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North Face founder dies in Chile kayaking accident

By AFP | December 9th 2015

US billionaire Douglas Tompkins, co-founder of the North Face outdoor clothing brand, has died of hypothermia after his kayak capsized in a near-freezing lake in Chile's Patagonia region, the government said.

A prominent conservationist and philanthropist, the 72-year-old was kayaking with four other Americans and a Mexican on Lake Carrera in southern Chile, the health department of Chile's Aysen region said.

Violent winds whipped up waves that tossed them all into the cold water, it said.

When rescued with the rest of the group by a Chilean navy ship, Tompkins' body temperature was 19 degrees Celsius (66 Fahrenheit), the regional health department said. He was flown by private helicopter to the hospital in the town of Coyhaique where he died Tuesday.

"Doug was a hero to so many of us," said Michael Brune, executive director of the US environmental group Sierra Club, who had known him for about a decade.

"He pushed the boundaries not just as a businessman and an explorer, but he also pushed a lot of environmental groups to be more bold and ambitious," Brune said.

"He had a great impact. We'll miss him a lot," he told AFP on the sidelines of a UN conference in Paris where 195 nations are haggling furiously in a race to secure a climate-saving pact by a Friday deadline.

Tompkins would have been frustrated at the slow pace of action in Paris, Brune said.

"If he were here, he probably would be telling the delegations to shut up and get an agreement that matches what the world needs," he said.

Tompkins founded the American outdoor clothing and camping label The North Face in 1964 with a partner.

Four years later he helped his first wife, Susie Tompkins Buell, establish the clothing brand Esprit and grow it into a big business before their divorce in 1989.

"There wasn't anything we were afraid of, there wasn't anything we couldn't figure out how to do," said Buell, who was married to Tompkins from 1964 to 1989, according to the New York Times.

"It was just an open book of adventure," Buell said.

After selling his stakes in The North Face and Esprit for a fortune, Tompkins retired to Chile in 1990 and became a noted conservationist and philanthropist.

"He flew airplanes, he climbed to the top of mountains all over the world," his daughter Summer Tompkins Walker told the Times.

"To have lost his life in a lake and have nature just sort of gobble him up is just shocking."

Tompkins worked to create a string of natural parks, and donated 8,000 square kilometers (3,000 square miles) to Chile and Argentina to help preserve a forest region on their border.

But he attracted criticism from some Chilean politicians who accused him of leading an ecological sect and of trying to control key Patagonian waterways.

"Lately I've been paying more attention to my biological clock. I tell myself to hurry up, that I have to do everything before death catches me," he said in his last interview given in November to a magazine.

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