When to Wear a Drysuit: Reflections on the Death of Douglas Tompkins January 04 2016

Douglas Tompkins, image from National Geographic, photo: James Q. Martin
Douglas Tompkins (photo from National Geographic by James Q. Martin)

Probably no sea kayaking death has ever received more public notice than that of Douglas Tompkins, the founder of outdoor clothing company The North Face. Tompkins died of hypothermia after his double kayak capsized in a storm in a lake in the Andes Mountains. There are innumerable news articles about the accident; here's one.

Tompkins did the outdoor world and the environment great good, and we have no wish to cast aspersions on his memory. But his high-profile death from hypothermia demands an analysis, to help us understand the dangers and hopefully identify a solution. 

Tompkins and all five of his paddling partners were experienced paddlers. He was not, however, dressed appropriately. It's reported that he was not wearing a wetsuit and that he may have been wearing a drytop, but even if so, he was apparently not wearing drypants. 

Many whitewater kayakers who have a reliable roll wear drytops without drypants, depending upon their sprayskirt to keep water away from their lower body and their roll to avoid the necessity of a wet exit following a capsize. But should a wet exit be necessary, a drytop without drypants does not keep you dry. Water can enter through the torso opening (i.e., the waist). Drytops provide no thermal protection if you're in the water.

The North Face does not manufacture paddling drywear, and to the best of my knowledge, it never has. Nonetheless, as the company's founder, Tompkins made his fortune persuading outdoors enthusiasts about the importance of proper gear to avoid exposure, and he was probably more knowledgeable than most about the dangers of hypothermia. 

So how did this happen? Tompkins and his colleagues apparently underestimated the potential danger of the situation, and overestimated their ability to cope with problems that might arise. Among the confidence-inspiring circumstances that probably influenced their decision to paddle without proper thermal protection were these:

  • All six were experienced paddlers and outdoorsmen.
  • They launched in calm conditions.
  • Their planned route for the day was short.
  • They remained close to shore.
  • One presumes that their kayaks and other paddling gear were in good condition.

Working against those circumstances were the following, which they apparently ignored or discounted:

  • The lake has a reputation for violent storms that arise quickly. (One did.)
  • Landing is impossible along many parts of the lake's shoreline. (The party was unable to land promptly when the storm kicked up.) 
  • Gear can fail. (The rudder on Tompkins' kayak malfunctioned, preventing his boat from reaching shelter and contributing to the capsize.)
  • At 72 years of age, Tompkins, while apparently fit, was not a young man, and from available photos, it appears that he was quite lean. (Younger and overweight people are more resistant to hypothermia.)
  • During a severe storm, it is difficult for even experienced paddlers to lend assistance to others, or sometimes even know that a problem exists. (The others in the party were unaware for some time that Tompkins' kayak had capsized, and the paddler who ultimately came to his aid was unable to get him out of the water or tow him to shore.)

As shown by many examples in George Gronseth's Deep Trouble: True Stories and Their Lessons from Sea Kayaker Magazine, accidents are almost always attributable to a failure of judgment. The same lesson appears again and again in Doug McKown's Up the Creek: True Stories of Canoeists in Trouble. It almost always comes down, ultimately, to a decision to do something based on the assessment "I think it'll be okay," when in fact it wasn't.

Kayaks and canoes can capsize for an infinitude or reasons and for seemingly no reason at all. Even the best paddlers have capsized "stupidly," due to a moment's inattention or slight carelessness. (If you haven't yet had a "stupid" capsize, beware of hubris. You WILL experience it, and we hope the results are simply a bit of embarrassment and perhaps a slight increase in humility.) When the water is cold, that capsize can lead to hypothermia.

But hypothermia is not even the greatest of the cold-water dangers. Drowning due to "cold shock" is the more common killer. Cold water makes you gasp, and as it becomes difficult to time your breaths, it may become impossible avoid inhaling water into your lungs. According to the National Center for Cold Water Safety, breathing begins to be affected in water as warm as 77°F, and breathing problems become immediately life-threatening in water between 50°F and 60°F.

Cold Water Dangers chart from Center for Cold Water Safety
Effects of cold water, from National Center for Cold Water Safety

One never knows when he or she might end up in the water. Apparently safe conditions have a habit of deceiving and deteriorating; all of us make mistakes; gear occasionally fails; and trusted associates might not be able to help. This all means that thermal protection is a must, and one should wear a drysuit or wetsuit when paddling on cold water, regardless of conditions

SUP and sea kayak paddling with drysuits
Doing it right: These paddlers are wearing drysuits and PFDs even though conditions are calm in this protected cove, because the water is cold.

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