Seven Years in Tibet
by Heinrich Harrer
“I had spent most of my childhood in the Alps and had occupied most of my time out of school climbing in summer,” Heinrich Harrer wrote in the preface to 1953’s Seven Years in Tibet, “(feeling) that the only worthwhile ambition was to measure my strength against the mountains¼ and there grew in my mind, out of a complex of vague desires, the ambition to realize the dream of all climbers¾ to take part in an expedition in the Himalayas.”
It was a dream that would place him in an expedition to climb the peak of Nanga Parbat, the western outpost of the Himalayan range that had cast its spell on him. But far below the peaks, war clouds darkened that summer of 1939. Resigning themselves to their lost chance at the mountain, the German-Austrian expedition members waited in what was then British India for a ship to take them back to Europe when “we suddenly found ourselves taken in charge by eight soldiers, on the grounds that we needed personal protection. We were in fact under arrest¼ ”
Harrer’s group was moved repeatedly to intern camps across India, and just as repeatedly, attempted to escape. On their third try, Harrer and another mountaineer, Peter Aufschnaiter, made their way to Tibet after months of travel over 17,000-foot-high mountain passes. Their goal: to cross neutral Tibet and join their country’s Japanese allies in China.
With little money, few maps and virtually no knowledge of the Tibetan language, passed from one petty official to another, Harrer and Aufschnaiter continued across the country. At last, “shining superbly in the morning sun, were tremendous walls of ice, and we gradually realized that we were looking at the giant trio Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, and Manaslu,” three of the highest mountains in the world, and at that date still unclimbed. “Out of the seven of us who had broken out the internment camp,” Harrer wrote, “five of whom had made for Tibet, only Aufschnaiter and I remained.”
It was then November 1944. Cut off from communication with the rest of the world, Harrer and his friend couldn’t know that the Second World War in the Europe they had left behind was entering its final, bloodiest stage.
Five years had passed since the mountaineers had first set their sights on the Himalayas. They were still more than a year away from reaching the Tibetan capital of Lhasa where they hoped to get permission to cross the border into China, more than a year away from meeting the young Dalai Lama whose friendship would change their lives. But unknown to them, they were preparing for that meeting.
As they parted from a Tibetan friend on the way to Lhasa, Harrer reported, “(he) said
something which was to serve me in good stead. The haste of Europeans has no place in Tibet. We must learn patience if we wished to arrive at the goal.”
And at this point, I must also ask readers at this point to be patient also while I subvert the philosopher Blaise Pascal’s dictum that short passages take more time to write than long ones by continuing the tale of Harrer and his journey during this month. Next Friday: Lhasa at last.