Insiders Recount Efforts to Save North Face Founder

Gale force winds and a broken rudder forced kayakers to swim for their lives in frigid Chilean lake.

This article was updated December 16th.

Five days after a kayaking accident claimed the life of Doug Tompkins—devoted conservationist and founder of the iconic outdoor equipment company The North Face—a fuller picture of the incident on General Carrera Lake in southern Chile is emerging. The members of his team and rescuers have provided new details about the events that led to Tompkins’ death.

Tompkins, 72, had been traveling with two of his closest friends: Yvon Chouinard, 77, founder of outdoor clothing maker Patagonia, and Rick Ridgeway, 66, a noted climber, filmmaker, writer, and Patagonia’s vice president of environmental initiatives. Though the three men, all pioneering figures in the outdoor industry, maintained extremely busy schedules, they always made a point of getting together for regular adventures in the landscapes that inspired them.

The trio was joined by three other friends: Jib Ellison, founder of Blu Skye, a San Francisco-based consulting firm and a veteran river guide; Weston Boyles, a filmmaker and environmentalist from Colorado; and Laurence Alvarez-Roos, owner of Bio Bio Expeditions, a world-class kayaker and raft guide who was the captain of the US Men’s whitewater rafting team from 1993 to 1999.

The group had planned to kayak a 50-mile segment of General Carrera Lake (also called Lake Buenos Aires) from Puerto Sanchez to Puerto Ibanez, a five-day trip which would include exploratory hikes in some of the side valleys on the lake’s northern shore. General Carrera Lake, which straddles the border between Chile and Argentina, is 90 miles long and 714 square miles in area, making it South America’s second largest freshwater lake (after Lake Titicaca). The lake is surrounded by the Andes Mountains and is famous for the unique cathedral-like marble rock formations that rise from its turquoise blue waters.

On Saturday December 5th , Philippe Reuter, the owner of the Terra Luna Lodge in Puerto Guadal, Chile, transported the six men and their gear to Puerto Sanchez, where they began their journey. Three days later, after paddling approximately half their route along the lake’s northern shore, the group broke camp and pushed off on a sunny day with barely any wind.

Tompkins and Ridgeway shared a two-person sea kayak, as did Ellison and Chouinard. [Editor’s note: sea kayaks are longer, wider and more stable than river kayaks and generally have rudders operated with internal foot pedals.] Alvarez-Roos and Boyles rode in single kayaks.

Having lived in southern Chile for a quarter century, Tompkins knew that Patagonia routinely experiences some of the harshest and most unpredictable weather on the planet. Cape Horn, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans collide in a maelstrom of raging currents, giant waves, and ferocious storms, lies just 600 miles to the south of General Lake Carrera. Located at 46 degrees south, the lake sits directly in the path of the “Roaring Forties”, a belt of westerly winds strengthened by the confluence of warm air from the equator and massive low pressure systems that lie just above Antarctica. Southern Chile is the first landmass the Roaring Forties hits after racing unimpeded across thousands of miles of the Southern Pacific Ocean.   

The Gulf of Penas lies more or less due west of General Carrera Lake. This large bay forms a huge funnel that catches and amplifies these winds as they blow into Chile’s west coast. Once they reach land, the winds rise and cool over the snow-capped Andes Mountains and then descend toward the lake, where at ground level wind bursts routinely reach gale force.

The men were paddling around a peninsula near the lake’s midsection around 10:30 am when the wind kicked up suddenly. “The lake is so big that it acts like an ocean,” said Reuter, who estimated that the wind was gusting as high as 50 miles per hour. “In 10 minutes, the lake can change from glass to hell,” he said. Under these violent winds, the waves built quickly, and within minutes the kayakers found themselves battling closely set, six-foot-high waves.

The men fought to make their way to shore, a few hundred yards away, but the northern coastline of the lake is rockbound with cliffs dropping straight to the water’s edge, offering few places to land a boat. Chouinard, Boyles, Ellison, and Alvarez-Roos managed to get around the peninsula into the lee of the wind. But the rudder on the kayak containing Tompkins and Ridgeway malfunctioned, and the men fell behind, struggling to maneuver their craft. Unable to steer, they were hit broadside by the huge waves and capsized approximately 600 feet from shore.

“As the current and wind pushed us toward the center of the lake, (Doug and I) had no way to know whether our companions in the other boats, who were ahead of us and out-of-sight, knew of our predicament,” Ridgeway wrote in an email. “We realized we had 30 minutes, perhaps a little more, to survive.” The pair tried four times to right their craft, but soon realized it was impossible in the huge waves. They had to make a difficult decision: stay with the boat, which was quickly being blown into the middle of the lake, or abandon their vessel and try to swim for shore in the 38-degree water. They chose the latter.

“It was tough,” writes Ridgeway, “and I realized against the current it was likely impossible to reach the point…I was slowing and even with a life jacket, I was pushed under by the larger waves. I could see Doug and assumed he was in the same situation. In addition to the hypothermia, I was starting to drown. For a few minutes I gave in—just let it go—but then snapped back.”

Meanwhile, the other four men, who had safely landed on a small beach, realized that their friends were in trouble. Ellison had a satellite phone, which he used to call Tompkins’ private pilot at 10:43 am, who relayed the information to Reuter. The Terra Luna Lodge has a private helicopter on site, and within minutes Reuter and the pilot were en route carrying a mountaineering rope, a harness, and a floating life ring.

Boyles set off in a single kayak and reached Tompkins shortly before Alvarez-Roos and Ellison reached Ridgeway in their double kayak. Ridgeway and Tompkins, both still conscious, grabbed rope loops attached to the sterns of the respective kayaks and hung on for dear life as their friends furiously paddled against the wind and waves toward shore.

“Doug was conscious with me for at least 20 to 30 mins fighting towards shore kicking etc, and I was paddling as hard as I could,” Boyles wrote in an email. “Because I was in a single kayak I was not able to overcome the power of the wind and current in the same way that Lorenzo and Jib were able to in the double.”

Eventually Tompkins lost the strength to hold on and Boyles lost his paddle while trying to hold onto his friend. “Doug then passed out and I held his head out of the water with my left arm and paddled with my right for hope it would help in some way to get us to shore eventually,” writes Boyles.

Now unable to steer and leaning over the side holding Tompkins, the kayak turned perpendicular to the waves, and Boyles came very close to capsizing a number of times. “My spray deck (the neoprene skirt that seals water out around the kayak seat) came open a few times in the process of trying to hold Doug out of the water. I managed to get (it) closed each time before filling with too much water,” writes Boyles. “By some miracle I did not flip.”

Approximately 50-60 minutes after Boyles first reached Tompkins, the helicopter arrived on the tiny beach where Ellison and Alvarez-Roos had managed to land with Ridgeway. They signaled to the pilot that two people were still in the water and the helicopter quickly located Boyles, who was adrift and floating towards the middle of the lake. By this time Tompkins was fully unconscious and had been in the water for approximately an hour. “(Boyles) was holding him by his clothes, and I could see his skin. It was clear he had no neoprene diving suit,” said Reuter.

River and sea kayakers often wear wet or dry suits, which help preserve body temperature in the event they capsize in cold water. Canoe and Kayak Magazine reported that in a photo taken at the beginning of the trip, Tompkins is pictured wearing a Patagonia dry top. Since Boyles was reportedly holding Tompkins by his clothes, it’s possible that the garment was pulled up around his neck, exposing his skin to the cold water. It is unclear what type of clothing the other men were wearing or what Tompkins was wearing on his legs. What is known is that Tompkins was a very experienced kayaker, as were all the members of the group. Tompkins’ résumé includes first descents of 21 different rivers in Chile, and several of the other men had similar credentials.

The helicopter was not equipped with a winch, so Reuter threw a rope to Boyles, who was able to clip it to a strap on the deck of his kayak. The helicopter slowly dragged the kayak towards shore while Boyles struggled to keep Tompkins’ from drowning. After less than five minutes of being dragged, the kayak flipped. Reuter lowered a life ring to Boyles who put his arms through it and held Tompkins to his chest while the helicopter dragged him back first towards the rocky shore.

“(Boyles gave) a superhuman effort, placing his own life in jeopardy,” Ridgeway wrote.

The helicopter couldn’t land, but it was able to hover just above the ground, allowing Reuter to jump out and help Boyles, who was now borderline hypothermic himself, to drag Tompkins ashore. All together Tompkins was in the water for nearly two hours. They put a harness on Tompkins and used the rope to lift him about 150 feet to a better spot, where they left him briefly to go drop off Boyles and pick up Alvarez-Roos and Ellison. The helicopter then returned to hover over the small beach, and the three men hauled Tompkins aboard and flew straight to Coyhaique Hospital, approximately 75 miles to the north.

Tompkins arrived at the hospital at approximately 1:30 pm, where his core body temperature was measured at 66 degrees Fahrenheit, 32 degrees below normal. Doctors managed to raise his temperature about five degrees but couldn’t improve his condition. He died at 6:30 pm that evening.

Ridgeway and Boyles huddled together in a sleeping bag on the beach until a Chilean military patrol arrived and transported the pair, along with Chouinard, to the port of Chile Chico on the lake’s south shore. None of three were seriously injured.

On Friday, December 11th, at the headquarters of Tompkins Conservation in the Chilean town of Puerto Varas, some 550 miles north of the accident site, dozens of friends and relatives gathered for a service to remember Doug Tompkins. In fluent Spanish his wife Kris spoke of her love for Doug, of their mutual commitment to protecting the Patagonian wilderness, and their intention to donate the land they have acquired over the last two and half decades—more than two million acres—to the Chilean and Argentinian people.

On Saturday, Tompkins’ body was loaded into a small private plane and flown south to Patagonia Park. As the plane neared Cerro San Valentin, the highest peak in Patagonia, the clouds broke and the pilot circled the snow-capped summit. Tompkins, himself a long-time pilot, had made this same flight countless times over the last 25 years.

“It was a spectacular last flight for Doug,” Ridgeway wrote.

That afternoon, Tompkins was laid to rest in a casket handmade of local Alerce wood, in the park’s cemetery.

With reporting from Kelley McMillan

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