Heinrich Harrer, 93; Austrian Mountaineer, Adventurer Wrote ‘Seven Years in Tibet’

Times Staff Writer

Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer and former Nazi who befriended the young Dalai Lama and was portrayed by actor Brad Pitt in the film “Seven Years in Tibet,” has died. He was 93.

Harrer died Saturday in a hospital in Friesach, Austria, of unspecified causes, his family announced.

In 1997, shortly before the release of the film based on Harrer’s book of the same title, the German magazine Stern disclosed Harrer’s previously unreported membership in the Nazi Party and its elite services.


The magazine said he had joined the Nazi storm troopers in 1933 and Hitler’s feared special police, the SS, as a sergeant in 1938. The SS was known for committing atrocities during World War II.

Harrer, who had never publicly discussed or written about his past, conceded in response to the article that he had joined the Nazi Party and the SS as an athletic coach after Germany took control of Austria in 1938. But he said he did so only to gain membership in a teachers’ organization, enabling him to join a government-financed Himalayan expedition.

He also initiated a meeting on June 30, 1997, with Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who died last year. Afterward, Wiesenthal gave Harrer something of a stamp of approval, saying Harrer had not been involved in politics and was innocent of wrongdoing. Harrer publicly denounced his Nazi membership as a “stupid mistake” and an “ideological error.”

“My personal political philosophy grew out of my life in Tibet ... and places great emphasis on human life and human dignity,” Harrer said in a statement following the meeting. “And it is a philosophy that leads me to condemn as strongly as possible the horrible crimes of the Nazi period. My conscience is clear on my record during the Hitler regime.”

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who told The Times he had suspected Harrer’s Nazi background, altered the script to reflect Harrer’s Nazi affiliation.

Even before the release of the film, Harrer was well known for his exploits, some dating to the ‘30s.

In 1938, he was one of four men who first scaled the treacherous north face of Switzerland’s 13,025-foot Eiger.

Fifteen men had died trying that route, dubbed the “murder wall.” After completing the trek, Harrer wrote: “I was conscious of the privilege of having been allowed to live.” Adolf Hitler personally congratulated him and was photographed with Harrer and his teammates.

But it was Harrer’s next proposed expedition that changed his life and intrigued Hollywood half a century later.

He joined a team financed by Germans -- some believed for Nazi propaganda -- which planned to scale the previously unclimbed Nanga Parbat, a 26,660-foot mountain in Kashmir, in northern India. But as they were completing preparations in British-occupied India in 1939, war broke out.

Harrer, along with the others, was captured. He spent five years in British internment camps, mostly at Dehra Dun, within sight of the Himalayas, which he still intended to climb.

Meticulously planning his escape, Harrer learned Hindustani, Japanese and Tibetan, pored over travel books and copied maps. After two failed attempts, he fled successfully on April 29, 1944. Several days later, he teamed with the fugitive leader of his climbing team, Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis in the film), and the two headed toward Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

They spent 20 months crossing Tibet’s forbidden and inhospitable terrain. Each time they were ordered to leave the closed country, they backtracked and on Jan. 15, 1946, arrived in Lhasa.

With charm and hard work -- Harrer as a gardener and Aufschnaiter as an engineer -- they gradually won acceptance. By 1948, Harrer was working for the Tibetan government, translating foreign news, directing a flood-control project and photographing special events.

Eventually he gained introduction to the sheltered adolescent Dalai Lama, taught him mathematics, English and sports and became his lifelong friend. Harrer planned to spend the rest of his life in Tibet.

But the Chinese invasion in October 1950 forced him to change his plans. He left in 1951, contributing photographs for Life magazine’s April 23, 1951, article, “The Flight of the Dalai Lama.” The Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa but has lived in exile in India since 1959.

Harrer climbed one unconquered Himalayan peak, Panch Chuli, before returning to Europe to write “Seven Years in Tibet,” published in German in 1952. By the time it was translated into English the following year, Harrer was on another expedition, making the first ascent of a 21,000-foot Andean peak in Peru.

His Tibetan memoir, which was published and became a bestseller in the United States in 1954, has been translated into 48 languages and has sold more than 3 million copies. It is by far Harrer’s best-known book.

But he also wrote and published nearly a dozen more books of photographs and lore, and made nearly 40 documentary films. All were based on his half century of restless roaming over six continents -- climbing unconquered mountains in the Alps, Andes, Himalayas and peaks in Africa and Alaska, or exploring terrain in Surinam and the Sudan.

Among his books were “The White Spider: History of the North Face of the Eiger” in 1958, “Among the Papuans: Man and Culture Since Their Stone Age” in 1976 and “Return to Tibet” in 1984.

Born in Knappenberg, a town in the mountainous province of Carinthia, Austria, on July 6, 1912, Harrer earned a degree in geography at the University of Graz. The strapping youth grew up climbing mountains and skied with the Austrian Olympic team in 1936.

Among his awards were a medal from the Explorers’ Club of New York and Austria’s Gold Humboldt Medal. He won championships in both skiing and golf.

Harrer married three times and had one son, Peter.

Information on survivors was unavailable.

Despite his many adventures, the mountaineer repeatedly referred to his long-ago tenure in Tibet as “the happiest seven years of my life.”

“Wherever I live,” he wrote, “I shall feel homesick for Tibet.”