Community June 19, 2017

Adventure Activism

Changing the world by pushing limits

It could be said that adventure is anything that challenges personal normalcy. Adventure creates a situation that fully engages one in the present moment, whether pushing physical or mental limits in foreign expanses or in one’s own backyard.

On its own, adventure is a personal journey for growth. But the potential to cultivate the benefits of adventure beyond the individual is flourishing as Sun Valley adventurers take on the pursuit of adventure activism.

Take, for example, professional athlete Rebecca Rusch, who many refer to simply as “The Queen of Pain.” To understand why, consider this: she is a seven-time world champion in multiple sports, four-time Leadville 100 mountain bike champion, the course record holder for the Kokopelli trail (Moab to Fruta), and named as one of Outside Magazine’s Top Female Athletes of the Year. However, beyond pushing the limits of what is physically possible, there is always a “why?” to everything Rusch does.


A family in a remote village on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Photo by Todd Meier

In 2015, Rusch embarked on “the biggest and most important ride of her life,” a 1,200-mile attempt to ride the entire length of the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. She wasn’t trying to set any record; this time it was personal. Rusch’s father was shot down in the Vietnam War, and ever since his remains were identified, she began planning an expedition to learn more about the circumstances of his death.

“I came out of that trip with a purpose for my bike riding,” Rusch said. “Everyone always asks, ‘Why do you do these long races and rides? What are you looking for?’ Before we went, I didn’t know the extent to which people are still dying from unexploded mines, and that villagers can’t even farm their land in many places. We didn’t expect it, but the hospitality we experienced was incredible. They’ve forgiven us, but, to this day, they can’t live in peace because a war that ended 45 years ago is still killing people.”

Rusch learned about the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a nonprofit organization that works to remove unexploded ordnance in Laos and around the world. Laos, in particular, has the unfortunate distinction of being the most bombed country per capita in the world. According to U.S. bombing records, between 1964 and 1973, over 200 million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos. Of those, it is estimated that approximately 80 million submunitions failed to detonate. Those millions of “bombies,” as the people of Laos know them, continue to injure and kill inhabitants going about their lives every day.


Rusch rides past a number of farmers in Laos. Photo by Todd Meier

“I wanted to take people back, show them this country, and fold in awareness and fundraising,” explained Rusch. “In my small way, I can tell people about it, show them, and inspire them to take action. So few people are aware of this. Everywhere we go to war, we are leaving this wake.”

For her return mountain bike trip to Laos, Rusch partnered with The Adventure Activist, a nonprofit founded by Dr. Terry O’Connor, a physician in St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center Emergency Department. The Adventure Activist is a platform and meeting place for athletes, adventurers and activists to share their endeavors with each other and with wider audiences.

To detail all of O’Connor’s accomplishments in between hospital shifts would be a tall order, but consider just a few: he has summited Everest, competed as an ultra endurance athlete, and is currently working to develop climate change education and ski adventure trips with Aspen Skiing Company and the Climate Reality Project.

Describing The Adventure Activist, O’Connor explained that it was “a path of personal adventure woven with paying it forward into the greater good. On that path, I’ve found athletes and explorers in adventure side by side with humanitarians doing good work in the arenas of climate change, social justice, environmental conservation, disaster relief, international health and more. We have planted trees in Borneo, studied the recession of ice in Greenland, cared for the “untouchable” in Calcutta, advocated for porters in Pakistan, removed mines from Laos, brought bikes to Africa, and more. We are physicians, professors, philanthropists, explorers and athletes. We are a community of friends who have made the same marks in finding our way.”


The mountain biking crew crossed the Nam Ngo River in Laos. Photo by Todd Meier

Todd Meier, a commercial and editorial photographer, joined Rusch’s advocacy mountain bike trip to Laos. For him, the trip was life changing. Noting one of countless impactful experiences on the trip, Meier recounted, “There was a woman in the most bombed region of Laos that lived in a cave for eight or nine years. She (gave birth to) her daughter in that cave. I met her in her village, the same bombed-out village from 50 years ago. (She) and her children had no thought of leaving and couldn’t be happier. Remarkable.”

Rusch is now about to take off on her newest adventure: the film tour of Red Bull Media House’s “Blood Road,” which documents her journey on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Feeling an inspired responsibility, Rusch is dedicating time off the trail to be part of telling the story across the U.S.

Adventure, however you choose to make it and take it, is a personal journey. But, Sun Valley locals are showcasing that when elevated beyond the individual, adventure finds its true purpose. The world awaits as inspiration grows for adventure activists in action and in the making.


More Local Buzz: Rebecca’s Private Idaho

Rebecca Rusch is in her fifth year of hosting the Rebecca’s Private Idaho bike race in Ketchum. The 100-mile race supports the Wood River Bike Coalition, Bikes Belong, and World Bicycle Relief. These are local, national and international nonprofits, respectively, that are changing the world for the better through bikes.



This article appears in the Summer 2017 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.