Death of Leading Conservationist whilst Kayaking!

Douge Tompkins, founder of North Face and conservationist.

The outdoor and conservation world lost a longtime leader when explorer and conservationist Doug Tompkins died yesterday following a kayaking accident in Chilean Patagonia.

Tompkins co-founded two successful outdoor brands, The North Face and 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 the total 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.

Tompkins, 72, was paddling with four other experienced kayakers on Lago General Carrera, a large lake straddling the border between Chile and Argentina in southern Patagonia. The men, all experienced kayakers, were in two tandem kayaks and one single kayak. Tompkins was paddling a double kayak with Rick Ridgeway, an accomplished mountaineer and vice president of the apparel company Patagonia. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard was reportedly fishing onshore; according to Alpinist, he was not in a kayak as local media had previously reported.

The kayak carrying Tompkins and Ridgeway overturned in high winds and waves. Citing new information from Patagonia, Alpinist reports that Ridgeway and Tompkins held onto the kayak for a while, but decided to swim toward shore because the wind was pushing them farther into the lake. The men in the other double kayak, Jib Ellison and Lorenzo Alvarez, reached Ridgeway. He held onto the boat and they towed him to shore. He was in the water for about an hour.

Meanwhile, Weston Boyles reached Tompkins in a single kayak and attempted to pull him to shore. 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.”

Tompkins was “floating in the frigid 40-degree water for a couple hours.” Tompkins was flown to the Coyhaique Regional Hospital with extreme hypothermia. He died five hours later. Ridgeway and the other paddlers are all reportedly in good condition.

Tompkins died at 6:30 p.m. local time on Tuesday, 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. Dr Salazar told local media that survival is “sporadic” when the body temperature is that low.

According to local press reports, the military received the distress call at 10:30 a.m. local time and responded immediately. It is not clear whether the call was made by the kayakers, or how long they had been in the water before rescuers were alerted.
Tompkins was picked up by a helicopter and transported to the hospital, where he was admitted at 1 p.m. Tuesday.
The amount of time between the initial rescue call and Tompkins arrival at the hospital was approximately 2.5 hours. Alpinist report Tompkins was in the water for “a couple of hours.”
Citing Chilean military sources, El Nuevo Herald reports the accident was caused by high winds which caused waves of up to 3 meters (9.9 feet) on the lake.

Local officials report that the kayakers launched in weather conditions that were adverse for navigation in small craft, and without informing the port captain of their plans. There’s still a great deal we don’t know about the accident. It’s not yet clear how Tomkins and the others were clothed and equipped. But there are some glaringly obvious facts that could have been avoided;

1. Having a paddle plan left with someone onshore.
2. Activating your 'bale out' plan as soon as conditions become unmanageable or scary.
3. Have practised self recoveries and assisted recoveries.
4. Having adequate means of calling for assistance - Tompkins was in the water for two hours!

The article states that all of the paddlers were experienced but it seems that did not have any basic recovery skills nor any basic sea survival skills - these basic skills would have gone a long way to saving Tompkins life. This again highlights the need to get trained and develop your skills, whatever your discipline.

Courtesy of Eugene Buchanan -

Published On: 10th December 2015