The North Face founder and notable conservationist Douglas Tompkins dies in Chile
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The North Face founder and notable conservationist Douglas Tompkins dies in Chile

Businessman and conservationist Douglas Tompkins died from hypothermia on Tuesday night after suffering a kayaking accident in Chile.

Tompkins is the founder of outdoor sports gear manufacturer The North Face and clothing line Esprit.

The 72-year-old philanthropist was kayaking with a group of friends on Tuesday morning in the Chilean side of the General Carrera Lake when big waves caused by strong winds hit the kayaks, making them capsize. The group were forced to swim in near-freezing water.

Rescue boats and helicopters retrieved the group of five. According to the Chilean Navy, Tompkins’ body temperature was at 19 degrees Celsius when they reached the nearest hospital in Coyhaique.

Among the group with Tompkins were Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor clothing designer Patagonia, and Rick Ridgeway who was in the first American team to reach the summit of K2. None of the group received serious injuries.

Dr. Carlos Salazar told Chilean media that Tompkins was unconscious and wasn’t breathing when a helicopter brought him. He added that the they carried out advanced resuscitation techniques, but failed to regain his consciousness.

“Despite showing vital signs and the fact that he had not been resuscitated, for a long time, we tried everything possible thinking that we could turn the situation in our favor. But after several hours, we realized the situation was irreversible,” Dr. Sergio Gaete said.

According to Salazar, surviving serious hypothermia cases from accidents such as Tompkins’ was very rare. Tompkins’ died at 6:30 p.m.

“We are all very shocked, but in some ways, he was doing what he loved, enjoying nature,” said Hernan Mladinic, the Tompkins family spokesman.

The late Tompkins is known for his love of nature and outdoor sports.

“He flew airplanes, climbed to the top of mountains all over the world. To have lost his life in a lake and have nature sort of gobble him up is just shocking,” daughter Summer Tompkins said.

“He was an innovative man and generous in the conservation of the environment. It’s true that he lived in Chile for 25 years, but his work is of a global importance and his real vocation was philanthropy, something that is still relatively unknown and rare in our country,” said Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

As a conservationist 

In 1966, Tompkins established The North Face with first wife Susie Buell in San Francisco. After several years, the couple, with another business partner Jane Tise, started selling dresses then branded as “Plain Jane,” which eventually evolved to become the well-known clothing store Esprit.

Tompkins sold his shares at Esprit in the 1990s, as what he told Earth Island Journal in 2012, to “pay my rent for living on the planet.”

Since then, he and his second wife Kristine McDivitt moved to South America, splitting their time in Chile and Argentina where they bought acres of land to preserve and turned them into national parks. To date, Tompkins owns a combined 2.2 million acres of land for preservation in Chile and Argentina, some of them have been turned over to the Chilean people and are open to the public.

“His unwavering commitment to protect the outdoors epitomized his core values as an environmentalist, a businessman and an adventurer. His tenacity in the fight for conservation is an inspiration to us and is a sentiment we strive to mirror. He will be deeply missed,” The North Face wrote on its website.

Tompkins has made the creation of several national parks possible, such as the Pumalin Park, the Patagonia National park, Yendagaia National Park, and the Corcovado National Park. He was also working on creating other private parks before his untimely death.

“A great man and a visionary has left us. We all deeply appreciate and respect his pioneering work to build up Esprit – and his passion for this planet,” Esprit said in a statement.

Douglas established the Tompkins Conservation to further preserve the environment for future generations.

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