Things didn't get much easier when he learned English. "I was a loner," Chouinard recalls. "Antisocial. A real geek." He played some team sports but quickly learned they weren't for him. "During practice I was one of the best players on the baseball team," he says. "But at games, with people watching and all the pressure, I tensed right up. I couldn't get it done. I realized then that I had better try other things."
In high school he joined the California Falconry Club and spent much of his free time looking for hawks' nests. He and his friends often trapped and banded birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Falconry gave Chouinard his introduction to climbing, because he often used ropes to get at aeries on the ledges of cliffs, first moving down hand over hand and then eventually learning how to rappel. "It took me a while to figure out you could also climb up," he says.
It was hard keeping him off the mountains after that. In 1956 he traveled to Jackson, Wyo., to test his mountaineering skills in the Tetons. The climbing was so good that Chouinard returned the following summer, living for two months inside an old incinerator.
After graduating from high school, Chouinard took some geography courses at a community college in the San Fernando Valley. But he never earned a degree. Instead, he concentrated on climbing. He was unhappy with much of the equipment he was using, so he picked up a book on blacksmithing, scraped together enough money to buy an anvil and a coal-fired forge and began making pitons in the backyard of his parents' Burbank house. A year later he borrowed $825.35 from his folks to buy an aluminum forging die to make his own carabiners. When he went climbing, he sold his equipment out of the trunk of his car.
It was then that Chouinard started honing his unorthodox business practices. At the time, the only pitons on the market were made in Europe, of fairly malleable iron. Chouinard forged his own from a tougher steel alloy, and he sold them at four times the price of the European pitons. "There was a lot of resistance early on," he says. "But people began to realize that my equipment was that much better, and worth it."
"Yvon's equipment was that much better," says Royal Robbins, a renowned U.S. climber who has also written two best-selling books on rock climbing and who runs a $10 million sportswear company that bears his name. "His gear stood out because of its inventiveness and its quality."
Still, Chouinard wasn't making enough money to support his climbing habit. So he began working part time as a detective for his brother, Jeff, who was chief of security for Howard Hughes. "Hughes had a lot of those starlets' contracts," Chouinard recalls, "and I spent most of my time keeping track of his girls. I remember one of them bringing home a stray German shepherd. Hughes was scared to death of germs, and he didn't want the girl to have a dog. So I broke into her house and took the dog."
In 1964, after a two-year stint in the Army, Chouinard headed for Yosemite National Park, where he joined some of the world's best climbers as they made knee-knocking first ascents of the park's treacherous peaks. Perhaps his most remarkable effort was a 1964 climb up the North American Wall of El Capitan, a vertical rock face that rises 3,000 feet. He and Robbins and two other climbers spent 10 days inching up the wall, and nine nights hanging in tiny hammocks suspended horizontally from the rock face. Most of the equipment they used had been made by Chouinard.
By this time he had begun putting out a catalog, a one-page mimeographed price list of climbing gear. At the bottom it said: "Don't expect speedy delivery in the months of May, June, July, August and September." Those, of course, are the peak climbing months, and business or no business, Chouinard would be in the mountains, not at his forge.
He moved to Ventura, Calif., in 1966, mostly to be closer to good surf, and worked out of a rented tin shed behind an abandoned slaughterhouse. He took on fellow climber Tom Frost as a partner, and called the company Chouinard Equipment. They incorporated in 1972, calling it the Great Pacific Iron Works. Though Chouinard had an 80% share of the U.S. climbing-equipment market, it was grossing only around $300,000 a year.