This would be our third trip into Patagonia together, the first for me on the Chilean side. We'd been talking about it since I began plans to step down as anchor of NBC Nightly News, a move he'd been badgering me to make for the past five years. As much as I admired Yvon for his ability to run a successful business and still make time for all the fishing, surfing, and skiing, I wasn't sure I could work out the same balance in my life.
This trip would be a test of sorts. I had almost left the anchor desk in mid-2001, but when 9/11 happened I couldn't walk away from one of the biggest stories of my life. Now that I was free, a trip to Patagonia was the logical next step. In its mountain ranges, glaciers, rivers, and lakes, it is the essence of freedom from pavement, stoplights, $12 martinis, and cell phones. For me, Patagonia is the premier getaway destination: little more than an overnight flight from New York; vast, sparsely populated coastal regions, plains, and mountain ranges; trophy trout fisheries; exotic flora and fauna; and a kaleidoscope of weather conditions that sharpen the senses and stir the blood.
Yvon, Malinda, and I would be meeting our friends Doug and Kris Tompkins, both former ski racers and children of the '60s who managed to combine the zeitgeist of that era with a shrewd sense of business and a passion for conservation. Doug and Yvon have known each other for 45 years. They met climbing in New York's Shawangunk Mountains and quickly discovered a shared taste for personal risk and a kindred entrepreneurial spirit.
In 1968 they spent six months driving from California to the tip of South America, climbing, skiing, and surfing along the way as they headed for Fitz Roy, the towering and forbidding granite spire on the Argentina-Chile border. Because of Fitz Roy's notorious weather, they were holed up in ice caves for weeks at a time as they awaited their chance to put in a first ascent on the southwest ridge.
In the cold and dark recesses of Fitz Roy's approach, they came up with two ideas to finance their passions: Yvon would shift the focus of his climbing hardware business to clothing and call it Patagonia. Doug and his first wife, Susie, would turn their fledgling clothing line, Esprit, into an international retail giant.
Yvon is still running Patagonia, but in 1990 Doug sold his share of Esprit for more than $100 million and moved to Chile to begin his quest for a sustainable life that sits lightly on the land, preserving and restoring rather than damaging and destroying wild places. Both men are mindful of the limits of their remaining time and the work still to be done. Aging warriors of rock and ice, whitewater and deep snow, pressing on to secure what high ground they can in a part of the world that forever has a hold on them.
Kris McDivitt was CEO of Chouinard's company when she fell in love with Doug, just after he began his South American conservation crusade and persuaded the Chouinards to join him. Doug and Kris divide their time between Chile and Argentina, where they have formed foundations and, with the Chouinards, have jointly committed big chunks of personal wealth to buying and preserving huge tracts of Patagonian rain forests, rivers, lakes, and mountains.
Doug's Conservation Land Trust has already created a new national park and handed it over to the Chilean government. It's called Pumalin, a 700,000-plus-acre preserve. That's where we were headed first, if we could find our way through the heavy weather. After a flight at wave-top level over Fiordo Reñihué our pilot poked the nose of the Cessna 360 through the cloud banks and fog of landfall and decided we could make it to the grassy strip alongside the Tompkins' compound. As we rolled to a stop in a driving rain, Kris emerged, laughing and saying, "Yvon, you always bring this weather."
Personally, I was thrilled. If you go to a rain forest, bring it on. Besides, the combination of rain, low-lying clouds, and wispy fog against the backdrop of a deep green woodland and somber granite outcroppings only enriched the natural aesthetics and amplified the quiet. It's easy to see why Doug and Kris are so content here. Their Pumalin home is organized around the kitchen and a big wood-burning fireplace. Dinners are simple and hearty: lentil soup with lamb sausage, robust Chilean red wines, home-baked bread.