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Heinrich Harrer

(this story appears in Old Roads and Shadows, an eBook )  

Heinrich Harrer

On a recent evening, I viewed the movie 'Seven Years in Tibet', the 1997 film starring Brad Pitt and David Thewlis. Although the movie is a Hollywood-style version of events, filled with its own share of historical inaccuracies and romantic entanglements, I consider it a film of substance, more than just a glossy vehicle for the handsome young actor, Brad Pitt. It is a masterful film in scope and emotional depth, and it holds many rewards for the committed viewer.

For one, it conveys the wonder and adventure of the underlying story. The main character, Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer (played by Brad Pitt), is part of a group of Austrian mountaineers that travel to Asia in 1939 to climb Nanga Parbat and scout climbing routes in the Himalayas when World War II breaks out in Europe. Captured by the British and placed in a British internment camp along with other German and Austrian nationals, they finally make good their escape in 1944. Two of them, Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter, make their way into the unknown kingdom of Tibet where after many adventures they arrive in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in 1946. While in Lhasa, Harrer meets the 14th Dalai Lama, only 10 years old at the time. Harrer and the Dalai Lama eventually become friends and the Austrian serves the spiritual leader as a tutor on the world that exists beyond the borders of Tibet. Harrer remained in Lhasa until the Chinese invasion of Tibet and then returned to Austria in 1952 where he wrote two books about his experiences, 'Seven Years in Tibet' and 'Lost Lhasa'.

Yet for me, the story of Heinrich Harrer evokes deeper emotions. For one thing, it connects me with my younger brother, who first sent me a copy of the book 'Seven Years in Tibet'; its pages filled with newspaper clippings about Harrer. Later, my brother told me a story that, in a small vicarious way, connected me to Heinrich Harrer himself.

In every sense, Harrer was a larger than life figure, a great adventurer and a modern day Indiana Jones. Famous around the world long before his years in Tibet, Harrer gained instant mountaineering immortality in 1938 when he and three other climbers made the first ascent of the formidable North Face of the Eiger, a mountain in the Burnese Alps in Switzerland. After Tibet, he participated in mountaineering expeditions to Africa, the Andes, and Alaska. While in Alaska, he made first ascents of Mt Deborah and Mt Hunter. In 1962, Harrer led a four-person team on the first ascent on Puncak Jaya in Indonesia, at over 16,000', the highest point between the Himalayas and the Andes. He journeyed into the Congo and the Amazon Basin, wrote numerous books, made films, and returned to visit Tibet in the early 1980s. He died on January 7, 2006 in Austria at the age of 93.

Not everything in Heinrich's past was admirable, however. On April 1 of 1938, Harrer joined the German SS and rose to the rank of Sergeant, and on May 1 of that year joined the Nazi Party. After his years in Tibet, following his return to Austria, legal proceedings cleared Harrer of any war crimes, a decision reportedly endorsed by the Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal. Yet accusations, insinuations, and denunciations for those early Nazi years would dog Harrer for the rest of his life.

I have two brothers, each of a different mind and temperament, and both in possession of a keen intellect. In the mid-1980s, it was my younger brother, Richard, who first presented me with a copy of 'Seven Years in Tibet'. Within its pages, he had tucked copies of newspaper articles he had accumulated on Harrer, including reports describing the upcoming 50-year anniversary of the first climb of the fearsome Nordwand, the North Face of the Eiger. While countries and mountain clubs in Europe planned various celebrations and presentations to commemorate the event, other individuals commented anew on Harrer's Nazi past and publicly wondered if all of the facts surrounding Harrer's activities during those years had indeed become public knowledge. Regrettably, issues surrounding the terrible events of those years are never resolved to the satisfaction of all.

After reading the book and the articles, I connected with Richard and we talked about Heinrich Harrer and his incredible story. It was during that conversation that Richard told me of a most singular and noteworthy event.

Over the years and for his own satisfaction, Richard had continued to study the German language and had become quite proficient in it. He had read somewhere that Heinrich Harrer was, at the time, living in Liechtenstein, a mountainous principality located between Switzerland and Austria. So, following his own sense of adventure, Richard wrote Heinrich Harrer a letter in German and mailed it to, "Heinrich Harrer, c/o Liechtenstein.”

Months went by and Richard thought little about his letter. Six months later, Richard received a handwritten reply from Heinrich Harrer. Heinrich had written the letter in English and the envelope carried the postmark of a spa in Germany. I felt transfixed by this event, something so simple yet wonderful at the same time. I marveled that in today's world one could send a letter off to an individual living somewhere in the mountain communities of Europe addressed with no more detail than a country's name and, with unknown forwarding or handling, find its way to the recipient. I envisioned the letter moving from person to person, crossing borders, and changing hands until finally reaching Heinrich Harrer. I also felt that the delivery of that letter showed the respect and regard in which others who lived in those communities felt for Heinrich Harrer. The fact that he took the time and effort to write a personal reply was both gracious and accommodating.

Richard never spoke about what he said in his letter or what Harrer had confided in his reply, so I never asked about it; the words and sentiment remain mysterious and private, like a confidential missive to the Dalai Lama. Yet the possibilities of those sentiments continue to revolve around in my brain, sending my own thoughts and images spinning out into the universe like a human Tibetan prayer wheel.

Laudizen King
December 2010
Los Angeles