Heinrich Harrer (July 6, 1912 – January 7, 2006) was an Austrian mountaineer, sportsman, geographer, and author.
Heinrich Harrer was born in Hüttenberg, Carinthia to 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.
He was designated to participate in the combined Alpine skiing competition at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. However, the Austrian Alpine skiing team decided to boycott the event due to a conflict regarding the skiing instructor's status as professionals. As a result, Harrer did not participate.
He won the downhill event at the following year's World Student Games.
Harrer made the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, Switzerland with Anderl Heckmair, Fritz Kasparek and Ludwig Vörg on July 24, 1938. This climb is recounted in the book The White Spider.
With the rise of the Nazi party in Austria, Harrer became a member of the SA (in October 1933). He held the rank of SA Oberscharführer (sergeant). He made no secret of his allegiance to National Socialism and was photographed with Adolf Hitler. Austria was absorbed into Germany in March 1938 and so he was part of a German expedition to Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas, in present-day Pakistan in summer 1939. Harrer had joined the SS and the NSDAP in 1938.
After the 1997 release of film adaptation of Seven Years in Tibet, questions were raised about Harrer's Nazi past and Harrer acknowledged that his membership of the party had been a "stupid mistake". Since he was out of the country almost continuously during the Nazi period, he was not involved in illegal actions.
Nonetheless, after the start of World War II in 1939, Harrer was captured by British colonial authorities as an enemy alien and interned in Dehradun, along with 1,000 other "enemy aliens", mostly civilians. He escaped on May 10, 1944, with Peter Aufschnaiter and two Germans, Hans Kopp and Bruno Treipel. They promptly made their way into the Himalayan foothills, which began within sight of the camp. As they were in constant fear of rearrest, they made a beeline for Tibet, their route being north-northeast throughout, in as straight a line as possible. They transited Mussoorie and Landour, forded the Aglar river at Thatyur, crossed the Nag Tibba range via Deolsari, descended to Uttarkashi and eventually passed Harsil, Bhaironghati and Nelang. On May 17, 1944, they crossed the Tsang Chok-la Pass (5,896 meters or 19,350 ft.) and entered Tibet. (They had considered heading for Goa, then a Portuguese colony and thereby a neutral port, but it was too far away.)
After traversing southwestern Tibet and stopping for extended periods in various towns, Harrer and Aufschnaiter entered Lhasa in February 1946. Kopp and Treipel had gone their separate ways, but Harrer and Aufschnaiter would remain in Tibet for a total of almost seven years. Harrer became a friend of the young Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, who had summoned him to the Potala Palace after having seen him repeatedly in the streets below the palace through his telescope. Harrer taught the Dalai Lama (who was eleven years old when they met) much about the outside world and effectively served as his tutor. The Dalai Lama has often credited Harrer's later writings about Tibet as having helped focus international attention on the plight of the Tibetan people after Communist Chinese invasion.
After the Communist Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, Harrer returned to Austria where he documented his experiences in the books Seven Years in Tibet and Lost Lhasa. Seven Years in Tibet was translated into 53 languages, sold three million copies and was the basis of the 1997 film of the same title. In 1952 he returned to Europe and later on took part in a number of ethnographic as well as mountaineering expeditions: Alaska, Andes, Ruwenzori (Mountains of the Moon) in Africa. Harrer recorded first ascents of Mount Deborah and Mount Hunter, Alaska in 1954. In 1962 he was the leader of the team of four climbers who made the first ascent of the Carstensz Pyramid (Puncak Jayadikesuma) in western New Guinea, the highest peak in Oceania.
Harrer took up golf in 1958 and became Austrian amateur champion. He also remained an active skier well into his eighties.
Harrer died on January 7, 2006.