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A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.

- John James Audubon

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Athletes & Explorers

Dec 05, 2018

What Does Fear Mean to RJ Ripper, the 2018 Adventurer of the Year?

Globally known and admired for his prowess as a mountain biker, Rajesh Magar shares his approach to managing fear and evolving.

WRITTEN BY

Jahnvi Pananchikal

Rajesh Magar, “RJ Ripper” or just “RJ” to his friends, is a name that not only the people of his native Nepal know well, but also the adventure sports community around the world. This was solidified when Rajesh recently became the 2018 Nat Geo Adventurer of the Year. Rajesh is a star mountain biker from Nepal, who built his own bike from scratch, before pushing it to the limits and attracting the globe’s attention.

“One should have fear. It’s a good thing,”

In Joey Schusler documentary entitled RJ Ripper, Mandil Pradhan of H+I Adventures referred to Rajesh as “A kid from Nepal is taking on the world.” That world has grown to not only admire his ability, but for also making the most of the opportunities available to him given the humble context. If you need to give yourself an introduction to Rajesh, RJ Ripper is a powerful and hugely inspiring film that tells his story. It can be found below.

More than anything else, RJ’s attitude has been such an important factor in his success as a mountain biker. The commitment he has demonstrated has been well covered, however The Outdoor Journal wanted to talk about something else. We reached out to him about the role of fear in his story, what kept him going back for more, and how he could push himself so hard, on a bike that he had built himself from scrap metal.

THE EARLY DAYS

RJ’s talent is not confined to the saddle, he’s also a self taught bike builder. Photo: Joey Schusler

In Rajesh’s life, limits have always been evident. From the outside, breaking those limits often required a disregard for fear. However, according to RJ, that is not the case. Throughout his life, fear has always been there, he’s just taken it in his stride. “One should have fear. It’s a good thing.”

When Rajesh’s mother brought home a bicycle, he didn’t know how to ride it. Grateful to receive one, he simply taught himself how to ride. “When I started to try and ride, I would take the bicycle on the main road everyday. I would try, and try again, to stay on my wheels, but fall again, and again. At the time, I wasn’t great at turning, so I fell many times. Of course, there was also an additional risk of cars that could hit me. Therefore, I instead went off road to try and learn how to ride the bicycle,” Rajesh recalls.

With friends, Rajesh would ride around Kathmandu and compete with them. At times they noticed other cyclists performing stunts on the street, so Magar and his friends would visit cyber cafes to pick up tips from online videos. When he wasn’t riding, Rajesh would regularly sit and observe mechanics working at a local cycle shop to figure out how he might customize bicycles for himself. That’s what being a self-starter is all about.

“I thought, ‘If they can do it, we can do it too. Let’s try.’ I learnt how to make a cycle, how to fix a puncture, how to change tyres, and how to install brakes. I then started trying that on my own cycle, by removing and adding parts. When I did that, the cycle started looking smaller, so I’d do things to make it bigger,” RJ explained.

TACKLING FEAR AND INSPIRING OTHERS

Mountain biking in Nepal means spending your time in some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes. Photo: Joey Schusler

Rajesh wasn’t looking for fame, fame found him. Joey Schusler, an experienced mountain biker and documentary filmmaker, met Rajesh while visiting Kathmandu. The two immediately hit it off during a tour with Mandil Pradhan’s H+I Adventures, and this relationship inspired Schusler to film a documentary aboutRajesh Magar’s story.

When asked about RJ, Schusler immediately jumps to fear, and his admiration for the way in which he faces it. “Magar has his head on pretty straight, and is very aware of his skill-set when riding. He knows the level he is at, and understands that it takes time to slowly progress and move past his fears to each new level. He never seemed too scared when we were riding and filming together.”

“Fear plays a big part in mountain biking. It is what keeps us in check, so we don’t try to progress too fast.”

RJ progressed slowly but very effectively, continually building confidence. When RJ started to compete, the goal was winning, and speed was necessary to win. However, this was a skill that required much patience and repetition to master. Much of his training was pursued alone, repeating routes and timing himself again, and again to improve his speed. Each time he would tinker with his approach by keeping a check on his balance. “I would take it section by section, and once I was comfortable on the tracks, I’d tackle speed. Where I wouldn’t be comfortable, I would go slow and try a few times until gaining speed and then it would work.”

RJ does not disregard fear, as you might expect. In fact he pays a lot of attention to it. “If you just go for it, anything can happen. I made that mistake but I’m still alive, I’ve learnt from experience. Of course, there will always be moments when I think, “wow that was a close call! Thank God, I survived.’ This is always the way in adventure sports, there is always a risk, but good things can happen too,” RJ says, with a smile.

“The fastest mountain biker in Asia”. Photo: Joey Schusler

Only a few know how to actually handle fear that way.

Whilst shooting the documentary, Schusler was aware of RJ’s measured and intelligent approach. “He’s such a natural on the bike. You can tell that he is just at home and full of comfort when riding it. His focus is so good, and he’s so dedicated to his craft,” Schusler told The Outdoor Journal. “Fear plays a big part in mountain biking. It is what keeps us in check, so we don’t try to progress too fast,” he added.

Perhaps this is the thing that really sets RJ apart from the rest, the know-how to manage fear. RJ makes a conscious choice. The good thing is that it can be taught and it’s infectious, when others see this approach, they often adopt it for themselves. RJ is in a position to spark change within an entire community.

“Some would watch me and think, ‘wow that’s amazing, he did it.’ Some would be discouraging, but I wouldn’t pay attention. My purpose is to demonstrate that  you can do anything if you’re prepared to offer complete dedication. Once inspired, people can do great things and further inspire each other.”

LIFE AS THE ADVENTURER OF THE YEAR

RJ would repeat the same routes, again and again in an effort to increase his speed. Always paying attention to his balance and how it could be improved. Photo: Joey Schusler

All these years of learning how to handle fear in a productive way has added a huge amount of value to RJ’s life. The world now knows about his talent, and he feels humbled by that unexpected fame. More than anything else, RJ is happy to just be.

“As of now, everything is good. I’ve got work, friends, family, and everyone is happy. My family and friends are happy because of what I’ve become, and I’m just happy with that. I haven’t yet thought about anything else apart from this. I never expected any of this,” RJ says.

For five years now, since his meeting with Mandil Pradhan, RJ has been leading tours and is the head mechanics at H+I Adventures. It’s via this role that RJ met the founder of AT Cycles, who was inspired by his story and made the offer of brand ambassador.

Since RJ now represents Nepal, he is no longer mountain biking just for fun. It’s a huge responsibility that he takes very seriously, but we’re pretty sure that he’s still having fun too.

RJ is very proud of his Nepalese heritage. Photo: Joey Schusler

“People have different expectations. I often hear things like, “You will have to win, bro”, meanwhile others will still just say “Hey, go have fun!” he laughs. “More than anything else it’s a good feeling to know that I’ve done something for others, and perhaps made them see that they can do it too.”

RJ is grateful to all the people who supported him in his endeavour of mountain biking. Whether it was with their words or by offering the materials that he needed to pursue his passion. The future? RJ plans to cycle until the day his body stops allowing him to do so, but more than anything else, simply wishes to do something meaningful with his life. For the next five years, he plans on participating in racing championships, but that’s not a life-long goal.

“I want to race with the fastest mountain bikers in the world. I just want to see where I stand among the fastest riders. But as far as cycling goes, I’ll never leave that and keep it with me for as long as I have life inside of me,” he says.

RJ’s fear led to innovation, personal development, strength, and success. His inspiring story shows that the right attitude goes a long way, and we shouldn’t disregard fear.

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Op-Ed

Apr 22, 2019

Wilderness Porn

In the social media era, nature has become a commodity—hashtagged and hearted for mass consumption. But at what cost? Is our planet ultimately paying the price?

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WRITTEN BY

Douglas Baughman

Last month, when scrolling through one of my very few social media feeds, past the usual fare of thumbs-up aphorisms and pc bromides, I came across an alarming article reposted from Forbes. The headline read “Unless It Changes, Capitalism Will Starve Humanity by 2050.” Beneath the bold black letters was a photo of a desolate and hopeless landscape—a stark contrast of anything I would normally see from accounts I follow on picture-sharing platforms.

In support of the apocalyptic foretelling, the article’s author, Drew Hansen, cited a bulleted inventory of statistics as evidence, from the exponential rate of species extinction and the millions upon millions of acres lost each year as a result of deforestation, to rising population growth, increased levels of poverty, and the continued exploitation of world resources, including an over-reliance on fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.

Photo by Jeff Finley.

“Our most treasured natural landscapes become articles of mass consumption.”

None of this was news to me, generally speaking, and while I may waver to and from agreement or denial of the projected outcome, I am fairly steady on the crux of facts. I studied U.S. energy policy in graduate school, specifically the link between carbon emissions from fossil fuels and global warming, basing the majority of my research on studies conducted at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado, and various scientific and government agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I also knew that during the intervening two and a half decades, nothing had really changed, not substantively, except maybe the urgency of warnings. In many instances, especially among factors affecting climate change, conditions had gotten worse. Global atmospheric carbon concentrations have steadily increased, by about 15 percent during that time period, from 358 parts per million in January 1994 to 410 ppm as of the first month of this year, according to data compiled by NOOA. At the same time, economic pressures threatening once-sacrosanct public lands have only intensified.

Read next on TOJ: Three Things Everyone Can Do to Fight Climate Change Right Now

But what I did not know, or rather what I had not realized, was just how easy it is to turn a blind eye from all of it—the despairing news and dire predictions—and instead find more peaceful refuge in images that showcase vibrant wildlife and natural grandeur, like the one recently posted @planetearthtv of a blue iridescent wave curling from the Indian Ocean and crashing on the shores of Sri Lanka, or the snow-capped crown of Mount Moran reflected upside-down in the still waters of the Snake River @natgeotravel, or a baby elephant guided by the doting trunk of its mother, both of them safe from the butchery of poachers @hearthofafrica.

For many years, I lived in Boulder, Colorado, where access to open space and the stretches of wilderness areas just beyond the foothills are always within eyesight. A short ride up the canyon switchbacks can offer some pretty spectacular vantage points for photo opportunities. On a clear day, facing west toward the Continental Divide, vistas of wintry peaks stitch the Rocky Mountains to the horizon. Conversely, to the east over the patchwork communities spanning the Front Range, a sepia fog on most days blurs the bird’s eye view. The first scene is well-photographed, the other almost never. Yet, they are two sides of the same coin.

The author shooting the Continental Divide, near Boulder, Colo. Photo by: Mary Colbert.

Cropped from the mess of reality, these selective portrayals become more like works of art than photographic realism. And like all works of art, they are an interpretation of the world, in this case an idealized and subjective version, but not true of the world in whole. Strung together and reinforced over time by subtle and subconscious increments, they form a false narrative, albeit an unintended one, whose numbing effects may be counter-productive to addressing imminent environmental issues in a measurable way.

“A preferential focus on the pristine is ineffective at addressing global environmental challenges.”

On Instagram, @NatGeo alone has more than 103 million followers who post, share and by the hundreds of thousands “breathtaking images that inspire people to care about the planet,” according to a recent statement from National Geographic Partners in celebrating its breach of the 100 million followers mark. Plainly there is an appetite, not just at National Geographic, but across many other sites and social media outlets. Strictly from the perspective of environmentalism, and even among enthusiasts who share a passion for the outdoors, has this over-whelming swell of appreciation channelled awareness into meaningful action? And if not, as Hansen’s outline of unpropitious trends indicate, then what of the appetite itself? Is it simply an idle act of consumerism, the product of economic privilege, as some social historians and environmental theorists have suggested?

Photo by: Marco Gnaccarini.

In a highly influential essay presented in 1989 during a visiting lectureship at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies called “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique,” Indian ecologist Ramachandra Guha described a fundamental flaw within environmentalism “to equate environmental protection with the protection of wilderness,” a concept he further contended was artificial and distinctly American, borne from a unique social and environmental history.

Although Guha’s main intention was to question the validity and wholesale export of what he considered an impractical form of American-centric environmentalism to populations across other parts of the world, in the process of pressing forward his thesis he made many salient points that offer an interesting insight into the roots of our attitude toward nature, and how that perception hobbles the advancement of global environmental solutions. “Here,” wrote Guha, referencing an earlier thesis from American environmental, social and political historian Samuel P. Hays, “the enjoyment of nature is an integral part of the consumer society.”

Photo by Anh Vy

Hays had attributed contemporary environmentalism to evolving consumer behavior, echoing similar observations from esteemed economist John Kenneth Galbraith. In an article titled “From Conservation to Environment: Environmental Politics in the United States Since World War Two,” Hays traced the history of changing patterns of consumption—beginning in the late 19th century from a concentration on basic “necessities,” i.e. housing, food and clothing; followed in the early half of the 20th century to an increasing attention on “conveniences” in the form of durable goods, such as household appliances and automobiles; and culminating finally with a focus more toward “amenities” and “luxuries” as a direct result of a rise in discretionary income and a correlative increase in leisure time—pinning them to varied new sectors associated with consumption, like the “recreation economy,” the “leisure economy” and the “environmental economy.”

“In this scenario, the environment is up-cycled.”

“One of the distinctive aspects of the history of consumption is the degree to which what once were luxuries, enjoyed by only a few, over the years became enjoyed by many,” wrote Hays. “And so it was with environmental amenities. What only a few could enjoy in the 19th century came to be mass activities in the mid-20th.”

The nettle for environmentalism within this economic framework, unfortunately, is that those areas of more enviable amenity (read: our most treasured natural landscapes), and by proxy to a degree nature itself, become articles of mass consumption, subject to the same principles and driving economic forces as any other commodity or luxury good. In this scenario, the environment is up-cycled. The more exotic, remote and rare supplants the less-desirable, commonplace and humdrum. It is a process for which social media and photo-sharing sites especially are extremely efficient. If the Grand Tetons or Yosemite’s El Capitan are the archetypal crown of American conservation (evinced by the number of times either one or both appear on the calendars of some of the most prominent environmental organizations), then what hope exists for a 100,000-acre expanse of sagebrush? How can environmentalism possibly survive that level of self-competing rigor?

El Capitan. Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla

Instead, Guha argued that virtually every landscape on Earth is affected in one way or another by human interaction and that a preferential focus on the pristine is ineffective at addressing global environmental challenges because it ignores the surrounding problems, such as pollution and over-population. When imposed throughout the world, he claimed, the emphasis on wilderness is actually harmful. In regions like India, for example, which shares many geographic similarities and an ecological diversity comparable to the U.S., but with a radically dissimilar cultural and social history, including most importantly a long-settled and densely populated countryside, the situation is very near the reverse when compared to circumstances in America. It would be impossible to set aside broad swaths of wilderness without displacing large groups of native people.

One of the unspoken obstacles of the environmental movement, and perpetuated in many of the images we choose to post and share and like, is the lingering mythology of the American Wild West. Notions of wide open spaces that once may have kindled the fires of Manifest Destiny or lent a special component of religious vigor to ideas of Calvinistic predestination are deeply embedded in our history and cultural psyche. It may be an outdated ideology, but it still shapes our environmental biases today. It is what John Kenneth Galbraith coined the “conventional wisdom,” the only enemy of which is the march of obsolescence.

Photo by Florian Olivo.

I recently visited Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a popular New York City neighborhood known for its hipster energy and progressive attitudes, and whose majority of residents would identify, I strongly suspect, as an environmentalist, or at least supportive of environmental causes. And still, to my surprise, so much litter covered the streets and sidewalks, like nothing seen in the city since maybe the 1970s. I watched as a small girl struggled to propel a scooter against strong gusts of wind coming off the East River, her progress further hampered by an aerial assault of plastic bags, some wrapping around her front wheels, while her parents remained either unaware or indifferent. I wondered, what makes this environment—the East River, or for that matter, the Bronx River, near where I live now—less enviable than, say, the Snake River in Wyoming? Or is it the edict of our conventional wisdom that directs us to accept a set of values that would rank one above the other

“Familiarity may breed contempt in some areas of human behavior,” Galbraith wrote in the opening pages of his groundbreaking book, The Affluent Society, a cornerstone for understanding the sway of cultural attitudes on economic policy, “but in the field of social ideas it is the touchstone of acceptability.”

Without negating the large body of science that unanimously agrees preservation of wilderness and wildlife is essential to biological health, nor the value of the imagery to inspire its appreciation, the war for environmental well-being will be won in battles that not only strive to protect what we have but also restore what we have lost. Otherwise, it is hard to see how a preoccupation with one-sided points of view and accepted half-truths will prepare us for whatever 2050 will bring.

Feature image by Daniil Silantev

 

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