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Harrer, author of 'Seven Years in Tibet,' dead

Last updated on: January 09, 2006 11:12 IST
Heinrich Harrer, a mountaineer who became the informal tutor of the Dalai Lama, died peacefully in his sleep on Saturday in Friesach, Austria. He was 93.

Harrer, whose Seven Years in Tibet became the subject of a film of the same name directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Brad Pitt, made his name first as a member of the Austrian team in the 1936 Olympics. Soon after the German anschluss (unification) with Austria, he became a member of the Nazi party and an officer of its elite Schutzstaffel. He was even photographed with Adolf Hitler in 1938, a picture Harrer later claimed was purely ceremonial in nature.

That same year, Harrer became part of the first team known to climb the difficult north face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps.

In 1939, he started out on an expedition led by Peter Aufschnaiter to climb India's Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world. But when war broke out between Britain and Germany, the British rounded up him and Peter and interned them in a camp at Dehra Dun.

In 1994, the two men escaped from the camp and made their way to Tibet. Harrer managed to make friends first with the Dalai Lama's brother Lobsang Somtem and then became an informal tutor of the Dalai Lama himself, then still a boy.

Harrer returned to his native Austria from Tibet after the Chinese invasion in 1950 and, in 1953, wrote his bestseller about his experiences in India and Tibet.

Thirty years after writing Seven Years in Tibet, he revisited the country and expressed his ire with the conditions there in another book, Return to Tibet.

In 1997, when production began on the film version of the book, the German magazine Stern exposed Harrer's controversial Nazi past. The film did relatively poorly in the US, garnering over 38 million at last count, despite the presence of a saleable star like Pitt playing Harrer. In the rest of the world, it raked in 130 million.

David Henry Hwang, the noted playwright and screenwriter for films such as M Butterfly and Golden Gate who wrote a preliminary script for the film, expressed his shock at the news. Hwang did not figure in the final credits.

But the Dalai Lama stood by Harrer, writing in 1999 of his gratitude for the services he had rendered Tibet. "Once you get to know each other, you retain your friendship and help each other for the rest of our lives. Harrer has always been such a friend to Tibet," the Dalai wrote in a letter in 1999.

Even Simon Wisenthal, the scourge of the Nazi and who died in 2005, said in one interview that Harrer had not been involved in politics.

Among his many awards, Harrer has won the Light of Truth award from the Tibetan government in Dharamsala. His third wife, Katharina, survives him.

P Rajendran in New York