How The North Face Founder Went From High School Dropout to Millionaire Conservationist
The late Doug Tompkins, who died Tuesday, used his retailing fortune to preserve millions of acres of Chilean wilderness.
Doug Tompkins, a high school dropout who made a fortune founding the clothing lines The North Face and Esprit and then used his wealth to conserve millions of acres in Patagonia, died yesterday in Chile. He was 72.
According to a statement from the Chilean Navy, Tompkins was part of a group of six people that included two of his closest friends, Yvon Chouinard, the legendary climber and founder of the Patagonia clothing company, and Rick Ridgeway, a climber who took part in the first American ascent of K2, the world’s second highest mountain, in 1978. The group was paddling on General Carrera Lake in southern Chile, when gale force winds and large waves caused one of the kayaks, containing Tompkins and Ridgeway, to capsize.
The exact sequence of events leading to the accident remains unclear. According to Pedro Salgado, a local Chilean prosecutor, Tompkins spent a “considerable amount of time” in sub-40 degree Fahrenheit water. He died from severe hypothermia at the Coyhaique regional hospital. The others all survived.
News of Tompkins death spread rapidly through the outdoor industry that he helped invent back in the mid-1960s. “It’s hard to even comprehend what Doug accomplished in his life,” said photographer and filmmaker Jimmy Chin, from a hospital in New York City where his wife had just given birth to their second child. “He took his success in the business world, and instead of living a life of leisure, he used his money to do something good for the world. He and Kris have protected more land than anyone in history.”
In 2007, Chin spent nearly two months in Patagonia with Tompkins, Chouinard, and Ridgeway working on a film called 180 Degrees South, a documentary re-creating the legendary 1968 “Fun Hog” expedition during which Tompkins, Chouinard, and two other friends drove from Ventura California to the tip of Tierra del Fuego, climbing, surfing, and skiing along the way. The trip had been Tompkins’ idea, and he sold it to Chouinard with the promise that once they got there they’d establish a first ascent on Mount Fitzroy, the most famous mountain in Patagonia.
Two months after leaving home, the team established a snow cave below the mountain, where they spent 35 days waiting for a break in the infamous Patagonian weather. When the clouds finally broke, they blitzed their way up a ground-breaking first ascent, now called “The California Route.”
Both Tompkins and Chouinard fell in love with the wildness they encountered in Patagonia, and the Fun Hog expedition changed the course of their lives. "The experience led to an unlikely fate for a couple of dirtbags," said Chouinard in a 2010 Wall Street Journal article, using the affectionate term for dedicated mountain climbers. "We became philanthropists." Today, the logo for Chouinard’s company Patagonia is an outline of the Fitzroy massif.
Four decades later, Tompkins would lead Chin, Chouinard, and Ridgeway on another epic Patagonian adventure, only this time within an 800,000-acre park that Tompkins established during the 1990s by purchasing several ranches encompassing 1,200 square miles of pristine wilderness. A few of the Andean peaks in the park were unclimbed, and Tompkins led the team on a first ascent they later named Cerro Kristina, after Tompkins second wife Kris, a former CEO of Patagonia and partner in his Patagonian conservation efforts for more than 20 years.
“Tompkins was always out front,” said Chin. “He was super fit and intense. And so well appointed. He was classy but still somehow exuded this minimalist style.”
Friends and business partners say Tompkins was always a visionary. Born in Ohio and raised in Millbrook, New York, he dropped out of the Pomfret School in Connecticut at 17 and climbed and skied his way across the West, eventually establishing one of the first mountain guide services in the Sierras in the early 1960s. In 1964 he and his first wife started a small retail and mail order business in San Francisco, dubbing it The North Face. The Grateful Dead played at the store’s grand opening. Despite his lack of formal training, Tompkins had an uncanny knack for efficient, functional, and stylish design, and soon The North Face was creating state-of-the-art sleeping bags, backpacks, and tents.
Not long after returning from the Fun Hog expedition, he sold The North Face for $50,000, and started a new business designing women’s clothing, which later became Esprit. By 1980, Esprit was one of the most popular clothing brands in the world, sold in 60 different countries, with a billion dollars in annual sales. But Tompkins had grown disillusioned with the clothing industry and the negative impact that his company was having on the environment. In a 2014 profile in the Atlantic, he said he had decided to “stop selling people things they don’t need.”
So in 1989 Tompkins sold his interest in Esprit for $125 million, moved to southern Chile and created the Foundation for Deep Ecology. Ever since he and his wife Kris have been buying up ranches and farms to create a mostly contiguous property that currently encompasses 2.2 million acres.
Despite their intention to turn all of the land over to the Chilean government, their conservation efforts, managed through several different non-profits, including Tompkins Conservation, have frequently put them at odds with both the local ranchers and government officials. Rumors swirled, the most persistent one being that he was trying to steal the area’s water to ship overseas.
“Many of the locals saw it as a land grab,” explains Chin. “They thought, who is this American buying millions of acres and telling us locals we have to change our way of life?”
Chin draws the comparison between Tompkins conservation work in Patagonia and what the Rockefellers did in Wyoming when they bought a huge chunk of the Teton Range back in the 1920s.
“It was hugely unpopular with the locals at the time,” says Chin, “but now we look back and we’re like ‘thank God’. Tompkins was a visionary, and he showed the rest of us how much positive impact one person can have on the world.”