Heinrich Harrer was born 6 July 1912 in Hüttenberg, Austria in the district of Sankt Veit an der Glan in the state of Carinthia. His father was a postal worker. From 1933 to 1938, Harrer studied geography and sports at the Karl-Franzens University in Graz. Harrer became a member of the traditional student corporation ATV Graz.
In 1935, Harrer was designated to participate in the Alpine skiing competition at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The Austrian Alpine skiing team, however, boycotted the event due to a conflict regarding the skiing instructors' status as professionals. As a result, Harrer did not participate.
In 1937, Harrer won the downhill event at the World Student Championships at Zell am See.
Mountain climbing was Harrer's true passion. Knowing an extraordinary feat of climbing could win him a place on a Himalayan expedition, Harrer and a friend, Fritz Kasparek, resolved to be the first to climb the North Face of the Eiger (3,967 m, 13,025 ft) in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland. The near vertical wall, with its ice-field known as The White Spider, had claimed several lives; and the Bernese authorities even banned climbing it. Following his university finals in July 1938, Harrer and Kasparek traveled to Kleine Scheidegg at the foot of the Eiger and set out on their climb. Halfway up the mountain, Harrer and Kasparek encountered another team making the attempt, Ludwig Vörg and Anderl Heckmair from Germany. The four decided to make the rest of the climb as a single team, with the experienced Heckmair leading.
Throughout the climb, the four men were constantly threatened by snow avalanches and rock falls. They were caught in an avalanche as they climbed the White Spider on the upper face, but all possessed sufficient strength to resist being swept off the face. The members successfully reached the summit at four o'clock in the afternoon 24 July 1938. This first ascent of the Eiger North Face was described by Italian climber Reinhold Messner as "a glorious moment in the history of mountaineering and a great sensation, since several climbers had previously perished on the Face", made headlines around the world, and is recounted in Harrer's book The White Spider, published in 1959.
In 1996 the ORF-editor and filmmaker Gerald Lehner found in American archives the membership card of Harrer joining the Sturmabteilung (SA) in October 1933. After the Anschluss of March 1938, as Germany annexed Austria, he joined the Schutzstaffel (SS) on 1 April. He held the rank of Oberscharführer (Sergeant), and on 1 May he became a member of the Nazi Party. After their ascent of the Eiger North Face the four climbers were received by and photographed with Adolf Hitler. Harrer later said he wore his SS uniform only once, the day of his marriage to Charlotte Wegener, daughter of the eminent explorer and scholar Alfred Wegener. After returning to Europe in 1952, Harrer was cleared of any pre-war crimes and this was later supported by Simon Wiesenthal. In his memoir, Beyond Seven Years in Tibet, Harrer called his involvement with the Nazi Party a mistake made in his youth when he had not yet learned to think for himself.
In 1939, Harrer joined a four-man expedition, led by Peter Aufschnaiter, to the Diamir Face of the Nanga Parbat with the aim of finding an easier route to the peak. Having concluded that the face was viable, the four mountaineers were in Karachi at the end of August, waiting for a freighter to take them home. The ship being long overdue, Harrer, Ludwig, and Hans Lobenhoffer tried to reach Persia, but several hundred kilometers northwest of Karachi they were put under the "protection" of British soldiers and escorted back to Karachi, where Aufschnaiter had stayed. Two days later, war was declared, and on 3 September 1939 all were put behind barbed wire to be transferred to a detention camp at Ahmednagar near Bombay. They considered escaping to Portuguese Goa, but when further transferred to Dehradun to be detained there for years with 1,000 other enemy aliens, they found Tibet more promising, the final goal being the Japanese front in Burma or China.
Aufschnaiter and Harrer escaped and were re-captured a number of times before finally succeeding. On 29 April 1944, Harrer and six others, including Rolf Magener and Heins von Have (disguised as British officers), Aufschnaiter, the Salzburger Bruno Treipel (aka Treipl) and the Berliners Hans Kopp and Sattler (disguised as native Indian workers), walked out of the camp. Magener and von Have took the train to Calcutta and from there found their way to the Japanese army in Burma.
The others headed for the closest border. After Sattler gave up on 10 May, the remaining four entered Tibet on 17 May 1944, crossing the Tsang Chok-la Pass (5,896 m, 19,350 ft) and thereafter split into two groups: Harrer and Kopp, Aufschnaiter and Treipel. On 17 June, Treipel, exhausted, bought himself a horse and rode back to the lowlands. Several months later, when the remaining three were still without visas for Tibet, Kopp also gave up and left for Nepal (where he was handed over to the British within a few days).
Aufschnaiter and Harrer, helped by the former's knowledge of the Tibetan language, proceeded to Tibet's capital city, Lhasa, which they reached on 15 January 1946, having crossed Western Tibet (passing holy Mount Kailash), the South-West with Gyirong County, and the Northern Changthang Plateau.
In 1948, Harrer became a salaried official of the Tibetan government, translating foreign news and acting as the Court photographer. Harrer first met the 14th Dalai Lama when he was summoned to the Potala Palace and asked to make a film about ice skating, which Harrer had introduced to Tibet. Harrer built a cinema for him, with a projector run off a Jeep engine. Harrer soon became the Dalai Lama's tutor in English, geography, and some science, and Harrer was astonished at how fast his pupil absorbed the Western world's knowledge. A strong friendship developed between the two that would last the rest of their lives.
In 1952, Harrer returned to Austria where he documented his experiences in the books Seven Years in Tibet (1952) and Lost Lhasa (1953). Seven Years in Tibet was translated into 53 languages, and was a bestseller in the United States in 1954, selling three million copies. The book was the basis of two films of the same title, the first in 1956 and the second in 1997, starring Brad Pitt in the role of Harrer.
In Seven Years in Tibet, Harrer wrote:
Wherever I live, I shall feel homesick for Tibet. I often think I can still hear the cries of wild geese and cranes and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa in the clear, cold moonlight. My heartfelt wish is that my story may create some understanding for a people whose will to live in peace and freedom has won so little sympathy from an indifferent world.
Following his return from Tibet, Harrer took part in a number of ethnographic as well as mountaineering expeditions to Alaska, the Andes, and the Mountains of the Moon in central Africa. He explored the Amazon River with the former king Leopold III of Belgium. In 1954, with German-American Fred Beckey, Harrer made the first ascents of Mount Deborah (3,761 m, 12,339 ft) and Mount Hunter (4,442 m, 14,573 ft), both in Alaska. In 1962, he was the leader of the team of four climbers who made the first ascent of the Puncak Jaya (Carstensz Pyramid) (4,884 m, 16,024 ft) in Papua Indonesia, the highest peak in Oceania. This and his pioneering expedition to reach the Neolithic stone axe quarries at Ya-Li-Me are recorded in his memoir I Come from the Stone Age.
Harrer wrote more than 20 books about his adventures, some including photographs considered to be among the best records of traditional Tibetan culture. Harrer was also an excellent golfer, winning Austrian national championships in 1958 and 1970.
In the early 1980s, he visited Tibet again, and wrote a sequel to Seven Years in Tibet, titled Return to Tibet. He later wrote his autobiography published in English as 'Beyond Seven Years in Tibet' in 2007. He made approximately 40 documentary films and founded the Heinrich Harrer Museum in Hüttenberg, Austria dedicated to Tibet. In October 2002, the Dalai Lama presented Harrer with the International Campaign for Tibet's Light of Truth Award for his efforts to bring the situation in Tibet to international attention. Harrer died on 7 January 2006 in Friesach, Austria at the age of 93.1978: Honorary Medal in Gold of the city of Vienna
1980: Gold Medal of the city of Graz
1982: Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, 1st class
1982: Grand Merit Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany
1985: Golden Humboldt Medal (Germany)
2002: Light of Truth Award (Tibetan Government-in-exile)
Seven Years in Tibet (1952)
Lost Lhasa (1953)
The White Spider: The Classic Account of the Ascent of the Eiger (1959)
Tibet is My Country (1961) – an autobiography of the Dalai Lama's older brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu, as told to Harrer
I Come from the Stone Age (1965)
Ladakh: Gods and Mortals Behind the Himalayas (1980)
Return to Tibet (1985)
Return to Tibet: Tibet After the Chinese Occupation (1998)
Denk ich an Bhutan (2005)
Beyond Seven Years in Tibet: My Life Before, During, and After (2007)