Yvon Chouinard, during filming of "180° South"

Yvon Chouinard, ever a dual-sport athlete. Photo: Jimmy Chin

The Inertia

It was one of only a handful of times that I’ve actually been afraid for one of my friends in the surf.  We were in Tahiti, at a break called Temae, a frightfully shallow, high-risk reef break on the island of Moorea. Not your typical Polynesian reef pass, Temae crystal clear tubes don’t explode into a deep water channel, but rather wrap around a very slight bend in the island’s configuration, building in size and strength as they spin down the line like a horizontal hurricane. A horizontal hurricane breaking in thigh-deep water over serrated knife-blades, with dry coral only a board length away; no straightening off, no kicking out, the only option being to drive into the hollowest, shallowest section from behind, pull in under the pouring lip, and hope to emerge at the only relatively deep spot on the reef where a breathless pullout becomes possible. Scary wave.

I’d been sitting at the top of the reef next to Yvon Chouinard, nervously awaiting the next set. I was up. Yvon, on the other hand, was his typically unruffled self, gazing out toward the deep blue expanse beyond the reef. I’d seen this look before. Yvon and I had surfed together many times in many places – home in Ventura, the Ranch, Hawaii, Panama, Kiribati and other spots here in Tahiti – so I’d grown accustomed to his demeanor in the lineup. He is not the sort of man who lets what he’s experiencing show on his face, as if regardless of the circumstance he’s always focused on what is coming up from over the horizon, anticipating the next move.

A set came and I took it, committing to the racetrack and just barely outpacing the shadow of the curl as I flew down the line. No stalling for the barrel, I just wanted to make the wave and get out of it unscathed. Which I did, feeling, if not exactly jazzed, then at least reasonably satisfied with my performance. Paddling back out, however, I saw that the second wave of the set was significantly bigger, drawing even more water off the reef as it neared the crux barrel section. And Yvon was on it. 

There was a moment, just a moment, when the wall straightened before going completely concave. If he’d responded immediately, he may have been able to carve up and out the back of the wave at this point. To go any farther was to commit to a thick, bottomless, ten-foot barrel over damp, razor-sharp coral. Yvon was 55 years old at the time. 

He didn’t bail out, and I may have screamed his name as he drove his eight-foot Walden pintail at full speed into the tube, passing me below sea level, encased in blue, treacherous crystal. Punching through the wave myself, I immediately sat up and turned to face what I assumed would be a traumatic scene: Yvon being dragged across the jagged reef, badly mauled but hopefully still conscious. Instead, his streaming wake was still visible through the back of the rolling cylinder, being chased by the curl all the way down to the inside of the reef, where I saw Yvon deftly kick out and begin the long paddle back to where I sat. As he approached, I could only shake my head.

“Yvon, what were you thinking?” I asked.

Eyes sparkling, a smile creasing his cheeks.

“The leader must not fall,” he said.

Yvon, right where he wants to be. Photo: Let My People Go Surfing//Patagonia

Yvon was referring to an old adage rigorously adhered to in a very different medium: early 20th century rock climbing, where the man on the sharp end of the rope – in this case a flimsy manila rope tied around the waist, sans-harness – could not risk a fall, potentially pulling out dubiously-placed pitons and dragging he and his partners to their deaths. I’d first heard this delightfully sanguine statement while roped to Yvon myself, preparing to follow him up a relatively easy climbing route in Wyoming’s Grand Teton Range. As I fussed into my new Black Diamond harness, I’d noticed Yvon simply tying a strap of nylon webbing around his waist, the classic “swami belt,” a vestige of another era. I asked him how’d they pioneered all those legendary, revolutionary routes in Yosemite attached to nothing but a thin nylon sash.

“Like on that very first ascent of the North America Wall, when you pulled over the roof, and there was no going back,” I said. “ What happened if you fell?”

“You couldn’t,” he said. “Just like that earlier generation, we had a single rule. The leader must not fall.”

I certainly didn’t want to fall that day at Tamè – even less when roped up to one of the world’s most celebrated climbers, though I knew I could implicitly trust him to catch me should I come off the rock. Yet here was my climbing adage: the follower must not fall.

Falling was definitely on my mind the time when, visiting in Italy, I teamed up with Yvon and a good friend of his for a day of climbing in La Spezia, on the border between Liguria and Tuscany. Norbert Sandner was from Frankenjura, Germany, and a legendary rock climber in his own right. Medium height, dark, longish hair, soft-spoken with massive shoulders and veiny, grapefruit biceps, Norbert and his wife owned a small mountaineering shop in Nuremberg, at the time one of Patagonia’s best accounts in Germany.

Driving north on the Autostrada 12 to La Spezia, Yvon explained that beyond Norbert’s run-of-the-mill superhuman exploits, he’s famous for the longest non-fatal fall in mountaineering history: 3,000 feet, tumbling down a glacier in Italy’s Dolomites. A master of understatement, Yvon, who’s survived more than his share of expeditionary ordeals, adds this bit only as an aside, after telling me that Norbert is also learning how to surf, as if the two were on a similar scale. Maybe if Norbert were trying to learn on a giant day at Nazarè.

We wove our way around the Bay of La Spezia, past the sheltered Italian naval base and up onto the spine of the peninsula. Climbing the winding, single-lane road we were afforded perfect postcard views of La Spezia and its harbor: huge, towering cranes and rectangular dry docks. Finally the road could go no higher, disappearing into a forest of juniper, and we pulled over into a dirt parking lot. Scattered around were campers and combis and Subaru station wagons with Thule bike racks on the roof and La SportivaBlack Diamond and Scarpa stickers plastered over the rear windows. We were back with Yvon’s other tribe.

A well-worn trail though green juniper and pine, left down a yellow rocky steppe and onto a flat, broad ledge and then there was the Mediterranean, spreading out away from the base of the cliff as blue as Tibetan turquoise and flat as a pond. But it was good to look out over water toward a flat horizon, before turning back around and looking up at the limestone face we’d come to climb.

Yvon, grumpily nursing an elbow he shattered three months previous during a kayak trip on Lanai, agreed to lead our first climb, having diplomatically asked Norbert to belay; he might, on occasion, follow my lead in the surf, but there was a limit to his indulgence. Besides, it gave me the opportunity to step back and watch the man in this very different element. Yvon is small, stocky, and walks with a rolling gait that suggests a man with a heavy hammer stepping up to an anvil. But he’s a dancer on the rock and moves up gracefully, methodically, trusting his feet more than hauling away with his big back muscles and country ham forearms.

As we watched Yvon smoothly ascend, expending no unnecessary energy as he moved from pocket to limestone pocket, I timidly asked Norbert about his epic fall in the Dolomites; not until he began to belay, tilting his head up to follow Yvon’s progress, did I notice the scar tissue under his shaggy dark hair – and that he couldn’t extend one arm more than 45 degrees.

 “I will tell you, the worst injury was in my head,” he said. “I had no confidence then. The first time I climb again I get very scared, and about halfway up a not so very difficult climb, I freeze. But I force myself to go up, to keep moving. I have to get back on the horse, yes?”

“Yeah, I’ve ridden that horse a few times,” I told him.

“Sure,” Norbert said. “All men must. But you know, I did all my hardest climbing in the years after the fall.”

The author, broadening his perspective.

Yvon, topping out at about 60 feet, efficiently set up a top rope on the anchor chains and Norbert lowered him off the wall. Back on the ground he untied from his harness (at least he was wearing one this time) and handed me the lead end of the rope.

“When you get to the overhang near the top, trust your feet,” was all he said.

So up I went. With the rope running to the top of the climb, through two offset carabiners, and back down to me, and with Yvon taking in the slack, I could slip but not actually fall. But try telling your mind that when you’re 30 feet up, teetering on a tiny ledge the width of a quarter laid sideways. Anyway, the prevalent emotion wasn’t fear of falling— it was fear of failure, knowing who held the other end of the rope, and who was standing next to him, chatting amicably.

Approaching the overhang, I stood on a very small ledge, maybe twelve inches long and two inches wide, feet splayed, up on the balls of my feet, bearing the weight on my big toes – no hands to speak of. To keep moving up I had to lean out and then reach around a slight bulge with my left hand, grab some sort of hold, then step out, with nothing under my butt but air. The key would be getting my feet quickly underneath me again, a bit higher up, while clinging to the overhang with just one hand. I didn’t want to do the move, but knew I couldn’t stand here long with sewing machine leg, my cheek against the rock. I tried slowing my breath, taking in the view from my airy perch; gulls wheeling in lazy arcs along the vertical face, green treetops and the soft blue Mediterranean below. Remembering the story of the young paratrooper, standing in the wind at the open troop carrier door, teeth chattering.

 “‘What the hell’s the matter, son?” yelled his jump sergeant.

  “Afraid of heights, sir,” answered the recruit.

  “So why the hell you join Airborne?” asked the sergeant.

  “Because I like being around men who aren’t, sir,” he replied. Then stepping out.


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