DURING THE FIRST WEEKS OF DECEMBER, Doug Tompkins - devoted nature conservationist and founder of The North Face - was traveling through Chile with his closest friends: Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia, and Rick Ridgeway, the climber, filmmaker, writer, and vice president of Patagonia’s environmental initiatives. The trio, had come together with a grand plan to kayak General Carrera Lake in southern Chile.
Word of such an adventure is hard to keep concealed amongst outdoor enthusiasts, and soon three more trailblazers had convened with Tompkins’ group: Jib Ellison, a veteran river guide; Laurence Alvarez-Roos, a world-class kayaker and former captain of the U.S. Men’s whitewater rafting team; and Weston Boyles, a filmmaker and conservationist from Colorado. The group had all the supplies they needed and were prepared for their amphibious trek. Now, they needed a plan.
The trip would span five days, covering a 50-mile segment of General Carrera Lake. Puerto Sanchez, the group decided, is where they would begin their kayaking journey, from where they would eventually arrive at their destination, Puerto Ibanez. The team of outdoorsmen planned many stops along the banks of the northern shore where they would camp and explore remote hiking trails. On paper, the trip was nirvana.
On December 5th, Tompkins’ group set out into the water from the shore of Puerto Sanchez - the group dispersed between single and tandem sea kayaks. In three days, they had covered nearly half of their 50-mile route, and made camp on the shore as they prepared to resume their journey early the next morning.
DOUGLAS TOMPKINS WAS NO STRANGER TO THE WRATH OF NATURE. After building The North Face into an empire with his first wife, Susie Buell, he retreated to the solitude of majestic Patagonia, splitting his time between Chile and Argentina so he could live the life he’d always dreamt of. He climbed, hiked, rafted, kayaked, repelled, and scaled the lush environment that surrounded him, braving countless life-threatening situations in the course of his many adventures. To him, their was nothing more precious than the wild outdoors.
It is for this reason that Tompkins and his second wife, Kristine McDivitt, set out to conserve the nature they were so infatuated with. While they had started initiatives around the globe, they focused their efforts on the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina, noticing that ecological threats like logging and unregulated land use was beginning to affect this garden of Eden.
Tompkins used his immense fortune to purchase 2.2 million acres in the Patagonia region through his various conservation groups, with the intent of protecting the land from developmental harm. He vowed not only to protect this sacred land, but to return it to the native people once sure that the threat of environmental harm in the region was gone.
THE MEN RESUMED THEIR TRIP IN THE MORNING, leisurely chatting while they paddled northward. Mid-morning, as they paddled around a peninsula near the midsection of the lake, the wind kicked up, creating white caps in the water. The wind quickly picked up speed to over 50 mph, and the water transformed into an undulating plane of six-foot-high waves. The men looked for the nearest place to bank their kayaks.
The accident took place halfway through their journey over General Carrera Lake in Chile seen above. (Image: National Geographic)[/caption]
Amidst the chaos, Chouinard, Boyles, Ellison, and Alvarez-Roos managed to paddle around the peninsula, sheltering themselves from the wind and finding a small bank to land their crafts. Tompkins and Ridgeway, however, were experiencing difficulties and could not keep up with the rest of the team. Their sea kayak’s rudder had malfunctioned, and, unable to steer or maneuver themselves in the high water, they were capsized, leaving them submerged far from shore.
“We realized we had 30 minutes, perhaps a little more, to survive,” explained Ridgeway. The pair then made numerous attempts at overturning their kayak, but to no avail. They had a vital decision to make: to stay with the boat and wait for help, or to attempt the long, 38-degree swim, to shore. In a spark of boldness, the men chose the latter.
“I realized against the current it was likely impossible to reach the point,” explained Ridgeway. “I was slowing and even with a life jacket. 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.”
On the shore of the lake, the other men realized something was wrong. They had been landed for around 30 minutes and agreed that something wasn't right. Ellison, who was carrying a satellite cell phone, called Tompkins’ private pilot for help. Within minutes of receiving the call, the pilot had taken off from the nearby helicopter pad and was en route with a mountaineering rope, harness, and life ring on board.
After making the call, the men re-entered the water. They struggled to paddle, but eventually reached Tompkins and Ridgeway, where the submerged men grabbed onto the ropes of their kayaks. Alvarez-Roos and Ellison, who were together in a sea kayak, managed to paddle to the shore dragging Ridgeway. But Boyles, who was in a single kayak, struggled to pull Tompkins against the current.
Boyles, who was watching Tompkins, noticed that he'd gone unconscious and grabbed him, trying to keep his friend’s head above the water. He continued to paddle with one arm, holding Tompkins in the other, in a futile attempt to get to shore. With no directional control, Boyles repeatedly came close to capsizing, but was somehow able to stay upright with both hands full.
After about an hour of struggle, the helicopter arrived, hovering over Boyle and Tompkins who were still in the raging water. From the helicopter a rope was tossed to Boyle, which he attached to his kayak. As the pilot began to pull the kayak toward the shore, Boyle’s kayak capsized, throwing him into the water with unconscious Tompkins. In a second attempt, a life ring attached to the helicopter by rope was thrown to Boyle, who put his arms through it holding Tompkins to his chest. The helicopter dragged the pair to the rocky shore.
TOMPKINS ONCE SAID, “I feel totally at home in [Argentina and Chile]. This is where I’m going to croak.” He was so devoted to the land upon which he’d built his home, and which he’d vowed to protect, that there was no other imaginable place for him to reside. But when Tompkins’ first arrived in Patagonia with his conservationist ideology, he met his fair share of opposition as well as support.
Many Chileans and Argentines worried that Tompkins’ so called “conservationism” would impede many of their traditional practices and affect the national economy. Tompkins took these opinions into consideration when making plans for the future of the Patagonia region. Despite opposition, his realized goal would be more fruitful for the Argentinean and Chilean people than if he were to pack up and leave.
“We want to do something good, but you’ve got to be very naive and out to lunch if you’re going to think that certain sectors of society are not going to put up resistance,” Tompkins’ told the New York Times in 2005. “If you’re not willing to take the political heat, then you shouldn’t get into the game of land conservation, especially on the large scale.”
TOMPKINS LATER ARRIVED AT COYHAIQUE HOSPITAL, approximately 75 miles north of the site of the accident. His core body temperature was now 66 degrees Fahrenheit. Still unconscious, doctors tried their best to raise Tompkins body temperature, eventually warming his body by only five degrees. But after a long, silent struggle for life, Doug Tompkins died peacefully on the night of December 8th, 2015. He was 72.
The legendary nature conservationist and outdoor enthusiast was laid to rest on a Saturday afternoon in a handmade casket of local Alerce wood, in the cemetery of Patagonia Park. He is remembered by the world as one of history's most influential conservationists. A man who lived, and died, for the love of nature.