The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

North Face co-founder turned ‘eco baron’ Douglas Tompkins is killed in Chile kayaking accident

Here's a look at the life of North Face founder Douglas Tompkins, who died at 72 after a kayaking accident. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

In 1985, Douglas Tompkins was the millionaire co-founder of two successful clothing companies, the North Face and Esprit. He was courted by magazine editors and politicians, revered by the San Francisco hippie elite. Girls’ fashion — incredibly, for a man who dressed every day in the same old polo and blue jeans — turned on his company’s marketing campaigns.

By 1990, he gave it all up and moved to the end of the world.

Tompkins died Tuesday after a kayaking accident in Chile sent him to the hospital with fatal hypothermia. He was 72. Tompkins will be better remembered in the U.S. as the guy who brought domed tents to hippie hikers and brightly patterned “casual wear” to the Reagan-era teenage masses.

But in Chile’s Patagonia, where he spent the last two decades of his life, he is the man who tried to buy paradise, not to exploit it, as so many millionaires like him had done throughout history, but to preserve it.

“We only have one shot at this,” Tompkins told the Guardian in 2009. “… We need to pay our dues to live on this earth; we need to pay the rent and I’m doing that with the work we are carrying out here in Patagonia.”

That “eco baron” position, as writer Edward Humes termed it, brought Tompkins from a board room in San Francisco to the front lines of the battle between conservation and development in the most remote region of Chile. In that place of crystalline lakes and snow-capped mountains shrouded in cloud, he was seen as either a savior or a scoundrel, depending on whom you asked.

Tompkins grew up in New York in the 1940s and 50s, the son of a decorator and an antiques dealer living in a tony village outside the city. But he struggled to hew to his parents’ aristocratic ideals. At 17, he was expelled from his prestigious Connecticut boarding school for one-too-many infractions — “I wasn’t great on heeding authority,” Tompkins told Humes, who wrote about the millionaire environmentalist for his book “Eco Barons.” Tompkins never got a high school degree.

Instead, he took off for the mountains out West, where he became a climber, ski bum and all-around adventurer. He met his first wife, Susie (now the entrepreneur and Democratic donor Susie Tompkins Buell) while chopping trees in California’s Tahoe City, and in 1963 they moved to San Francisco, where they opened a small shop peddling high-end climbing and camping equipment from Europe. They called it the North Face.

Tompkins only owned the company now known for outdoor equipment and ubiquitous fleece jackets for five years — in 1969 he sold the North Face to focus on film making (his movie about a 1968 trip to Patagonia, “Mountain of Storms,” won an international adventure film award and is now a climbing cult classic).

Meanwhile, he and his wife were starting another clothing business selling women’s dresses out of the back of a Volkswagen bus. The clothing line would become Esprit de Corps and then just, Esprit. And it would make Tompkins a millionaire.

“It was twenty years of a wild ride,” Tompkins told Humes. The company’s fortunes swung dramatically during Tompkins’ time at the helm, but mostly upward — by the mid 80s it was a multi-billion dollar business with factories all over the world and a trampoline at headquarters where Tompkins would work out. As the company’s “image director” (he eschewed the corporate clinicalness of “CEO”), Tompkins tried to use his wealth and status to promote the environmental causes that still captivated him — donations to conservation groups, support for anti-development ad campaigns, a well-intended if much-derided public service message in Esprit catalogs urging consumers to buy less.

But then he read “Deep Ecology: Living As If Nature Mattered” by George Sessions and Bill Devall, a primer on the philosophy of environmentalist Arne Naess that denies humans’ right to exploit their environment and calls for a radical restructuring of human society to bring it into harmony with nature.

“Within the few hours that it took to read the book, I experienced a powerful epiphany. Everything suddenly made sense,” Tompkins would later write, according to the Guardian.

He was done “manufactur[ing] desires to get people to buy our products,” he told the Guardian, “selling people countless things that they didn’t need.” Fashion was “intellectually vacuous” he said, and it was part of the problem of environmental degradation. If he wanted to save the planet, he wasn’t going to do it by selling clothes.

Tompkins divorced his wife, with whom he was often fighting, and sold his shares of Esprit for a reported $150 million. He created the Foundation for Deep Ecology to issue grants and publish writing on his radical environmental philosophy. And then he got on a plane to Patagonia, the southernmost region of South America known as “the end of the world.”

For $600,000, according to Humes — as much as a cramped condo would cost back in San Francisco — Tompkins purchased more than 40,000 acres of dense forest and precipitous fjords that would become his home and first preservation project, Parque Pumalin. The park is now more than 700,000 acres and a designated nature sanctuary in Chile, home to sleek and secretive pumas and the gargantuan alerces trees, some of the oldest organisms on Earth.

Shortly after Tompkins married Kristine McDivitt, the former chief executive of the Patagonia outdoor wear firm. In addition to preservation projects, the two have worked to develop organic farms in the area around Pumalin.

Since the 1990s, the Tompkinses and their foundation the Conservation Land Trust have bought up hundreds of thousands of acres in Chile and Argentina to be maintained as wilderness. Some of this land has been given to local governments to be turned into national parks, some remains privately held. And not without controversy.

“If I were to go to the United States and buy a big area of Florida as an environmental preserve and tell people they can’t go here or there, I think the U.S. would kick me right out of there,” Antonio Horvath, a conservative Chilean senator who generally opposed Tompkins, told the New York Times in 2005. “Every nation wants some degree of protection of its territory, and Chile is no different.”

People in that lush part of Chile were accustomed to wealthy foreigners buying up local land for various purposes — logging, mining, hydroelectric projects, the works. But they tended to be suspicious of someone who purchased huge swaths of forest just to let it be. Worse than that, to turn it back into wilderness that did nothing for the local economy. Gaucho cattle herders worried that Tompkins’s precious pumas would go after their livestock, according to a 2014 profile in the Atlantic. Others were upset by his opposition to development projects in the community, including salmon farms worth $2 billion.

Rumors about Tompkins’ presence the region spread: He was building a secret nuclear dumping ground. He was breeding lions. He planned to bottle all of Patagonia’s water and ship it away. He was trying to establish a second Jewish state.

Tompkins had no plans of that sort (deep ecology is profoundly anti-nuclear, and as for the last theory, Tompkins is decidedly a WASP). But he didn’t do a very good job of conveying his true intentions.

“The project itself is a very good one, a model for others to follow, but Tompkins himself sometimes doesn’t help much,” Rodrigo Pizarro, the director of Terram, a leading environmental group in Chile, told the New York Times. “He has an entrepreneurial mentality, wants to do his business his way and can be a bit disdainful of the way things are done in countries like ours, which has led him to make a lot of errors in communication.”

Tompkins, meanwhile, asserted that any mass conservation effort would be controversial in a place like Chile, where the politics of land and access to it have the power to roil the nation. In a few decades, he told reporters, minds would change. The children of Chileans who oppose his parks now would appreciate the preservation of their wilderness.

It was a philosophy he encapsulated in the quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln he chose for the back page of “Wildlands Philanthropy,” one of the many tracts published by his Foundation for Deep Ecology:

“Laws change; people die; the land remains.”

Tompkins was kayaking on Chile’s General Carrera Lake with a group of five others Tuesday when strong waves caused their boats to capsize, Chilean officials told the Associated Press. A military patrol boat rescued three of the boaters and a helicopter lifted out the other three; Tompkins, who suffered from severe hypothermia from prolonged exposure to the frigid water, was airlifted to a hospital in Coyhaique, 1000 miles south of Santiago. He died in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

According to the New York Times, Tompkins is survived by his wife, Kristine, his daughters Quincey Tompkins Imhoff and Summer Tompkins Walker, his mother, Faith, and his brother, John.

He hoped people would remember him, he told the Chilean magazine Paula last month, by the pristine landscapes he never left a mark on.

“People will walk on these lands,” he said. “Don’t you think that’s more beautiful than a tomb?”

Correction: An initial version of this post misidentified the birds in a photo from Ibera, Argentina as ostriches. They are rheas, a relative of the ostrich native to South America.