Pour One Out For Douglas Tompkins, The Founder Of North Face, Who Was Killed While Kayaking In Patagonia
Pour one out for a Bro legend today, Bros.
Douglas Tompkins, the 72-year-old founder of North Face, died after his kayak capsized in a frigid lake in Patagonia, Chile on Tuesday. And yes, the irony of the founder of North Face losing his life in Patagonia, the namesake of his #1 outerwear competitor, is not lost on us. But he DGAF about that and you’ll understand the connection a little further down in this post.
According to local authorities, Tompkins was kayaking with others when weather conditions caused his kayak to capsize. Via The New York Times:
The health service in the Aysén administrative region said Mr. Tompkins was boating with five others when their kayaks capsized. Mr. Tompkins died in the intensive care unit of the hospital in Coyhaique, a town more than 1,000 miles south of Santiago.
Chile’s army said strong waves on the lake caused the group’s kayaks to capsize. A military patrol boat rescued three of the boaters, and a helicopter lifted out the other three, it said. No one else was seriously injured.
According to an interview given by a local prosecutor, Pedro Salgado, to radio Bío Bío, the lake is known for unpredictable weather conditions. Mr. Salgado said that Mr. Tompkins had spent “considerable amount of time in waters under 4 degrees Celsius,” or under 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
North Face is about as iconic of a Bro brand as it gets. I grew up outfitted in it, as did millions of other suburban millennials just like me. Some who live to be outside, some who just want to stay warm in the winter. A North Face along with a frayed-brimmed dirty white hat with college name on it was the token outfit for all Bros who attended a Phish or Dave Matthews Band show from 1994 – 2003. Hell, my closet is still filled with North Face pull-overs and fleeces, along with sleeping bags, rain jackets, vests, and all sorts of other outerwear from the iconic outdoor brand. I can’t imagine how much money my family has spent on North Face products over the years.
The roots of North Face are a wild one full of globe-trotting and adventure. Thompkins is about as big of a Bro legend as it gets. He grew up in Millbrook, New York and dropped out of prep school before heading to the great mountain town of Aspen, Colorado at the age of 17, where he “squirreled away money for a year before flying to Europe to ski the Alps,” according to his obit in the Times. From there it was the Andes and South America until 1962. He ran out of money while exploring South America, returning to the Bay Area in the middle of the ’60s to figure his shit out.
North Face started as a mountaineering store in North Bay, San Francisco around 1966, selling backpacks and such. The Grateful Dead played there in the ’60s, according to 5KPIX. That was just the beginning of the ride. Via New York Times:
“Doug was a passionate advocate for the environment, and his legacy of conservation will help ensure that there are outdoor spaces to be explored for generations to come,” the company said in a statement. The global apparel company VF Corporation purchased the North Face in 2000.
Mr. Tompkins eventually landed near Tahoe City, Calif., where he worked in the ski lodges and started his first business, the California Mountaineering Service. Mr. Tompkins would sometimes hitchhike, and was picked up by a young woman who would later become his wife.
“There wasn’t anything we were afraid of, there wasn’t anything we couldn’t figure out how to do,” said Susie Tompkins Buell, who was married to Mr. Tompkins from 1964 until 1989. “It was just an open book of adventure.”
The pair started selling “plain Jane” dresses out of a station wagon, along with a third co-founder, Jane Tise. That business would later become the multibillion-dollar retailer Esprit.
Known for its casual sportswear and lifestyle clothing, Esprit found success in the 1980s that would fuel much of the conservation work that occupied Mr. Tompkins for much of his working life. But by 1990, he had grown disillusioned with the corporate world, and sold his stake in Esprit for what was reported as more than $150 million.
So what did he spend that ESPIRIT fortune on? Land. Lots and lots of land. He remarried Kris Tompkins, CEO of Patagonia, and together they purchased “millions” of acres of wilderness in Chile and Argentina with the purpose of preserving it forever.
Mr. Tompkins used his vast fortune to buy roughly 2.2 million acres of land through his various conservation groups, Mr. Butler said. That included Pumalín Park, one of the world’s largest private parks, protecting 715,000 acres of rain forest that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes Mountains. It is named in honor of the pumas that roam the park’s virgin forests.
He had been working on creating new parks in Patagonia and in the Iberá wetlands in northeastern Argentina.
He was given many environmental awards, but his efforts were not immune to criticism. According to a 2012 profile in Earth Island Journal, his land purchases and outspoken opposition to salmon farming and dam construction drew criticism from many Chileans and Argentines, who worried that the American’s vast holdings threatened their national sovereignty and stunted economic development.
What a legacy. That’s something every Bro can sit back, think about, and say… “damn… I hope that’s me some day.”
Life is too short to not live like Douglas Tompkins.
Never stop exploring.