Douglas Tompkins, a noted conservationist and the founder of the clothing brands North Face and Esprit, died on Tuesday after a kayaking accident on General Carrera Lake in the Patagonia region of southern Chile. He was 72.
His death was confirmed by Coyhaique Regional Hospital, where Tompkins was flown with severe hypothermia. The health service in the Aysén administrative region said Tompkins was boating with five other foreigners when their kayaks capsized. Tompkins died in the intensive care unit of the hospital in Coyhaique, a town more than 1,000 miles south of Santiago.
Chile’s army said strong waves on General Carrerra Lake caused the group’s kayaks to capsize. A military patrol boat rescued three of the boaters, and a helicopter lifted out the other three, it said. No one else was seriously injured.
According to an interview given by a local prosecutor, Pedro Salgado, to radio Bío Bío, the lake is known for unpredictable weather conditions. Selgado said that Tompkins had spent “considerable amount of time in waters under 4 degrees Celsius,” or under 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
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A lifelong outdoorsman, Tompkins made his fortune in retailing, but would later shun the business world to pursue his passion for nature and conservationism.
“He flew airplanes, he climbed to the top of mountains all over the world,” said his daughter, Summer Tompkins Walker. “To have lost his life in a lake and have nature just sort of gobble him up is just shocking.”
Douglas Rainsford Tompkins was born March 20, 1943, in Ohio. The family briefly lived in New York City before settling in Millbrook, an enclave in the Hudson Valley.
He began rock climbing at age 12 in the Shawangunk Mountains, and by age 15 was skiing and climbing mountains during family trips to Wyoming, according to the 2009 book “Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers, and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet.”
Tompkins attended Connecticut’s Pomfret School, but never finished and did not attend college, according to Tom Butler, a spokesman for an environmental group, the Foundation for Deep Ecology, that Tompkins founded in 1990.
Instead, he set off in search of adventure. At age 17, he headed to Colorado, working in Aspen and squirreling away money for a year before flying to Europe to ski the Alps. He then traipsed through the Andes and South America until his money ran out in 1962, forcing him to return to the United States for work.
Tompkins founded the North Face as a small ski and backpacking retail shop in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood in the mid-1960s, and helped forge the company’s mantra, “Never Stop Exploring.”
He flew airplanes, he climbed to the top of mountains all over the world. To have lost his life in a lake and have nature just sort of gobble him up is just shocking.”
Summer Tompkins Walker, his daughter.
“Doug was a passionate advocate for the environment, and his legacy of conservation will help ensure that there are outdoor spaces to be explored for generations to come,” the company said in a statement. The global apparel company VF Corp. purchased the North Face in 2000.
Tompkins eventually landed near Tahoe City, Nevada, where he worked in the ski lodges and started his first business, the California Mountaineering Service. Tompkins would sometimes hitchhike, and was picked up by a young woman who would later become his wife.
“There wasn’t anything we were afraid of, there wasn’t anything we couldn’t figure out how to do,” said Susie Tompkins Buell, who was married to Tompkins from 1964 until 1989. “It was just an open book of adventure.”
The pair started selling “plain Jane” dresses out of a station wagon, along with a third co-founder, Jane Tise. That business would later become the multibillion-dollar retailer Esprit.
Known for its casual sportswear and lifestyle clothing, Esprit found success in the 1980s that would fuel much of the conservation work that occupied Tompkins for much of his working life. But by 1990, he had grown disillusioned with the corporate world, and sold his stake in Esprit for what was reported as more than $150 million.
Tompkins and Buell eventually separated, but remained in touch even after Tompkins and his second wife, Kristine, a former chief executive of the clothing company Patagonia, moved to South America. They split their time between homes in Chile and Argentina, Butler said, and concentrated their conservation efforts in both countries.
The vast, remote expanses of southern Chile, facing numerous ecological threats from human activity like logging, seemed to offer major opportunities for the type of large-scale conservation that inspired the husband-and-wife team.
Tompkins used his vast fortune to buy roughly 2.2 million acres of land through his various conservation groups, Butler said. That included Pumalín Park, one of the world’s largest private parks, protecting 715,000 acres of rain forest that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes Mountains. It is named in honor of the pumas that roam the park’s virgin forests.
He had been working on creating new parks in Patagonia and in the Iberá wetlands in northeastern Argentina.
There wasn’t anything we were afraid of, there wasn’t anything we couldn’t figure out how to do. It was just an open book of adventure.”
Susie Tompkins Buell, who was married to Tompkins from 1964 until 1989
He was given many environmental awards, but his efforts were not immune to criticism. According to the 2012 profile in Earth Island Journal, his land purchases and outspoken opposition to salmon farming and dam construction drew criticism from many Chileans and Argentines, who worried that the American’s vast holdings threatened their national sovereignty and stunted economic development.
“We want to do something good, but you’ve got to be very naive and out to lunch to think that certain sectors of society are not going to put up resistance,” Tompkins once told The New York Times. “If you’re not willing to take the political heat, then you shouldn’t get into the game of land conservation, especially on a large scale.”
In addition to his wife and Walker, Tompkins is survived by his mother, Faith, his brother, John, and daughter Quincey Tompkins Imhoff.
Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting.