FeatureProfile October 6, 2023

Gerry Moffatt

The mind of a thunder dragon

Basic principles constitute adventure, knowing that there will be inherent risks, being willing to exert real effort, and accepting that there is no way to know how things will work out. Life is an adventure; no matter how afraid it makes us, we’re not meant to know what comes next. For Gerry Moffatt, the unknown makes life worth living to its fullest. 

Gerry, 58, a world-class and celebrated kayaker, expedition guide and filmmaker hailing from Scotland, became enthralled by the intense freedom of whitewater kayaking from age 11. 

At 18, he was invited to be the youngest British kayaking expedition team member to the Himalayas. The experience captured his spirit, and he never truly left. In 2016 he was honored to be named Nepal’s first international ambassador for adventure tourism. Gerry’s life story is marked by exceptional achievements like being the first person to descend all the major rivers in Nepal and Bhutan and summiting Everest twice. However, it’s not the physical accomplishments he wishes to focus on. 

In 2013, Gerry, alongside his wife Pia Saengswang Moffatt, a strikingly intelligent person with over two decades of experience in the nonprofit world focusing on management, venture philanthropy, education, social entrepreneurship, and film, launched an organization called Thunder Dragons. 

“The philosophy behind Thunder Dragons is helping people create a healthy relationship with the unknown,” explains Pia. “With that relationship unfolds all the things we are brave enough to do and actualize in our lives.” 

Thunder Dragons was originally created as a medium for storytelling through live talks, written pieces and filmmaking. To mark turning 50, Gerry embarked on a solo motorbike journey spanning 108 days and over 4,000 miles revisiting the remote landscapes that had shaped his youth across Nepal, India, Tibet, Pakistan, and Bhutan. His trip is documented in the film “The Tenth Step,” about Gerry’s journey with sobriety. The compelling storytelling and Gerry’s candid vulnerability resonated with audiences. People also wanted to know how they could live authentic, adventurous lives. Thus, Thunder
Dragons launched an outdoor education program called Zen Masters based in Sun Valley.

Sun Valley has been Gerry’s home for 35 years. Initially attracted by the challenging whitewater of the Payette River, he stayed for the community he found. The multi-week Zen Masters experiential programs are designed to teach adults a “beginner’s mindset”—an approach that requires shedding all preconceived notions to make room for new skills and experiences obtained through whitewater kayaking, rafting and backcountry skiing. Gerry is quick to point out that Zen Masters is not based on the conventional guide-client dynamic. Instead, a student-teacher relationship is encouraged.

“They have to be vulnerable and put ego aside,” says Gerry, “It’s a lot to ask of egos that are established. I am honest with my students just as Mother Nature is honest with us all.”

Evidently, about 75% of Zen Masters participants, primarily Sun Valley residents, return to the program seeking to continue layering on skill level and open more adventurous doors. Some have even philanthropically contributed to Thunder Dragons’ next venture of bringing outdoor education to the youth of Nepal and Bhutan in collaboration with local partners there.

“I grew up with a strong outdoor education in Scotland, and it really affected me,” recalls Gerry, who envisions an environment where Nepalese youth similarly benefit from exposure to sustainable development concepts and obtain skill sets, allowing them to take part recreationally in their own rivers and mountains. Ideally, the program will run entirely locally within three to five years. 

While Gerry started his career in the realm of physical extremes, he recognized that adventure isn’t confined to the external. True adventure encompasses changing careers or moving to a new place. It happens when we’re vulnerable and unafraid to make mistakes, and he worries our current society doesn’t allow for or encourage the principles of adventure, instead gravitating towards commercialized experiences with a guaranteed outcome. In such a society, Gerry Moffatt is a testament to the transformative power of embracing the unknown and encouraging personal growth by taking risks and making mistakes. Through his community outreach work, his legacy thrives, inspiring individuals worldwide to journey into their uncharted potential.

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.