Heinrich Harrer rose to fame with numerous first ascents across the globe, then escaping captivity in British India to Tibet and befriending the Dalai Lama, as told in the classic “Seven Years In Tibet.” One of his biggest accomplishments was being first to conquer Carstensz Pyramid a.k.a Puncak Jaya in 1962.
Name: Heinrich Harrer
Born: 6 July 1912
Died: 7 January 2006
Famous Ascents: Carstensz Pyramid, Indonesia and Eiger North Face, Switzerland
Mount Everest may be the world’s tallest mountain, but Southeast Asia’s Carstensz Pyramid is considered the world’s most challenging climb! Rising 4,884m (16,024ft) above sea level, Carstensz Pyramid is the highest mountain in all of Indonesia and the 5th highest mountain in Southeast Asia following the mountains in Himalayan region of Myanmar.
If the first summit was completed by Heinrich Harrer, why is Puncak Jaya more commonly known as Carstensz Pyramid?
Contrary to popular belief at the time, Dutch seafarer Jan Carstensz was the first to discover the snow-capped mountain along the equator in 1623. Due to much misbelief that snow-capped mountains could even exist in the region, it was only in 1936 that the Dutch Carstensz Expedition began. Mountaineers Anton Colijn, Frist Wissel and Jean Jacques Dozy started their journey in the then-Dutch territory known as Dutch New Guinea. The group of mountaineers were unable to verify which of the three summits in the range was the highest, so they attempted to climb East Carstensz, Ngga Pulu and Carstensz Pyramid. Despite being able to successfully summit the first two glacier covered peaks, the expedition did not make its way to the top of Carstensz Pyramid due to the bad weather.
Eventually, in 1962 Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer was able to successfully lead an expedition to summit Puncak Jaya. Harrer was accompanied by a diverse team including New Zealand mountaineer Philip Temple, Australian rock climber Russell Kippax and Dutch patrol officer Albertus Huizenga. He was also joined by a geologist Jean Jaques Dozy, who when spotting an oddly dark and green-tinged peak, realised it was a mountain of gold and copper ore. It would later become the biggest gold mine in the world.
Of course this wasn’t Harrer’s first time making history in the mountaineering world. Heinrich Harrer always had a passion for conquering great heights. Many years before his feats on Puncak Jaya in 1938, Harrer, together with friend Fritz Kasparek and fellow German mountaineers Ludwig Vörg and Anderl Heckmair, became the first to summit the North Face of the Eiger in the Bernese Alps located in western Switzerland. This was during a time when climbing the almost completely vertical wall was banned by the authorities after so many lives had been claimed whilst trying to summit the icy peak.
However, the glory of this victorious summit was short-lived for Harrer. When attempting to find an easier way to summit Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat in 1939, the Second World War broke out and Harrer and his team were put under arrest by the British in Dehradun in Northern India, where he would remain for 6 years.
Harrer managed to escape, was recaptured, and then escaped again, this time for good. He evaded the British-Indian authorities to head North, over the Himalayas to Tibet. His initial goal was to continue into Japanese occupied China, where the Japanese authorities – allied with Germany at the time – would take him in and send him home. But after a harrowing journey best described in his famous book “7 Years in Tibet,” he managed to smuggle himself into the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, and this led to the next chapter of his life.
With the Japanese being fought out of China, Harrer instead spent a total of, you guessed it, 7 years in Tibet. He would eventually be drawn into doing a series of odd jobs for his Tibetan hosts, such as working as a translator, and as the official photographer of the royal court. It was during this time that Harrer also became the Dalai Lama’s tutor and close friend. Eventually, with the war ended, and with war with Communist China looming on Tibet’s horizon, Harrer returned to Austria.
Upon his return, Harrer returned to his mountaineering expeditions. He travelled to Alaska and became the first to summit Mount Deborah (3,761m), Mount Hunter (4,442 m) and Mount Drum (3,661 m). He also made the first ascent of Ausangate (6,384 m) in the Andes of Peru.
Interestingly, Heinrich Harrer wasn’t just an avid mountaineer, but also a Austrian national champion in golf, and almost represented Austria in downhill skiing in the 1936 Winter Olympic Games (but Austria did not compete that year). He was also a professional geographer, exploring the Amazon River in South America and the Congo River in Africa before leading the expedition to Carstensz Pyramid.
Furthermore, he wrote 20 books in his time, a couple of which turned out to be best sellers. He documented all his adventures in a series of novels including I Come from the Stone Age about his ascent of Carstensz Pyramid. Seven Years in Tibet was adapted for the screen twice, once in 1956 and then in 1997 with Brad Pitt playing Harrer.
Today, many have successfully attempted and completed the summit to Indonesia’s highest peak. Find out more about how you too can experience this climb on our Puncak Jaya page!