Great Explorers: Peter Aufschnaiter, the Other Austrian in ‘Seven Years in Tibet’

Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer’s travel classic, Seven Years in Tibet, chronicles his seven years as a fugitive in Tibet (and confidant of the young Dalai Lama) during the Second World War. But a third character occasionally appeared in that story: Peter Aufschnaiter, the second Austrian climber with him. Aufschnaiter was an elusive man who preferred to stay out of the limelight. Yet his was a life not many can measure up to.

Aufschnaiter was born in Kitzbühel, Austria in 1899. A retiring man, he preferred to spend time with nature than with people. After serving in the First World War, he studied agriculture. He was also an avid mountaineer who undertook expeditions to the Alps and the Himalaya.

He even attempted Kangchenjunga in 1929 and 1931. In 1933, he decided to join the Nazi Party because of the prospect of Austrian-German unity. This gave him a job some years later at the German Himalaya Foundation.

Nanga Parbat expedition

In 1939, he accompanied Heinrich Harrer on an expedition to Nanga Parbat. Harrer was also a member of the Nazi Party and the SS. The Nazi party itself funded the Nanga Parbat attempt. Even mountaineering was considered a propaganda tool to demonstrate German superiority.

But the expedition to Nanga Parbat did not yield a triumphant summit. Rather, Aufschnaiter and Harrer found themselves in a British POW camp in Ahmednagar, India. After attempting to escape and being recaptured, Aufschnaiter, Harrer, and a couple of others managed to escape the camp under the guise of local workmen. Aufschnaiter and Harrer split from the others and made their way to Lhasa, Tibet.

Their success at hiding in Tibet owes much to Aufschnaiter’s linguistic prowess. He could speak some Tibetan beforehand and continued to learn it rather quickly. He and Harrer befriended the locals, including the young Dalai Lama.

Peter Aufschnaiter surveys a project within view of Lhasa’s Potala palace. Photo: ÖWA


Adopted Tibetan ways

Aufschnaiter took an immediate shine to the Tibetans and their modest and reticent mountain culture. He adopted many of their customs, including owning few possessions. He went on religious pilgrimages and studied ancient Buddhist texts. His introverted personality suited this adopted hermit lifestyle well.

While Harrer bonded with the Dalai Lama by teaching him about Western culture, Aufschnaiter immersed himself in projects to better help the Tibetans. This included working on sewage systems and irrigation. He designed a hydropower station and a small airport runway. A skilled cartographer, he also made accurate maps, particularly of Lhasa.

When China invaded Tibet in 1950, the Dalai Lama fled, taking the renegade Austrians with him. Aufschnaiter chose to follow his own path and separated from his comrades. He spent the next couple of years climbing and working for local governments in Nepal and India. He got jobs in mapmaking, engineering, and humanitarian aid.

On the side, he went on mountaineering expeditions to Everest, Shishapangma, and Chusumdo Ri, and visited ancient sites throughout the country. Divorced from his Nazi past, he chose to live the rest of his days in solitude.

David Thewlis as Aufschnaiter and Lapka Tsamchoe as Pema in ‘Seven Years in Tibet’. Photo: Tristar Pictures


‘Eight Years in Tibet’

Unlike his portrayal in the 1997 film adaptation of Seven Years in Tibet, Aufschnaiter did not marry or have children. It was only after he passed away that an elusive manuscript detailing his travels and experiences found its way into the hands of a Swiss anthropologist, who published it as Eight Years in Tibet.

Aufschnaiter’s expertise on Tibet, from its landscape to its most sacred traditions, makes it one of the most comprehensive biographies out there. Nevertheless, Aufschnaiter’s memoir is far less well known than Harrer’s classic, which had the added interest of co-starring the Dalai Lama. Anyway, Aufschnaiter was a recluse who had no interest in fame.

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer at ExplorersWeb.

Kristine has been writing about Science, Mysteries and History for 4+ years. Prior to that, Kristine studied at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Based in Port-of-Spain, Kristine is also a literature teacher, avid reader, hiker, occasional photographer, an animal lover and shameless ramen addict.