Pushing the Boundaries

Most of us follow the rules. For those that don’t, the results usually are not all that good. It’s the rare person who makes their own rules, lives life as they want to, and leaves a meaningful legacy. Douglas Tompkins was one of those special individuals. Jonathan Franklin‘s biography, A Wild Idea, provides an fascinating account of this complicated and larger than life figure. Tompkins impact was across sectors, and culture, and remains important today.

Tompkins was born on the east coast during World War II in an upper middle class family. Athletically gifted and a trouble maker, he was tossed out of prep school for misbehavior. Tompkins followed his interests: skiing and climbing. He was exceptionally gifted at both and without an injury, might have been a member of the US national ski team. Tompkins focused on climbing and he excelled. His explorations and outdoor feats were taking place, too, when these passions were not celebrated in everyday American life. Sure there were families that camped – but extreme rock climbing? It was Tompkins’ life. He traveled the world, uninterested in material gain, and constantly tinkered with his climbing equipment.

Along the way, hitching a ride to Tahoe, a casino worked named Susie Russell gave him a lift. They hit it off, got married, and came up with the idea of putting together a store in San Francisco to sell outdoor equipment, especially to rock climbers. It seemed like a timely idea. All manner of San Francisco and cultural figures were part of their circle. For example, the Grateful Dead performed at the store. It’s name, by the way, was The North Face, a reference to the harder way to scale a mountain. It’s a multi-billion dollar global brand today.

The North Face’s success allowed Tompkins and Russell to sell their shares in the business. Their next moves were far from retirement. Tompkins pushed himself with ever greater outdoor challenges. Joined with several friends equally committed to exploration and endurance, he embarked on a six-month journey to South America. Amid many challenges and adventures, the focal point of the expedition was an extremely risky ascent of Mount Fitzroy in Patagonia.

Franklin’s telling of the trips and ascent is gripping. A fellow traveler made a movie of it all. It’s important to stress, too, that this was no solo effort. Among Tompkins travelers were Yvon Chouinard, the future founder of Patagonia, the global brand, and Dick Dorworth, one of America’s most famous ski racers and a noted author. The South American adventure sealed deep connections among all the participants and redirected Tompkins life. Extraordinary connections and friendships was simply part of Tompkins’ life. He had tremendous charisma and seemed to draw successful people to him. A Wild Idea is dotted with references to this celebrity, that political figure, that scientist or that activist.

Tompkins could also be extremely self-absorbed. He left his wife Susie to tend for herself and their new baby daughter when he went to Patagonia. This pattern, dropping all connections and responsibilities when he felt the urge to do something, was another part of this complicated man’s life. When Tompkins wanted to do something for himself, he did it. Amid the charm, he caused great harm and hurt for his family and friends. It is a short-coming that Franklin raises in the book but never fully addresses.

Susie, a very impressive woman in her own right, did not waste the opportunity while Tompkins was away. She started a clothing brand, Plane Jane, with a friend. They started selling clothes from a VW van and quickly found a market and a growing following. When Tompkins returned they became partners, along with Jane Tise, and changed the name of this company to Esprit. Its growth was extraordinary and by the 1980s, Esprit was worth billions. Much of its success stems from Tompkins role as chief designer, his obsessions and drive. He and his two partners crafted an extraordinary company. Franklin’s book goes deep into Esprit’s operating culture, unusual for its day but now recognizable from successful IT start ups. The company had an outsize impact on business theory as well as global fashion and design.

Tompkins, though, was neither happy nor satisfied. He sold his share and began to cast about for a new direction in his life. He divorced Susie – monogamy was not part of Tompkins’ lifestyle – and increasingly directed his life towards environmental efforts. More and more of his time was spent in Chile and Argentina, as Tompkins became a gifted bush pilot and sharpened his kayaking skills. He created The Foundation for Deep Ecology and a trust that later became the Tompkins Conservation. For the next decades of his life Tompkins aggressively pushed a conservation agenda, battled with all manner of politicos in South America, and built an extraordinary legacy as an environmentalist. South American politics and global political concerns were his for these years. It paid off. Because of Tompkins’ efforts, millions upon millions of acres in Chile and Argentina are now national parks, protected from development. His land purchases, strategy, commitment and foresight place him as one of the world’s most important figures in environmental protection.

While kayaking with friends in 2015 in a Chilean lake, a violent storm took Tompkins and his team by surprised. Tompkins fell into cold water and died from hypothermia.

Franklin’s respect and admiration for Tompkins shines from every page of this book. The author, it should be noted, is an American journalist and writer who moved to South America. His writing is often about courage under duress. Tompkins in many ways fits the bill, a man who consistently pushed himself to extremes. In other ways, Tompkins stands out as unusual character. He was a deep thinker, clearly extremely smart. His brilliance emerged through action. Tompkins was also many different things to many different people: boss, entrepreneur, dare devil, adventurer, environmentalist, and designer. Franklin does an outstanding job recounting what Tompkins did and his legacy. It is fascinating, though, that through it all there’s much of Tompkins that remains elusive. Franklin is challenged in explaining exactly, just who Tompkins was, or why he did what he did. It made me wonder if Tompkins really understood himself, either. He was quite an unusual man.

All told, A Wild Idea is a page-turning biography of a truly one of a kind person, Douglas Tompkins.

David Potash