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Controversial Mountaineering Legend Heinrich Harrer Dies

DW staff / AFP (nda)January 9, 2006

Austrian explorer Heinrich Harrer's long and rocky life, from Hitler's elite SS guard to his friendship with the Dalai Lama and scores of high mountain passes in between, drew peacefully to an end at the weekend.

Heinrich Harrer (right) led a life of extreme ups and downsImage: dpa

"He has set off calmly on his last expedition," his family said in a statement announcing the death of the 93-year-old, whose autobiography inspired the Hollywood film "Seven Years in Tibet", at a hospital in the town of Friesach in mountainous Carinthia province.

Born in Knappenberg in July 1912, Harrer first made his mark in mountaineering on July 24, 1938 as a member of a German-Austrian team that became the first to conquer the sheer 1,800 meter (5,900 foot) northern face of Switzerland's Mount Eiger.

Nanga Parbat
Harrer and his team failed in their bid to climb Nanga Parbat.Image: AP

He joined a disastrous expedition by a German Nazi team the following year to the 8,114 meter Nanga Parbat mountain in Kashmir.

The group failed to reach the summit and was arrested by British forces days after the beginning of World War II in September 1939.

But it was not until nearly 60 years later that Harrer confirmed media reports he had been a member of the Nazi Party and was made an officer, thanks to the Eiger feat, in the feared Schutzstaffel paramilitary regiment after meeting Hitler.

He said he had a "clear conscience" as his role in the Nazi organization simply involved preparing for the Kashmir expedition.

Harrer also competed as a sprinter in the Austrian team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

War time escape led to two-year hike across Himalayas

The legend was forged in April 1944 when the mountaineer escaped from a British internment camp with expedition leader Peter Aufschnaiter and they spent nearly two years crossing the Himalayas by foot, traversing about 50 mountain passes more than 5,000 meters high.

The pair reached Lhasa in January 1946 and were to remain there until December 1950 before the Chinese army invaded Tibet.

Harrer developed a lifelong friendship with the Dalai Lama, then a boy, after being taken on to tutor him in affairs beyond the mountain kingdom.

Friendship and honors from Tibet

Dalai Lama Porträt Tibet Religion
The Dalai Lama remained a friend of Harrer for most of his life.Image: AP

The Dalai Lama visited Harrer twice at his home in Carinthia for his 80th and 90th birthdays in 1992 and 2002. Their final meeting was last summer when the Dalai Lama visited Germany to award a peace prize.

Recipient of a "Light of Truth" medal from the Tibetan government-in-exile, Harrer in May was due to lay the foundation stone of a 65 million euro European Tibetan Centre in his hometown. "Wherever I live, I shall feel homesick for Tibet," he wrote in the book about his Tibetan period.

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel said he was fascinated by the adventurer's life which included other expeditions to Latin America, Africa, the Arctic and the Pacific. "With Heinrich Harrer, mountaineering has lost a leading personality," he said.

The right-wing governor of Carinthia province, Jorge Haider, said Harrer was "an ambassador for peace and cohabitation between religions."