Doug Tompkins was always an adventurer. Instead of college, the North Face founder skied and climbed throughout Colorado, Europe and South America. Along with good friend, Yvon Chouinard, he drove a van from California to Southern Chile, skiing, climbing and surfing the entire way. He was a skilled whitewater kayaker, opening up many Sierra gems.
And sadly—or perhaps, fittingly—adventure is how Tompkins met his end when, according to his website, he capsized in his kayak on General Carrera Lake in Patagonia.
Sources in the region said Tompkins, a dedicated conservationist, was boating with several other kayakers who were all overturned in extremely rough conditions on the lake. There are few details yet on why Tompkins was unable to roll his kayak (one report stated he was in a tandem). While none of the other kayakers were injured, his death was confirmed by the Coyahaique Regional Hospital where Tompkins was taken via helicopter, suffering from severe hypothermia.
Tompkins personified the anti-CEO, much like his contemporary, Chouinard. He founded The North Face in dirtbag style as a tiny startup selling skiing and climbing gear in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco and sold it in 1969. Tompkins also founded Esprit with his then wife, Susie Tompkins Buell and a third partner, Jane Tise. But he became extremely disenchanted with the corporate world that his brand would become a part of and sold his shares in Esprit in 1990 for somewhere north of $150 million.
He then used much of his earnings to protect the landscape he’d fallen in love with in Chile and Argentina, where he lived with his second wife Kristine (a former apparel executive with Patagonia). Through his land conservation groups, he purchased some 2.2 million acres but the couple’s main focus was the creation of Pumalín Park, an 800,000-acre nature reserve that spanned from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes Mountains. “Like many thinking people, we see biodiversity and ecosystems collapsing around us,” they wrote on the site, TompkinsConservation.org. “So we’ve rolled up our sleeves and gotten to work. We have no choice: otherwise we might as well kiss our beautiful planet goodbye.”
But like many conservationists, their efforts weren’t always met with applause. Many local Chileans and Argentinians were critical of the couple, abhorring them for stunting economic growth. But Tompkins always stood his ground. “I’ve never, ever tried to make life easy for myself,” he told the Guardian in 2009. “Land use is highly political here, more than most places: if we wanted to retire in peace we wouldn’t be here. These parks are our life’s work, not the clothing chains we created, selling people clothes they don’t need.”
Tompkins believed in what he did with the upmost resolve, and his confidence never wavered. And that in itself is a legacy worth celebrating.