the great Alpine north faces like France’s Gaston Rebuffat, whom he climbed with and would spend hours with talking about bivouacs. “He was a soulful climber, and more than anybody else I picked up the soul of climbing from him,” Chouinard said.
He was sent to Korea during the war, but every Saturday morning before inspection his company commander told him to get lost because he caused so much trouble. “I can’t stand authority. I can’t stand anybody telling me what to do,” he said. “So off I went and I did all these first ascents in Korea. I came back from Korea in 1964 and luckily my first climb after Korea—Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, and Chuck Pratt asked me to go along to try the North America Wall on El Cap.”
They succeeded, of course, in making the first ascent of that El Capitan classic and ushered in a new Golden Age of climbing in Yosemite—and in America. He kept climbing rock and ice, and revolutionizing the equipment used, all around the world. He formed a business partnership with Frost and moved the “dirtbag shop”—with dirtbag climber employees—to Ventura, CA, to be closer to the ocean and surfing.
“Over the years, we basically reinvented every piece of climbing equipment. And we weren’t inventors, we were innovators. There’s a big difference,” he said. “I can’t help myself. I look at a spoon, and I say, ‘I can make a better spoon.’ It’s just in my nature. So that’s what we did.”
He recalled hopping trains to get around and spending time in jail to get a hot meal or shelter. He met and married his wife Malinda Pennoyer in 1971 and they had a son, Fletcher, and daughter, Claire. He had a succession of famous climbing partners, like the ultimate dirtbag climber Fred Beckey, who’s now 91. Chouinard credited Beckey with teaching him how to glissade while standing up, and with being an important mentor.
One time, while on an expedition to Pakistan, Chouinard said he ran into gun runners and then a camel caravan on a trail unloading full-size Marilyn Monroe lookalike sex dolls. Another time, while fishing, Chouinard said he reeled in something else on the line—a size 40 pink bra—and the evidence was in the slide he showed.
“And my friend said, ‘Hey Chouinard, see if you can still unhook that with one hand,’ he recalled. “But I couldn’t.”
The focus was on adventure, and good humor. He learned how to really kayak by leaving the paddle behind one time, and had a perfect run, feeling like a fish flexing in the water. He said he decided to live near the ocean to be able to see the horizon, for perspective in life, and to travel to the mountains in his spare time.
He called the times he spent in Yosemite the greatest of his life, an era of cheap living in the fossil fuels era, when there was a lot of fat in the American landscape. There was a leisure class at either end of the social spectrum, he quoted, and that’ll probably never happen again.
“I’ve been in the Golden Age of all of these sports,” he said. “It’s really fortunate to be part of that. It’s the most adventurous time of any sport.”
Even before we got a rare look under the hood of Yvon Chouinard’s world—his one-handed bra unsnaps, train hopping, jail stints, and other milestones of a legendary climbing and maverick business career—there were numerous peaks in the American Alpine Club’s weekend festivities.
The sold-out event was one of the AAC’s most successful fundraisers ever, securing more than $150,000 for AAC programs—most of that aimed at a new education initiative. The AAC is investigating a plan for drawing on its expertise to develop a nationally standardized curriculum aimed at people who want to learn or hone basic skills for climbing outside.
The program was discussed as part of an AAC board meeting Friday at the American Mountaineering Center in Golden, CO. The focus was how best to continue fulfilling the AAC’s new guiding principles—mission, vision, and core values—to support our passion for climbing and respect for the places we climb. The weekend itself, drawing climbers of all generations and abilities, showed those principles in action, building on our recent progress.
After the board meeting the AAC held its Annual Membership Meeting to report that we have more than 13,000 members for the first time in history, and to formally induct Kit DesLauriers, Phil Lakin, and Janet Wilkinson as new board members.
Climbing legends Lynn Hill and Chris Sharma were among the teams of climbers that wowed hundreds of people at the Friday night Climbers’ Gathering and celebrity climbing competition at the new Earth Treks Climbing Center in Golden.
On Saturday morning, the AAC and Access Fund boards held a rare joint meeting. The Access Fund changed its board meeting date to be able to attend the AAC dinner and discuss ways to work together more closely.
Also Saturday, Hill opened up about her highs and lows, her loves and fears, on a panel of women climbers with Alison Osius as moderator at the Sheraton Denver Downtown hotel, where the dinner was held. The panel also included Melissa Arnot, Delaney Miller, Angie Payne, Kate Rutherford, and Madaleine Sorkin.
Steve House and Hans Florine talked at another panel about doing more with less on rock and alpine climbs. Another session by Sallie Greenwood featured climbing feats by Elizabeth Le Blond, Claude Kogan, Annie Peck, Fanny Bullock Workman, and Miriam Underhill, talking about their pioneering climbs in high places. Sibylle Hechtel rounded out the look at women’s achievements with a separate focus on Yosemite history.
At book signings with Steve House, Fred Wolfe, Chris Noble, Stephen Bartlett, and Jim Davidson, climbers got to pay their respects to Jeff Lowe, who put his autograph on his classic handbook Ice World ahead of his upcoming film, Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia. There also were behind the scenes tours of the AAC library throughout the weekend.
Along with the fine dining, there was Silver Oak wine, Avery beer, live and silent auctions, and awards honoring climbing’s luminaries and rising stars. Patagonia was the presenting sponsor of the event, and all proceeds from the night directly fund AAC programs.
Longtime member Robert Hall accepted the Angelo Heilprin Citation; House took the Robert and Miriam Underhill Award; James Balog got the David R. Brower Conservation Award; Sorkin won the Robert Hicks Bates Award; and Freddie Wilkinson was given the H. Adams Carter Literary Award.
“Chouinard reminded everyone that climbing liberates us,” said AAC Marketing Director Erik Lambert after the event. “While the carefree life of the ’60s may be a bygone era, here at the AAC we see climbers coming together in incredible ways to support each other every day. The Golden Age of our climbing community still has its best years to come.”
The AAC would like to give enormous thanks Yvon Chouinard and Patagonia for making the evening possible. Thanks also to Kevin Duncan and the entire Host Committee for their tireless support that ensured the event’s success.
We will see you in New York next year!
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