Heinrich Harrer

Mountaineer and explorer who wrote 'Seven Years in Tibet'

Heinrich Harrer, writer and explorer: born Hüttenberg, Austria 6 July 1912; married 1938 Lotte Wegener (one son; marriage dissolved), 1953 Margaretha Truxa (marriage dissolved 1958), 1962 Katharina Haarhaus; died Friesach, Austria 7 January 2006.

Shortly before Christmas 1998, Heinrich Harrer addressed a black tie dinner of the Alpine Club in the splendour of the Great Hall at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London. Then 86 years old, Harrer was still an imposing figure, who had only recently stopped ski-ing in the hills of his native Carinthia, in south-east Austria. It should have been a gala performance.

Harrer, one of the heroes of the first ascent of the North Wall of the Eiger, was amongst his own kind, mountaineers with a keen appreciation of the audacity and climbing genius deployed over those four days in 1938 on the infamous "Mordwand". Inspired by his classic account of the climb in Die Weisse Spinne (The White Spider, 1959), some of those listening had literally followed in his ice footholds up the 6,000ft bastion. But Harrer was denied the golden sunset he felt to be his due. Underneath a proud exterior, the Alpine Club's guest of honour was a wounded man. Harrer's Nazi-tainted past had been raised and it could never really be reburied.

The timing was cruel. Harrer's second great adventure, recounted in his book Sieben Jahre in Tibet (Seven Years in Tibet, 1953), had been turned into a Hollywood epic just a year before, with Brad Pitt as the good-looking Austrian hero who escaped from internment in British India to become a tutor to the Dalai Lama. In the film, the postman's son from Hüttenberg was portrayed as a real-life Indiana Jones, which in many ways he was. But for once, Harrer would have preferred anonymity.

It was Austria's story again. The embrace of National Socialism - with the joint German and Austrian Alpenverein a hotbed of anti-Semitism from the 1920s - remains an affair never fully admitted. And Harrer shared the reluctance of many of his countrymen to face up to it. A curious process of denial was at work when he complained to the diners at Bart's that his Eiger achievements had gone unacknowledged. Yet in the minds of many of us listening was a photograph taken in 1938 of Harrer and his team-mates side by side with Adolf Hitler in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland), where they were cheered by a crowd of 30,000.

From childhood, Harrer had a determination to succeed. With an athletic body honed from running errands for his father around the hills of Hüttenberg, he excelled at skiing and mountaineering. He studied geography and athletics at the University of Graz, gained a place in the Austrian ski team for the 1936 Olympics and a year later won the downhill in the World Students' Championship.

But it seems that Harrer's youthful activities went beyond good clean fun in the mountains. In the 1990s, as Hollywood was working on Seven Years in Tibet, a radio journalist from Salzburg, Gerald Lehner, obtained documents in Washington taken from the Berlin state archives after the Second World War. Harrer's marriage application stated he had been a member of the Sturmabteilung (SA) - Nazi thugs - from 1933 and had joined the SS in 1938. When confronted, Harrer denied membership of the SA, saying that he had made this "false" claim in an attempt to speed up his wedding to Lotte Wegener, daughter of an eminent geophysicist, Alfred Wegener, and well-connected to the Nazi elite. Harrer was in a hurry not only to get married, but to do so before rushing off to the Himalayas. In his 2002 autobiography Mein Leben, he protested: "Was it youthful opportunism or blind determination, to subordinate oneself for sporting objectives? It was, in any case, a mistake."

Nineteen thirty-eight was Harrer's big year, the year in which he climbed the Eiger, met Hitler, joined the SS, married Lotte and readied himself for the German expedition to Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas the following summer. He did not dispute that he had been enlisted in the Styrian SS, explaining that he was "invited" to join as a sports teacher after the Eiger ascent. "I wore my SS uniform only once, on the day of my marriage," he said. SS membership was an "aberration" but he had to just "grin and bear it". The party card, however, was a useful passport to Nanga Parbat. He might not otherwise have been selected.

Harrer's bestsellers, The White Spider and Seven Years in Tibet, make no mention of these murky issues, save for a Delphic denial that the Eiger was climbed on the orders or even at the wish "of some personage or other". They are both marvellous accounts of high adventure - literally so. The North Face of the Eiger was the most coveted route in pre-war climbing, but with a chilling reputation. Four previous attempts had ended with eight deaths and two climbers retreating from the so-called "Death Bivouac".

Harrer's partner was the Viennese climber Fritz Kasparek but early on, the pair combined with the German aces Anderl Heckmair and Ludwig Vörg. Heckmair was the driving force while Harrer, unlike his team-mates, had no crampons, relying on nailed boots. The mind boggles at such a frightening handicap on steep ice. Battered by stone-fall and avalanches, they reached the summit in a howling storm and shook hands without a word.

Harrer dismissed a report that he had tried to plant a swastika flag on the summit as "made up", pointing out that the climbers could barely see in the blizzard. The Eiger was an irresistible challenge and the four had climbed for the love of it, he insisted. Most mountaineers would go along with that.

None the less, the Third Reich saw a propaganda coup. Mountaineering was represented as embodying Aryan virtues - muscular, heroic and suffused with the symbolism of the rope and comradeship. Hitler had promised medals for those who triumphed on the "Murder wall". The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games had passed without an ascent, but this 1938 success had an added value for the Goebbels machine - three months after the Anschluss, Germany and Austria had been united in glorious struggle.

Harrer was recorded at the time as being moved to tears by Hitler's praise at Breslau, replying effusively: "We have climbed the Eiger Nordwand, over the summit beyond, to you, our Führer." He later vehemently denied saying any such thing, blaming the words on a "total simpleton of a ghostwriter" appointed by a Nazi publishing house.

Although he couldn't know it, Harrer's usefulness to his Führer effectively ended there. When he sailed from Antwerp bound for Narga Parbat in spring 1939, he would not see Europe again for 13 years. Lotte was pregnant with their son Peter, although, contrary to Hollywood's version of the movie scene, Harrer was unaware of it. She gave up waiting for her missing husband.

Under Peter Aufschnaiter, the expedition reconnoitred the formidable Diamir flank of Nanga Parbat - at 8,125m the ninth highest peak in the world - and returned to Karachi, where the team was shadowed by the British secret police. War was looming. Harrer and two Germans made a break for Persia in a ramshackle car but were arrested for their "personal protection".

Harrer fretted away almost five years imprisoned at Dehra Dun, in sight of the Himalayas, before, third time lucky, an escape bid succeeded and he and Aufschnaiter slipped into Tibet. It was one of the greatest adventures of the 20th century. Fugitives without papers or money, wind and cold their "permanent companions", they marvelled at Everest from a view never before seen by Westerners and received unexpected hospitality from nomads.

After 18 months, Harrer and Aufschnaiter arrived in the forbidden city of Lhasa, two blistered vagabonds begging for food who found favour with the Tibetans and settled into an idyllic life. Harrer became a tutor to the young Dalai Lama, instructing "this clever lad" in the ways and sciences of the West and arguing about religion. But with Chinese troops pressing on Lhasa, Harrer took to the road again, and with heavy heart crossed via Sikkim into India in March 1951 - shortly before the Dalai Lama himself was forced to flee.

Harrer returned to Austria and married Margaretha Truxa, but she did not see much of her wandering husband. Trips to the Andes, Alaska, and the Ruwenzori, Africa's "Mountains of the Moon", followed and the marriage was dissolved in 1958. Four years later, he married Katharina Haarhaus, and this time the marriage lasted, despite Harrer's almost continuous globe-trotting. He met the Xingu Indians of Brazil's Mato Grosso, the Bush Negroes of Surinam and the Andaman islanders; escaped death in an horrific fall over a waterfall in New Guinea and shared a near-fatal bout of malaria with his explorer friend King Leopold of the Belgians. Accolades started to flow. He was awarded the title "Professor" by the President of Austria, the Golden Medal of the Humboldt Society and the prestigious medal of the US Explorers' Club.

The mementoes of an adventurous life are on display now at a Heinrich Harrer museum in his native Hüttenberg, opened officially by the Dalai Lama in 1992. The Tibetan leader's continued friendship was a valued moral prop for Harrer when the stains of his Nazi past began to show. Hollywood dropped the beleaguered Austrian like a hot brick and he was hurt not to be invited to the US premiere of Seven Years in Tibet. But the Dalai Lama remained constant and reassured his old tutor that if his conscience was clear then he need not fear. And Harrer always insisted his conscience was clear.

When Anderl Heckmair died last year, I wrote to Harrer asking if he would write a tribute to his Eiger rope-mate for the Alpine Journal. He responded with enthusiasm, telephoning immediately then quickly turning round an affectionate piece in which he quoted Heckmair's words: "First we were opponents, on the wall we became partners and afterwards friends for a lifetime."

Harrer seemed to recover from his trough of the late 1990s, but remained highly suspicious of journalists. With his death, all four of the heroes of the Eigerwand are gone. And gone, too, is the infamous "White Spider" icefield which gave him the title of a best-seller and entrapped not a few Eiger hopefuls, a victim, alas, of global warming.

Stephen Goodwin

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