When Kris Tompkins gave up her job as CEO of the Patagonia clothing company 30 years ago, she had no idea her life would one day be featured in a documentary film by Oscar-winning filmmakers.
Filmmakers and close friends Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi were drawn to Tompkins’ remarkable life when they created, “Wild Life.” The duo previously won an Oscar for their film “Free Solo” about famed climber Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite.
“I’ve always wanted to make a film about a strong female protagonist and Kris is that in spades, and I think especially when her third act came you really see a woman find her voice,” Vasarhelyi said.
The documentary “Wild Life” chronicles the life of Kris Tompkins, who began her career in 1973 working with her friend Yvon Chouinard at his climbing equipment company, which later evolved into Patagonia. She served as Patagonia’s first CEO for 14 years until she met Doug Tompkins, co-founder of The North Face and Esprit. After leaving the fashion industry in the early 90s, Doug convinced Kris to join him in Chile, where they began devoting their lives and wealth to buying up vast tracts of land in the Patagonia region at the southern end of South America.
“On a Friday I retired and two days later, on Sunday, with two little bags I closed up my beach house and moved to a roadless area on the coast of Chile,” she said.
“Wild Life” tells the story of how Doug and Kris Tompkins spent a significant portion of their lives and wealth purchasing vast amounts of land in Patagonia. Their efforts, chronicled in the film, led to the formation of parks in the region.
The couple never intended to keep the land for themselves. Through their organization, Tompkins Conservation, they became some of the largest private land donors in the world, protecting what Kris Tompkins calls the “crown jewels” of Patagonia for everyone to enjoy.
Then, in 2015, Doug Tompkins was killed in a kayaking accident, leaving Kris shattered.
“Losing Doug was the worst thing that could happen to me. In the shadow of that, you realize you have no fear and that makes you absolutely free to take on anything,” Kris Tompkins said.
Her fearlessness has driven her work, as seen in her efforts to secure even more land and reintroduce native species such as pumas and jaguars. Additionally, she handed over land for five more national parks to the president of Chile in 2018, making it one of the biggest private land donations in history.
“It was the purest sense of joy I think I ever have experienced,” she said.
At the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in March, Tompkins watched the documentary for the first time, at the age of 72. Despite her age, she feels she still has a lot more work to do.
“My intention is to do this work until I drop dead,” she said. “So we’re just getting warmed up.”