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Down From the Mountain

Remembering Douglas Tompkins

Mountaineers fall into four classes, roughly, when it comes to the arc of their lives. The first group, the largest, is composed of men and women obsessed with climbing, skiing, or river running in their teens and twenties, even into their thirties, at which point zealotry fades. They unrope and come down to earth, take up sensible jobs, raise families, spend more and more of their time indoors. The second group is made up of the climbing bums, ski bums, and river rats who never really come down at all. You can find these people in Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley, or at the base of the Tetons, or tossing dry sacks into rafts at Lee’s Ferry: grizzled old reprobates still living out of their vans, frozen in the “Gnarly, dude!” stage of their lives. The third group — a sizable gathering — is spectral, no longer with us, killed off in falls or avalanches or lightning or class VI rapids.

Photo of Doug Tompkins Photo by Sam BeebeDouglas Rainsford Tompkins died of hypothermia in a kayak accident in Patagonia on December 8.

The fourth group, the smallest, is composed of those who eventually come down from the mountains, or eddy out of the river, and then do remarkable things. This is the clan of the visionaries. They sublimate their prior experience, putting what they have learned in the wilderness into service of humanity and the world. Sometimes their lives are lived in reciprocation: they give back to the wild what the wild gave them. Sir Edmund Hillary came down from Everest, established his Himalayan Trust, and spent the rest of his life building small hospitals and schools under that highest of peaks. David Brower, who spent his twenties making first ascents in the Sierra Nevada, came down from the summits to lead the Sierra Club and then establish Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and Earth Island Institute. Dave Foreman and three buddies hiked out of the Mexican desert with a plan of action and a name, “Earth First!”  Kristine McDivitt, a competitive skier, went to work at the age of 15 for Patagonia Inc., the outdoor equipment company, rose through the ranks to become CEO, and instituted the program in which Patagonia donated ten percent of profits to environmental causes. Mark Dubois unfolded his six feet eight inches from his kayak, found a cleft near the Stanislaus River where he could hide all his personal altitude, chained himself to a rock, and dared the authorities to fill New Melones Reservoir and thereby drown him along with his river.

Douglas Rainsford Tompkins, who died of hypothermia in a kayak accident in Patagonia on Dec 8, belongs to this fourth clan, yet he was never really drummed out of the second, and just now he has joined the third. Given this catholic clannishness, a fifth clan should probably be designated for this singular man, if there can be a clan of just one.     

Tompkins was a high-school dropout, expelled from prep school in his senior year for an accumulation of piddling infractions. Spared the drudgery of university study, he spent his late teens rock-climbing and ski racing in the Rockies, Europe, and South America.(His fancy middle name, Rainsford, is the only preppy baggage he did not jettison in making his escape.) Lack of diploma did not impede him much, when he came down from the mountains.  He made his first fortune as co-founder of The North Face, the outdoor recreation equipment company, opening the first store in 1964, when he was 21, and putting his wilderness experience to work in the design of high-quality tents, sleeping bags, and backpacks. (It is largely thanks to Tompkins that your tent has no central pole, but rather a featherweight exoskeleton of bendable poles and a dome-shaped, wind-shedding profile.) In 1968, he and his first wife, Susie, began selling women’s dresses out of the back of a Volkswagen bus. In 1971 they incorporated as “Plain Jane,” a name Tompkins soon perked up to “Esprit de Corps” and finally shortened to “Esprit.” By 1978, that company had formed partnerships in Germany, Canada, Australia, and Hong Kong and sales were topping $100 million a year.

In 1989, increasingly troubled by the irrelevance of fashion and the effect of that business on the environment, Tompkins cashed out, selling his share of Esprit’s American branch to Susie, from whom he had separated. In 1990 he founded the Foundation for Deep Ecology, which funds environmental activism. In 1991, he bought 17,494 acres of degraded farmland and forest in the Reñihué Valley on the coast of southern Chile and settled there.  In 1993 he married Kristine McDivitt, robbing Patagonia’s founder, his old climbing buddy Yvon Chouinard, of that company’s CEO. On Reñihué Farm, he and his new wife pooled their entrepreneurial talents and commenced restoring those fields and forests, establishing the pattern for their marriage and the next 20 years of their lives.

Photo of Perito Moreno National Park The southern face of San Lorenzo mountain in Argentina’s Perito Moreno National Park. Doug and Kristine purchased and added a substantial piece of terrain to the park.

The couple bought more Chilean farms. On these they replicated the Reñihué Farm model — restoration, worm-composting, perennial agriculture, organic gardens, greenhouses, apiaries, and jam-making, along with sheep and cattle, enterprises more traditional here in southern Chile. They acquired and restored the 1,216 acres of Pillan Farm, and the 526 acres of Rincon Bonito Farm, and the 3,710 acres of Vodudahue Farm, and the 855 acres of Hornopiren Farm, and so on. Doug, a pilot, monitored work in this growing domain from an airstrip at Reñihué. They  next jumped the Andes, crossing over to the Argentinean side, where they acquired and restored the 7,418 acres of Laguna Blanca Farm, in the Entre Rios Province of northeast Argentina, and the 24,157 acres of Ana Cua Ranch in the Corrientes Province of northeast Argentina, and the 50,458 acres of El Transito Ranch, also in Corrientes Province. And so on.   

Even as their acquisition and restoration of farmland expanded, they instituted programs of wildlife reintroduction and recovery: huemul deer and pumas in Chile, and the giant anteater and pampas deer in Argentina. They funded and directed research toward conservation of Argentine jaguars, giant otter, peccary, and tapir. They launched a publication program of large-format books. They funded South American environmental activism. 

They created parks. In 1991, when he acquired Reñihué Farm, Tompkins also bought a 42,000-acre tract of rainforest — pristine, for the most part--higher up in the Reñihué Valley. He endowed a foundation, The Conservation Land Trust, which acquired an additional 700,000 acres of contiguous country to form Pumalin Park. In 2005, Chile’s president, Ricardo Lagos, made it official, declaring Pumalin a Nature Sanctuary. 

As with the Reñihué model in their farm restoration, Doug and Kristine replicated the Pumalin model in their park creation. Through their foundations, and with the help of donors — and sometimes with surrounding parcels thrown in by government — they built not just parks, but park systems. They preserved 726,448 acres and stunning ocean-to-Andes beauty of Corcovado National Park in Chile’s Palena Province. They preserved and donated the 165,000 acres and 25 miles of Atlantic shoreline that became Monte Leon National Park, Argentina’s first coastal marine park. They preserved the 37,050 acres of El Rincon, on the flanks of the Argentinean Andes. They preserved more than 400,000 acres of the wetlands of Iberá, “Argentina’s Pantanal.” They preserved the 65,751 acres of Cabo Leon, near Punta Arenas in far-southern Chilean Patagonia, and the first 195,285 acres of what would be the 650,000-acre Patagonia National Park, in the Aysen Region of Chile. Together the couple protected more than three thousand square miles of South American wilderness and pastoral landscape, an area larger than Yellowstone.

Photo of Monte Leon National Park, Argentina. Doug and Kristine donated the 165,000 acres that became Monte Leon National Park in Argentina.

Early on, this effort was controversial in Chile. Tompkins was regarded as a carpetbagger, a rich Yankee taking over vast swathes of the country. Rumors proliferated. Given his pattern of land acquisition, he was obviously trying to split this narrow country, dividing north from south. He was an agent of Argentina. He was a Zionist buying land for Jewish resettlement. He was buying land for storage of American nuclear waste. But these conspiracy theories grew ever more untenable as Tompkins and his wife kept donating the parks they created to the state. His final redemption — his elevation to hero —followed the campaign he orchestrated against hydroelectric dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers in southern Chile. Given the forces behind these five mega-dams, no one in Chile thought he had a chance. Few activists I know in North American river-advocacy believed he had a prayer, either.

“Doug had to do his activism on the down low,” his friend and colleague Peter Buckley has told me.  Tompkins financed Chilean and international organizations opposed to the dam, groups that coalesced in 2007 under the slogan, “Patagonia sin represas,” Patagonia without dams.” He underwrote a brilliant advertising campaign against the project. Elderly Chilean Indian women sat in at dam sites. On horseback, huasos, Chilean gauchos, rode from Patagonia to Santiago in protest. Demonstrators converged daily on Santiago, crowds of 50,000 and more, and riots did $20 million in damage to the downtown. In polls a growing majority of Chilean opposed the dams. Tompkins and his movement won.      

The honey-colored floors and desk of Tompkins’s office in Chile were made of manio, a conifer endemic to the Lake Region. This tree, a podocarp, likes the heavy rainfall on the southern Chilean coast between 350 and 420 south latitude. Its wood is straight-grained, yellowish, and moisture-resistant..  It imbued the room with a warm amber light, a cheery antidote to the gray weather for which the coast of southern Chile is notorious.

On the day, four years ago, that I studied the fine-grained expanse of the desk, its top was uncluttered, nothing there but Tompkins’s MacBook, a phone, a mug stuffed with pens, pencils, and scissors, and a black-and-white portrait of Kristine. If Tompkins had an overarching talent, it struck me, then it was for design. He was a designer of clothing, tents, sleeping bags, books, national parks, park architecture, park trails. He liked his design clean, like this manio desktop. It was from this spare, lustrous surface, and from this mug of pencils, and from this MacBook, that his larger designs came to life.

The multiple panes of the office windows looked out on sheep grazing the rehabilitated pastures of Reñihué Farm. There was something fake about this flock. The scene was a little too pastoral to be true.  There were too many sheep for the fields to remain so impossibly green — or so it seemed to an eye like mine, accustomed to the dry rangeland of the American West. I suggested to Tompkins that the secret must lie in this coast’s 235 annual inches of rain. 

“That, and the sheep are on intense, short-rotational grazing,” he said. “So they are in the fields only for a few days before being moved to another field. But you’re right, the rainfall makes this green like Ireland.”

The office ceiling was darker and rougher than the golden floors. It had none of the luster. The planks up there were recycled siding pulled from a weathered barn that was falling to ruin when Tompkins bought Reñihué Farm.

“We use almost entirely demolition wood for the vast majority of our buildings in the parks,” he told me. “Just this afternoon I was down inspecting a new campground in the future Patagonia National Park project. The wood in the cook shelters and the public bathrooms is all recycled. In the houses we use nearly one hundred percent recycled wood for all furniture, interior beams and trusses, and flooring. It looks better, too.” 

The Tompkins pastures ended seaward in the waters of Reñihué Fiord, visited by southern sea lions, dusky dolphins, and whales. The pastures ended landward in forests of pudu deer and pumas. This is coast of huge tides, in excess of twenty-three feet. Above the reach of the highest tide, the glacier-carved fiord becomes a glacier-carved valley and rises through temperate Valdivian rainforest toward Volcán Michimahuida, an 8000-foot, glacier-flanked, snow-capped volcano, the centerpiece of Pumalin Park, a reserve larger than Yosemite.

If design was one of the great Tompkins themes, then this, wilderness, was the other. He had a genius for spectacular places. He was a man of wild country, as gear-maker, climber, skier, backpacker, kayaker, and savior. His lifework was the melding of the two themes. 

In 1969, when Tompkins was selling dresses out of his Volkswagen bus, Ian McHarg published a seminal book, Design with Nature, a manual on how to analyze landscape according to its compatible and appropriate uses. McHarg was in favor of smart gardens. He promoted a view of the designer as ecologist. Good design, he argued, arises from intimacy with the topography, soil, climate, and biota of the region where the design is to happen. This was the path that Tompkins followed. The McHarg-Tompkins philosophy of design is not now in ascendency. Today the world celebrates design out of Silicon Valley — a wonderful inventiveness, surely, but barren when it comes to maintenance and survival of the ecosphere. What we need now is Reñihué Valley design.

Four days before Doug’s death, he and Kristine sent me their latest book, a celebration of Perito Moreno National Park in Argentina. The couple did not invent Perito Moreno, as they had so many other parks, but they completed it, buying and adding a substantial piece of terrain. Perito Moreno, the book, like the other volumes in the Tompkins series, is gigantic, the better to convey the vastness of the Patagonian landscapes inside.

“The Human Project has run amuck,” Doug wrote in his foreword. “A much greater surface area of the planet must come under strong legal protection if we have to have hope of a rich and beautiful home for future generations. Many scientists now fear that we are nearing an irreversible tipping point, yet our political leaders worldwide are either ignorant of the depth of this crisis, or have no ethical grounds upon which to find immoral and unacceptable the human-induced extinction of species. Limitless economic growth is all that counts for these politicians, even as species after species disappears. Extinction is forever, yet we just keeping cutting limb after limb off the Tree of Life.”

Photo of Patagonia National Park Guanacos in what will be Patagonia National Park.

The next day I emailed the Doug and Kristine, praising the book and thanking them for it. My message cannot have reached Doug in time. Even as I hit “send,” he and five friends were on their way with their kayaks to Lago General Carrera.

This lake, the biggest in Chile, 90 miles long, is subject to the howl of oceanic winds that drive the Roaring Forties. The six kayakers, on the third day of their paddle, set out in calm and sunny weather that suddenly turned bad. In minutes they were fighting winds gusting to 50 miles per hour and close-set six-foot waves. The double kayak paddled by Tompkins and his longtime friend Rick Ridgeway capsized 600 feet offshore. The water was around 380 or 400 F. The two tried four times to right the kayak but failed. As the wind and current were driving the capsized boat farther out into the lake, they made the decision to swim for shore. 

“Time was against us,” Ridgeway has emailed friends. “I was slowing and even with a lifejacket I was pushed under by the larger waves. I could see Doug and assumed he was in the same situation. In addition to the hypothermia, I was starting to drown. For a few minutes I gave in — just let it go — but then snapped back.”   

Yvon Chouinard, who is 77, was accompanying Tompkins on this adventure, as on so many others.  He succeeded, with three much younger men, in fighting his way into the lee of the peninsula and reaching a beach. Realizing that Tompkins and Ridgeway were in trouble, the three strongest paddlers headed back out to help. Jib Ellison and Laurence Alvarez-Roos reached Ridgeway in a double kayak.  He gripped the rope loop at the stern, and they paddled into the wind, towing him shoreward. Weston Boyles, an acquaintance of mine, reached Tompkins in his single kayak. 

“Doug was conscious with me for at least 20 to 30 minutes fighting towards shore kicking etc, and I was paddling as hard as I could,” Boyles wrote in an email. “Because I was in a single kayak I was not able to overcome the power of the wind and current in the same way that Lorenzo and Jib were able to in the double.” Tompkins lost the strength to grip the loop and let go. Boyles had to grab him, and soon lost his paddle in the effort to hold on. “Doug then passed out and I held his head out of the water with my left arm and paddled with my right.” Boyles, in his contortions to keep a grip on Tompkins, pulled the spray skirt off his paddling hatch several times, and the kayak took water, but he managed to reseal the hatch and somehow never flipped. He is 26 and Tompkins was 72. He was fighting for his own life one-handed, having lost his paddle and then dedicated his left arm to the effort to save the older man. He never let him go. 

By the time a helicopter pilot and the hypothermic Boyles dragged Tompkins ashore, Doug had been in icy water for more than an hour. On his arrival at the hospital, his core temperature was 66 degrees Fahrenheit. The doctors succeeded in raising that by five degrees, to within 27 degrees of normal, but never higher than that.

In the immediate aftermath, with all details still confused, there was a storm of emails as friends worldwide tried to understand. How, some asked, could the six kayakers have gone out in those conditions? How could Doug have not worn his lifejacket? “Almost suicidally bad judgment, no?” someone suggested. Two women of my acquaintance proposed that Kristine, when she surfaces from grief, will be angry with her husband. She will hold the missing lifejacket against him. 

I doubt this myself. For one thing, Doug was in fact wearing a lifejacket. The missing lifejacket is a figment of the fog of tragedy. And conditions that day were no worse than these six experienced kayakers had encountered many times before. Kristine Tompkins is an outdoorswoman and a Patagonian. She knows the wilderness realities. When an icefall decides to move, it does so, whether or not climbers are traversing it at the time. Sometimes an avalanche slope will unburden, and sometimes a storm will roll in too fast. She knows what her husband loved. He was doing that day what he always had done, enjoying his freedom, taking risks, pushing the envelope, living large.  

By all accounts, including her own, Kristine spent several days in deepest despair, but she has rallied. She flew with the casket to the burial near the town of Cochrane in Chile. The grave was at a cemetery Doug had renovated on the Tompkins sheep ranch at the heart of what is now called, and will someday be, Patagonia National Park. The casket was of alerce, the Chilean equivalent of the redwood, and the man in the pit took a while to maneuver it into position. Kris peered in over the edge. She gestured for him to move it about an inch to the left. The crowd laughed, for everyone knew which perfectionist she was mimicking. “No detail is small,” was his motto. She joined in the laughter herself. A sturdy Chilean countrywoman jumped up and shouted “Patagonia sin represas!” three times. The crowd cheered. “Patagonia libre!” the woman shouted, and the crowd cheered again.

Next week Kristine travels to Argentina to meet with officials in the incoming government of Mauricio Macri, the president-elect. She will push for the designation of 400,000 acres of Tompkins wetlands as Iberá National Park.

Kenneth Brower
Ken Brower is the author of many books, including Hetch Hetchy: Undoing a Great American Mistake and Freeing Keiko: The Journey of a Killer Whale from Free Willy to the Wild. A regular contributor to National Geographic magazine, he is a member of the board of directors of Earth Island Institute.

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