The legacy of Doug Tompkins
Like the rest of Patagonia, Lago General Carrera in the Aysen region, the second-largest lake in South America, is prone to volatile weather. Powerful westerly winds regularly come in from the Pacific, gather in the Andes, then swoop down to the lake in a full-force gale turning its waters into a veritable ocean. The morning of December 8, 2015, changed drastically after Doug Tompkins together with five of his friends set out on the third day of an extended kayak trip.
The sea kayak with Tompkins was pounded by big waves and capsized. Tompkins fought in the icy waters for more than an hour before a helicopter assisted in bringing him to shore. He died a few hours later in the regional capital Coyhaique from severe hypothermia.
Douglas Rainsford Tompkins, 72, was an accomplished pilot, skiier, climber and paddler, a successful businessman, a publisher, designer and filmmaker, but most of all Tompkins' passion for nature as an environmentalist and philanthropist will mark his legacy.
Born in Ohio, he grew up in upstate New York. He dropped out of high school to try to make the U.S. national ski team and partly, surmises Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor clothing company Patagonia and Doug's partner in countless outdoor adventures since they first met when he was 12 years-old, “because he thought his teachers had nothing more to teach him.”
It was also as a young man, in 1961, that he first traveled to Chile and Patagonia to ski race. Throughout his adult life he would travel the world over to pursue his passions in the outdoors. In Chile, he is credited with 21 first descents on its rivers. Among his many climbing achievements, in 1968 he convinced Chouinard, Lito Tejada-Flores, Dick Dorworth, and Chris Jones – the “Funhogs”–to drive from California in a second-hand van for 6 months to make the third ascent of Mount Fitz Roy in Argentine Patagonia. The journey was immortalized in their film, “Mountain of Storms,” and some 40 years later, the popular documentary 180 Degrees South. In an interview with Buenos Aires newspaper La Na
cion in 2013, Tompkins described himself as an “intense man, focused, with determination and a strong sense of irony.” Such traits no doubt contributed to his success in business, co-founding outdoor brand The North Face in 1964, and in 1968, co-founding the Esprit clothing company with his first wife Susie. By the time he sold his ownership stake in the late 80s, Esprit was garnering 1 billion dollars a year in worldwide sales.
I first met Tompkins while working in California as an assistant to the late American environmental leader, David Brower. Later, I made my first visit to Chile, to explore and visit friends, and to follow-up with Tompkins. Months earlier, Brower and I sent a proposal via fax to Tompkins: a collaborative project to seek United Nations World Heritage status for Pumalin Park to demonstrate to Chile and Chileans, who at the time were largely
hostile to the initiative, that there was international support for the park. But Tompkins insisted that there was no need for such an effort. He was confident that his own approach would eventually win over Chile. And it did.
The last 25 years of his life he lived full-time in Chile and Argentina, devoting the fortune he accumulated in business toward the purchase of altogether an astounding 917,000 hectares (2.2 million acres) in both countries for conservation. His initial land purchases formed Pumalin, the world's largest private nature reserve. Three national parks in Chile and Argentina (Corcovado, Yendegaia and Monte Leon) have been established due to his generosity, he has added lands to a fourth (Perito Moreno), and the rest of his lands are proposed for inclusion in eight more national parks. Tompkins also was a major contributor to various environmental campaigns in Chile and worldwide, counting among his victories the defeat of the large-scale HidroAysen dam project in Chilean Patagonia.
In an interview with Patagon Journal published in our inaugural issue four years ago, Tompkins said that we are coming into “an ecology century and the environmental movement is just unstoppable.” True to form, he opined about how to ultimately get us out of a global “eco-social crisis.”
“If I had another lifetime, then I would put it 100 percent into farming,” said Tompkins. “If agriculture can´t be turned around there is no hope. It has the biggest impact on the landscapes, water and climate. We need a whole new model of agriculture and food production.”
Tompkins helped usher in the ecology century with his tremendous gift of saving many of Patagonia's last wild places. Patagon Journal is proud to offer this special tribute to one of the world's greatest conservationists. Thank you, Doug. (Jimmy Langman)
From the left / Desde la izquierda (clockwise): Tompkins with his wife Kris McDivitt; During his first ascent with Yvon Chouinard of Mount Shinn, Antarctica’s third-highest peak, in December 1985; Talking with ex-Chile President Ricardo Lago at the...
One of the several large-format books Tompkins published on environmental issues; A North Face poster from the 60s, Tompkins sold his ownership in the company in 1968. Uno de los varios libros de gran formato publicados por Tompkins sobre temas...