Mountain biker from Nepal, named ‘Adventurer of the Year,’ is headlining Columbus film festival

Wild and Scenic Film Festival coming to Columbus, Georgia

The Wild and Scenic Film Festival, hosted by Trees Columbus, will take place from August 1 through August 3, 2019. Video courtesy of Joseph Berger.
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The Wild and Scenic Film Festival, hosted by Trees Columbus, will take place from August 1 through August 3, 2019. Video courtesy of Joseph Berger.

Rajesh “R.J.” Magar, a self-taught Nepali mountain biker who was named National Geographic’s 2018 Adventurer of the Year, had never managed to secure a visa to enter the United States.

Thanks to some help from a U.S. senator and a local nonprofit organization, Magar received a visa and will be attending the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. The festival, based out of California and returning to Columbus August 1 through August 3, features films centered around environmental causes. Magar, his manager said, holds those causes close to his heart.

“The Himalayas are one of the most vulnerable places,” Magar’s manager Mandil Pradhan said. “We want to make sure that proper steps are taken towards making sure we maintain the same environment that we found.”

Pradhan said Magar plans to speak at the festival, which will feature a documentary titled “R.J. RIPPER,” which tells Magar’s story. Magar speaks little English, so Pradhan provided the information during an interview in which Magar listened in. Pradhan will also act as his translator during the festival.

While in Columbus, Magar plans to take advantage of various outdoor attractions like whitewater rafting at the RushSouth Whitewater Park and mountain biking on the Standing Boy Trails, a recently developed trail system in north Columbus owned by the Department of Natural Resources.

“With (Standing Boy), I think a lot of people are going to be turning towards Columbus as a place with pretty good mountain biking,” Pradhan said. “... From the festival’s perspective, I think it’s about diversity, and having the protagonist from a film that’s done well around the world. I think for (the festival), that’s a big compliment.”

Who is ‘R.J. Ripper’?

22-year-old Magar, nicknamed “R.J. Ripper,” first started biking after purchasing a rigid, used mountain bike from a friend at school. Magar taught himself to ride by watching YouTube videos, and fixed up his rickety bike by finding spare parts and studying downhill bike geometry on the internet.

He grew up in a low-income household. The minimum monthly wage for industrial workers in Nepal equates to around $195, according to the Himalayan Times. Yeti, Magar’s sponsor, sells its top-of-the-line mountain bikes for upwards of $3,000.

Magar entered his first race at age 16, sporting a mountain bike made of spare parts. He eventually connected with Pradhan, who offered him a job maintaining bikes at Himalayan Rides, which he owns. This provided Magar with a stable income and he continued racing while serving as a guide on tours.

Over time, his abilities on a bike attracted sponsors, like Yeti, based out of Colorado. He won his first international race by 40 seconds. He’s since won downhill mountain bike races in five countries and won three consecutive national titles.

Visa issues meant he could not travel to and from the U.S., preventing him from competing in the highest level of global competition, the Enduro World Series.

It’s tough for Nepalis to secure visas to enter Western countries, Magar said to National Geographic, so he and Pradhan put together a bank account worth $15,000 to apply for travel to Europe and the U.S.

Getting his visa

Magar was initially denied a visa in 2018 when attempting to compete in a mountain biking event in the U.S., he said in an interview with WEDU.

According to Paige Swift, membership, special events and fundraising coordinator at Trees Columbus (the nonprofit helping put on the festival), Magar needed a signature from a U.S. senator, among other things, to be granted a visa. Swift even contacted Yeti Cycles, one of Magar’s sponsors, but was told the chance of Magar getting a visa was highly unlikely.

Swift connected with high-school friend Heath Garrett, a political consultant and longtime aide to Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. Garrett helped fast-track the process.

“I called Heath, told him the story, and he said, ‘oh, you don’t even have to ask Johnny,’” Swift said. “We’re in.”

Magar attended his interview (anyone applying for a U.S. visa must complete an interview), and he brought the signed letter from Isakson along with his documents. When everything settled, Magar was granted a 10-day special visa to attend WSFF.

Now that travel to the U.S. is an option, future travel back and forth to the U.S. and Europe will become easier, which will help Magar toward his dream of competing in the Enduro World Series.

Working with WSFF

The causes at the forefront of WSFF — an “urgent call to action, encouraging festival-goers to learn more about what they can do to save our threatened planet,” according to the festival’s website — ring true to Mandar and Pradhan.

Environmental awareness, Pradham said, is a “huge deal” for him and Magar. That was ultimately the driving force for the two to come out and support the festival.

“It was a pretty amazing story,” Swift said. “I’m really excited. He’s a great kid.”

The festival, which returns to Columbus for the second consecutive year, will feature more than 30 additional films, an art exhibition and a private wrap-up event. Films shown at the festival will cover multiple genres, from environmental justice to endangered species and water pollution.

Swift said over 800 people attended last year’s festival, which she called an “amazing turnout” for the event’s first visit to the city.

The main festival in California has grown to a crowd of around 9,000 people. Swift thinks the local festival could eclipse that “easily,” given Columbus’ standing as the second-largest city in Georgia by population.

“People were blown away by the quality of the films,” Swift said. “These (have) international production value. ... We’ve had a lot more engagement and ticket sales online to date than where we were last year, by far.”

Ticket prices start at $15, and range from weekend passes to screening passes. To view more information about the festival, visit treescolumbus.org.

Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Macon Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.