The American clothing titan turned to environmental causes later in life. He was 72 years old.

Douglas Tompkins, founder of clothing lines The North Face and Esprit and noted environmentalist, died December 8 of severe hypothermia after a kayaking accident in South America’s Patagonia region.

Tompkins, 72, was on a 30km kayaking trip with five friends on Lago General Carrerea, a lake on the Chilean-Argentine border, when strong winds and waves around 10 feet in height capsized the party’s boats, forcing the paddlers into the lake’s frigid waters.

The group were reportedly in the water for a considerable amount of time before a Chilean Navy patrol boat managed to pluck three of the five from the water. A private helicopter also responded to the scene, rescuing the remaining two kayakers, including Tompkins, and providing a medevac for the hypothermic businessman turned environmentalist.

Tomkins’ body temperature had reportedly dropped to 19 degrees Celsius by the time he was flown to a hospital in Coyhaique, Chile, some 1,000 miles south of the capital, Santiago. Doctors there were unable to revive him.

Since his death, eulogies for Tompkins have been pouring in from organisations, media outlets and well-known friends.

Tom Brokaw, the retired American television news presenter, was quoted by Bloomberg Business, speaking about Tompkins, with whom he’d had a more than 25-year friendship.

“Doug was the complete man—original thinker, world-class climber and kayaker, pilot, hugely successful businessman, designer, ecological visionary, and ornery S.O.B.,” Brokaw said.

“We kayaked through the Russian Far East together and climbed a glacier route on Mt Rainier—and through it all, he never stopped lecturing me on deep ecology. I was in awe of him.”

Among others, Tompkins’ close friend Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor clothing company Patagonia, was with Tompkins on the ill-fated kayaking trip. The pair had been associated for nearly 50 years, having first visited South America’s Patagonia region in 1968 on a mountain climbing trip documented in the film Mountain of Storms. 

Tompkins and Chouinard are both accomplished climbers, and Tompkins was a competitive ski racer in his youth. He is also credited with 21 first descents, kayaking on rivers in Chile’s backcountry.

The North Face also released a statement about its founder, saying: “Doug was a passionate advocate for the environment. His legacy of conservation will help ensure that there are outdoor spaces to be explored for generations to come.”

Tomkins turned to environmental causes later in life. Following a divorce with his first wife, Susie, with whom Tompkins founded the clothing brand Esprit, he moved to Chile permanently, where he founded the Foundation for Deep Ecology in 1990. In 1991, Tompkins began acquiring significant tracts of land in Patagonia, and, with his second wife Kristine, a former CEO of clothing brand Patagonia, ultimately purchased nearly 2.2 million acres of land in South America over more than two decades, with the goal of creating national parks. Although occasionally causing controversy due to the scale of their landholdings, the expatriate couple handed over a number of their privately protected areas to the Chilean and Argentine governments for management to date. One such gift was the more-than 725,000-acre Pumalin Park, the world’s largest private nature reserve.

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