Paul McHugh comments:
Nature has always been our teacher. This story, from 1985, reveals how outdoor adventurers Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard and others extracted lessons from their exploits in the wild that helped them achieve success in other realms. These visceral truths stand the test of time, and can apply to many different types of endeavor.

A Business Class in the School of Hard Rocks

The great gray face of Yosemite’s El Capitan dropped away for a sheer half-mile below the climber’s dangling feet.

It was 1967, the ninth day of the first attempted solo ascent of this soaring granite wall. Icy winds that had buffeted the man early in his climb had ebbed – to be replaced by other problems. Muscles aching from constantly repeated moves. Nerves that felt inflamed by the relentless need for focus. The hour was late, the light fading. And a crumbling crack that seemed his only possible route was bottoming out.

Sometimes at a crux like this, the tendency is to panic a bit and rush the thing. But the best way is to just go on being methodical. Precise and thorough.

The climber set a small, wired nut, attached a sling and tested it. Seemed good. He slowly added his weight. Then hope slid into sickened fascination as he saw the nut suddenly tear free and felt gravity pluck him from the vertical rock.

That “rurp,” that tiny piton placed below! Could it stop a fall . . . ? His plunge halted with a sharp jolt. OK. Time to drill and set an expansion bolt. Bolts might be a conscious violation of the new “clean-climbing” ethic he and others in his youthful Yosemite climbing group had forged, but he’d just demonstrated that one was necessary.

Up here, a slight miscalculation could prove fatal. Even so, waiting till one hit a total impasse to employ the security of a bolt was simply a matter of climbing with the proper style.

“The most important thing I got from climbing,” Royal Robbins says today, “was practice in discipline, practice in self-control. It’s a way of showing yourself that in this, as well as other areas of life, you can do it , through years of total concentration on something you’re really interested in.”

In the ’70s and ’80s, many American businessmen strove to grasp the theoretical underpinnings of Japanese economic success. Their search took them into explorations of Bushido , the traditional code of the Samurai, stressing self-discipline, bravery and simple living, and Buddhist concepts of poise and balance. They read books like Eugene Herrigel’s “Zen and the Art of Archery” and turned “The Book of Five Rings,” by 16th-century swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, into a modern American best-seller.

But perhaps this bout of cross-cultural paradigm-envy, while enlightening, was not that necessary. Ignored and obscured in our rush toward urban culture and recreation, there has existed all along a distinct American ethos based on the code of the frontiersmen, our not-so-distant ancestors, who as individuals had to develop the inner grit to triumph in hand-to-hand combat with the elements, and who, as a new society, had to employ the virtues of simplicity, directness and cooperation in order to survive.

Other cultures have produced great adventurers and explorers, of course, but only in America has the settling of an untamed wilderness played a large and recent role in the formation of national character.

Today’s high-risk outdoor sportsmen are the re-discoverers of that frontier ethic, the natural heirs of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Zebulon Pike. They may have to crawl a little farther out on the same limb to achieve a comparable inner effect, but they have wound up grappling with the same wild manifestations of death, danger and fear of the unknown.

Unlike the Samurai, their opponents are not other humans but wind, rock, ice and rushing water. Their discoveries are not new forests to trap or fertile valleys to settle, but new dimensions of the secrets of fitting one’s character to the forces of nature so that one can briefly inscribe one’s intended trajectory on the face of it.

“Be sure you’re right,” Davy Crockett used to say, “then go ahead!” The simple wisdom behind this frontier motto resonates in the words of modern adventurers, some of whom have demonstrated the practical application of what they’ve learned in another American proving ground: the realm of business.

The morning of his 10th day on El Capitan, a weary Royal Robbins hauled himself over the top. A disdain for publicity meant that only his wife, Liz, and fellow climber Glen Denny were there to appreciate his achievement. In the photo below (shot by Denny), although Royal has his wife by his side and a cup of champagne in his hand, one can see the bewhiskered jaw is still clenched, the cheeks taut, his eyes still blazing from the energies summoned to cope with the ordeal.

“I’ve never seen a face so drawn and tired,” Liz remembers. “I also felt he really needed to be with people, and he normally wasn’t that way at all. To see that look, and realize what it must’ve been like for him out there – I’ll never forget it.”

Today, 17 years later, Royal bounds into the kitchen of his rambling Spanish-style home in the Central Valley. Perspiration streaks his stylish zippered sweats, but it’s clear that three sets of tennis after work have merely invigorated him.

At 50, the man Galen Rowell called “the most accomplished rock-climber in America” is remarkably trim, fit and vital. His eyes still have that gimlet stare, but the face is rounder, softer, more open and relaxed. The only evidence I can see of his climbing days is a lone carabiner used to hold up vines arching over the garage where he parks his vintage Hudson.

Artifacts of a more current pursuit are everywhere. His gray polypropalene sweats were designed for the Royal Robbins sportswear line, as were the soft canvas gaucho shirt and long cotton bush pants being worn around the house by his elderly father-in-law, Eric Burkner.

Burkner, a prominent retired Modesto businessman, admits he “didn’t think much of the situation” when his daughter took up with a youth whose only visible means of support was an 11mm perlon rope, but says, “He’s turned out to be quite a decent chap.”

And the mail-order outdoor-equipment enterprise Robbins began in the basement of Burkner’s paint store has turned into quite a decent business, supplying a coordinated line of Robbins sportswear (mostly designed by Liz), outdoor gear and more than 400 titles in sports and nature books to 1100 retailers throughout North America. The company is climbing from a gross last fiscal year of $4.5 million to more than $7 million in 1985, accelerating toward a goal of $25 million by 1990.

A high school dropout (“I didn’t want to let school stand in the way of my education”), Robbins credits his progress as an entrepreneur to lessons learned in his years on the rocks.

“I approach business the same way I approach climbing,” Robbins says. “I use what works in climbing.”

A principle he grasped early on, he says, is that “you never really know what you can do until you fall trying.”

“I used to go bouldering as a kid. We’d try to outdo each other on hard routes close to the ground. At a point on this one route, I figured I could go no higher, and fell . . . and it suddenly came as an insight that I wasn’t falling off, I was letting go! When I’d convinced myself I’d gone as far as I could, I was relaxing my fingers. And I decided right then that next time I’d keep going until gravity itself pulled me off!

“I started doing that, and increased my ability right away. In a phrase, what I’ve learned from climbing is tenacity of purpose. That’s more important than any skill or talent I’ve had, and it tends to make up for a lot. It tends to work toward success in anything you try.”

Not everything is transferrable, of course. Robbins was widely respected, and sometimes feared, as a fierce competitor back in his Yosemite climbing days. Unexpectedly, he’s discovering in business that this is a trait best modified.

“Business is much more cooperative than I used to think. My prejudice about it was almost a stereotype. I can look around at those doing a better job at it than I am, and it’s because they’ve got a broader attitude. It’s not exactly a sense that `there’s plenty for everyone,’ but it is an emphasis on cooperation insofar as you can extend it.”

Examples spring from his friendship with Yvon Chouinard, chief executive officer of Lost Arrow/Patagonia, and Doug Tompkins, owner and CEO of Esprit, the trendy activewear company that racked up more than $700 million in international sales last year. Like Robbins, Chouinard and Tompkins are graduates of the school of hard rocks. These days the three mountaineers find themselves sharing two new passions: whitewater kayaking and taking creative risks with their companies.

In Robbins’ case, the love of independence and risk-taking manifested in the way he resisted a recent – and attractive – buyout offer from North Face.

“We came within a hair of saying yes. North Face has worldwide sales of about $40 million; a merger would’ve given us the security for everything we wanted to do.

“But . . . ”

The gleam in Robbins’ eyes resembles one in the photo taken years back at the top of El Capitan, and what he says is strongly reminiscent of his philosophy on climbing, and the use of bolts: “It’s never been like us to do something just for security’s sake. That’s just a matter of style. A merger would have taken too much of the adventure out for us. So instead we’re going to our own bank, BankCal, for financing. They, and we, believe we can do it on our own.”

Top performers in sports may have some qualities in common, like decisiveness and self-reliance, but there is not just one pattern of character. Excellence is colored by the individual personality. Different combinations work. Kayaker Don Banducci, juxtaposed with Royal Robbins, illustrates this point perfectly.

“Some people are cerebral, some more passionate and intuitive,” Banducci says. Framed by curling brown hair, his triangular satyr’s face is pensive. “Not that one’s better. Cerebral ones can sit there scratching their heads when there’s absolutely no time for it. And sometimes the passionate one is going to be all munched up at the bottom of a rapid, while the thinker is going, `Whew! I’m glad I saw that hole coming!’ ”

He smiles. “Virtually everything I do is intuitive.”

Banducci is 36. Around his eyes are lines caused by years spent squinting into the sunlight sparkling off rushing water. Creases around his mouth, however, come from a sardonic grin that would perhaps be present no matter what he was doing. These days, his time is invested heavily in design, marketing and promotion for Yakima products, a sports-accessory company of which (at 22 percent) he’s also primary individual owner.

This business tends to keep him from a former favored pursuit: winning first place in the “Whitewater Rodeos” held by kayaking buffs on rivers throughout the West.

But, he says, “Watching our business grow is all the excitement and challenge I need right now.”

Whereas Robbins has only reluctantly moved toward promotional use of his outdoorsman’s image, Banducci admits he’s always gloried in the limelight. He grins when asked why he pursued fame on the whitewater rodeo circuit: “Adulation.”

But one thing makes the two alike: High-risk sports gave them both a chance to gaze down the barrel of a loaded cannon and grope within themselves for a response. In Banducci’s case, the barrel of the biggest gun was the Grand Canyon of British Columbia’s Stikine River, and the projectile was his own kayak.

“It scared me when I first saw it. Incredibly violent water, with tough hydraulics. And some of the rocks creating the big drops were awfully close to being exposed.”

He and four other top adventure-boaters were laying long-term plans for a first descent of the Stikine when producers of ABC’s American Sportsman series got wind of the scheme and asked permission to film.

“Fortunate!” Banducci says. “The more we saw of the river, the more we realized that their helicopter support was a very reasonable safety factor. That river was the most challenging thing I’ve ever faced. And the canyon! Sheer granite walls shooting up 2000 feet on both sides with just a crack of sky way, way up there. It was like the Gates of Mordor.

“I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” The canyon throbbed with the thunder from 300 tons of brown, churning water that crashed each second through the narrow canyon walls. The boaters launched themselves out into the middle of it. ABC’s cameras dwelt lovingly on the kayakers as they managed to finesse the twisting currents or, alternatively, got sucked down by vortices and spat out at the end of a drop.

One video moment, his friends agree, is vintage Banducci. In a rapid nicknamed Wicked Wanda, Don manages to remain upright as his kayak is spun so it faces upstream. Mere seconds remain before he must hit an immense standing wave. Yet, incredibly, instead of repositioning his boat, Don raises his arm and nonchalantly twirls his paddle like a drum major’s baton. It’s an audacious, darkly humorous gesture.

Then the brown water folds over him. He and the boat vanish. Coughed back up yards downstream, he’s upside down and minus the paddle. Yet he manages to roll up with an empty-handed sweep of the body and coasts on into the only available eddy, arms upraised, riding high on an apparently indelible mix of skill, luck and insouciance.

Don acknowledges the paddle twirl was a message sent straight to the camera.

“A lot of people think kayaking is a death-defying sport. Although I’ve done some hard-core river-running, maybe I’m best known for the playing I’ve done, the hot-dogging, which is really a social thing. I’ve always been kind of an ambassador for the sport, trying to present the idea of having fun with it.

“There’s a carryover into how I’ve conducted business. On the river, the people with me are just as important as the water. I want to see their eyes light up, watch them have fun. It almost doesn’t matter which river you’re on, as long as you’re with the right folks.”

For Yakima, the right ones were an ex-McDonnell Douglas draftsman named Steve Cole, Steve’s wife, Jan, and a former Macy’s special events coordinator named Maggie Kerwin. They met as river-runners. Together they bought a foundering Washington State enterprise, moved it to Arcata and began to redesign its products – primarily a sleek auto roof rack that can secure loads as diverse as skis, canoes, bicycles, kayaks and sailboards.

They’ve guided their company through six successive doublings (or better) in gross sales in each of the past six years.

“We’ll gross around $3.5 million in 1985,” Don asserts – “more than twice what we did in 1984. And we’ll be a $12 million company in two to three years.”

If a major domestic automaker follows through on plans to make Yakima racks a factory-recommended option, even this estimate could be modest. For someone who enjoys a good put-on slightly better than the next man, Banducci shows an occasional tendency toward understatement.

“The camaraderie in the subculture of river-running has been an important resource for the company,” he deadpans.

Actually, Yakima bears all the earmarks of a river-runners’ conspiracy. Not only did this sport throw the original group together; many of their vendors and retail clients are people with whom Banducci has boated. In fact, when Yakima had the new roof rack concept in hand, and saw that smaller cars plus growing interest in outdoor sports equaled a blossoming market opportunity, an informal network among kayakers put Banducci in touch with venture capitalists willing to take the plunge with the company.

Besides this critical chunk of venture capital, one other ingredient was required for Yakima’s strong and timely thrust into the roof rack market: a force from the realm of kayaking that Don calls “working in Geronimo Mode.”

“On rivers, I established a reputation long ago as the kind of person who would jump into anything. `Let’s get Banducci into that, and see if it’s safe!’ I gladly fulfilled that role. How else are you going to find out what’s inside of you?

“At the same time, there’s things it would be obviously stupid and arrogant to attempt. Business and river-running both constantly measure your ability to make these decisions. What’s a good risk with a high potential payoff, and what’s just stupid? You have to assess what you can do when pushed to extremes.

“And then there’s times when you don’t have any idea – you just say `Yahoo!’ and jump in with everything you have. Geronimo Mode! And you pull things out of yourself you didn’t even know about.

“When we sold a third of the company for capital to generate our new rack, then hit the road to see if we could sell it, that was pure Geronimo Mode. Our timing turned out to be perfect. Maggie and I went out on a 9000-mile trip and got accounts from dealers who were impressed with our grass-roots approach to marketing. We even snatched REI, a critical account, three weeks before our biggest competitor showed up at their door.

“You’ve got to stay maneuverable and creative, able to make fast moves in response to the market.”

Not surprisingly, Banducci says these are navigational skills developed in the dynamic, shifting zone of whitewater.

“I think of some big, big drops I’ve run where you’re in control of your brain and your body, but you’re riding this fine line of fate with the river. A wave can explode and throw you way off your path. Then, it doesn’t matter how perfect your technique was – you’re faced with a totally unexpected set of challenges.

“Of course, that’s the name of the game in business, too. A good business plan charts alternate routes, you have escapes from all situations you can imagine, but you also have to have it in you to deal with total surprises.”

The key virtue, he says, is peace. “You don’t muster up courage to battle fear; you just set that whole question aside. What makes paddling extreme water possible isn’t being ballsy, but having a sense of peace. A laissez-faire attitude that everything’s kind of temporary anyway, and that in the larger scheme of things it really doesn’t matter whether you run a rapid or not. . . . or, if you do, whether you come out OK at the bottom. You don’t go in expecting to die, but if you’re really afraid of dying, there’s no way you can do it at all.”

But in the smaller scheme of things, Banducci expects the vital rush that comes from such a philosophy to be a guiding light through both river exploits and business ventures. In fact, when Yakima’s growth levels out in a predicted five years, and “the adventure of not knowing what’s around the next bend” is reduced past acceptable levels, he foresees using the proceeds from his share of Yakima to launch himself into fresh pursuits.

“I’d like to sail out the Golden Gate someday on a big schooner, with the sun sinking in the West, heading for parts unknown. No schedule. If I die without ever having set sail like that, I’ll feel like I’ve really missed something.”

What Banducci wants, Jack O’Neill has. He’s sailed his 60-foot oak and mahogany schooner, the Marie Celine , out beneath the Golden Gate Bridge many times. The 63-year-old inventor of the wetsuit, and current president of the world’s largest supplier of neoprene sports garments, is the archetype of the sportsman/entrepreneur who’s arrived .

Feet braced against gentle swells in the blue sea off Santa Cruz (headquarters for O’Neill Inc.), Jack grasps the helm of his latest acquisition: a 64-foot catamaran named Team O’Neill that’s equipped with a jacuzzi under a skylight so the skipper can soak his joints while he gazes up at the stars, and a mast and standing rigging that fold forward so he can launch his prop-driven airship, gaining a view of the international surf contests in which the company team often scoops top honors.

“I look for things that work both as a toy and a tool,” O’Neill says. “The balloon’s lots of fun, but it also gets the logo photographed and into magazines and stuff . . . just as the surfing has worked both ways. I’ve been very fortunate at having my sport grow into my business.”

With his muscular build, gray beard, tousled black hair and trademark black leather eye-patch, O’Neill indeed resembles the buccaneer he’s often compared to in print. I see him more as Odin, the Viking god who plucked out his own eye and tossed it in Mimir’s well. It was the fee for a single drink of the magic water that brought Odin great wisdom – and the thirst for more. O’Neill has paid dues for his fascination with the sea.

He lost the use of his left eye in a collision with his board during “a freak wave suck-out” at The Hook (a spot near his cliffside home); his knees and shoulders are troubled from the wear of years spent paddling boards; he has kidney problems he thinks stem from inhaling fumes from the foam used to blow surfboard blanks and the synthetic rubbers he annealed, scorched and glued into some of the world’s first wetsuits.

But the rewards have also been great. From being just one of three surf shops in the entire state of California, O’Neill Inc. has grown into an empire that grosses $20 million a year from neoprene garment and licensed sportswear sales throughout the world. O’Neill has refused to barter off ocean time to bring about his business success.

“I’ve had a wetsuit on at least once a day for the last 30 years,” he claims. During that time his business may have grown slowly, but it has remained a desired blend of the sublime and the professional.

“Where some people might feel like they need a drink,” Jack says, “I feel like I need the ocean. When things get kind of tight, I’ll go down to the beach, and Christ, sometimes it’s cold and foggy and you really don’t feel like jumping in. But you do, and then you suddenly find yourself riding this great wall of water that you can go up or down in or cross or dive through, and you’re surrounded by the power, and it’s a tremendous release.

“Out there, everything’s happening at once, and you don’t have time for anything else. Getting a ride on a terrific wall of water just puts you into another zone, and when you go to sleep at night, that’s what you’re thinking about. Not your problems, but that beautiful curl you were in.”

Ben Srebow, O’Neill’s CEO, feels that Jack’s aquatic fascinations have given him more than concepts in wetsuit design.

“Many things are in flux, constant movement,” Srebow says. “Especially, you can see that in the ocean. I think that is the way Jack is. Having lunch with him is for me like going surfing.

“He keeps up that constant flow of ideas. I might say, `No! That won’t work!’ but the wave keeps coming back. He can be incredibly stubborn, like a wave pounding a rock. Eventually the rock will take the shape of the wave. And finally I’ll say OK, and we’ll do it. And it works.”

“The sea’s a great teacher,” O’Neill says. “But big surf is something you have to build up to. You’ve got to have your rips figured out. Learn to read the water, take a look, see what’s happening, have a strategy. Surfers naturally do that after being out with waves for days on end. If you keep your head clear, all your timing and your reflexes will come right out of your experience.

“So, you see a big wave coming, and you go for it. And then the big thing is to stay completely relaxed, especially if you wipe out. Panic is just the wrong response. You might get held down, and there goes your oxygen. You get rolled around down there, and you just have to let go, because you don’t know which way is up, anyhow.

“I’ve been glad to swim up to my next breath a few times. And I’ve been glad to make it back to the beach when I’ve been carried away by rip tides, during a few cold winters at Ocean Beach. And the main thing was always to relax, until the situation felt right, then make the move.”

Does he transfer these methods to the world of business? Jack strokes his gray beard, blinks his good eye, considers the question.

“The things a man experiences in his sport can be the most important things in his life. The sense of self-reliance. Your ability to read a situation and relax in it. The way you seize opportunity. If you have something that’s hot, a design that clicks, you just go for it , and that’s got the same feel as going for a wave.

“In fact, I think there’s a good parallel there for the whole thing. You don’t want to get into a conqueror mentality. You flow with it. You don’t butt heads with the ocean, you work with it. You want to keep your cool and stay grounded.”

He laughs. “Of course, staying grounded when you’re at sea is sometimes a pretty good trick!”

Like O’Neill, Lost Arrow/Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard right from the beginning struck a bargain with his business that tends to keep him outdoors – and preferably in wilderness – at least half the year.

“The more I get out and do different sports,” Chouinard says, “the more valuable I am to the business, really, because that’s where I get my ideas. I don’t get ’em sitting at a desk!”

It’s hard to say just when Chouinard’s company started. Did it begin in 1957, when he toured the country’s top climb spots, making pitons for other mountaineers with the hand forge he carried in the trunk of his car? Or in 1966, when he and Tom Frost began making and selling equipment from a tin shack behind an abandoned slaughterhouse in Ventura?

In any case, that old slaughterhouse is now refurbished and surrounded by several new buildings, all bustling with the activities of his six companies (including Chouinard Equipment and Patagonia) grouped under the heading of Lost Arrow Corporation.

This year, Lost Arrow will gross almost $40 million, and managers find themselves in the enviable spot of trying to keep growth down to 25 percent so they can retain the company’s intimate character. A corporate logo emblazoned on the Lost Arrow headquarters consists of two crossed arrows with fletching made of hawk feathers.

The symbol suggests Chouinard’s early interest in falconry, which originally got him out scrambling around on cliffs. It also suggests Lost Arrow Spire, the slim granite pinnacle climbed with revolutionary tools and techniques by John Salathe in the ’40s. The logo was adapted from an ancient Samurai crest, thus also reflecting Chouinard’s interest in the Orient, acquired during an Army tour of duty in Korea.

Chouinard has read the Samurai text “The Book of Five Rings,” but says he got “absolutely nothing” from it. On the other hand, he does admire the Samurai, and the American frontiersmen, “who had adventures happen every day, just from trying to survive.” He says that risk sports, for those who stay with them, can involve a similar Bushido.

“You can learn things much faster if there’s some element of risk involved, because it forces you to really concentrate. And it forces you to use other parts of your brain that you probably don’t normally use. You’re like an artist, totally intent on his sculpture, so that eight hours seem to pass like one. Being on the edge produces the same effect; it gives you the concentration that allows you to transcend time.”

For Chouinard, staying on the edge in the garment trade meant dropping polypropylene fabric, since “It’s gotten too generic,” and even the popular bunting jacket that Malinda, his wife, calls “the jacket that built our houses” – simply because there are now too many knock-offs of the design.

Instead, this year the company unveiled jackets in a new fabric, Synchilla, and its own new undergarment fabric, Capilene.

Jettisoning some of his most successful products may be a risk, Chouinard concedes, but what he says of risk-taking could go for every other sports adventurer in this article. “Probably my strongest point as a businessman is that I’m willing to take risks! That ability is something cultivated through all the years of mountaineering.”

In his manual on climbing ice, Chouinard writes about a climb on Wyoming’s Gannet Peak, at age 17, when he attempted to traverse a snow field positioned above a 900-foot cliff. He soon discovered that when fear made him lean in toward the mountain, his feet quickly slipped, and he was forced to claw at the snow to keep from falling. On the other hand, if he plunged his feet down with vigor and trusted his sense of balance, he found he could proceed with little trouble.

“That day,” he wrote, “I learned quite a lot about the insidious effects of fear.”

In a recent conversation with me in a sushi bar in Ventura, Chouinard enlarged on this theme.

“Once you decide to go for a thing,” he said, “if you don’t go whole hog, then you add a certain negativism, a self-defeating type of thing, and sure enough, it doesn’t work out. Loss of confidence produces failure.”

“Mountaineering was the best school I could ever have for business, and life in general,” Chouinard concludes. “You can get far more training in how to conduct yourself in business from climbing than you ever can from the Stanford Business School.

“I look around, and I see American businessmen reading books on the Samurai, trying to learn how to be more aggressive, you know, and have that good clean stroke.” He pauses. The smile on his thin face is gentle and mocking, but his gaze is merciless as a hawk’s.

“Well, that’s not something you learn from a book!”