The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet was the Dalai Lama’s main residence before he fled to India during the 1959 Tibetan uprising.
Kids often dream of becoming astronauts or traveling to the North Pole, but by the time they reach adulthood, most settle for the occasional holiday to more accessible destinations and the permanent presence of gravity. Not Vasilis Koutsaftis, though, who, despite having yet to venture beyond Earth’s atmosphere, has traveled throughout much of it and says he still hasn’t completed his list of places to see. If his experiences are made into a feature film some day, those who see it will surely scoff that Hollywood has overdone it yet again.
“I’ve always had this passion and started traveling on my own at a young age. I went to the Himalayas, to China. Gradually I began to visit more challenging and far-flung destinations. It has come to define my life and become my job. I feel very lucky because I love the work that I do,” Vassi told Kathimerini during a phone conversation just a few days before he was due to head to Borneo. Next he is planning to go to Tibet, to explore a place that’s still quite unknown to much of the world.
The boy who grew up in Athens and wanted to become a pilot now has one of the most enviable jobs on the planet. Vassi takes trips that are of course wonderful for many armchair travelers, as few would really enjoy the hardships of a lonely trek deep into Afghanistan, a near deadly excursion in the Sudanese desert or a tedious climb up K2, the second most dangerous mountain in the world and the only one that remains unconquered in winter.
By contrast, for Vassi these kinds of experiences are not just individual pieces in the puzzle that is the life of a professional explorer, but the oxygen needed to continue doing it. “If someone invited me to go to a distant land no one had been to before, I’d surely go. If they invited me to Paris, I’d have to think about it,” he says.
Based in San Francisco, the Greek “Indiana Jones” spends about three to four months traveling every year. The rest of his time is spent organizing trips and meetings with prospective travel companions. Only those in top physical and mental shape who can survive the most difficult of conditions pass the test. “Many people read about places like Mount Everest in the comfort of their own home, but when they’re actually there, the experience is completely different,” says Vassi.
An experienced climber, he is the only Westerner to have scaled the eastern side of Everest 11 times, on each occasion reaching an altitude of at least 7,000 meters. Since the 1980s, only two climbers have made it to the summit of Everest by climbing up the eastern side of the mountain. He’s also scaled K2 from both the easier, more commonly used route that starts in Pakistan, as well as the more treacherous, less-used side which begins in China. A talented photographer, his images have featured in publications around the world and he’s had exhibitions in the United States and elsewhere. He’s also written about his adventures in travel magazines.
He moved to the US at the age of 20 to chase his childhood dream of becoming a pilot. When he graduated from pilot school, however, he realized that there had been a surplus of good pilots in the country since the Vietnam War. He ended up getting a job at Geographic Expeditions, which was then a new company with just three employees. There he started organizing excursions to hard-to-reach destinations. More than three decades later, GeoEx – as it’s now known – has expanded and employs 50 people. Vassi is well known for his work, to the extent that he gets invitations from governments wanting to open up parts of their countries’ territory to tourism and asking for his advice. “When we open up an area, I first go to take photographs, explore and find out what it needs to draw tourists,” he says. If his first solo excursion gives him the impression that the area is worth visiting, he’ll happily go back as the leader of a group.
He often gets asked to lead tours with high-profile individuals. “I’ve traveled to India with George Lucas and to the Far East with Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was scouting for a shooting location for a new film,” he says. He knows the Dalai Lama personally and has posed for photographs with him several times, as well as accompanying him on all his visits to the US. Once, during an official visit to San Francisco, someone had attempted to fling an apple at the spiritual leader and Vassi managed to stop it before it touched him. Shortly afterward, he received a letter of thanks for his intervention from the team of the Dalai Lama, known for his wry humor, which also joked that US secret service agents would turn green with envy over his fast reaction.
‘Fear is useful’
Of course the adventurous story of Vassi’s life is not without accidents and struggles, conflicts and antagonists, as well as surprises. “Fear is useful because it protects us, but we shouldn’t let it paralyze us,” he advises. Often sheer luck has protected him from death or serious injury, such as when he started to slip on the ice on Mount Manaslu in the Nepalese Himalayas, when his partner forgot to bring the tent when their car broke down in the middle of the desert in Sudan, or when they were attacked by drunken Tibetans during a mountain climb. “My lifestyle has given me greater respect for the more important things in life. We all know that life is very short, but I’ve taken that to heart. I’ve lost people I’ve traveled with while on the road. Once I even had to cremate a friend’s body myself because it was impossible to carry it back. Let’s just say sometimes life smacks you hard right across the face.”
Such experiences have deeply affected his worldview. Nothing seems to hurt him and he worries less about the challenges of his next journey and more about the risk that mankind will turn into a colorless, homogeneous mass that’s lost the cultural peculiarities that make it so interesting.
“Unfortunately the world is becoming smaller with the internet. It seems like everywhere you go now there is an internet connection. Even at the base of Everest they’ve set up an internet cafe. Kids everywhere play with video games now and everyone is on Facebook, there is no more singularity. I was recently flying to Asia with a team from Hollywood on their company plane and we had internet during the whole flight, even while we were over the Pacific. I was speechless,” he laments. He believes that protecting culture from the leveling effects of globalization should be a priority for governments around the world.
As long as there are new places to explore, Vassi will be driven by the desire to discover them. Among his goals for the future is a trip to Antarctica, so that he can say he’s visited both the North and South Pole. “I don’t think I’ll ever retire,” he says emphatically. “I’ll likely continue to travel until something happens and I remain somewhere up there. It’s in my DNA.”
More about Vassi Koutsaftis and his journeys can be found on his website, www.arclight-pictures.com.