NFR Doug Tompkins dies in Kayaking Accident


Douglas Tompkins, 72, North Face Founder, Dies in Kayaking Accident

Douglas Tompkins, a noted conservationist and the founder of the North Face and Esprit clothing brands, died on Tuesday after a kayaking accident in the Patagonia region of southern Chile. He was 72.

A lifelong outdoorsman, Mr. Tompkins made his fortune in retailing but later shunned the business world to pursue his passion for nature and conservationism.

His death was confirmed by Coyhaique Regional Hospital, where Mr. Tompkins was flown with severe hypothermia. The health service in the Aysén administrative region said Mr. Tompkins was boating with five others on General Carrera Lake when their kayaks capsized in heavy waves.

Chile’s army said that a patrol boat rescued three of the boaters and that a helicopter lifted out the other three. No one else was seriously injured.

A local prosecutor, Pedro Salgado, told radio Bío Bío that the lake was known for unpredictable weather conditions. He said that Mr. Tompkins had spent “considerable amount of time in waters under 4 degrees Celsius,” or under 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

    • Photo

      Douglas Tompkins at his home in Pumalin Park in Chile in 2005. Credit Scott Dalton for The New York Times
      “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 on March 20, 1943, in Ohio. The family briefly lived in New York City before settling in Millbrook, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley.

      He began rock climbing at age 12 in the Shawangunk Mountains in southern New York State; by 15 he 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.”

      Mr. Tompkins attended Pomfret School in Connecticut but never graduated and did not attend college, said Tom Butler, a spokesman for the Foundation for Deep Ecology, which Mr. Tompkins founded in 1990.

  • Instead, he set off in search of adventure. At 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 Mountains in South America until his money ran out in 1962, forcing him to return to the United States.

    Mr. Tompkins eventually landed near Tahoe City, Calif., where he worked in the ski lodges and started his first business, the California Mountaineering Service. Mr. Tompkins would sometimes hitchhike, and in the summer of 1963 he was picked up by a young woman, Susie Buell, who shared his enthusiasm for the outdoors. The two began a romance and married.

    Together they founded the North Face as a small ski and backpacking retail shop in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. “Never Stop Exploring” was the company mantra.

“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 Mr. Tompkins until 1989. “It was just an open book of adventure.”

Several years later the couple, along with a third partner, Jane Tise, started selling “plain Jane” dresses out of a station wagon. That business grew to become the multibillion-dollar retailer Esprit, known for its casual sportswear and lifestyle clothing.

Esprit’s success in the 1980s fueled much of the conservation work that occupied Mr. Tompkins for much of the rest of his 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.

Mr. Tompkins and his second wife, the former Kristine McDivitt, a former chief executive of the clothing company Patagonia, moved to South America in the 1990s. They split their time between homes in Chile and Argentina, concentrating their conservation efforts in both countries.

The remote expanses of southern Chile, facing ecological threats from human activity like logging, offered opportunities for the type of large-scale conservation envisioned by this husband-and-wife team.

Mr. Tompkins used his fortune to buy roughly 2.2 million acres through his various conservation groups, Mr. 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. It is named in honor of the pumas that roam the park’s virgin forests.

At his death Mr. Tompkins had been working on creating new parks in Patagonia and in the Iberá wetlands in northeastern Argentina.

The global apparel company VF Corporation purchased the North Face in 2000.

In addition to his wife and Ms. Walker, Mr. Tompkins is survived by his mother, Faith; his brother, John, and another daughter, Quincey Tompkins Imhoff.

Mr. Tompkins was given many environmental awards, but his efforts were not immune to criticism. According to a 2012 profile in Earth Island Journal, many Chileans and Argentines worried that his land purchases and outspoken opposition to salmon farming and dam construction threatened their national sovereignty and stunted economic development.

“We want to do something good, but you’ve got to be very naïve and out to lunch to think that certain sectors of society are not going to put up resistance,” Mr. Tompkins 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.”


“I’m an unabashed, shameless conservationist. I know everyone doesn’t have my resources, but I say don’t worry, do things to the best of your ability because you’ll find it rewarding and helpful and it’s paying rent for living on the planet. So just do it. Just do it.” Doug Tompkins


High bank poacher
WFF Supporter
I never really knew much about him until I watched both Mountain of Storms and 180 degrees South. A tremendous loss for conservation efforts and specifically his project in Patagonia.
Thanks for the link RP101.


Active Member
I never really knew much about him until I watched both Mountain of Storms and 180 degrees South. A tremendous loss for conservation efforts and specifically his project in Patagonia.
Thanks for the link RP101.

I remember seeing him in 180 degrees south, I didn't realize who he was, I just thought he was Yvonn's fishing buddy. . .

Support WFF | Remove the Ads

Support WFF by upgrading your account. Site supporters benefits include no ads and access to some additional features, few now, more in the works. Info

Latest posts