Some Stories: Lessons from the Edge of Business and Sport

Some Stories: Lessons from the Edge of Business and Sport

by Yvon Chouinard


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“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”— Yvon Chouinard

For nearly 80 years, Yvon Chouinard has followed his own advice, pursuing, with equal fervor, sports adventures, business excellence, and environmental activism. Since 1950, he has captured the lessons and revelations he’s learned in articles and books, personal letters and poetry, introductions and eulogies. In this fascinating inside look, Chouinard himself has selected his favorites from years of reflection, all accompanied by illustrative photos, many never published before. The results is both more of Chouinard’s iconoclastic and provocative thinking, his skilled storytelling and sense of humor, and a picture of the evolution of his thoughts and philosophies. With articles on sports, from falconry to fishing and climbing to surfing, with musings on the purpose of business and the importance of environmental activism, this very personal book is like sitting on the couch with this amazing man, flipping through his photo album as he tells the stories of his life. Some Stories is an eclectic portrait of a unique life lived well.

Yet the final pages of the book indicate that Chouinard will continue to challenge people, business, and the world. He presents the company's new simple but direct mission statement, revised for the first time in 27 years: "We are in business to save our home planet." With it he emphasizes the urgency of the climate crisis then entreats every person's obligation to reflect on, commit to, and act on this mission.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781938340826
Publisher: Patagonia
Publication date: 04/23/2019
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 83,027
Product dimensions: 8.70(w) x 9.70(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Yvon Chouinard is the founder and owner of Patagonia, Inc., based in Ventura, California.

Read an Excerpt

Lessons from the Edge

When I was seven, our family sold our house in the French-speaking town of Lisbon, Maine, and auctioned off all our possessions. The six of us piled into the Chrysler and drove to California. The day after we arrived in Burbank, I was enrolled in public school. Being the smallest boy in class, and unable to speak English, I did the logical thing. On the third day of school, I ran away.

I eventually went back, but ever afterward I remained at the edge of things. Before the other kids in my neighborhood were allowed to cross the street on their own, I was bicycling seven or eight miles to a lake on a private golf course, where I would hide in the willows and fish for bluegills and bass. Later I discovered Griffith Park and the Los Angeles River, where I spent every day after school gigging frogs, trapping crawdads, and hunting cottontails with my bow and arrow.

I didn’t take part in any of the usual activities of high school. I remember math class was an opportunity to practice breath holding so, on the weekends, I could free-dive deeper to catch the abundant abalone and lobster off the Malibu coast. A few of us misfits started a falconry club where we used falcons and hawks for hunting.

Rappelling down to falcon aeries led to learning to climb, which led to trips to Wyoming at the age of sixteen to climb Gannett Peak, the highest mountain in the Wind River Range. Every year thereafter was spent climbing mountains, kayaking, and fishing rivers. During some of those years I slept 200 nights in a sleeping bag. In fact, I resisted buying a tent until I was over forty. I preferred to sleep under the stars or, in storms, under a boulder or tucked under the branches of an alpine fir. I particularly liked sleeping in a hammock hanging from a rock wall on multiday climbs.

My passion for climbing mountains led to earning a living working as a blacksmith—forging pitons, ice axes, and other tools. I never intended for this craft to become a business, but every time my partner Tom Frost and I returned from the mountains, our heads were spinning with new ideas for improving the existing tools. Our guiding principle of design was a quote from the aviator and writer Antoine St. Exupéry: “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” Quality control was always foremost in our minds because if a tool failed it could kill someone.

All winter I forged gear. For the rest of the year, I continued to lead a counter-culture life on the fringes of society—living on fifty cents a day on a diet of oatmeal, potatoes, and canned cat food; camping all summer in an old incinerator in the abandoned CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp in the Tetons of Wyoming. In the spring and fall I would climb the granite walls of Yosemite Valley. We were the “Valley Cong,” living like guerillas in the nooks and boulders behind Camp 4.

We liked the fact that climbing rocks and icefalls had no economic value for society. We were rebels from the consumer culture of our parents. Businessmen were “grease balls” and corporations were the source of all evil. The natural world was our home. Our heroes were Muir, Thoreau, Emerson, Gaston Rebuffet, and Herman Bühl. We were living on the edges of the ecosystem—adaptable, resilient, and tough. What didn’t kill us made us stronger. We also grew smarter.

I learned to appreciate simplicity. Management is the art of organizing complexity. You shouldn’t try to solve complex problems with more complexity.

Of course, every winter I returned to my business, even if I didn’t call it that. Later on, we applied the same philosophy of simplicity of design and reliability to the production of climbing clothing. The best products are the simplest. Our customers appreciated our “hand-forged” Stand Up Shorts, rugby shirts, and corduroy knickers. It took me twenty years of being in business before I would admit that I was a businessman—and would probably be one for the rest of my life.

The values learned from a life in nature, from climbing and other risk sports, could also be applied to business. In the practice of Zen archery, you forget about trying to achieve the goal—that is, hitting the bull’s-eye. Instead, you focus on all of the individual movements. You practice your stance, reach back, and pull an arrow out of the quiver, notching it on the string. You match your breathing to the release of the arrow. When you perfect all the elements of shooting an arrow, it can’t help but go into the bull’s-eye. Climbing mountains, too, is a process. How you climb a mountain is more important that getting to the top.

The process to perfection is through simplification. When T.M. Herbert and I made the first ascent of a route on El Capitan, which we later named the Muir Wall, we studied the route from below, calculated how many days it would take, and took just enough equipment and supplies. Ten days later, we reached the top with no water, food, or bolts left. We knew our abilities, had accurately calculated the risk, and then pulled it off. Later, climbers would come and solo the route, free-climb it, do speed ascents. Each generation of climbers has evolved physically and mentally so that equipment becomes less necessary. When the best speed climbers do the 3,000-foot Nose route on El Capitan, they no longer need haul bags or Gore-Tex because they are down by lunch; they may do Half Dome and maybe a couple more walls before the day is over.

Living a life close to nature has also taught me about responsibility. No animal is so stupid and greedy as to foul its own nest—except the human animal. Ten years ago, the prestigious Worldwatch Institute reported, “If growth proceeds along the lines of recent decades, it is only a matter of time before global systems collapse under the pressure.” Recently, in its State of the World 2000 report, Worldwatch had this to say: “We hoped that we could begin the next century with an upbeat report, one that would show the Earth’s health improving. But unfortunately, the list of trends we were concerned with then—shrinking forests, eroding soils, falling water tables, collapsing fisheries, and disappearing species—has since lengthened to include rising temperatures, more destructive storms, dying coral reefs, and melting glaciers.”

We are destroying the very systems on which our lives depend. We continue to delude ourselves into thinking that technology is the answer. But technology is a limited tool. It creates industries, but eliminates jobs. It cures disease, but doesn’t make us healthier. It frees us from some chores, but so far has led to a net loss of leisure time. There is a down side to every technological advancement. All technology has really done is to allow more of us to reside on this Earth. Because we are all part of nature, we need to look to nature for the solutions.

To act responsibly, we need to make some fundamental changes. We have to work toward becoming a sustainable society. Planning and decisions need to be made on the premise that we’re all going to be around for a long time. The Iroquois nations extended their planning for seven generations into the future. Such planning would preclude natural disasters like clear-cutting the last of the old-growth forest or destroying rivers with dams that will silt up in twenty years. As a businessman, if I really believe in the rightness of such planning, then my own company, which is dependent on nonrenewable resources to make consumer goods, must also do the “right thing.”

When I think of sustainability, I think back to when I was a GI in Korea. There, I saw farmers pouring night soil on paddies that had been in continuous use for 3,000 years. Each generation of farmers had left the land in as good or better condition as when they received it. Contrast this with modern agribusiness, which wastes two bushels of topsoil to produce one bushel of corn, and pumps groundwater at a rate 25 percent faster than it’s being replenished. A responsible government encourages farmers to be good stewards of the land and to practice sustainable agriculture. But why should only the farmer or the fisherman or forester have the responsibility to see that the Earth remains habitable for future generations of humans and other wild things?

My business has taken a close look at its own impact on nature. We do an ongoing environmental assessment of all our business processes, including a “life cycle” analysis of our products—from material source, to manufacturing, to shipping, to consumer care, to ultimate disposal. Then, once you have taken the trouble to learn what you’re really doing, you have to act upon that knowledge. We switched to 100% organic cotton, partnered with bluesign® to manage our dyes and chemicals used in our products, and dramatically increased the use of recycled materials in our line. We replaced paper cups with permanent ware at our offices, and we reuse paper clips. We use energy-efficient lightbulbs throughout our buildings. We use 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper in our catalogs, marketing materials, and for office purposes. We use reclaimed lumber and source local materials to build our retail stores as much as possible.

One of the most positive changes was to stop using conventionally grown cotton. Cotton can be one of the most damaging crops to grow. Twenty-five percent of the total amount of insecticide used in the world is applied to cotton fields, which occupy only 3 percent of the world’s farmland. Before harvesting, a cotton field is treated up to twenty-five times with fertilizers, growth promoters, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. Then the plant has to be defoliated before being harvested by mechanical pickers. Arsenic was used for this purpose—now paraquat is used, the chemical America used to spray on its wartime enemies. Most of the chemical residue ends up in the aquifer, in workers’ lungs, and, since cottonseed is a food product, in your potato chips. When we learned of this in 1995, we decided that we would rather not be in business if we had to make clothing this way. Since 1996 we have not used any industrially grown cotton in our clothing.

We’ve made some big changes but we’ve made some disheartening discoveries also. One is that “sustainable manufacturing” is an oxymoron. It’s impossible to manufacture something without using more material and energy than the resulting final product. For instance, modern agriculture takes 3,000 calories of fossil fuel to produce a net 1,000 calories of food. The rest is waste. If you wanted to replace the output of one Orlon mill with natural wool, you would have to raise sheep from Maine to the Mississippi. Yet Orlon is made from oil, which is not sustainable. In the long run, any attempt to achieve sustainability on this Earth with six billion people seems doomed to fail. But we have to work toward that goal of sustainability, recognizing that it’s an ever-receding summit. It’s the process that counts.

These environmental assessments have educated us, and forced us to make hard choices. Each day that we act positively on those choices takes us further along the path to sustainability. Yet we are not martyrs. Every time we elect to do the right thing, it turns out to be more profitable and it strengthens our confidence that we are going to be in business for a long time. That’s the lesson corporations need to learn.

But because we realize we’re still net polluters, we take another step: We “tax” ourselves for using up nonrenewable resources. We reserve one percent of our total sales and use it to protect and restore our natural environment. Rather than waiting for the government to tax energy consumption and pollution, we decided to do it ourselves. Over the past fifteen years Patagonia has contributed more than fifteen million dollars to grassroots environmental organizations (100 million dollars by 2018).

In 2002, we decided to take this idea to the next level: We started an organization called One Percent for the Planet, an alliance of businesses pledging to donate one percent of their total revenue to efforts that protect and restore our natural environment. Each member company contributes to organizations of its choosing. This simplifies the decision-making process of the licensing corporation (and minimizes attendant bureaucracy) and encourages member companies to develop independent relationships with the groups they support. In return, member companies are licensed to use the One Percent for the Planet logo in their marketing.

Few believe that society’s religious leaders, politicians, or corporate moguls are going to save us from the apocalyptic slide that we are on when there already exist hundreds of thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) devoted to solving the world’s problems. They are far more capable of doing it than multinational corporations or bureaucratic government agencies. The problem is these nonprofits are often dependent on small donations or “bake sales” to fund their good works. The intent of the One Percent for the Planet Alliance is to help fund these diverse environmental organizations so that, collectively, they can be a more powerful force. They can start the revolution.

The one percent idea doesn’t have to be limited to businesses. Any individual can do that right now—simply tax yourself. The best part is you decide where the money goes. It’s taxation with direct representation, a true democracy. We can all be part of the revolution to transform the way people think and act.

The importance of environmental action is the most recent lesson that a life on the edge has taught me. All along the way, the natural world forces you to see what you might otherwise miss. Our treasure, anything of real value, comes from the Earth and sun, and it’s our responsibility to protect it.

First published in Extreme Landscape: The Lure of Mountain Spaces by Bernadette McDonald, National Geographic Society, 2002. Also, much of this material appeared in Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard, Penguin Books, first edition 2006, updated edition 2016.

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Minutes–Southern California Falconry Club
  • Lessons from the Edge
  • Letter to Dave and Ann Croft
  • Introduction to Climbing and Surfing in the 1950s
  • Remember That Big Storm
  • The Master’s Apprentice
  • The North Wall of Mount Edith Cavell
  • Quarter Dome – North Face
  • Modern Yosemite Climbing
  • Sentinel Rock: A New Direct North Wall Route
  • Personal Notes from the North American Wall
  • Muir Wall – El Capitan
  • Letter to Malinda Pennoyer
  • Fun Hogs
  • Thoughts on Climbing in the Kaisergeberg
  • Coonyard Mouths Off
  • Das Tent
  • Letter to Ken Wilson, Mountain Magazine, Chouinard Cerro Torre
  • On Tump Lines
  • All That Glitters Isn’t Gold
  • Coonyard Mouths Off – Part II
  • Salsipuedes
  • Excerpts from Climbing Ice
  • My Life on Ice
  • The Myth of Powder
  • Pinhead’s Progress
  • One-Way Trip on the Clarks Fork
  • ‘Opihi Man by Claire Chouinard and The Rest of the Story
  • Dear Mum
  • The Secret Weapon
  • Seaweed Salad
  • Attack of the Killer Limpets
  • Eat da Bait!
  • Bad Day at Flat Rock
  • Further Adventures with the Atoll Man: A Month at Sea and on Land
  • Foreword to No Bad Waves
  • Dear Claire
  • A Miracle in Calcutta
  • Dear Mister President
  • Why Voting Is Not a Waste of Time
  • An Introduction to Glenn Exum
  • Memorial for Dick Pownal
  • Eulogy for Bruce Hill
  • Why a Tools Conference, Patagonia’s Tools for Grassroots Activist
  • We Lost a Chief – Doug Tompkins
  • Measuring Time
  • The Minestrone Hatch
  • Sucker Cakes
  • Bhutan Brown Trout
  • The Pack
  • A Good Skunking
  • Lessons from a Simple Fly
  • Threats to Coldwater Fisheries
  • The Responsible Economy
  • Do Good
  • Zen Lessons
  • What People are Saying About This

    From the Publisher

    “I’ve climbed mountains with Yvon; trekked to Lo Montane; back-country-skiied; kayaked through the Russian wilderness; bushwhacked in Patagonia; fished for salmon, permit, bones, trout; shot upland birds; consumed lots of great food and wine. In his company I’ve often been terrified but always entertained and never bored. In my long, lucky life I count our friendship as an enduring blessing.” — Tom Brokaw


    Mr. Chouniard, typically a recluse, took to the airwaves to bash Mr. Trump. “This government is evil, and I’m not going to sit back and let evil win,” he said on CNN. — "Patagonia vs Trump," May 5, 2018, The New York Times



    The Golden Age of a sport is when the most innovation in technique and equipment occurs, and I’ve been fortunate to have lived and participated in the Golden Age of many an outdoor sport: spearfishing, falconry, fly fishing, whitewater kayaking, telemark and backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and Yosemite big-wall climbing.

    I don’t consider myself much of a writer, I’m more of a story teller really. I’ve had a pretty rich, adventurous, and, so far, lucky life in which I’ve amassed quite a few stories that would be of interest to some people. That’s the reason for this book.

    I’m a passionate reader, but I rarely read fiction. You have to be a lot more creative to write fiction. Fashion photography is way more difficult than landscape, art more difficult than illustration. Also, I prefer to watch documentary films.

    In school, I was tasked with writing an essay titled “I, Why.” What a horror! I stared at my white sheet of paper for an hour trying to find a cornerstone to build on. But if you tell me to write a five-hundred-word essay on what I ate for breakfast, no problem.

    I’ve tried to live a simple life focused neither on the past nor future, but on the present. Admitting to myself that I’m basically a simple person, I’ve tried to keep my words and sentences simple.

    I’ve found that I get a lot of creative satisfaction from breaking the rules in sport and business. Plus, it’s a lot easier than conforming and, in the end, leads to better stories.

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