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Doug Tompkins Dies in Kayaking Accident in Patagonia

Doug Tompkins relaxes by his plane before a flight over Parqua Patagonia.

[Photo] James Q Martin

After a kayaking accident on Tuesday afternoon, December 8, Douglas Tompkins, a long-time adventurer, climber, conservationist and founder of The North Face, died in southern Chile’s Patagonia region. Tompkins was paddling with Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia vice president and part of the first American team to summit K2; Yvon Chouinard, long-time climber and founder of Patagonia; Jib Ellison, river guide and Blue Skye founder; Weston Boyles, Rios to Rivers founder and conservationist; and Lorenzo Alvarez, owner of adventure travel outfitter Bio Bio Expeditions.

The group was kayaking on Lago General Carrerra, a large lake that straddles the Chile-Argentina border. About 11 in the morning, high winds and nine-foot waves capsized a two-person kayak carrying Ridgeway and Tompkins, setting the men adrift in the lake’s Avellano sector. Ellison and Chouinard paddled to a nearby island and Chouinard disembarked, freeing up his seat in the double kayak so Ellison could rescue Ridgeway and Thompkins. Chouinard remained ashore to act as a lookout for the rescue operation.

New information sent to Alpinist from Patagonia explains more details about the accident. Ridgeway and Tompkins held onto the boat for awhile but strong winds pushed them farther out so they decided to swim toward shore. Jib Ellison and another kayaker mounted a rescue effort, reaching Ridgeway in a double kayak. He held onto the boat and they towed him to shore. Ridgeway later said that he didn’t think he was going to survive while trying to swim because large waves swept over him. He was in the water for about an hour.

Meanwhile Weston Boyles reached Tompkins in a single-person kayak and attempted to pull him to shore. Finally a helicopter arrived and towed the pair. Tompkins fought hard in the rough water but was hypothermic and badly bruised and battered by the rocky shoreline. During the rescue effort, Boyles never let go of Tompkins. As these events unfolded, Chouinard was safely on shore. He was “terribly shaken but physically okay.”

Tompkins, after floating in the frigid 40-degree water for a couple hours, was air-evacuated to the Coyhaique Regional Hospital, along with two other kayakers, with severe hypothermia. He died shortly afterward in the intensive care unit.

In San Francisco, Doug Tompkins founded the outdoor equipment company The North Face as a mountain shop and mail order business in 1966, selling it a few years later. In 1968, he co-founded the women’s clothing company Esprit with then-wife Susie Tompkins Buell. Esprit later became a billion-dollar enterprise. After Esprit grew into a giant company, Tompkins sold his interest in 1989 and moved to Chilean Patagonia. Here, Tompkins and his wife Kristine McDivett Tompkins, bought over 2.2 million acres of wild land, becoming some of the largest private landowners in the world.

Tompkins flies over Parqua Patagonia.

[Photo] James Q Martin

They created Pumalin Park, a large tract of 803,200 acres of rainforest undisturbed by logging, mining, and other human activity in Chile’s Palena Province. Other land was donated for national parks in both Chile and Argentina. They were creating a Patagonia National Park in Chile as well as a park to protect the rich Ibera wetlands in northeastern Argentina.

As a philanthropist and environmental activist, Tompkins strove to preserve the unique character, beauty and biodiversity of Patagonia, one of the world’s great wild areas. Besides being a successful businessman and ardent conservationist, Doug Tompkins always returned to his roots as a climber, ski racer, kayaker and outdoorsman. Over the past 45 years, he climbed alpine routes in the Himalaya and Andes; established first ascents in California’s Sierra Nevada; and made first kayak descents of rivers in North America, South America and Africa.

Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard have been linked together since the 1960s when they first met and climbed at New York’s Shawangunks. Both men combined their passions for climbing, entrepreneurship, conservation and wildlands into their life’s work.

After those initial Gunks climbs, the pair headed south in 1968 with Dick Dorworth, Chris Jones and cinematographer Lito Tejada-Flores in a used white van filled with climbing gear and topped with surfboards. The group, calling themselves the Funhog Expedition, spent six months driving from California to the southern tip of Patagonia. The region’s remote rock mountains were virtually unknown to the international climbing world at that time, and most were unclimbed.

The Funhogs’ goal was the third ascent of Fitz Roy, the tallest peak in the range, via a new route up the southwest ridge. The team was successful, despite hunkering down in an ice cave for 15 straight days while waiting for a break in the notoriously bad weather. When the skies finally cleared, they blasted the route in a 23-hour round-trip push, reaching the summit at 8 p.m. on December 20, 1968. Afterward, Tejada-Flores made Mountain of Storms, a cult film celebrating the Funhog expedition. “The experience,” wrote Yvon Chouinard in the book 180 Degrees South, “led to an unlikely fate for a couple of dirtbags. We became philanthropists.”

The region of Patagonia and its wild places inspired Tompkins to help preserve its unique biodiversity.

[Photo] James Q Martin

Doug Tompkins, born March 20, 1943 is survived by his wife, Kristine McDivett Tompkins; his mother, Faith Tompkins; brother, John Tompkins; and daughters, Summer Tompkins Walker and Quincey Tompkins Imhoff.

[This article was updated with new information at 7:00 p.m. on December 9, 2015, and at 5:30 p.m. on December 11, 2015.]

Sources: American Alpine Journal, Armada de Chile, Bloomberg Business, Tompkins Conservation, The New York Times