SANTA PAULA, Calif. — Kristine McDivitt Tompkins’s idea of sibling bonding is a monthlong trip to Antarctica on an icebreaker ship, including an icy dunk into the frigid waters of the Ross Sea, kayaking, hikes on icebergs and a lot of time analyzing maps.
“It’s heaven down there,” said Ms. Tompkins, the former chief executive of the outdoor-apparel company Patagonia. Sipping tea in her Southern California ranch home last week as her English Labrador, Finneaus, and her brother’s Lab, Beto, strolled in and out of her living room, she recalled an expedition she took with her brother a few months earlier.
“Some people were really ready to get out,” she said. “I could have turned and gone back the other way.”
After her Antarctic sojourn, she headed to Chile and Argentina, working on conservation projects she and her husband had begun some three decades earlier. Ms. Tompkins, 72, has doubled down on those efforts in recent years, including meeting with Chile’s president recently to discuss donating land for a new national park.
Ms. Tompkins is the subject of “Wild Life,” a new documentary from Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the Oscar-winning duo behind “Free Solo.” The film tells the story of Ms. Tompkins and her husband, Doug Tompkins, a founder of the North Face and the apparel company Esprit, as well as the ambitious — and controversial — conservation projects they started after leaving their corporate careers behind.
In an interview, Ms. Tompkins said she was as committed as ever to her conservation efforts, helping her find purpose seven years after a deadly kayaking accident upended her life.
In a way, her life as an environmentalist began when Ms. Tompkins was a teenager in Southern California, where she befriended Yvon Chouinard; her family’s beach house neighbored his. She started working in shipping at his climbing-equipment company, and, after college, she became one of the first six employees at a company he founded in 1973, Patagonia.
She had her fingerprints on many parts of the business, helping pick the typeface in the original logo, producing catalogs and heading imagery. Eventually, she rose to lead the company for years in the 1980s and 1990s.
Despite loving the work, she started to feel that something was missing.
“I was really kind of choking and sensing a kind of desperate need to figure out something else that would be as interesting and engaging as Patagonia,” she said, adding, “Sometimes your body hangs there, but your heart is gone, your mind.”
She ran into Mr. Tompkins, whom she had previously met. He had recently cashed out of his half of Esprit, reportedly for about $150 million, lamenting his role in the consumption-driven economy and wanting to focus on conservation.
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For Ms. Tompkins, the encounter not only opened a door to a relationship but also shed light on her own search for a new mission.
“It was love immediately, but it was also, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” she recalled. “It was the light bulb. It was the flash.”
As they grew closer, she took a plunge. At 43, she retired from Patagonia, joining Mr. Tompkins only days later on the farm he had moved to in southern Chile.
“I wanted an extreme life, and I mean really extreme, and I didn’t know that that’s what I was looking for and couldn’t find on my own,” she said. “But I think that’s what I recognized in him.”
Newlyweds Who Generated Suspicion
The couple were married in 1994, he at age 51, she at 44. The first years in their adopted home proved isolating and difficult as Ms. Tompkins found that she needed to improve Spanish and that the rainy and cold conditions of Patagonia took some getting used to.
They focused on buying up parcels of land — hundreds of thousands of acres at a time — from which they removed livestock, fencing and invasive species in an effort to restore the land.
Their efforts were met with fierce local opposition and suspicion. Complaints ranged from criticisms that they were stunting development and disrupting the livelihoods of local farmers to more conspiratorial theories (Mr. Tompkins was accused of plotting to send the region’s water to China or replace local cows with American bison). The couple, Mr. Tompkins especially, attracted a robust group of adversaries that included, at various times, Argentine and Chilean government figures, an energy company, the Catholic Church and the salmon industry.
“People were used to the idea of foreign corporations coming into Chile and buying land to exploit it,” said Nadine Lehner, who served as executive director of one of the Tompkinses’ organizations. “But the idea of coming in to conserve it was quite a new idea, and as such, I think, generated a lot of suspicion.”
As they navigated their new marriage, they continued to pursue projects in Chile and Argentina and established an organization, Tompkins Conservation. Ms. Tompkins tapped into her managerial instincts, keeping projects moving while Mr. Tompkins set out an overall vision and occasionally grew fixated on the design of specific structures in the parks.
The relationship “worked in that he’s a tough guy, but he respects it when you stand up to him — and she’s tough,” Mr. Chouinard said. “And she stood up to him and he respected that, and it worked.”
‘I Wouldn’t Let Him Go’
On Dec. 8, 2015, Mr. Tompkins was on a kayaking trip on General Carrera Lake, which straddles Chile and Argentina, with a group of friends, including Mr. Chouinard. Ms. Tompkins, who was several hours away by car, had discreetly given a member of the group a satellite phone, a device that Mr. Tompkins and Mr. Chouinard hated. After a while, emergency calls started to come in. Mr. Tompkins’s kayak had capsized in windy conditions, and he had spent about an hour in the frigid water before being taken out.
When she found out, she crawled underneath the parked small plane he would often fly to explore the parks. “I wouldn’t come out,” Ms. Tompkins said, adding, “I didn’t want any part of it.”
Mr. Tompkins died before she reached the hospital.
“I just crawled up in his bed, and I wouldn’t let him go,” she said through tears, adding, “He was lucky to have lived that long, considering how he lived his life.”
In her grief, Ms. Tompkins felt lost and unsure of how to proceed, but she ultimately decided to double down on her conservation efforts.
“Let’s go for broke,” she recalled thinking.
Carolina Morgado, the executive director of Rewilding Chile, which grew out of Tompkins Conservation, described her in that moment as a woman who “transformed her grief in power.”
In 2018, Tompkins Conservation finalized a deal with the Chilean government in which the organization donated over a million acres of conservation land, with the government adding roughly nine million acres to create five new national parks and expand three. In total, the organization has created or expanded 15 national parks, protecting over 14 million acres in Argentina and Chile — an initiative that continues. The organization and its offshoots have also taken up so-called rewilding efforts, reintroducing jaguars, red-and-green macaws, giant anteaters and other species.
For the husband-and-wife directors of “Wild Life,” which opened in theaters on Friday and will come to Disney+ on May 26, Ms. Tompkins proved to be a compelling subject. (Mr. Chin and Ms. Vasarhelyi’s previous documentaries covered the Thailand cave rescue and a climber’s attempt to ascend Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope.)
“Climbing El Cap is really amazing, but what’s more badass than saving the planet?” Mr. Chin said.
For Ms. Vasarhelyi, Ms. Tompkins’s story is one of reinvention after profound loss.
“We made this film for our kids,” Ms. Vasarhelyi said, adding, “While climate change may seem so big, while losing the love of your life may seem so big, step by step, effort by effort, you can address these things, we can do something.”
But Ms. Tompkins calls herself cynical, saying she worries deeply about climate change. “On a good day, it’s grief,” she said. “On a bad day, it’s despair.” But she’s not throwing in the towel, she said: “I’m going the other direction.”
Ms. Tompkins is still involved with Patagonia, serving on its board and living near its headquarters. She even has thoughts on the evolution of Patagonia apparel into the de facto outfit for a certain variety of tech and finance worker. (Sometimes, the uglier a product, “the more heavily it would be sold into the business community,” she recalled.)
Ms. Tompkins said that with her recent trip to Antarctica, as in her relationship with Mr. Tompkins and her conservation work, “what I still look for is this icy clarity and confrontation of extreme circumstances and harshness and difficulty. I think it makes me feel like I’m breathing.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.