Doug Tompkins; the Tompkinses on the coast of Chilean Patagonia
Doug Tompkins; the Tompkinses on the coast of Chilean Patagonia (Photos: Courtesy Scott Soens; Courtesy Tompkins Conservation)

The Love Story That Saved 15 Million Acres in Patagonia


Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s new film, ‘Wild Life,’ captures the saga of Doug and Kristine Tompkins, whose devotion to conservation and each other led to the creation of extraordinary national parks in Chile and Argentina. For Chin, the origins of the documentary go back more than 20 years, when he was first welcomed into a group of climbers who were friends of the Tompkinses, including Rick Ridgeway and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. Eventually, Chin met the Tompkinses and learned about their ambitious vision for conserving millions of acres. In this episode, Chin talks about the incredible journey behind the making of ‘Wild Life,’ and Kristine shares her experience of opening up in front of the cameras and where Tompkins Conservation goes from here.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast. 

Do you think we're at a moment where it is really, really hard to motivate each other to get involved in conservation? Because it sure seems like it's easy to be defeatist right now.

And if we are at this really tough moment, what are we supposed to do? Like, how do we rally people at maybe the hardest moment to rally them yet?

Kristine Tompkins: If you are not doing something to change the ebb and flow of your future, you are on the wrong bus. This is the time when the last thing you do is give up and say, my future is in the hands of people whom I will never meet. Forget it. 

You don't have a choice anymore. You can't abdicate your future just because it's so difficult to try to change the direction of this path we're on,

Michael: That is Kristine Tompkins, one of the world's most influential conservationists, and as you can tell, one inspiring human being.

I'm Michael Roberts, and I recently spoke to Kristine about the challenges of spurring people to fight for the health of our planet at a time when it can feel like we're just too late.

It's a topic that she is uniquely positioned to address. 

Beginning in the early 1990s, she began working alongside her husband, Doug Tompkins, on perhaps the most audacious environmental project in history, buying and protecting as much land as possible in Patagonia, across Chile and Argentina, so they could then donate it to the countries as national parks. To date, their efforts, spearheaded by their non-profit, Tompkins Conservation, have driven the creation of 15 parks, protecting 14.8 million acres of land.

It has been an exhausting push: Doug and Kristine faced stiff resistance from the mining and forestry industries, as well politicians and business leaders who simply couldn't believe that these foreigners were acquiring land just to give it away. Even the Catholic church was against them. Their phones were tapped. They had death threats.

And in 2015, before a single park had been established, Doug died tragically in a kayaking accident, leaving Kristine to carry out his vision.

If that all sounds like a movie, well, it is. It's called Wild Life, and it had a theatrical release in select theaters in April, and began streaming on Disney+ last week. The documentary is by the filmmaking couple Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who are known for their explorations of the extreme limits of human potential. The best example is their most famous one, the Oscar-winning Free Solo, which captured climber Alex's Honnold's quest to scale Yosemite's El Capitan without a rope.

As Jimmy told me, the story of Kristine Tompkins, and the people in her life, is a similar saga of someone commiting to what many people considered an impossible task.

Jimmy Chin: Just imagine, I mean, if you have a dream and you spend five years pursuing this dream and you devote your entire life to it, and every single day, you're not sure if you're gonna be able to achieve this dream. That's a long time. Now imagine 10 years. Now imagine 15. Now imagine 20, 25 years of going after this dream. That you don't know if it's gonna happen. There isn't a single day in which you're not sure if this is gonna happen. And you've devoted 25 years of your life, all of the capital you've ever put together, and you've asked a lot of people to come in on this thing, and you've worked with all of the local communities and government and federal government, and spent all of this time trying to put this together.

And it could fall apart at any moment. You know, those are very real stakes.

Michael: For Jimmy, Wild Life is also a personal film: in sharing Kristine's story, he's telling the origin stories of his mentors and heroes. The documentary chronicles the rise of the outdoor industry, in particular two of its defining brands, Patagonia and The North Face. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard hired Kristine for his first gear company when she was a teenager. He paid her $2 an hour to help pack and ship boxes, but she worked her way up, and when he started Patagonia in the late 1970s, she became his CEO at age 29.

Meanwhile, Chouinard's best friend and climbing and adventure partner, Doug Tompkins, had created his own business, The North Face, which he later sold before co-founding the fashion brand Esprit, then selling that company so he could focus on his new passion: conservation.

In the early 90s, Chouinard took a dozen of his employees on a trip to Patagonia, where Kristine met Doug at a cafe in Argentina. Long story short, about a year later, Kristine moved to Chile to live with Doug in a cabin at the edge of a remote fjord. There, she would help him grow his endeavor to buy parcels from absentee landowners to protect them from development.

Which is to say, the core narrative of Wild Life is a love story. This is a big reason why Kristine was initially reluctant to participate in a documentary.

Kristine: I know how stories can be manipulated and sort of morphed into somebody's idea of, in, in our case, these two people. And we're not sweet people. I didn't want a film about us to be just romance. And, and then they started talking to me about it, and I was very reticent to become involved in it. And then I began to shift around because I thought, well, first of all, if Jimmy and Chai wanna do it, they are the only people I would ever do a film with. Full stop. No question. 

Michael: Jimmy and Chai pitched the idea for Wild Life to Kristine while they were still finishing up Free Solo. Shortly after it came out, Kristine found herself at an event in Argentina where she and Alex Honnold were giving talks. Afterwards, they went out for ice cream and got to chatting.

Kristine: And he says, Hey, Jimmy tells me that they wanna do a film about you and Doug. And I said, yeah, you know, I'm really jumping from foot to foot on this because I'm not sure. And he said, you know what? Do what I did. Just decide. Sign the contract. And then forget about it. And I said, okay, that's what I'm gonna do.

But I was willing to give them everything. I gave them 26 years worth of my personal private journals. I gave them quarter of a million stills, all the nudes, everything went to them. I, I just wanted them to tell a story that was honest. 

Kristine's trust in Jimmy and Chai was rooted in the fact that Jimmy had long ago been accepted by her inner circle. He had actually gotten his big break into filmmaking back in 2002, when climber and former Patagonia vice president Rick Ridgeway invited him on an expedition to Tibet that included legendary alpinist Conrad Anker and renowned photographer Galen Rowell.

Jimmy Chin: I really wanted to get on this trip and Rick said, okay, well the reason we're inviting you is because David Brashears, this great filmmaker,

Michael: That would the David Breshears, co-director of the iconic Everest IMAX film

Jimmy: He had to bail at the last minute, because of another obligation, and you're gonna take a spot. Are you comfortable with that? Of course, I needed to be up front with him and told him there was one small problem, which was that I had never filmed before. And I remember Rick pausing on the phone and he just said, commit and figure it out. 

Michael: Jimmy figured it out. And immediately after the expedition, Rick introduced Jimmy to Yvon Chouinard and his wife, Melinda.

Jimmy: And Rick said he's one of us. And I remember they, they looked at me and they were like, okay. If Rick says that he's part of the, of the family, then he's part of the family. 

And I have always been struck by their stories, adventures, the ethos in which they live their lives, and the fact that they really defined this lifestyle that I aspired to. So this story really has been percolating for over 20 years.

Michael: In 2008, Jimmy to traveled to Patagonia to shoot the climbing sequences for 180 South, a film that retraces Chouinard and Doug Tompkins's epic 1968 adventure, which had them them dirt bagging around Chile in Ford van before summiting Fitz Roy, a challenging 11,000-foot peak on the border with Argentina.

Jimmy was introduced to Doug and Kristine at their farm, and was blown away by their story of abandoning very successful professional lives to take on this outlandish project of creating a series of enormous parks.

Jimmy: And the scale and the scope of it was hard for me to wrap my head around and Doug. pulled me aside one day and he's like, you're a climber, why don't you get it in the plane?

Michael: Doug was a talented pilot. Flying was how he and Kristine came to understand the region. And taking visitors up his small plane had become Doug's go-to method of building excitement for the parks.

Jimmy: he started flying me around and showing me all of the wild climbing potential there. And he was so proud and excited. He's like, look at those walls over there. It's like Yosemite granite, you know? And that's when I started to see what they were talking about this landscape. I mean, it was extraordinary. There were waterfalls and mountains and, Coastline. I mean, it was pretty mind blowing.

Kris Tompkins: We learned to read land from Flying and we flew almost every day.

You fly at 5,000 feet or 10,000 feet and, and you begin to, to understand not just what you're capable of seeing uh, from, from the ground. But you're looking at these massive watersheds. You're looking at, at a scale and scope that goes from the top of the Andes up on the Argentine border all the way to the Pacific. 

And you set this in your mind, and we're talking about millions of acres over the years. But there is no question that flying every day was central to everything we did.

But flying in southern Chile is really, it's tough. It's a lot of turbulence and, um, no, we would, you know, we fought like cats in a bag. And the bag you don't wanna argue with is inside a plane or a boat because there's no escaping. 

So, yeah, as I got older, By my sixties, I would say, I'm not going. Nah, come on, let's just get out there, put our nose into the weather and see what it looks like. No, I'm done.

You know, I always thought Doug would die.

I mean, if he was gonna die early, it would be in one of the planes because, because it was such the obvious story. and I, every, every day he went and I decided not to go. I would always say, fly safely and come home to your wife. And it was just like this little mantra before he took off because it would've been so easy to imagine that.

Michael: We'll be right back.


Michael: Doug Tompkins did not die in a small plane accident, as Kristine imagined he would. In late 2015, he took a kayaking trip with Yvon Chouinard, Rick Ridgeway, and several others on a spectacular and very cold lake in Chile. On the fourth day, the wind came up, creating massive waves. Doug was knocked out of his boat and eventually succumbed to hypothermia. He was 72.

Jimmy: Doug had died the day before my son was born, actually, I remember that was kind of this wild moment where these two kind of significant events happened, and I just really felt deep empathy and sympathy for Kris because I remember how in love they were and that dynamic that I saw between them.

It, it was very clear to me that it was a very deep and special marriage.

Michael: The scenes in the film capturing Kristine's grief are intense and extremely moving. She describes herself as being on her knees. Then she got a note from a friend who told her she had to make a choice: she could live off this story and mourn Doug for the rest of her life, or she could go to work.

Kristine was not going to give up on the parks project. And she told me, she was hardly moving forward alone.

Kristine: You have to remember that even though I was mad as a hatter after Doug died, there are hundreds of people we've worked with for even then 20 years plus. So I know this becomes the Doug and Kris story, but it's not. Doug was really a visionary, but he wasn't the guy on the ground every day playing out all the thousands and thousands of things that were going on in parallel with one another.

It's never just us. I never look at my life as just me, just mine.

Michael: About a year after Doug died, Kristine invited Jimmy and Rick to come to Patagonia to guide her up Cerro Kristine, a 7,500-foot peak that Doug and Chouinard summited in 2009, then named after her. But just before the climb was supposed to happen, Kristine told Jimmy she had to postpone; the president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, was coming to meet her to discuss the plan for the parks.

Jimmy: And I was like, wow, that's amazing. like, don't worry about me. And then I just thought, well, I have the time off. Is anybody kind of covering it? She was like, no, that's the last thing on our mind. I said, well, why don't I just come down with the camera and my friend Mikey Schaffer, and we'll, we'll just film some stuff for posterity.

And we just showed up. And nobody knew why we were there and what we were doing, and we kind of just hung out and shot where we could.

Michael: While Jimmy was there, he took a walk with Jennifer Ridgeway, Rick's late-wife. Like Kristine, Jennifer had spent many years working at Patagonia. She was a talented storyteller, the one who had come up with the idea for using real people in Patagonia's catalogues instead of models, an approach that made a booklet intended to sell clothing feel like a legit adventure journal. She told Jimmy that he and Chai should make a film about Kristine and Doug's lives and work.

Jimmy: She looked at me and she said, this is an extraordinary story and it's an extraordinary love story. And she planted that seed.

Michael: Once Kristine agreed to the documentary, Jimmy says they faced a familiar challenge: they didn't know how the story would play out

Jimmy: We didn't even know where the film was going. We didn't know the national parks were gonna get finished. You know, it's one of the really kind of scary things about making documentaries. You don't know where they're gonna go. And you just kind of have to follow your instincts and see where they land.

Michael: One thing they landed on is that telling Doug and Kristine's story meant recounting the early days of Patagonia and The North Face. Doug was a close friend and climbing partner of Chouinard's before they created their companies, and they remained close as they built their businesses and evolved into deeply committed conservationists.

Jimmy: They were competitive about it, in a positive way, in this way where they pushed each other as climbing partners, as entrepreneurs and in conservation. And they brought the best version of themselves out of each other because of that friendship and that love and that family. And in the end, you know, you see how a few dirtbag climbers and surfers, end up having a huge impact on the world.

Kristine: I think you have to remember that in both cases, Yvon and Doug in their business lives, especially Yvon, he was never interested in how big the company is, how wealthy he and the family might become. Never ever. His goal was always just to have the company he wanted.

So if that company would be 300 million or whatever it would be, that was not the driving criteria.

The thing about Doug and Yvon. If they lost everything, one day they woke up and everything was gone.

All the assets they had personally and so on, they would just do something else. And that is an extraordinarily powerful personality trait. 

Michael: If Doug and Chouinard were competitive, Kristine and Doug were intense. As she said earlier, they fought like cats in a bag. But in the film you also learn that they often behaved like teenage sweethearts. Over time, their relationship became more and more centered around their devotion to the parks project.

Jimmy: They couldn't have done it, what they did, without each other, like what they created, would've been impossible for one of them to have done alone. I mean, that's why the love story is at the heart of this film because it was that love story that allowed them to create this.

Michael: And they did create it: In March of 2017, Kristine and President Bachelet signed an agreement transferring the land for eight national parks to Chile. It was the largest land donation in history.

But it absolutely did not mark the end of Kristine's work.

Kristine: I get asked all the time, what is your legacy? What do you want it to be? And I'm very proud of the last 30 years. I mean, who wouldn't be?

But I really only focus on the future. I wanna do three times what we've done.

 So my legacy is, can this go a second generation, a third generation, a fourth generation? And that's where I am.

Michael: Since Wild Life went into production, Tompkins Conservation purchased another quarter of a million acres on the Straits of Magellan for what will be Chile's next national park. Meanwhile, the organization has increasingly focused on rewilding parks with the species that had disappeared. Their successes include bringing jaguar cubs back to the Iberá wetlands of Argentina for the first time in more than 50 years. 

Kristine: Once you begin to understand that you're not just in the business of protecting lands as somebody said, landscape without wildlife is just scenery. And when we realize the epiphany that we were not interested in being in the scenery business, that changed every day of our lives and what we wake up to. 

Michael: You know, it's kind of interesting you think about how important, you said the flights were early on. Flying can get you in the scenery mode a little, and it, it feels like

Kristine: Yes. Yes.

Michael: You’ve come down to earth.

Kristine: Yeah. No, it's really true. I, I'm glad you said that because, metaphorically, it's absolutely true, but also practically, I would say it's true.

Michael: Mm-hmm.

Kristine: You're learning to see what it is you're really looking at.

Michael: You know, in the film itself, there's a scene where you say how, how proud Doug would be of you if he was there. 

Kristine: Right. 

Michael: It's a really powerful moment. but one of the things that occurred to me when I saw that, there's also a scene much earlier when you talk about your own childhood and the message you were given was be great at something. And I'm just, you know, it feels in some ways, like to me, you, you've fulfilled a couple things here. You've, you've helped fulfill this dream that Doug had, but also this hope that your family had for you. I don't know if, if you see that now, when you watch this film and reflect on it. 

Kristine: I, yeah, I can't help, but. I think I say it in the film that our father though, he, I was pretty young when he died. There was such clarity growing up as much as I did with him that you are capable of doing anything. Don't forget that. And then whatever it is, be the best at it. Be great. Whatever you take on, go for broke. 

And I think that's my little personality. I, I don't have any fear at all, which is incredibly freeing. I didn't understand the relationship between freedom and fear. I mean, you do on a superficial level when your kids or your dogs run toward a street.

But, but that in, in the internalized sense of truly going for broke every day.

So it is, it's been a, it's been a guideline probably all my life and, and I feel more aggressive in a, in a positive way than I think ever, and I'm 72 years old.

Michael: One of the hardest-hitting lines in Wild Life is when Kristine says that nature is losing. Even if we already believe this, having her say it so directly, it stings. That line is what spurred me to ask the question that I did at the start of this episode: How do we get ourselves to fight for the preservation of wild places when it feels like we have no chance?

Kristine: You, you have to defend yourself. And you have to defend those things that you love and those things that you hold true. Because in the absence of that, who are we? 

We are what we do. 

And it's such a small turn of phrase, but especially now, if you're not fighting for beauty and health and dignified communities, then what kind of future do we deserve?

I just don't even understand it, why somebody gives up. These are the times that you pull your socks on and you get out there and that's what a big part of your daily life is. 

Because in the absence of that, truly, the worst part of what it means to be human will be what sort of takes over until it all collapses.

And I don't wanna be on that team. 

Michael: You can watch Wild Life on Disney+. If you want to learn more about the ongoing work of Tompkins Conservation, their website is

This episode was produced by me, Michael Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.