Austrian explorer, mountaineer, sportsman, geographer, author and tutor of the young 14th Dalai Lama, Heinrich Harrer, died on January 7th 2006 in Friesach, a town in his home region.
The son of a postman, Heinrich Harrer was born on July 6th, 1912 at Hüttenberg, in the state of Carinthia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and grew up mountain-climbing and skiing. From 1933 to 1938, he studied geography and physical education at Graz University.
Although nominated for the 1936 Winter Olympics in the Bavarian ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Harrer ultimately didn’t participate as the Austrian team boycotted them due to a conflict regarding the skiing instructors’ status as professionals. Nevertheless, the next year he won the downhill race at the Academic World Winter Games in Zell am See.
Freshly graduated, he joined a four-man team that made the first ascent of the near vertical north wall of the Eiger, a peak of the Bernese Alps in Switzerland, which he later narrated in The White Spider (1959).
Harrer then joined an expedition led by mountaineer, agricultural scientist, geographer and cartographer Peter Aufschnaiter (1899-1973) to find an easier route to the Diamir Face of the Nanga Parbat, the western anchor of the Himalayas.
Having concluded their expedition successfully, the four mountaineers were in Karachi in British India at the end of August 1939, waiting for a long overdue ship to take them back to Europe.
In consequence, Harrer and two others tried to reach neutral Persia, but several hundred kilometers northwest they were arrested as enemy aliens even before World War II broke out and escorted back.
On September 3rd, 1939 all were put behind barbed wire to be transferred to Bombay and then to Dehradun, nowadays located in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand, the “Land of the Gods”, to be detained for years with thousands of others deemed suspicious by the colonial authorities.
Aufschnaiter and Harrer escaped and were recaptured a number of times before ultimately succeeding on April 29th, 1944. Seven men, including future BASF and Mercedes-Benz manager Rolf Magener (1910-2000), either disguised as British officers or as native workers, walked out of the camp.
Two found their way to the Japanese Army in Burma, where they were taken for spies and imprisoned again. Four months after their initial flight, both were finally released and flown to Japan.
After one gave up on May 10th, the remaining four entered Tibet on May 17th, crossing the Tsang Chok La Pass at an attitude of 5,400 meters. At the end, only Harrer and Aufschnaiter, who spoke Tibetan, made it to Lhasa. They arrived on January 15th, 1946 following an arduous journey.
Officials in an unrecognized state that had little contact with the outside world initially ordered them to leave as soon as possible, then relented because the two made themselves useful. Both would later charter the first exact map of the capital.
While Harrer started working as a gardener, who since 1948 translated foreign news and acted as a government photographer, Aufschnaiter quickly helped to plan a hydroelectric power plant as well as a sewage system and started attempts at river regulation and reforestation.
Harrer met the 14th Dalai Lama (born 1935) when he was summoned to the Potala Palace, his winter residence, and asked to make a film about ice skating, which the exotic foreigner had introduced to Tibetans, who called the new sport “walking on knives.”
After building a cinema for His Holiness with a projector run off a jeep engine, Harrer soon became the Dalai Lama’s tutor in English, geography, world politics and science.
A life-long friendship developed between the young, eager student and the tenacious traveler. They often discussed Buddhism and Western thought, meeting periodically over the years.
Following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in October 1950, Harrer crossed into India by way of then still independent Sikkim in March 1951. Aufschnaiter wanted to stay as long as possible and finally arrived in Nepal in early 1952, where he spent most of his remaining years.
The Dalai Lama himself had to flee his homeland in March 1959 after an armed rebellion to protect him was crushed and he went into permanent exile, settling in the small Indian city of Dharamsala.
Back in Austria in 1952, Harrer documented his amazing experiences in the books Seven Years in Tibet (1952), translated into 53 languages and the basis of a documentary (1956) and a movie starring Brad Pitt (1997), as well as the less popular Lost Lhasa (1953). Aufschnaiter’s own very empathetic work with the confusing title Eight Years in Tibet includes many pictures and sketches.
Starting in 1953, Harrer led path-breaking expeditions to the Amazon, Alaska, the Andes, Central and Western Africa, including the Congo River.
In 1962, he was the first to climb the highest peak in Oceania, the Puncak Jaya or Carstensz Pyramid, in the Indonesian province of Papua, where he survived a plunge from a waterfall and evaded headhunters unarmed.
Harrer, a champion golfer in his later years who in 1958 and 1970 won the Austrian National Championships, continued to travel the world, exploring Sudan, Greenland and Bhutan, among other destinations.
He visited Tibet again in 1982 and in Return to Tibet: Tibet After the Chinese Occupation (1984) described his feelings about what he had observed: “valuable cultural treasures had been destroyed by the invaders, (…) yet the country’s religion was still strong, and there continued both armed resistance to the Chinese and an unquashable national will.”
The museum Harrer founded in 1983 and dedicated to his second home, whose natural beauty and friendly inhabitants he missed for the rest of his life, is still operating.
His autobiography was published in English posthumously in 2007 as Beyond Seven Years in Tibet. He made approximately 40 documentary films and provided photographs considered to be among the best evidence of traditional Tibetan culture, mostly annihilated by arrogant Communist barbarians.
He was married three times, to Lotte Wegener, with whom he had a son, Peter (born 1939 while Harrer was hold at a detention camp), Margaretha Truxa, and Katharina Haarhaus.