Saturday, June 5, 2010
180 Degrees South: Adventures with Yvon Chouinard, or: Stalking Your Hero Leads to Personal Growth and Restraining Orders
Last night, I went out and saw a great new movie called 180 Degrees South. Its the story of a man, Jeff Johnson, who found some footage of Yvon Couinard and his friend Doug Thompkins on their 1968 trip to Patagonia.
Jeff became intrigued with the idea of following in mentor's footsteps, and following the same route that Yvon and Doug had taken on their trip. As luck would have it, Yvon and Doug ended up joining Jeff on part of his remarkable, yet simple journey, and the story that gets told is beautiful.
I was struck by so much of the movie, I would say that the central theme which it gets across very well is a message to all of us to walk with our feet on the earth and open our eyes to look carefully at what is truly happening around us. Taking a small adventure, of any kind, leads to growth and change of your person, of your ideals, and hopefully then of the way you interact with the land, and your priorities. Its a grass roots revolution.
Couinard and Christian Beckwith both spoke last night before the film, and they had similar messages: (to paraphrase:) "I can't change the whole world. What I'm doing isn't going to stop the oil flow or end the Korean crisis. But it can affect a small amount of change at my own door." and that has a ripple effect which may eventually change the way we look at building dams and drilling into the sea bed.
While the message was clear, and the story intriguingly enough that they didn't have to sell it hard, we willingly went on the journey with Jeff and his friends, longing to be out there with him experiencing that kind of growth ourselves, the thing that struck me was what was happening with Yvon.
I'd never met him before last night, and mostly, I listened to him talking with Bill Briggs, another climber and mountaineer in his 70s.
People keep asking me why I'm here, why am I in Jackson this weekend, and the answer seems so silly, I traveled up here to take a walk with Bill Briggs and to take a hike with Pepi Stiegler. That's really all there is to it. I drove for 20 hours and took a week off work on the off chance that those guys might be free to tell me stories and go for a spin around town. I feel like there aught to be more to it, when I answer the question, I usually say, "Well, I'm a writer, and I'm spending a little time with Bill and writing about him." But that implies something other than what is real, which is that I want to meet the person inside the icon and say thank you, and let my story unfold, touched by theirs.
So I'm standing next to Chouinard and Briggs having a glass of wine, and watching as Yvon shows his hands to Bill. The knuckles look like climber's knuckles, so many of those I've taped over the years in my athletes, swolen and thick, the tendons just on the verge of an angry flare up. "I can't climb anymore, it hurts too much." Yvon says to Bill.
"I know, the body. It gives out after a while." Says Bill, who has dealt with a fused hip since 1971.
"Mostly, I fly-fish now." says Chouinard. I look at him and try to see how he feels about this. I know he is a legendary climber. I haven't read that much about him, so while I know he is an icon in the climbing community, and that he is the founder of Patagonia, I feel like I am looking just at a guy who loved to climb, who defined a lot of his life by it, and who cant' do it any more.
The only difference that I see between Chouinard and my friend Louie or my friend Dennis is exposure. They are people who love to climb, who work to make enough money for the next climbing trip, who define their lives by moments in the mountains.
We went in to the movie and I watched Jeff make his journey in the footsteps of his hero, I learned about conservation in patagonia, I learned about three hundred Gaouchos opposing the Chilean government on the building of dams.
And I watched Chouniard openly accept the people around him who had dreams. I watched him encourage Jeff, I watched him teach Makohe, an easter Island native to walk with an ice axe. I watched him realize that he still longed to climb, and I watched him make his last ascent. There was beauty in the way he spread the dream of climbing, there was never an idea that Jeff shouldn't be making this trip because he hadn't paid his dues on ice, there was never the idea that adventure of this magnitude is reserved for the icons of our time.
There was no ideas imposed on why or what it would mean, it was just a group of people, respecting those who had come before, building a new dream, quietly discovering themselves and their friendships. Watching Jeff become was interesting, and full of lessons. Watching Yvon was beautiful.
The story wasn't about him, but the expression on his face after having just talked to him moments before about moving away from climbing and accepting that things were different now made it impossible for me not to follow him with my heart in the film.
They climbed their last peak, Jeff accompanying Doug and Yvon, and when they ask Yvon what he wants to call the route, he says, "Nothing, lets just get it done." What do you do when you are walking to the finish? They climbed it, they summited. Bittersweet is the wrong word, it doesn't begin to describe saying goodbye to the thing you love on purpose.