Childhood & Early Life
Heinrich Harrer was born on 6 July 1912 in Hüttenberg, Austria, as the son of a postal worker. He developed an interest in skiing and mountaineering at a young age.
He studied geography and sports at the Karl-Franzens University in Graz from 1933 to 1938. He was chosen to participate in the Alpine skiing competition at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, but the Austrian Alpine skiing team boycotted the event due to certain reasons. In 1937, he won the downhill event at the World Student Championships at Zell am See.
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In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria and Harrer joined the Schutzstaffel (SS). He held the rank of Oberscharführer (Sergeant) and became a member of the Nazi Party.
Heinrich Harrer, along with his friend Fritz Kasparek, resolved to climb the hitherto unconquered North Face of the Eiger (3,970 m, 13,025 ft) in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland. It was a very dangerous mission; many other mountaineers had perished while attempting to scale the peak.
In July 1938, the two men set out on their climb. Halfway up the mountain Harrer and Kasparek met German mountaineers Ludwig Vörg and Anderl Heckmair who were also making the attempt. The four decided to form a team and chose Heckmair as their leader.
The climb was a treacherous one and the four men were constantly threatened by snow avalanches and rock falls. Determined to accomplish the feat, they strived on and finally reached the summit on 24 July 1938. Their remarkable feat earned them international acclaim.
Boosted by the successful summit of the North Face of the Eiger, Harrer joined a four-man expedition to the Diamir Face of the Nanga Parbat in 1939. The team, led by Peter Aufschnaiter, aimed to find an easier route to the peak. The mountaineers first travelled to Karachi from where they planned to embark on their attempt.
Around this time, the World War II was declared and on 3 September 1939, the team was arrested and detained at Dehradun for a few years with thousand other enemy aliens. Determined to escape, Aufschnaiter and Harrer made several attempts but were re-captured a number of times.
Finally on 29 April 1944, Harrer and Aufschnaiter along with a few others managed to escape from captivity. After struggling for several months, the duo eventually ventured into Tibet and reached the capital Lhasa in January 1946.
Harrer was well-received in Tibet where he found a job with the Tibetan government. He worked as the Court photographer and also translated foreign news.
Soon he became acquainted with the 14th Dalai Lama and became his tutor. At that time the Dalai Lama was a young boy of 14. Harrer formed a deep bond with his pupil who he found to be an eager learner. The duo discussed many topics which varied from Soviet politics to Buddhism and Western science.
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Harrer returned to Austria in 1952 and documented his experiences in the books ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ (1952) and ‘Lost Lhasa’ (1953). ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ became a bestseller in the United States in 1954 and was translated into 53 languages.
He resumed his mountaineering activities and participated in a number of expeditions to Alaska, the Andes, and the Mountains of the Moon in central Africa. In Alaska, he along with Fred Beckey, made the first ascents of Mount Deborah (3,761 m, 12,339 ft) and Mount Hunter (4,442 m, 14,573 ft) in 1954.
In 1962, he led a team of four climbers to make the first ascent of the Puncak Jaya (Carstensz Pyramid) (4,884 m, 16,024 ft) in Papua Indonesia, the highest peak in Oceania.
He authored more than 20 books about his adventures, many of which became internationally popular, and made approximately 40 documentary films. He was also a great photographer credited to have taken some of the best photographs of traditional Tibetan culture.
Awards & Achievements
In 1982, he received the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, 1st class, and the Grand Merit Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.
In 2002, he was honored with the International Campaign for Tibet's Light of Truth Award for his efforts to bring the situation in Tibet to international attention.