From Midas’s Touch to A Green Thumb: Remembering Doug Tompkins by Joy Martin

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Doug Tompkins opens the door to a South American summer evening. At seventy-one—stooped and shuffling, a button-down shirt tucked into khakis and held up with a leather belt—he’s not exactly the climbing jock he once was. Looking up through kind, brown eyes, he shakes hands with us, and then he walks us into his stone-cottage estate overlooking Estancia Chacabuco in Parque Patagonia. It’s immaculate, with exposed beams, rustic-chic chandeliers, black-and-white photographs, floor-to-ceiling windows, and natural finishes.

by Joy Martin 

(an excerpt from Volume 8 of The Climbing Zine, The Old School Issue) 

After introductions, I join him on the sofa, where I’m swallowed in divine white downiness—a luxurious moment for me, considering we were in the middle of a three-month backpacking honeymoon trip in Patagonia.

Doug’s wife, Kris, hands me a deep glass of Chilean wine as the conversation flows, with Doug mostly interested in our plans for El Chaltén, a climber’s destination that didn’t even exist the first time he visited in 1968.

Tompkins on the first ascent of the California Route, Fitz Roy, Patagonia 1968 Photo: Chris Jones

Tompkins on the first ascent of the California Route, Fitz Roy, Patagonia 1968 Photo: Chris Jones

When there is a break, I ask him about things I’d read on the Internet regarding his upbringing, a nontraditional, middle-class history that helped paved the way for his future billionaire status—like, why was Doug suspended from high school, never to return?

He laughs, looking at me quizzically. “No one’s ever asked me that.”

I blush. Or I might just be severely windburned.

He shares the story, a classic tale I’ve heard told by many a white-haired man who grew up in the ’50s on the East Coast. It’s always something about a late night out with a girl in a car or broken curfews at the dorm, et cetera. One episode too many of revelry for the unruly mongrel, said the system.

He asks if we’ve seen 180° South. Of course, says my husband, Nick. I’d never heard of it. Well, he goes on, have we heard of Mountain of Storms, the inspiration behind 180° South? No, we hadn’t. He moves to a big desk built into the wall and rummages around for a copy to share.

The B movie cult-classic adventure is every Lost Boy’s wildest dream come true: your best friends in a burly man van, stuffed with your favorite outdoor toys, headed south for Neverland. For these young mountaineers, Neverland was Patagonia.

Heralded as the ultimate dirtbag epic, Mountain of Storms was Doug’s idea. In July 1968, a 1965 Ford Econoline packed with gear, filming equipment, and an intrepid, motley crew of thirty-year-olds departed Ventura, California, for a six-month surfing, skiing, and climbing expedition down the spine of South America, with the trip culminating in December on the summit of Fitz Roy.

The cast of characters included Doug, The Visionary, and some of the greatest climbers and skiers of the ’60s and ’70s. They called themselves the Fun Hogs.

The Fun Hogs Portrait

The Fun Hogs team photo after the Fitz Roy climb (L-R) Tompkins, Dorworth, Jones and Chouinard. Photo: Chris Jones

Fast forward to January 2016. In search of the story behind the movie, I called one of the original Fun Hogs, Dick Dorworth, at his home in Sun Valley, Idaho. The jovial writer had just returned from a morning ski and was beyond thrilled to reminisce this boyhood adventure.

When the trip first started, Dorworth wasn’t planning on climbing Fitz Roy, he tells me. He was just going to haul loads up to basecamp.

“Doug invited me on this trip before I ever climbed,” says Dorworth, a former ski coach for the 1967 US Nationals team, which Doug was on as an Olympic hopeful. “Before we left, I spent a month in Yosemite learning how. I was so far over my head. In the movie, Doug says, ‘Dorworth didn’t have anything to fear because he didn’t know what to fear.’ In the end, I got up Fitz Roy with them. It changed my life.” Dorworth, who broke the 1963 world record for speed on skis with a blistering rate of 106 miles per hour reached in Portillo, Chile, is pretty sure Doug asked him to join the dudes’ trip because Doug wanted a good skier in the film.

The Worst Skier in the entourage was Doug’s climbing buddy, Yvon Chouinard. One of the highlights of the movie is watching a young Chouinard piece turns together down the icy slopes of a volcano—not his forte, which at the time was crafting top-tier climbing equipment through his Ventura-based business, Pacific Ironworks.

There was also The Dude Behind the Camera, Lito Tejada-Flores, a writer, filmmaker, publisher, ski instructor, and “the brightest guy I ever met,” Dorworth tells me.

And, finally, there was The Long-Suffering British Bloke, Chris Jones, one of England’s greatest climbers, who they picked up along the way somewhere in Peru.

I called Jones at his home in Sonoma Valley, California. Though he’s lived in the United States since the ’60’s, his British accent still reigns strong, adding that distinctive bit of sophistication to storytelling that only a Brit can manage.

“Doug was younger than us, but he was the driving force,” says Jones over the phone. “Very mature for his age.”

In 1964, at twenty-one, Doug had not only created the first freestanding tent but had also founded The North Face with his first wife, Susie Tompkins Buell, in North Beach, California. They sold the outdoor retail business for $50,000 at the beginning of 1968, and Doug used some of the money to pursue his passion of the time, adventure filmmaking.

“Lito filmed the movie, but I was the only one with a camera,” says Jones, adding how ridiculous it was to be on “the trip of a lifetime and not show up with a camera.”

The trip of a lifetime went as planned, more or less, for the Fun Hogs: bad surfing, okay skiing, and the incredible accomplishment of summiting Fitz Roy. The climb would take them twenty-five days to complete, with fifteen of those days spent hunkered down in an ice cave on the side of the mountain while a snowstorm raged. Their triumph was only the third ascent of the highest tower of Patagonia’s iconic skyline.

“The weather was just shocking,” says Jones, a South Londoner who later penned the book Climbing in North America. “We were terrified of the weather. It took an awful lot of determination to stick with it. Doug had more skin in the game because we were traveling mostly with his money, so he was the most keen to make sure we got up the damn mountain.”

“I think we all learned how to function in difficult situations without becoming unpleasant,” reflects Dorworth, laughing about how this is not always the case on epic adventures.

“You don’t accomplish anything without believing in yourself,” says the now seventy-seven-year-old Dorworth. “But you can’t believe in yourself unless you believe in other people. In retrospect, I can’t believe he asked me to go on that trip. But he just said, ‘You’ll figure it out.’ Like all of us, he had a big ego, but he also had humility.”

Tompkins by Chris Jones

Tompkins by Chris Jones

Besides serving as a character builder for the Fun Hogs, the road trip of ’68 was rich with innovation and ideas for the young men, who were each on the brink of life-changing decisions and individual impending successes.

After the epic, Jones decided it was time to settle down.

“The dirtbag life is a difficult habit to support. I got tired of it after a bit, decided I should have a proper career. After all, I could kill myself out there. So I got a wife, kids, dog, lawn. Chouinard said, ‘Jones, don’t ever buy a lawn mower. It’ll be the end of you.’”

Meanwhile, roused by Patagonia’s inhospitable terrain and the endless challenges of the elements, not to mention the countless hours spent sitting around in an ice cave talking about life, love, and other mysteries, Chouinard would return to California, move on from sculpting pitons and instead open outdoor-retail company, Patagonia, Inc., in 1973, showcasing the unforgettable skyline of the Fitz Roy Massif as the logo.

Doug also ventured back to California, and, using the rest of the money from The North Face trade, joined his wife, Susie, in launching Esprit, a women’s fashion company that boomed to a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.

As the business grew, Doug continued to travel the world, racking up first ascents from the Himalayas to the Andes, and from California’s Sierra Nevada to the Canadian Rockies.

“As a climber, he was very impressive,” writes Jones on a recent SuperTopo forum memorializing Doug. “The sort of person who could have done almost anything in that era.”

He’d also discovered a love of kayaking, which of course he was naturally good at, sending numerous first descents in Africa and the Americas.

When he was back in California during those years, he enjoyed the fruits of his labor, collecting artwork, driving a Ferrari, and tastefully decorating his home and offices, an aptitude he picked up from his parents, who were antique dealers and decorators.

But as the material-crazed ’70s and ’80s unfolded, so did Doug’s awareness of the negative environmental impacts of the fashion industry.

“I was selling useless stuff to people who didn’t need it” was one of his more common quotes.

He’d discovered a fresh worldview from his hero and friend, Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher who coined the term deep ecology, an approach to environmentalism that dealt not just in action but in changing the way we think about our role on Earth.

Doug took these attitude adjustments and applied them to advance the culture of environmentally responsible business practices—a trend that Chouinard, as well, was weaving into the fabric of his company, Patagonia, Inc. Together, the climbers and ahead-of-their-time prophets set the tone for what is now a core value and modern-day mainstay in the outdoor industry.

Jones, happily settled with his lawnmower and life in Sonoma Valley, shares in both Chouinard and Tompkins’s ecological passions and is quite involved in local environmental-protection programs.

To say these Lost Boys have green thumbs is a drastic understatement.

Doug, in particular, devoted the final twenty-five years of his life not to conquering mountains but rather to saving them. Like many climbers before him, such as John Muir and David Brower, Doug became an environmentalist like no other.

“It’s almost ironic to be talking about Fitz Roy when his later contributions were so great,” says Jones.

In 1989, he sold his shares in Esprit to his then ex-wife, Susie, and, two years later, moved to the wilds of Patagonia to be an organic farmer.

Over the next couple of years, he founded the Conservation Land Trust and, for his first project in 1991, Doug bought some 800,000 acres of ranchland, and its surrounding mountains and waters, halfway down Chile’s skinny spine. After nurturing the gnawed forests and creating interpretive trails throughout the jungle-laden volcanic region, Doug welcomed the public to experience what is now called Pumalin Park.

In 1993, a witty, wise, lovely forty-three-year-old conservationist from California, Kris McDivitt, bought a one-way ticket to visit Doug, who she’d met twenty years before through Chouinard when she was Patagonia, Inc.’s—a then little-known brand—twenty-three-year-old CEO. The two flourishing preservationists had spent the ’70s and ’80s building their respective corporate empires and raising families, Kris married to a climber and Doug married to Susie, marriages that eventually dissipated.

When brilliant, passionate Kris showed up in Patagonia, Doug, somewhat taciturn and more serious, found that she was his perfect counterpart in conservation. So they got hitched, and a new legacy opportunity continued unfolding for the two already-successful business moguls.

The Tompkinses rooted into their calling to conserve, preserve, and educate. Together, they used their time, money and talents to purchase over two million acres of damaged land across the windswept tail of South America, with future goals to leverage at least eight million more.

Protecting more property on Earth through conservation efforts than any other private individuals, the dynamic duo thus sealed a place in history as two of the world’s greatest conservationists: Kris—the eloquent speaker and people person—and Doug—the visionary.

But the Tompkinses’ vision goes beyond restoring scarred hectares to their original beauty. The ultimate aim of their projects is to eventually return the land to the government as national parks.

“National parks are the best expression of social equity that there is,” Doug once wrote. “It’s like paying our rent for living on the planet.”

In 2000, Kris founded Conservacion Patagonica and in 2004 purchased Estancia Valle Chacabuco. Ten years later, this formerly overgrazed ranch is now Chile’s newest national park, Parque Patagonia, featuring 200,000 acres of fence-free, legendary magnificence, where pink flamingos stand on matchstick legs in revived wetlands, and long-necked guanacos animate tawny grasslands that wave in incessant breezes. Blue rivers race through convoluted valleys where Andean condors soar near glaciated peaks, and unclimbed mountains call to the curious.

The Tompkins eco saga is compelling, driven by a love of Patagonia and insatiable zeal to save the planet one acre at a time.

But the clock is ticking, I wrote in my journal after our brief soiree with Kris and Doug in 2014 in Parque Patagonia. Their dreams to break the fences of overgrazed ranches, restore wildlife to their natural habitats, and derail the missions of megadam investors can only be met with the sword of sustainability and, as Kris told me in a phone interview, the support of “a planet going to hell in a hand basket.”

“We’re not young,” a spry sixty-five-year-old Kris reminds me. “We’re racing against the clock, and we have a list of things to do before we’re gaga or dead.”

She told me this in October of 2015. Two months later, while kayaking on Lago General Carrera with his climbing buddies from days of yore, Doug’s boat flipped in the six-foot waves created by Patagonia’s relentless winds. Despite superhuman efforts from his close comrades, including Chouinard and Rick Ridgeway, Tompkins was in the sub-forty-degree waters for over two hours and, after being flown to the nearest hospital, died of severe hypothermia. He was seventy-two.

“The thing about Doug is that everything he ever did was an adventure,” writes Tejada-Flores in an e-mail to me. “Not just his climbs and first descents of wild rivers, or flying a light plane in the toughest mountain environment in South America. Same with business and later with his conservation work. He never chose the easy path. It was never obvious; it was always bold and always an adventure.”

Doug marched to the beat of his own drum, one of those rare souls who didn’t need the résumé-building criteria of society to help him along the way. He, like all great leaders, carved his own path.

“Doug was the most street-smart, savvy human being I ever met,” shares Dorworth. “You could throw him out in the desert with no clothes on and a stick, and within a week, he’d have an empire.”

And so Doug’s bequest lives on in the empire of the great outdoors, where his stalwart wife carries the torch of their efforts with an even stronger fervor than before.

Doug’s body was buried in his favorite place on Earth, Parque Patagonia, where we first and last met. Before we left that evening in November 2014, I asked Doug another question.

“What’s your favorite ice cream?”

He smiled, having just shared that his latest passion of the time was the ice cream business of a friend of his.

“Rum raisin.”

So fitting, I thought. Textured, intoxicating, quirky. Of course, he couldn’t pick vanilla.

That happy hour in the Tompkins home passed quickly, too quickly, as we sat in rapture, listening to Doug and Kris talk and laugh, both relaxed in their cozy abode.

The author with Tompkins. Photo: Joy Martin collection

The author with Tompkins. Photo: Joy Martin collection

We departed dazed, inspired, and in love with those two remarkable, old school outdoor-industry and environmental pioneers. Their drive from deep within sparks from eyes that have seen more than I can imagine, and the stories they have from years of living a thousand lives is too much for my ever-asking mind.

So I walked away as one who had been welcomed into something grand. And it follows me still, like Rick Ridgeway so wonderfully wrote on the Patagonia, Inc., blog, The Cleanest Line, of a “profound realization that Douglas Rainsford Tompkins is surviving, more strongly than ever, inside us. He is pushing on us already, reminding us that ‘no detail is too small,’ inspiring us ‘to commit and then figure it out,’ helping us realize that the first commitment is to beauty, because out of beauty comes love, and only with love can we hope to approach his inextinguishable tenacity to protect what is beautiful, what is wild.”

Basecamped in Durango, Colorado, Joy Martin survives as a freelance writer who occasionally guides, ski instructs, delivers flowers, and whatever else it takes to maximize time outside. She’s partial to road trips, alpenglow, Nick Martin, and Jameson on the rocks. More about Joy on www.joydotdot.com 

This piece is an excerpt from Volume 8, available in print, and on Kindle.

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zine_cover8 (5)About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published three books: American ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

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