Yesterday, with the passing of Douglas Tompkins, 72, our world lost a visionary conservationist and adventurer. According to reports from Chilean officials, Tompkins died of complications related to severe hypothermia after his kayak capsized in strong winds on Lake General Carrera in Chilean Patagonia.
Seeking a way to support his skiing, climbing and boating adventures, Tompkins founded the outdoor equipment company The North Face in San Francisco in 1963 before going on to co-found the clothing brand Esprit, which would become tremendously popular in the 1980’s and earn him much of his fortune. Despite these profits, Tompkins became disenchanted with his entrepreneurial successes, feeling the clothing industry he had helped develop produced excess consumption that undermined his own environmental ethics.
In order “to pay his rent for living on the planet,” Tompkins sold his stake in Esprit in 1990 and moved to Chilean Patagonia to begin buying up large expanses of strategic lands for conversion to protected areas. Over the ensuing two and a half decades, Tompkins — often in close collaboration with his second wife Kristine McDivitt Tompkins — would purchase and conserve roughly 2.2 million acres of land in Chile and neighboring Argentina, including the flagship Future Patagonia National Park.
Although Tompkins planned to donate his privately acquired lands to the national park systems of Chile and Argentina, his practices were criticized by some for their impacts on regional economies like ranching and salmon farming. Tompkins, however, remained unwavering in his commitment to protect nature for its own sake and for its capacity to inspire a crucial environmental ethic in those who experienced its beauty.
The formative importance of Tompkins’ own experiences with wild nature were clearly evident in the fire in his eyes and the tenor of his voice as he described the joys and perils of his pioneering kayak descents and alpine climbs from the Sierra of California to the summit of Patagonia’s infamous Cerro Fitz Roy. It seems a fitting legacy that the rivers, mountains, and forests Doug Tompkins worked diligently to protect and conserve will inspire a similar passion in generations of adventurers and conservationists to come.