In Memoriam: Doug Tompkins, the John Muir of Patagonia

Once, years ago, I was hanging out with Doug Tompkins at his home in Chile, sipping tea and sitting by the fire, when Doug began telling me tales of his early climbing days with his first climbing partner, Johnny. I asked what became of Johnny, and Doug told me he had died in a climbing accident. Then I asked Doug how many of his climbing friends and acquaintances had died climbing. He thought for a moment and then said, “About two dozen.”


He went on to add that all of those people were excellent climbers. Usually, they didn’t die because they fell off a wall. Rather, they died because the unpredictable happens. An avalanche sweeps your camp off the mountain side. A rock bounces down a cliff and hits your head. Lightning strikes you as you near a summit. As Doug told me that night, you can be the best climber in the world, but nature can always surprise you. Doug Tompkins seemed to accept that fate, to relish it even.


So it is not surprising that Doug died while kayaking, something he’d done a thousand times before in far more difficult and dangerous situations. On December 8, he and five companions were paddling on Chile’s General Carrera Lake, when high winds and large waves caused their kayaks to flip. Several of his companions made it to shore, but Doug and his old friend and paddling partner, Rick Ridgeway, tried repeatedly to right the kayak, but without success. When they realized the wind was blowing them towards the center of the lake. They made the difficult decision to swim for shore. Ridgeway was rescued by other members of the party in a two man kayak who towed him to shore. Meanwhile, a second kayaker paddling a single person boat against winds estimated to be 50 mph, reached Doug and had him hold on to the kayak as he labored to get to the shoreline. Tompkins lost consciousness. By the time he was pulled from the icy waters he was suffering from acute hypothermia. Doctors at the hospital in Coyhaique Chile were unable to revive him.


If you’re an outdoor adventurer or committed environmentalist, no doubt you’ve heard the news by now. You’ve likely read an obituary or two that will tell you that Doug was among the top mountaineers and climbers of the 1960s and 1970s as well as an aspiring Olympic skier, and a first-rate white-water kayaker. You know that Doug was perhaps best known for founding the North Face outdoor company and later Esprit Clothing Company. You’ve learned that as Esprit became a multi-national success, Tompkins became disillusioned with the corporate world and eventually sold his share of the company in 1989 to his first wife, and business partner, Susy Tompkins Buell.


I’d like to share with you some things about Doug Tompkins you might not have read in other places. For 25 years he was my friend, my mentor, and my frequent collaborator on a range of environmental books. Here’s a glimpse of the Doug Tompkins I knew and admired.


Incredibly, Doug was a high school dropout. And he was brilliant – self-taught and well read. He was influenced by thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who coined the term “Deep Ecology.” These voices and others—including Sierra Club leaders like   David Brower and Ansel Adams—sparked his conservation activism.


Despite his prowess as an outdoor athletic and entrepreneur, Doug would want to be remembered for his conservation work—or, as he liked to call it, the “rent he paid for living on the planet.” Doug became a staunch advocate of national parks—which he called the “gold standard” of conservation. Doug, along with his second wife and conservation partner, Kris Tompkins whom he married in 1993, protected millions of acres of land in Chile and Argentina for national parks including Yendegaia, Corcovado, Pumalin, and his most beloved, Patagonia National Park.


At times, not all of Doug’s land acquisitions efforts were appreciated.  It was incomprehensible to many Chileans why anyone would buy up land and not exploit it for personal reasons, rather than buying it simply to keep it undeveloped.. There were wild rumors about what Doug was going to do with the lands. Conspiracy theories included the notion that Doug was buying land to create a Jewish resettlement colony or a build a nuclear waste dump.


Doug won over some of his critics by his good faith gestures. For example, once at a meeting with the Chilean president and staff, Doug offered to give to the Chilean government a large chunk of mountainous land that he and philanthropist Peter Buckley had acquired, with the proviso that it become a new national park. At this gathering was a particularly suspicious general who believed that Doug had some ulterior motive for buying land. He asked Doug, “You mean you are going to give us a hundred thousand-plus hectares of land and all we need to do is declare the area a national park?” And when Doug nodded and said yes, the general smiled, and said “I can go along with that.”


Even as he set aside lands for parks, and tried to restore abused landscapes, Doug would sometimes admit that it was possible that some of his efforts at reforestation, land reclamation or species recovery might eventually prove to be an error. He would always acknowledge: “First of all, you never know if you’re doing the right thing.” Then he would say, “But the way I see it, with land conservation of this type, the risk of something negative coming from this seems to be rather small compared with taking an exploitive approach.”


Doug invested in more than land. He invested in people. He hired a young Chilean couple to run Pumalin Park. But he wanted them to have a better understanding of what national parks were all about, so he asked me to spend a summer touring the pair around America’s national parks so they could learn what was good about our park system, as well as  what to avoid. As he told me, “I don’t know how long they will work for me, but I know they will be involved in Chilean conservation for the rest of their lives, so I want them to be as effective as possible.’


Beyond the direct acquisition of land for parks, Doug was an influential and dedicated conservation activist. Almost every day at his house there were guests. Doug regularly met with political leaders, scientists, philanthropists, conservation activists, and well-known writers and artists. Sometimes world-class climbers or adventurers joined the group. There would be spirited discussions on every imaginable subject. Just hanging out with Doug was an education.


Despite the fame and status of these visitors, Doug cared little for celebrities or titles. What he appreciated was a job well done. He could rave for a half hour about the agility of a backhoe operator plucking rocks from a river bed or the carving skill of a sign maker, and he might well be more impressed with their contribution to society than a politician or corporate leader.


Doug was a critic of modern economic systems and the faith many people place in mega technologies to save our environment. He felt that the true measure of a successful economic enterprise was how well it protected life on Earth. He frequently reminded people that we are now experiencing the Sixth Mass Extinction, and have ruined the climate to boot.


Doug would ask: “What is worse than this? If we need to measure how our economic model is working, our world view is working, then the extinction crisis is the place to start and finish. It is the best, simplest and fasted metric you can find. If there is a better one, please let me know and I will change my views. My bet is that you cannot find one. GDP? It’s a joke, really.”


Doug also spent a considerable amount of his energy and fortune on what he called scholarship and education. Following in the footsteps of the Sierra Club’s David Brower, Doug produced massive, high quality photo books that illustrated environmental issues. Among the titles he produced were Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial ForestryFatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West; Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy; and Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth. 


Despite his intensity and passion, Doug could often generate a laugh and smile with his listeners. He often verbally spared good-naturally with his wife Kris, whom he affectionately called Birdie. She was one of the few people who regularly challenged him on some of his opinions, but she did so with grace, humor, and love.


He also had a mischievous side. When we worked together on a book about livestock grazing’s impacts on public lands, he selected the title Welfare Ranching. I remember him saying, as he chuckled to himself, “Just think: the ranchers will have to choke on the words “welfare ranching” every time they want to denounce the book. They will be talking on some right-wing radio show and will have to say ‘welfare ranching’ repeatedly.” His eyes sparkled as he contemplated the irony.


Doug was indomitable. You did not tell Doug Tompkins something was impossible. He spent his life proving that the impossible was possible by climbing sheer rock walls and running rivers people said couldn’t be paddled. He accomplished the impossible by saving land and waters through sheer tenacity.


Another moment I’ll never forget: A magazine writer was interviewing Doug at his home in Renihue, Chile. The writer brought up a campaign that Doug had recently joined to stop several large hydroelectric dams on wild rivers in southern Chile.  The reporter said to Doug, “You know, these dams have the support of the Chilean government, are being pursued by a large corporation, and even many of the people in Chile are in favor of these dams.  It seems there’s no way to stop these dams.” Doug smiled and said, “We’ll just see about that.”  I smiled, too, for I knew the reporter had totally underestimated Doug’s perseverance and determination.


Doug threw himself into the battle against the planned dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers, providing financial support to Chilean and international organizations opposing the dams.. Against what seemed like impossible odds, and after eight years of campaigning, in June of 2014 Chile’s Committee of Ministers overturned the environmental permits for the controversial HidroAysén project.


In many ways, Doug Tompkins is the modern-day, Patagonian equivalent of John Muir. Like Muir, his environmental consciousness grew out of his experiences climbing mountains, including the walls of Muir’s beloved Yosemite. Like Muir, Tompkins did not finish his formal schooling, but was well-read.  Like Muir, he interacted with famous scientists, politicians, and the movers and shakers of the day. Like Muir, who fought unsuccessfully to keep a dam out of Hetch Hetchy Canyon in Yosemite, Tompkins fought to keep dams out of some of the most spectacular Patagonian landscapes. And finally, like Muir, who was instrumental in the creation of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, as well as others, Tompkins established many parks in Patagonia.


In a fitting tribute to a man who was a giant in conservation, there are a number of parks including Pumalín Park, one of Doug’s earliest acquisitions, and his latest love, Patagonia Park, that are on the table for official acceptance by the Chilean government as national parks. Designation of these parks would serve as the perfect epitaph for a man who dedicated himself to leaving behind parklands for future generations to enjoy.



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  1. Zoe Berger Avatar
    Zoe Berger

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful words. I’m sorry and a bit ashamed to say I never knew of your dear friend…from a world that I am not a part of. I couldn’t stop reading! Your very powerful descriptions really brought him alive. I am so sorry for your loss. You managed to enlighten a lot of people who may not have known him either. I will post this and spread the word about him, thanks to you. What a terrific story. What a terrific man. Thanks again.

  2. Salle Avatar

    Thank you, George, for sharing so much about this amazing man. I mourn and celebrate his life with you.

    RIP Doug Tompkins, I thank you for all that you have done for the natural world and for us as well.

  3. Nancy Avatar

    Not enough Doug Tompkins in the world. Sorry for the loss of your friend, George.

  4. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    What a lovely tribute. I had no idea Doug Tompkins has done so much for conservation, just amazing. It’s people like him who give us hope. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend, and for the loss of such a ardent conservationist.

  5. Richard Avatar

    It would appear that something more than just one human life was lost here.

    Are there any other writing or books which expand on or detail Doug’s experiences that led him to preserve land, and champion the national parks ideas ?

  6. Kirk Robinson Avatar
    Kirk Robinson

    Thank you, George, for this wonderful tribute to your friend and a conservation giant. I did not know Doug personally when he was alive, but now I feel as if, in a way, I do. His many accomplishments, especially the selfless ones on behalf of the planet, make me feel kind of small, but at the same time they are tremendously inspiring.

  7. Diana Armstrong Avatar
    Diana Armstrong

    Thanks, George. I met Doug (and his first wife Susie and their two girls) in the fall of 1973 when I arrived in San Francisco with 2 boys the age of their girls, less than $400, and their address as the friends of a friend. I had left my alcoholic husband in New Mexico, determined (desperate) to make a new life for myself and those innocent boys I’d brought into the world. I had told my parents I had a job at a clothing store (which was a lie), imagining a boutique with some sewing machines in back. Susie told me I could stay with them a week and their nanny would watch my boys so I could look for a place, a job, a pre-school, and an elementary school. She told me to go to their factory and talk to Carol. Of course, I was awed to see the size of their factory, Esprit d’Corps. Carol hired me. This was my first job. So then I began looking for an apartment and schools near Esprit. Remember I had maybe $350. I found a cottage on San Bruno Ave, south of the SF General Hospital. It was $185 a month. I had no idea I’d have to pay first and last, so I put up a sign for a roommate at the Meat Market Coffeehouse on 23rd (I think). The roommate loaned me money. The elementary school (Buena Vista) was right across the street. I found a day care nearby. I was grateful every day I went to work to Doug and Susie Tompkins. Many years later my path crossed Doug’s again. In 1995 I was in Chile teaching English, and Doug’s purchases that bisected Chile and led to Pumalin Park were headline news. I went to Pumalin in 1997 (traveling the Southern Highway) and met Doug’s second wife, Kris, and had a chance to visit with Doug again. I respected Doug–his values, efforts, families, lifestyle, habits, attitudes, and so on. He affected me personally forever.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner