The outdoor and conservation world lost a longtime leader when conservationist and The North Face and Esprit co-founder Doug Tompkins died Dec. 8 in Chilean Patagonia in a kayaking accident…
According to reports, Tompkins, 72, was with a group of other experienced paddlers on day four of a five-fay sea kayak trip along on General Carrera Lake near the town of Coyhaique, when high winds swept out of the Andes, creating up to 10-foot waves and capsizing the tandem sea kayak he was paddling with Patagonia vice-president Rick Ridgeway. Tompkins was eventually rescued by a Navy helicopter, which towed him to shore.
Two of the kayakers were taken to the Coyhaique hospital, including Tompkins, who was treated for severe hypothermia and later died.
Other kayakers in the group, according to a story in Outside Online, included Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, who was fishing on shore at the time; Bio Bio Expeditions Lorenzo Alvarez and Class V river guide and Project RAFT founder Jib Ellison, who were paddling a tandem kayak and helped pull Ridgeway to shore; and Rios to Rivers founder Weston Boyles, who paddled over to Tompkins and tried to tow him to shore. All are experienced paddlers.
Tompkins, who with his wife, Kris McDivitt-Tompkins, had long been working to enhance Chile’s national park program, owned one of the world’s largest private parks, the 715,000-acre Pumalín Park in Chile, which was part of 2.2 million acres of total land in his conservation network. After founding The North Face in 1966. Tompkins, who grew up in Millbrook, N.Y., later moved to South America with McDivitt-Tompkins, both for its wilderness and the opportunity to help preserve it.
“In these extremely serious cases of hypothermia, survival is very rare,” Carlos Salazar, the hospital’s director of the emergency unit, told the EMOL news site.
Tompkins was also a venerated adventure junkie: pilot, skier, climber, and paddler. In the 1980s, he participated in a number of Class V first descents in California’s Sierras including the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin, the Kern River, and the Middle Fork of the Kings; all have since become whitewater classics.
One news outlet following the story closely is www.canoekayak.com/a>, which reports that Tompkins, 72, was paddling with four other experienced kayakers on Lago General Carrera, a large lake straddling the border between Chile and Argentina in southern Patagonia. The five friends were “getting together for a relatively easy outing…a five-day trip of about 100 miles.”
The men were in two tandem kayaks and one single kayak. Tompkins was paddling a double kayak with Rick Ridgeway, an accomplished mountaineer and vice president of the apparel company Patagonia. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard was reportedly fishing on shore.
While Boyles, Ellison and Alvarez made it to shore safely in the lee of a point, the kayak carrying Tompkins and Ridgeway, which had suffered a broken rudder hindering its progress, overturned in high winds and waves about 200 meters from shore. One source says of the changing weather, “It was hectic and got out of control quickly. [There were] five-foot swells in all directions and wind was ripping paddles out of hands.”
Ridgeway and Tompkins held onto the kayak for awhile, but decided to swim to swim toward shore because the wind was pushing them farther into the lake. The men in the other double kayak, Jib Ellison and Lorenzo Alvarez, reached Ridgeway and towed him to shore as he held onto the boat. He was in the water for about an hour.
Meanwhile Weston Boyles reached Tompkins in a single kayak and attempted to pull him to shore, while also holding onto him and keeping his head above water. While doing so, he reportedly lost his paddle in the wind and waves, making matters ore difficult. Finally a helicopter arrived and towed the pair to shore. According to a source, “Tompkins fought hard in the rough water but was hypothermic and badly bruised and battered by the rocky shoreline. During the rescue effort, Boyles never let go of Tompkins.”
After floating in the frigid 40-degree water for nearly two hours, Tompkins was flown to the Coyhaique Regional Hospital with extreme hypothermia. He died five hours later. Ridgeway and the other paddlers are all reportedly in good condition.
According to El Nuevo Herald, the paddlers had planned a 50-kilometer route between the towns of Puerto Sanchez and Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez.
“The lake’s huge and with the crazy winds down here, especially at this time of year; it can get nasty out there quickly,” says ex-pat Rex Bryngelson, a longtime sea kayak guide who runs a fishing lodge out of nearby Coyhaique.
“I’ve known Doug for my entire life, he was a father figure, a mentor, and a good friend,” wrote Boyles in an email afterward. “The hole he has left behind is enormous. We are all going to work as hard as we can to keep his spirit and visions alive and complete the many beautiful projects he and his wife Kris have started.”
For perhaps the most complete coverage of the accident, visit news.nationalgeographic.com
Read more of C&K’s coverage at www.canoekayak.com