In 1968 the eventual founders of Patagonia and North Face outfitters, Yvon Chouinard and Douglas Tompkins, and two other friends drive their VW bus on a whim to Patagonia. The follow the then mostly unpaved Pan-American highway from California to Chile on a trip that took 6 months. The journey would change both of their lives and begin their lifelong interest in Patagonia.
The film 180˚ South traces Jeff Johnson, a surfer and climber who finds the old footage and makes the journey on his own, though he goes by boat and stops off at Rapa Nui (Easter Island) where he picks up a friend. He visits with Tompkins and Chouinard in the region and makes an ill-fated attempt to climb the Corcovado. Johnson’s journey intertwines with that of the 1968 trip of Tomkins and Chouinard and the pair’s current conservation efforts in the region.
Today, Tompkins is one of Chile’s largest landowners. His Concervacion Patagonica owns huge tracts of land – more than 2 million acres – in Chile and Argentina that he has designated for use as national parks. The Chilean government and Spanish energy giant Endessa are at odds with Tompkins because they are actively attempting to damn many of Patagonia’s rivers, including the legendary Futaleufu and crème de menthe colored Rio Baker, and expand the Careterra Austral. Currently, Tompkins’ incredibly beautiful Pumalin national park splits Chile in half, as it runs from the sea to the border. The people of Patagonia have mixed reactions. Many, especially the gauchos, admire Tompkins for preserving the land and keeping it wild. Some don’t agree however, as the expansion of highways and power plants means jobs, though most acknowledge that it will come at a cost. Propaganda is heavy from both ends.
At stake is one of the rarest and most beautiful pieces of land on planet earth. Having traveled through Chilean Patagonia several times, I’ve come to see it’s brilliance. I’ve been lucky enough to see the region by helicopter via the boat the MV Atmopshere and by driving the length of the Careterra Austral where you see temperate rainforest, mountains dripping with waterfalls, the most charming town I’ve ever known, and unspoiled wilderness that expands seemingly forever in every direction. It’s a part of the world that should never be developed.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.