By Canoe & Kayak Staff
UPDATED DEC. 11 AT 1:30 p.m. PST: The outdoor and conservation world lost a longtime leader when explorer and conservationist Doug Tompkins died Tuesday following a kayaking accident in Chilean Patagonia.
Tompkins co-founded two successful companies, the outdoor brand The North Face and the clothing company Esprit, in the 1960s and 70s and used his fortune to help initiate a number of conservation efforts around the world. At the time of his death, he owned one of the world’s largest private parks, the 715,000-acre Pumalín Park in Chile, which was part of 2.2 million acres of land in his conservation network.
Tompkins was also a venerated adventure junkie: pilot, skier, climber, and paddler. In the 1980s, he participated in a number of Class V first descents in California’s Sierras including the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin, the Kern River, and the Middle Fork of the Kings; all have since become whitewater classics.
Tompkins, 72, was paddling with five other experienced outdoorsmen on Lago General Carrera, a large lake straddling the border between Chile and Argentina in southern Patagonia. A source tells C&K that the six friends were getting together for a relatively easy 5-day outing, a trip of about 50 miles along the lake’s remote northern shore. According to local press reports, they departed Dec. 5 and planned to paddle from Puerto Sanchez to Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez.
The men were traveling in two tandem sea kayaks and two single kayaks. Tompkins was paddling a double kayak with Rick Ridgeway, 66, a legendary mountaineer and vice president of the apparel company Patagonia. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, 77, was in another double kayak with Jib Ellison, 54, a legendary river guide and founder of Project RAFT. Bio Bio Expeditions Founder Lorenzo Alvarez, 49, and river guide Weston Boyles, 29, were in the solo boats. All were experienced kayakers.
Sometime before 11:10 a.m. local time on Tuesday, Dec. 8, the kayak carrying Tompkins and Ridgeway overturned in high winds and waves. A source who has spoken with the men involved tells C&K that the changing weather “was hectic and got out of control quickly. [There were] five-foot swells in all directions and wind was ripping paddles out of hands.” Another source tells C&K that Tompkins and Ridgeway had trouble with the rudder in their double kayak, hampering their ability to maneuver the craft. Stewart Green reported Dec. 9 in Alpinist magazine that after Tompkins and Ridgeway capsized, they were in the water about 200 meters from shore.
Ridgeway and Tompkins reportedly held onto the kayak for awhile, but decided to swim toward shore because the wind was pushing them farther into the lake. Meanwhile, the other men organized a rescue. According to accounts from relatives and friends shared with C&K, the others landed on a nearby island, where Alvarez took Chouinard’s place in Ellison’s double kayak. Then Ellison and Alvarez, in the tandem, and Boyles, paddling a single sea kayak, went to recover the swimmers. Chouinard remained on shore.
Ellison and Alvarez reached Ridgeway, who held onto the boat as they towed him to shore. He was reportedly in the water for about an hour.
Meanwhile, Boyles reached Tompkins in a single kayak and attempted to pull him to shore, without success. As Alpinist reports: “Finally a helicopter arrived and towed the pair. Tompkins fought hard in the rough water but was hypothermic and badly bruised and battered by the rocky shoreline. During the rescue effort, Boyles never let go of Tompkins.”
According to a release from the Chilean navy, authorities received a telephone call at 11:10 a.m. local time from Carolina Morgado, advising them that the six kayakers were in distress in the Avellano sector of the lake. Morgado is the personal assistant to Tompkins and his wife Kris. The navy dispatched a patrol boat from its base in Chile Chico on the lake’s south shore.
According to the navy release, the kayakers also enlisted the assistance of a private helicopter from Terra Luna Lodge. Patagonia Helitours operates a Eurocopter B3 helicopter from the lodge near Puerto Guadal on the lake’s southeastern shore.
The private helicopter flew Tompkins and two others to the hospital in Coyhaique, about 60 miles north of the accident site, arriving at about 1:30 p.m. According to Alpinist, Tompkins had been in the water for “a couple hours.” He was severely hypothermic, with a body temperature of 19 degrees Centigrade (67 Fahrenheit). He died at 6:30 p.m.
The navy patrol boat picked up the other kayakers from the island at about 1:00 p.m. and transported them to Chile Chico. The other five paddlers are all reportedly in good condition.
"The lake's huge and with the crazy winds down here, especially at this time of year. It can get nasty out there quickly," says ex-pat Rex Bryngelson, a longtime sea kayak guide who runs a fishing lodge out of nearby Coyhaique.
We don’t know for certain how Tompkins and the others were clothed and equipped. A photograph of the party at the beginning of the trip on Saturday, which was described to C&K, shows Tompkins wearing what appears to be a Patagonia dry top of the type sold in the late 1990s. Photographs released by the navy suggest Ridgeway and Chouinard were not wearing drysuits. The kayaks are sit-inside rotomolded plastic models equipped with rudders. At least one of the single kayaks was a Necky Looksha.
We will continue to update this story as we learn more. This is what we know so far:
- Tompkins died at 6:30 p.m. local time on Tuesday Dec. 8, approximately five hours after arriving by helicopter at the Coyhaique Regional Hospital with a body temperature of 19C (67 degrees fahrenheit). Dr. Carlos Salazar told local media that Tompkins was unconscious and was not breathing when he arrived at the hospital. Doctors raised Tompkins’ core temperature to 22.5C (72.5 fahrenheit) and transferred him to the ICU.
- The cause of death was severe hypothermia.
- The other kayakers in the group were renowned climber and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, 77; American climber and Patagonia vice president of environmental affairs Rick Ridgeway, 66; Bio Bio Expeditions Founder Lorenzo Alvarez, 49, river guide and Project RAFT founder Jib Ellison, 54, and Rios to Rivers founder Weston Boyles, 29. All are experienced paddlers.
- According to local press reports, the military received the distress call at 11:10 a.m. from Carolina Morgado, Tompkins’ personal assistant. It is not clear how long Tompkins and Ridgeway had been in the water before rescuers were alerted.
- Tompkins was flown in a private helicopter to the hospital, where he was admitted at approximately 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.
- The amount of time between the initial rescue call and Tompkins arrival at the hospital was just under 2.5 hours. Alpinist reports Tompkins was in the water for “a couple hours.”
- When Tompkins arrived at the hospital, he was unconscious and wasn't breathing, said Dr. Carlos Salazar, speaking to local television stations.
–Read about Doug Tompkins’ pioneering runs down three whitewater classics in the Sierras in our July 2010 feature.