Born in Tibet: A Lasting Friendship

The Dalai Lama and Heinrich Harrer

Betty Rogers

Harrer's arm still bears a deep scar where a Tibetan mastiff savagely sunk its teeth. Revealing the steely confidence that ensured his survival, he describes how the dog first ripped his shirt to shreds. With his blood flying through the air, Harrer suffocated the writhing animal with his free arm as awed Tibetans watched the unthinkable killing of a "sentient being."

"I have always been a seeker and there is a certain ambition I have had to have. But there is a healthy way of being ambitious, otherwise I wouldn't have endured all the hardships. I was a seeker right from the beginning." Despite his seeking, Harrer never embraced the Buddhist religion and he resists questioners who push him to analyze his adventures or his inner motivations. "I just do things without explanation, without motivation. At the root of human beings there is a longing to find new things and we search for something without needing to know it. Many people say to me 'you discovered yourself'. I don't know whether I discovered myself when I climbed a difficult mountain and my clothes were soaking and freezing. I tried to survive, without any need for philosophical explanations."

Harrer was born in the village of Knappenberg in 1902, in the same bed where his mother and grandmother were born. In a Catholic region of serious meat eaters, he was raised as a vegetarian by a Seventh Day Adventist mother, and Lutheran father. The young Heinrich spent school months in Graz and summers in his native mountainous village, and developed an early passion for sports, despite his parents' disapproval of what they considered a waste of time.

Harrer and guide in Tibet (Courtesy of Nation Geographic Society)

As a child, he devoured adventure books and later learned to read maps and mountains while studying geography and glacierology at the University of Graz. The budding athlete often brought home laurel wreaths won in foot races. His mother, unimpressed, used the leaves to season her stews. The future Olympic skier taught himself winter sports on homemade skis.

Harrer achieved world recognition as a member of the first team to climb the treacherous North Wall of the Eiger in the Swiss alps in the summer of 1938. A photograph of the event shows the bareheaded unprotected climber, unconcernedly eating bread baked by his mother, swinging on a rope along the sheer rockface.

As World War II began, Harrer was returning from a German expedition, led by Aufschnaiter, to scout Kashmir's unclimbed peak of Nanga Parbat. The British government interred all German, Austrian and Italian nationals in prisoner-of-war camps in colonial India. Harrer escaped five times before successfully crossing the Tibet border in the spring of 1944 with Aufschnaiter. The two evaded efforts by regional Tibetan officials to force them back to India and attempts on their lives by robbers. The gregarious, practical Harrer and the reserved, studious Aufschnaiter finally arrived in Lhasa the following January, penniless and in rags.

During their years in Lhasa, the two fugitives collaborated to design the first sewer system and map out the first city plan. Harrer built a tennis court using cow dung and gave Tibetans their first tennis lessons. He introduced ice skating and made over 3,000 photographs, including the last photograph of the Dalai Lama in a free Tibet.

In return, Harrer says he gained entrance to a world liberated from time. "The Tibetans had no concept of wasting time and they gained a lot living beyond minutes and seconds, and kilometers. They had time for prayers, for pilgrimages, for visiting with one another and were never rushed. Now, for me in Europe under the stress of deadlines, I sometimes find it terrible after living in Tibet."

The exiled Dalai Lama and Harrer have continued their friendship throughout the last four decades. Harrer's photographs from a trip last December to Dharamsala show the private Dalai Lama repairing watches in his own workshop and walking in his garden wearing an amusing knit beret. One photo shows the two men strolling down a garden path deep in conversation, with their arms around each other.

"Here is a human being, here is no living god. You know, he is so secure within himself that he doesn't need a throne. For him there is no difference between men and women, he treats all equally and is freed of attachment to both. Maybe this creates his tolerance. He is definitely balanced. He is a man, he's tolerant, he's a monk, he's a ruler. Whatever he is, he is complete. This is his charisma."

Each reunion, Harrer says, revives the now familiar anticipation he experienced in his first audience with the boy at the Nobulingkha summer palace. "Each time I meet him, my heart is pounding. I told him in our last visit, when I see you even now, my heart is pounding just as it did the first day I met you in the Norbulingka."

Betty Rogers is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who has worked extensively in Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia.

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