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There are few things that rattle American-Brazilian financier James Lynch.
He’s spent weeks living with Amazonian cannibals who he remembers as being “very nice and kind.” He came close to death on a trek deep into the jungle in search of the source of Eldorado Falls, the tallest waterfall in Brazil.
He’s spent many nights lying on the open ground looking up at more stars than you can possibly imagine blanketing the night sky. Cloaked in a cloud of warm damp air, as he listens to the orchestra of jungle sounds at night.
And once when he was leading an expedition of 17 people in the Mato Grosso backlands of Brazil, including his teenage son, the whole group was kidnapped and held hostage by a hostile tribe of Indians in the Amazon.
At 64, Lynch, who has pursued physically and mentally challenging adventures for 40 years, tends to take things in his stride these days. But he’s hardly slowing down.
James Lynch, a 1977 graduate of Thunderbird School of Global Management, is the founding partner of Phoenix Strategic Financial Advisors. The name was inspired by his time at Thunderbird, but the company is based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he grew up. Lynch’s parents moved to Brazil in 1945, before he was born. They planned to stay three years, but fell in love with the country and stayed for 30.
Prior to launching his company, Lynch worked in senior investment banking positions for The Chase Manhattan Bank in New York and Latin America for 20 years.
“As a banker, James Lynch never had to negotiate for someone’s life. As an explorer in the jungles of Brazil, he has.”– Click to tweet
During his time at Chase in Brazil, Lynch met René Delmotte, a Brazilian engineer. The two men were chosen out of a pool of 25,000 applicants to be part of the 1987 Camel Trophy challenge, a grueling 14-day, 2,252 km road race in Range Rovers from the northern tip of Madagascar to the southern tip. The two have been adventure partners ever since.
Lynch’s personal passion is pursuing adventures that combine physical challenges and exploration into lost worlds. His expeditions are all inspired by some historical question. His objectives are to decipher a mystery or myth. And the results often include lessons that he’s been able to use in all aspects of life.
Overlap between his work skills and explorations may be obvious: Both took a great degree of organization, the ability to inspire a team of people, persistence and negotiating skills. Yet, the stakes can be very different during a project at work and an adventure in the jungle. “I never had to negotiate for someone’s life at Chase,” Lynch says.
In the summer of 1996, when Lynch had to negotiate for the lives of his 17-member expedition team, including his 16-year-old son, James Jr., the group had set out in the jungles of Brazil in order to help solve one of the greatest exploration mysteries of the 20th century.
With the backing of Bayer, BF Goodrich and other corporate sponsors, Lynch and his crew set out to retrace the footsteps of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, a British explorer who, in 1925, had disappeared in the forest along with his son and another companion. When they vanished, Fawcett’s party had been trying to uncover a lost civilization hidden in the Amazon.
“Deep into the jungle, along the Xingu River, American/Brazilian financier James Lynch and his crew found trouble.”– Click to tweet
For two months before setting out to solve the 71-year mystery, Lynch and Delmotte studied Fawcett’s records and satellite images of Brazil to plot their course. Their gear included turbo-charged jeeps and 25-foot boats. Their team included a forensic anthropologist who could confirm the origins of objects they might find, including bones.
Deep into the jungle, along the Xingu River, Lynch and his crew found trouble. They were in a village of the Kuikuro people, one of the few tribes that still lived in the Amazon much as they had before the arrival of Europeans. They were surrounded by dozens of men from another tribe armed with bows and arrows and then loaded onto small boats.
“Where are you taking us?” Lynch asked.
“You are our prisoners for life,” one man responded in Portuguese.
After being held hostage in the jungle for three days, about 200 men appeared for a council of Indians. Lynch led the negotiations. “Since my son was with us, that added a new level of adrenaline to the whole thing,” Lynch remembers.
Eventually, the Indians agreed to a swap. The explorers would leave about $30,000 worth of gear in exchange for their freedom. Deal done? Not quite. They still needed to get out and get home.
“Eventually, the Indians agreed to a swap. The explorers would leave about $30,000 worth of gear in exchange for their freedom. Deal done? Not quite.”– Click to tweet
Lynch’s team was given permission to have a small plane land on a nearby clearing, but the plane could only hold six people at a time. James Jr. was on the first flight out, which eased his dad’s mind.
Like many of Lynch’s stories, this one took several dangerous turns before it was over. He and another explorer had to stay one more night before the final flight out. And then when they returned to their starting point, they found that their vehicles had been stolen.
Negotiations began again.
The close call in Mato Grosso as they followed in Fawcett’s footstep (reassuring spoiler: they did get out safely) didn’t hold Lynch back from continuing to launch expeditions, looking for more adventures. The most recent is a journey to Peru to find the not-so-mythical “Land of the Giants.”
It’s the subject of a documentary on the Travel Channel scheduled to premiere on Oct. 16.
The program focuses on the Chachapoyas, the “Warriors of the Clouds”, a tribe of light-skinned, exceptionally tall Andean people who lived high in the forested mountains of the Amazonas region of present-day Peru, a place where civilization predates the Incas. All of the Chachapoya villages were above 10,000 feet altitude, very high in the jungle. Lynch said nearby villagers knew of rock ruins “on that mountain” and urged the explorers to go see it.
Of course, that’s easier said than done in the jungle, which grows over quickly, not to mention over hundreds or thousands of years. Lynch’s crew used a technology called LIDAR – Light Detection and Ranging – to map out the area. Using a large drone, they targeted LIDAR which essentially stripped out on the screen the jungle foliage to reveal massive rock ruins.
“We were looking at the printouts from the LIDAR and we found a structure that was very large and rectangular in shape,” Lynch says. The explorers got their bearings from the LIDAR maps and headed out, cutting their way through the jungle toward what turned out to be the remains of a temple.
“We found what I believe to be a platform used to sacrifice people or animals. It was a flat platform with a 1,000-foot drop off. They wouldn’t have used that for anything else,” Lynch says. “The locals knew of the existence of this place, but nobody had really mapped it. Nobody had studied it.”
As fascinating as the platform and the surrounding area is, Lynch stops short from saying his crew “discovered” it. “We didn’t discover it,” Lynch stresses. “First of all it was populated by the people who built it and all the people who lived there, they know what’s up there.
“ ‘We didn’t discover the temple. First of all it was populated by the people who built it and all the people who lived there, they know what’s up there.’ ”– Click to tweet
“Even Hiram Bingham didn’t ‘discover’ the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. All he did was listen to the locals who knew Machu Picchu was there and report on it to the outside world. We sort of did the same thing.”
The greatest lessons Lynch takes away from his adventures have not been found in artifacts or by walking through the former villages of ancient people. The lessons he takes with him every day come from talking to the direct descendants of those ancient people.
“Yes, I like the jungle,” Lynch explains. “The green does something for me. It recharges my batteries in an emotional way that I can’t explain. But what’s really fascinating to me is sitting down and talking to these people who live relatively isolated lives and who have had substantially different approaches to life than we have.”
“Lessons from the jungle: ‘People may seem very different than you, but in the essentials, the basics, we are identical.’ ”– Click to tweet
In fact, one of the only things that rattles Lynch these days is coming across someone who assumes people who are different from them, especially natives living in isolated regions or the jungle, are ignorant or lack the knowledge required to make complex decisions. “If we were left in the jungle for a week we’d be dead and they’ve been living there for a thousand years,” Lynch says.
It’s a lesson that every person in leadership can use every day. “People may seem very different than you, but in the essentials, the basics, we are identical. We go through the same stages in life, from being born, becoming independent from our parents, finding mates and having children, growing old and dying. There are variations, of course, but we all go through a cycle very similar to this.”
Yet, we come up with different ways to cope with the problems and challenges that life presents and learn how to use our surroundings to our benefit.
Lynch says his life has been enriched immeasurably through this wonderful hobby. And he isn’t slowing down a bit. “I have a rather long bucket list,” Lynch says. “Places I want to go. Things I want to do. People I want to meet.”
And if the Travel Channel documentary is a success, Lynch, Delmotte, and their film crew may develop many of those ideas into a series of adventure documentaries.