Last week outdoor community icon and conservationist Doug Tompkins died in a kayaking accident in Chile (read “Insiders Recount Efforts to Save North Face Founder“). But his legacy and leadership will live on. Watch this tribute to see what inspired his work, then read memories from his friends, including adventurer Jeff Johnson, surfer Dan Malloy, and our own next-gen conservationist Marty Schnure.
When you’re young, inexperienced, and you have an ambitious idea, it can sometimes be hard to gain traction and get started. Uncertainty abounds. You think your idea is good and worthwhile, but most of what you find is non-support, lack of interest, and people not taking you seriously because you don’t have chops yet. Lots of ideas never make it past this point.
When my colleague Ross Donihue and I left our jobs at 23 so that we could start a social venture making maps for conservation projects around the world, we went through a long period of this. About once a day our courage would falter and we would convince ourselves that we should really just try to get our old jobs back.
When we cold-called Conservacion Patagonica about mapping their Patagonia National Park project in southern Chile, Doug and Kris took a chance on us. Their approval, their invitation to come and undertake the enormous and intimate task of creating the first maps of this place they were working so hard to protect, was all the affirmation we needed to dive head first into the most ambitious project either of us had ever taken on, and the project that would launch our careers.
Almost four years after that cold call, as I look around at the incredible community we’ve formed from working on the Patagonia National Park project both in Chile and San Francisco, I notice it’s filled with young people like myself, usually performing roles one might expect to be reserved for someone older with decades of experience under their belts. We’ve each come to the project from different places and in different capacities, but we share a common story: Doug and Kris took a chance on us. As a result, we’ve each gained experience, expertise, and access far beyond our years. The difference this has made in our lives cannot be overstated.
I didn’t know Doug well, having instead worked closely with his wife Kris, but it was impossible to escape his positive influence. It’s an influence I see clearly now as I reflect on how my own values and ambitions have evolved over the last few years of building a social venture, and as I frequently remind myself to “commit and then figure out.”
As a visionary Doug was rare in that his ideas were ambitious—radical, even—in scale and scope and he wasn’t wasting any time in making them a reality, all the way down to the smallest detail (though Doug would remind us that no detail is small). Amidst intense controversy around their work in Chile, Doug wasn’t afraid of being unpopular because he knew that with time everyone else would catch up. These things leave an impression on the rest of us.
Doug leaves behind not just a world-class legacy of conservation and adventure, but also an unwavering belief in unconventional paths to success and the power of ambition driven by love. He lives on in the inspiration, ethic, and clear sense of purpose he has instilled in all those whose lives he touched. We all have our work cut out for us thanks to Doug.
Thank you, Doug and Kris, for taking a chance on two young, eager cartographers. I hope that someday I can do the same.
“I’m an unabashed, shameless conservationist. I know everyone doesn’t have my resources, but I say don’t worry, do things to the best of your ability because you’ll find it rewarding and helpful and it’s paying rent for living on the planet. So just do it. Just do it.” – Doug Tompkins
Around the year 2000, surfer Chris Malloy and I stumbled upon the forgotten film Mountain of Storms. It’s a funky travelogue/documentary produced by Doug Tompkins and his friend Yvon Chouinard about chronicling their now-legendary road trip in 1968. With a couple friends, they drove a van from Ventura, California, all the way to southern Patagonia to climb Mount Fitzroy. Back then the Pan-American Highway was almost all dirt roads. Just getting there was an ambitious undertaking. On the way down they surfed countless waves that have never been ridden, went skiing on sand dunes, climbed an active volcano, and overhauled their engine in the middle of a crowded city. While climbing Fitzroy, they spent two weeks—and Yvon’s 30th birthday—confined in a snow cave. On the summit they flew a flag that read Viva los Fun Hogs. But what really stood out for me was the trip getting down there. It’s not about the destination…you know the saying.
Seeing this film 30-plus years after the fact made clear the impact it had on Doug and Yvon’s lives. This was the trip that set these two men on their paths. Chris and I immediately wanted to repeat this trip, in one way or another, and tell their story. In 2007 we set out to make our own film called 180° South.
At that point I had already gotten to know Yvon, but Doug was somewhat of a mystery. I had read about the conservation efforts he and his wife, Kris, had been involved in throughout southern Chile and Argentina, but I was curious as to what kind of person he was.
My first impression when I met him at his home in Renihue, Chile, was that he was very serious, even a bit stoic. Surprisingly, he would elicit esoteric subjects like love, philosophy, and spirituality, but even then his voice had a very pragmatic tone. All his adult life, Doug had been dealing with serious, big business. Because of the inherent politics, his work with Concervacion Patagonica must have been the toughest. It’s a full-time gig, and he seemed to always be wearing his game face.
It wasn’t until we went climbing that I felt I got to know the real Doug. As we set out for the long approach to climb what he would later name Cerro Kristine (after his wife) the layers slowly fell away. He was funny, witty, light-hearted, sarcastic, and even self-deprecating at times. He and Yvon were constantly harassing each other in the most endearing way. Sitting around the fire trading stories Doug seemed truly in his element. I was reminded that he is just a climber—one with big dreams. Surroundings like this are what made him who he is.
Doug’s energy was endless. For three days I could hardly keep up with him. The tougher things got on that climb the more excited he became. Doug had done so much with his life and it seemed, at the age 65 then, he was just getting started.
When we finished the climb I asked him, “How do you do it?”
After a long pause—as with all questions I had asked—Doug answered, “Don’t hang out with old people.”
Dan Malloy, surfer, filmmaker
When I heard that Doug Tompkins had died, I accidentally blurted, “but he’s not finished!”
He was a proficient bush pilot, surfer, skier, climber, kayaker and photographer. I even hear at one time he held the foremost collection of Amish quilts. Tack on three decades of South America’s most ambitious ecological conservation, and somehow, after all that, it seemed he was just getting started.
I looked up to Doug because unlike most businessmen, whose philanthropic work tempers their guilt just enough for them to sleep at night, he recognized a dirty business and promptly abandoned it. He took what he had learned about his ability to lead and applied it wholeheartedly to what would become his life’s work: conservation.
His wife Kris and the team they built together will surely continue his legacy, but one thing is for sure, it’s going to take a legion of us to finish the work that one man started.
Post your memories of Doug in the comments section below. Learn more at www.conservacionpatagonica.org.