North Face Co-Founder Douglas Tompkins Dies at 72

Douglas Tompkins poses in his property in Ibera - H 2015
Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

The conservationist, who co-founded the retailer known for outdoor apparel and recreational gear, died in a kayaking accident.

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Douglas Tompkins, the co-founder of The North Face and Esprit clothing companies who bought up large swaths of land in South America's Patagonia region to keep them pristine, has died from severe hypothermia in a kayaking accident in Chile.

The well-known conservationist was 72.

The Aysen health service said the wealthy businessman and lifelong outdoorsman was boating with five other foreigners on Tuesday when their kayaks capsized in a lake in near-freezing waters in the Patagonia region of southern Chile. Tompkins died later in the intensive care unit of the hospital in Coyhaique, a town 1,056 miles south of Santiago.

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"He had lost consciousness and wasn't breathing" when brought to the hospital by helicopter, Dr. Carlos Salazar told local television stations.

Chile's army said strong waves on General Carrerra 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.

"Doug was a passionate advocate for the environment," The North Face said in a statement. "His legacy of conservation will help ensure that there are outdoor spaces to be explored for generations to come."

Douglas Rainsford Tompkins was born March 20, 1943, in Ohio. The son of an antiques dealer and a decorator, he lived the first years of life in New York City before his family moved to Millbrook, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley. He began rock climbing before his teen years and later became an active skier and kayaker.

"Tompkins had been an outdoorsman all his life: a daring white-water kayaker; a skier with aspirations to compete in the Olympics; a serious mountain climber who once spent four weeks holed up in an ice cave with four buddies, waiting out an epic storm until they could finally blaze a new trail to the summit," Edward Humes wrote in 2009's Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers, and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet.

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Tompkins attended Connecticut's Pomfret School, but he didn't graduate from high school and didn't go to college. Instead, he spent a couple of years working, rock climbing and ski racing in Colorado, Europe and South America.

In the mid-1960s, Tompkins became one of the founders of The North Face, a small ski and backpacking retail operation in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood under the mantra, "Never Stop Exploring."

The brand has been ubiquitous in recent years in the U.S., as likely to be seen on the New York City subways as it was on ski slopes or in office-building elevators. The North Face made outdoor gear cool for teenagers, hipsters, suburbanites and celebrities. The activewear company is now owned by VF Corp. of Greensboro, N.C. Tompkins also founded the Esprit clothing company with his first wife, Susie Tompkins Buell.

After retiring in 1989, Tompkins was active in conservation and environmentalism. He used much of his fortune to buy hundreds of thousands of acres in Patagonia, a sparsely populated region of untamed rivers and other natural beauty that straddles southern Chile and Argentina. On his Chilean land, he created Pumalin Park, 716,606 acres of forest, lakes and fjords stretching from the Andes to the Pacific.

"He was an innovative man and generous in the conservation of the environment," Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said  Wednesday. "It's true that he lived in Chile 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."

Besides becoming one of the world's largest private owners of land for preservation, Tompkins also sometimes got involved in local environmental issues in Chile and Argentina. Although at first his purchase of land to preserve swaths of wilderness in both countries stirred suspicion and opposition by local politicians, he shrugged off the protests, insisting that he would eventually return the land to both governments to be preserved as nature reserves or parks.

"If you had to go to bed every night thinking about every accusation that would come up the next day, you'd be consumed," Tompkins told The Associated Press in a 2007 interview. "Some of that stuff is laughable. ... You've just got to live with that and focus on the things you're doing."

Tompkins had started to prepare for his retirement in recent months by selling some farms and even the house that he first bought in Chile, where he had been living since 1990. In one of his final interviews, he was asked about his legacy and how he would like to be remembered. "By this," Tompkins said, referring to the preserved lands in an interview with Chile's Paula magazine, published last month. "I prefer it to a statue. People are going to walk over these lands; don't you think it's nicer than a grave?"

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Many also credit him with helping to raise consciousness about the toll that large manmade projects can have on ecosystems.

Last year, Chile's government rejected an $8 billion project to dam two of the world's wildest rivers for electricity in Aysen, a mostly roadless region of remote southern Patagonia where rainfall is nearly constant and rivers plunge from Andean glaciers to the Pacific Ocean through green valleys and fjords.

The HidroAysen plan would have built more than 100 miles of power lines to supply energy to central Chile. Tompkins and his current wife, Kris, had objected for years to letting the lines cut through the park. The decision was seen as a victory for the couple and other environmentalists, who praised the ruling as a landmark moment.

"For the environmental movement, not just in Chile but internationally, [Tompkins' death] is a huge loss," said Sara Larrain, a longtime friend who leads a Chilean environmental group. "This is somebody who put all his energy, all his fortune and his spirit in preserving ecosystems."

A private memorial ceremony is being planned.