An Interview with Jeff Johnson, surfer and star of 180° South, a journey from California to Patagonia

By 26 November, 2010

In 1968 climber and surfer Yvon Chouinard, climber and skier Doug Tompkins and champion skier Dick Dorworth set off from California in an old van to surf, ski and climb their way down to Patagonia with the aim of climbing Chile’s Mount Fitz Roy, a mountain that only been climbed twice before. The trip was documented in a little-seen video called Mountains of Storm. When surfer Jeff Johnson saw this film he knew he had to do the same, and so was born 180° South, a film, directed by Chris Malloy, documenting the journey of Jeff, along with surfer Keith Malloy, mountaineer Timmy O’Neill, surfer Ramón Navarro and Easter Island native Makohe (who joins them for the last leg) as they travel from California to Corcovado mountain in Chile. We asked Jeff a few questions about the journey:

You’ve mentioned that seeing Mountains of Storm was the catalyst for the idea. How did this progress into its actual fruition?
10 years ago, in the late 90’s, a friend of mine was an employee of Patagonia.  One day out of the blue she handed me this old VHS tape and told me to watch it.  She said she had to sneak it out of the Patagonia vault and no one outside the company was supposed to see it.  It had the words “Mountain of Storms” written on it.  I had been sharing a house with the Malloy brothers on the north shore at the time.  The oldest brother, Chris, had already made a few successful surf movies.  Chris and I watched it one night and we couldn’t believe our eyes.  So, we talked about doing a similar film one day- or our own adventure in the spirit of theirs.  In 2006 we began putting it together.

Other than the fact that this trip was in some ways re-telling the stories of Chouinard and Tompkins, what was the motivation for doing it? Was it the journey itself, or the eventual meeting with Chouinard, or a mixture of things?
Yvon has always been an inspiration to me, and Chris, even before we saw that old film.  We knew what he had done in climbing, for the environment, and how he has changed the way business is done.  Seeing the film just added to the legend.  We love Yvon’s and Doug’s story and we simply wanted to share this with people with hope of spreading that inspiration.

Why did you decide to do the journey by boat rather than the road, as Chouinard and Tompkins actually did with their journey?
I thought about doing it in my van, taking trains, riding busses, hitchhiking, etc.  Then we heard about this boat called the Seabear.  It was heading to Patagonia and needed crew.  It just sounded perfect.  And I knew they would be sailing through Easter Island.  I’ve always dreamt of going to Easter Island.

What were the main stops on the way to Patagonia?
I got on the boat in Xtapa Mexico.  We sailed to Acapulco, Cocos Island, Galapagos, Easter Island, Juan Fernandez, then mainland Chile.

Why did you want to go to Easter Island so much?
When you sail down to Chile from the north you have to tack way out into the pacific then tack back in again.  If you hug the coast you just beat into the wind.  Easter Island just happens to be on that course, which was fine with me since I always wanted to go there.  Easter Island (or Rapa Nui) has that obvious mystery.  Then I read up on the history of the place, the environmental devastation that took place there, and it seemed to fit in with some of the issues we talk about in the film.  Plus, the island itself is absolutely beautiful.  It has great waves to surf.  You don’t feel like you’re surrounded by tourists, but there are enough tourists to keep the economy going.  The locals seem unaffected and innocent, very sweet.  When you visit the Moai statues there are very few roped off areas and no-one telling where you can and cannot go.  It won’t be like that for long.

How did you find Makohe? Was this friendliness from the Rapanui (the indigenous people of Easter Island) a common thing?
While we were on our way to Easter Island, Chris Malloy, the director, remembered he had met a girl from there a long time ago.  He made a few phone calls and relayed a message to her that we were sailing in there.  I didn’t know this at the time.  When we dropped anchor on Easter Island I see this girl coming out to us in a panga with flower leis around her neck.  I couldn’t believe it.  We were on the island for a month and Makohe and I really clicked.  So I asked her if she wanted to join us for the rest of the trip.  And she did.  She’s a very free spirit.  One of the most unique people I’ve ever met, much like the island.

How easy was it to find Chouinard and Tompkins? I have this image of the two of them sitting in a small log cabin, surrounded by white. How far is this from the truth?
Both of them are pretty busy and Yvon travels a lot.  But Doug lives down there and Yvon visits often, so it wasn’t that hard to get them together down there.

How do you think your journey related to theirs? Do you think the sense of going back to nature has intensified with the changes that have happened to the world over the past 40 years?
I believe more and more people are losing touch with nature and therefore losing touch with themselves and the world. With computers, iPhones, iPods, the internet, people are so closed off form the natural world and each other. When you get out there into the world you not only connect with yourself, you connect with others – in a much deeper way than you can with all this technology.  The more technologically advanced we get the more disconnected we get.  Thats why I think people are moved by this film. Without preaching, the film challenges the viewer to think differently, and to get out there and see for yourself.

Which were the places on the journey that have ingrained themselves on your brain, and why?
Easter Island, the people are some of the sweetest people I’ve ever seen, and the Island and its history is something I always think about. Patzcuaro Mexico was the best place I’ve ever been to in Mexico – I’m definitely going back there. There are so many others to think about,  I couldn’t fit them all on this page.

180° South can be bought from Amazon HERE. You can also buy a book and CD featuring songs from Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse), James Mercer (The Shins), Love as Laughter, Mason Jennings and Jack Johnson.

Trailer for 180° South:

The film that inspired the journey. A trailer for Mountain of Storms:

Read more:
180° South Official Site

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