Acclaimed adventure racer Ryan Blair reflects on his biggest expedition yet: co-founding Asia Pacific Adventure and bringing to Asia both adventure sports and the opportunity for young athletes to excel, learn and give back.
Mere days away from one of the biggest adventure races of his life, a searing week-long expedition kayaking through shark-infested waters and mountain biking on 3000m peaks, we manage to get Ryan Blair to sit still in one place. A well-known adventurer, his latest challenge has come in a different guise – that of co-founding Asia’s biggest outdoor adventure company Asia Pacific Adventure (APA). Over a coffee and an energy-boosting orange juice, he sat down to tell us how his passion for adventure sports has developed into a thriving business that seeks to provide unique opportunities for young athletes around Asia as well as stand as a pillar for environmental and cultural education.
Ryan credits his passion for adventure sports with being brought up on a ranch in Oregon, where his back garden was nine mountains, three big rivers, rolling hills and vast lakes. Moving to Santa Clara’s crowded cityscape for university, he jumped at the opportunity to explore Hong Kong during his year abroad, loving it so much that just five days after graduation, he hopped back on a plane to Asia and has been here ever since.
After a year in the Himalayas, Ryan knuckled down in Hong Kong and began building the events division at Action Asia, until, together with Stuart Sharpless, Action Asia’s technical director at the time, he decided to forge this own path – now Asia Pacific Adventure. “From the very beginning, we knew that we wanted to bring the sport of adventure racing to Asia. Hong Kong was the perfect place to start because the city is so unique in its access to the outdoors. We could never have had such a successful company if it weren’t for the situation we have here, where the trails, the seas and the peaks are just 10 minutes away from pretty much everything. We do loads around the region, but we also do so much right here in our backyard.”
After a partnership with National Geographic and the perseverance of “two very passionate entrepreneurs,” Asia Pacific Adventure began to earn its place on the throne of Asia’s adventure sports scene. Today, it is a collection of five businesses spanning Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Myanmar where they have tentacles in corporate training, film production, outdoor education, Asia’s top athlete team and even Hong Kong’s number one watersports shop, Asia Pacific Adventure Outdoor Shop.
“Outdoor Education and the North Face Athlete Team are our biggest areas and the ones I feel most passionate and excited about,” says Ryan. “The Athlete Team started around 15 years ago as a side passion when we decided we wanted to help young, talented Asian athletes that don’t have access to coaching or sponsorship to have more opportunity in this niche sport.”
Their most recent recruit, a young Filipino man named John ‘Stingray’ Ray Onifa is an excellent ambassador for the programme. After an upbringing in a small village in the Philippines without a mother or father, Stingray and his brothers survived off fishing and farming. Wanting a fresh start, he applied to the army only to get rejected three times. However, there was a silver lining. Whilst training it became apparent that whilst Stingray was undoubtedly the smallest, he was definitely the fastest. Winning his first 10k race in a nearby town, Stingray now has a place in Asia’s top adventure sports team. “I’m just so happy to help a guy like this. Only last week he won Asia’s biggest night race, Moon Trekker, beating over 1,500 people and the top guys in Hong Kong!” He goes on, “Of course the racing is important and it’s our passion…but there’s so much more beyond that that we can get involved in.”
This desire to give back shines through their Outdoor Education Programmes. “We now have thousands of kids in the programmes,” says Ryan. “It’s so exciting because the ability to make a difference is so much more when you spend a week of activities in new locations and cultures with a young person of 14 or 16.” Alongside developing team building and self-reliance skills, providing an environmental education has become a core element of their offer. “We don’t want to cram it down their throats, but these are real issues here in front of us,” explains Ryan. “For example, when we go kayaking, we educate them on the great garbage patch the size of Texas we float past, so when they’re at the beach and see plastic bottles they can make a connection.”
For the last five years, Ryan has been heavily involved in developing their new location, Myanmar. Their next programme will involve 65 kids from international schools in Naypyidaw who will learn everything from sustainable construction with a monk to renewable energy with a 70-year-old Scottish electrician. “Half of these kids are local Burmese from wealthy families, so the chance to make a difference is huge. If even just one of these kids becomes a future politician and they take something away from this, it could make a huge impact on the country. This is the kind of thing that gets me really excited about what we do.”
Looking back on the last 16 years, it’s clear that this is more than just an adrenaline-inducing pastime. What began as an attempt to spread a passion of adventure racing has transformed into a platform for environmental and social progression that’s core lies in the desire to help others, even if that means dangling them off of a cliff.