This documentary looks at the efforts of Kristine McDivitt Tompkins and Douglas Tompkins to preserve stretches of land in Argentina and Chile.

A woman walks along a mountain range, while bathed in yellow sunlight.
Kristine McDivitt Tompkins in “Wild Life.”Credit…Jimmy Chin/National Geographic

By Amy Nicholson

April 13, 2023Wild LifeDirected by Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai VasarhelyiDocumentary1h 33mFind Tickets

“Wild Life,” the latest eco-conscious documentary from the filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (“Free Solo,” “Meru”) is a rickety helicopter tour of a fascinating marriage; nearly every scene makes you want to stop and explore in more detail. Things move fast with barely a beat of introduction. Those unfamiliar with the American philanthropists Kristine McDivitt Tompkins and her husband, Douglas Tompkins, may feel in the film’s opening minutes as disoriented as if they’ve been dropped in the wilderness. One catches on that the Tompkins purchased a lot of it: more than one million acres in Argentina and Chile, with the goal of gifting the land back as recognized national parks. The scale of the couple’s ambition teeters on the surreal. Asked in archival footage about a massive snow-flocked volcano on the horizon, Doug casually replies, “Yeah, that came with it.”

The film doesn’t do much besides pair snippets of the Tompkins’ biographies with staggeringly beautiful shots of Patagonia’s natural splendors. An early effort to structure the running time around Kris’s first summit of a mountain named in her honor by her husband, who died in 2015, unspools clumsily and is eventually set aside. Chin, a climber himself, joined Kris on the trek and must have decided the footage was less interesting than the story that brought her and Doug to Chile in the first place — an unusual adventure in 20th-century capitalism that begins in 1968 with Doug and his friend Yvon Chouinard embarking on a nine-month van expedition through South America and returning home to each start apparel companies: one would found Esprit; the other, Patagonia.

These two mountaineers on the precipice of great wealth were also free-spirited “dirtbags,” a word Chin uses with reverence. Yvon doesn’t disagree, explaining, “If you want to understand the entrepreneur, study the juvenile delinquent.” Yvon would soon hire a teenage Kris to work at Patagonia as an assistant packer; she rose to become chief executive. In her 40s, Kris met and married Doug, completing the loop.

Chin and Vasarhelyi, married themselves, understand the unity and isolation couples experience when spurred by a shared goal. The details of negotiating this staggering land donation with Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet include a moment of suspense that’s hard to follow. (The filmmakers seem too shy to ask questions about costs and legal clauses.) But what is clear is the Tompkins’ twin passions for nature and romance, which merge in the metaphors Kris uses to describe her husband’s effect on her life: “You get hit by lightning,” she beams, adding later, “Once, I was a pebble in a stream. Not anymore.”

Kris and Doug’s moving love story should be the emotional foundation of the documentary, but it’s edited in a bit too late. Paradoxically, however, we also crave more scenes of their individual transitions from bohemians to business titans. We’re tantalized by a glimpse of Patagonia meetings held barefoot and cross-legged on the corporate carpet, an allusion to Yvon and Doug’s competition to run the most ethical company (though there’s no need for the klutzy needle-drop of the Tears for Fears hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”), and a hasty mention of Doug’s efforts to course-correct the environmentally destructive fast-fashion industry with a 1990 Esprit advertisement asking mall rat teenagers whether their clothes are “something you really need.” I’d watch a real-time documentary on just that next board meeting.



‘Wild Life’: Conservationists in love ~ The WASHINGTON POST

The new movie from the makers of ‘Free Solo’ and ‘The Rescue’ lacks the suspense of those tales but is still a galvanizing tale of philanthropy 

Review by Thomas Floyd

April 11, 2023

Kris Tompkins in the documentary “Wild Life.” (Jimmy Chin/National Geographic Documentary Films) 

Since winning the best documentary Oscar for “Free Solo,” the awe-inspiring 2018 account of rock climber Alex Honnold’s rope-free scaling of El Capitan, husband-and wife filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi have continued to capture triumphs of the human spirit. “The Rescue,” their 2021 film about the British cave divers who helped extricate a Thai boys’ soccer team from a flooded cave, was another exquisite white-knuckle chronicle. But last year’s “Return to Space,” a portrait of Elon Musk and SpaceX, treated its subject with all-too-forgiving reverence.

Vasarhelyi and Chin split the difference between the highs and lows of their filmography with their latest documentary, “Wild Life.” In this National Geographic production, the filmmakers tenderly cover conservationists Kris and Doug Tompkins’s decades-long love story, Doug’s death in 2015, and Kris’s quest to fulfill her late husband’s dream of preserving the South American wilderness. If you keep an eye on environmental news, you’ll know how this ends: In 2018, Kris gave awaya million acres to the Chilean government, marking the largest private land donation in history and facilitating the creation or expansion of eight national parks across the country.

“Wild Life” lacks the pulse-pounding suspense of “Free Solo” and “The Rescue,” but its depiction of selfless philanthropy is galvanizing all the same. As two Americans who made their fortunes in outdoor attire — Doug founded the North Face; Kris is a former CEO of Patagonia — the Tompkinses faced plenty of pushback when they settled in rural Chile in the 1990s and amassed vast swaths of land. Unpacking the scale of the accomplishment, Vasarhelyi and Chin examine the anti-American skepticism, far-right conspiracy theories and economic counterarguments that hindered the couple’s ecological ambitions.

As with “Return to Space,” Vasarhelyi and Chin could have cast more scrutiny on their subjects. Doug’s younger days, as an apparent womanizer living a life of excess, are barely dwelt on. The same goes for Kris’s admission that she broke off her engagement to another man after becoming romantically involved with Doug. The film also could have grappled more with the notion of privilege, and the optics of a wealthy White couple throwing their financial weight around Latin America.

Kris Tompkins hikes up a mountain range in Patagonia, Chile, in a scene from “Wild Life.” (Jimmy Chin/National Geographic Documentary Films) 

But it’s also hard to see the aspirations of the film’s subjects as anything other than altruistic. That much becomes evident with the help of talking heads such as former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet; Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, whose own rags-to-riches tale and philanthropic efforts get their due; and Chin himself, an accomplished mountaineer, as shown in “Meru,” the first film he co-directed with Vasarhelyi.

“On any scorecard, nature is losing,” Kris says during one of her interviews, filmed both at her home and during a 2018 expedition to a Chilean peak her spouse once summited. “Wild Life” also deploys extensive archival footage of Doug, including remarkable images from a 1968 trip to the Patagonia region that sparked his passion for South American landscapes. In the film’s most wrenching moment, Doug reflects on his mortality and the realization that he may not live long enough to see his life’s work completed.

When it comes time to address his death at age 72, from hypothermia during a kayaking accident in southern Chile, Vasarhelyi and Chin gracefully re-create the harrowing incident through impressionistic animation. It’s not the only artistic flourish in a film that uses stark graphics to depict the accelerating rate of global deforestation and sets sweeping vistas of the Chilean mountains to a soaring score from composers Gustavo Santaolalla and Juan Luqui, whose work can be heard in “The Last of Us.”

Although Kris doesn’t seem as comfortable in the limelight as Honnold in “Free Solo,” the divers in “The Rescue” or Musk in “Return to Earth,” you can expect to be shattered by her grief following her husband’s death — and uplifted by her strength as she carries on his legacy. In fact, “Wild Life” is at its best when it focuses on Kris’s path toward renewed purpose after an unspeakable loss. By committing that journey to film, Vasarhelyi and Chin show off an invaluable skill: knowing when a story is worthy of preservation.


After She Traded One Patagonia for Another, Tragedy Couldn’t Keep Her Away

The documentary “Wild Life” tells the story of Kristine Tompkins, a former chief executive who retired at 43 and moved to South America for love and conservation.

A woman with light hair smiles while sitting in a chair in front of book shelves.
Kristine Tompkins raised eyebrows when she moved to Chile just days after stepping down from the top job at the outdoor-apparel retailer Patagonia.Credit…Adam Amengual for The New York Times

By Nadav Gavrielov

Published April 14, 2023Updated April 17, 2023, 7:29 a.m. ET

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 documentaryfrom 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.

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.

A smiling couple stands in front of a low fence made of small logs, a mountain peak visible in the distance. At their feet is a light-colored dog.
Kristine and Doug Tompkins at their home in Chile. The couple’s conservation efforts in the Patagonia region were initially regarded with sharp suspicion.Credit…Diane Cook and Len Jenshel/Getty Images

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 Capitanwithout 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.”

A woman in a gray shirt sits at a wooden desk next to a window.
Like many people, Ms. Tompkins occasionally despairs about the state of the planet. But rather than throwing in the towel, she throws herself into conservation projects: “I’m going the other direction.”Credit…Adam Amengual for The New York Times

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.”


  1. This was a good read.
    This is what I see in your post
    This is a beautiful story about the Tompkins and their passion for nature and preserving it for future generations. The documentary showcases their love story and unselfish actions in creating national parks in Argentina and Chile. It is a must-watch for anyone who loves nature and philanthropy.
    Thanks, Ely

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