Professor offers lecture on Himalayan trips

Trips were part of college's global studies program

Mike Easterling

FARMINGTON — Chris Strouthopoulos says he set out to become an investment banker. Somewhere along the way, he got a little sidetracked.

A San Juan College student admires the 25,000-foot Minya Konka, one of the four sacred peaks of Tibet.

But rather than feeling lost, Strouthopoulos said he’s never been more sure about what he does. Now an assistant professor of college success strategies at San Juan College, Strouthopoulos will talk about his journey, both literal and figurative, in a presentation Thursday, Oct. 15 at the college called “The Solar Missions to Tibet.”

The lecture will focus on the two trips Strouthopoulos has helped lead for San Juan College global studies participants to remote locations in the Himalayas. Once there, members of those groups installed solar panels in a village, in a medical clinic and in an 800-year-old mountainside monastery.

Strouthopoulos led the trips with his friend, Mike Sullivan, an SJC adjunct engineering instructor. The two became acquainted in 1999 via a mountaineering message board and joined up in Kathmandu, Nepal, where they both happened to find themselves on climbing expeditions. They wound up spending several months together on that adventure, and they’ve been best friends ever since, Strouthopoulos said.

Chris Strouthopoulos, left, and Mike Sullivan, right, celebrate their 2014 solar installation with Wonchu, a Tibetan Buddhist monk.

That friendship has yielded many benefits for the residents of those aforementioned Himalayan communities, as well as those who have taken part in the trips Strouthopoulos and Sullivan led in June 2012 and late May and early June 2014. Strouthopoulos credits Sullivan with coming up with the idea for the excursions while the two were passing the time in a tent one day on a mountainside during that 1999 trip to Nepal.

“That leaves you a lot of time to tell stories,” Strouthopoulos said of the isolated location.

Sullivan began relating tales of how he had installed solar panels in rugged settings all over the world, including a half dozen Tibetan villages, the Amazon rain forest and a remote part of British Columbia, allowing many residents of those places to experience electricity for the first time. Strouthopoulos was entranced by Sullivan’s stories and vowed to have those same kinds of experiences himself.

“In 1999, I was 22, and I put that on my bucket list,” he said, explaining that that conversation with Sullivan changed the direction of his life.

Minkya Konka is one of the tallest peaks in Tibet. The 2014 San Juan College solar installation project took place in the mountain's shadow.

“I made it a goal that I would do a solar project with Mike in Tibet,” he said. “Now, it’s all I want to do.”

In the years since then, Strouthopoulos has led groups of global studies participants on excursions to Alaska, Japan and Germany.

“But the Tibetan projects are a whole other level for me,” he said. “We’re not just there as tourists, taking pictures. It’s about ‘How can we help these people?’”

Strouthopoulos will discuss those two trips at length in his presentation, which he said lasts approximately an hour before he begins taking questions. The presentation also includes a great deal of photography that illustrates very well the rugged nature of the terrain and the remoteness of the locations.

San Juan College engineering instructor Mike Sullivan puts the finishing touches on the main panel for the 2014 monastery solar project.

Each trip included approximately 20 participants, and Strouthopoulos said they ranged from college students who have never been outside the United States to a retired Army colonel in his seventies. In 2014, the group traveled to an ancient monastery located at 12,500 feet on the side of a 25,000-foot mountain that is regarded as one of the four sacred peaks of Tibet.

Farmington resident Jeff Smith enjoys a hike with a view of 25,000-foot Minya Konka during one of San Juan College's global studies program trips.

Over the course of that two-week trip, they installed solar panels and wired 32 rooms in the monastery for LED lights – the greatest need in those Himalayan communities, Strouthopoulos said, describing the inefficiency of the kerosene lanterns and candles that villagers typically use.

“We want to show them that solar works and that it’s a viable solution,” he said.

He said perhaps the biggest challenge to successfully completing the group’s missions is the need to bring along every possible tool and part – something Sullivan addresses by taking a trip to the site several months in advance and compiling a lengthy and precise shopping list.

“You’re God knows how many thousands of miles from the nearest Home Depot,” Strouthopoulos said, describing the difficulty of securing replacement parts or tools once the group is on site in the Himalayas.

Farmington residents Caroline Creyke and David Griffin wire LED lights for the 2014 Minya Konka monastery projects.

But during the 2012 trip when something went wrong even after all that careful planning, the group nevertheless managed to complete its mission. During that trip, a faulty charge controller threatened to derail the whole project, much to the dismay of everyone.

The 2014 project participants celebrate the completion of their solar installation with the monks and nuns of the Minya Konka monastery in Tibet.

“It was sort of crushing,” Strouthopoulos recalled.

But once word got out, the whole village started organizing to locate and bring in a replacement, he said. Eventually, a bus driver who was the relative of a village resident arrived carrying a new part and saving the day. Strouthopoulos marveled at the resourcefulness of the villagers and how they were able to salvage what he feared was a hopeless situation.

But such problems are few and far between, he said, explaining that Sullivan’s technical expertise and savvy have served the missions well. He also said he and Sullivan have received invaluable logistical help from nongovernmental agencies that operate in Tibet, including the Tibetan Village Project – a Colorado nonprofit organization founded by executive director and Tibet native Tamdin Wangdu.

Strouthopoulos said the two trips he’s helped lead have been enormously rewarding.

Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the wind atop a 14,000-foot pass in Tibet.

“In some of these remote villages, they’ve rarely even seen a visitor,” he said. “And the reception you get is so different from what you’d expect. They invite you into their homes; the schools will stop what they’re doing and come out and greet you. It’s so heartwarming and such an interesting travel experience.”

Strouthopoulos loves exposing global travel program participants to those situations. He described the program as the most purposeful thing he’s ever done at the college and believes that taking part in such an excursion would be an eye-opening experience for anyone.

That’s why he encourages those who might be interested in taking part in such a trip to contact him. Strouthopoulos and Sullivan will be leading another such excursion to Ladakh, India, in 2016 to complete work on more solar installations. That community is located on the west side of the Himalayas, Strouthopoulos said, but its people share many of the same characteristics as the Tibetans that the SJC groups visited on the first two trips.

School children are pictured in Sihurong Village in Tibet, where the medical clinic was outfitted with solar panels in 2012.

“It’s a historically and culturally Buddhist region,” he said. “But the people there are a mix of Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic, all peacefully coexisting. It’s a peaceful, mountainous oasis area.”

Anyone interested in taking part in the trip is encouraged to email Strouthopoulos at

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

Participants in a 2012 San Juan College global studies program visit a Buddhist monastery in Kangding, China.

If You Go

What: “The Solar Missions to Tibet,” a presentation by Chris Strouthopoulos as part of the Citizen’s Bank Broadening Horizons Lecture Series.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15

Where: The Little Theatre on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

Admission: Free

For more information: Call 505-566-3430