By Anne-marie O'neill
October 20, 1997 12:00 PM

DUSK WAS FALLING ON JAN. 15, 1946, AS Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter reached their final destination. For almost two years, having escaped a British military camp in India, the mountaineers had trekked across the Himalayas dodging bears, leopards and bandits through 64 mountain passes as high as 20,000 feet. Now, dressed in rags and with tangled beards and blistered feet, they watched in awe as the setting sun lit the golden rooftops of the Potala, the winter palace of the Dalai Lama and the most striking landmark of Lhasa, Tibet’s Forbidden City. “It was like a fairy tale,” recalls Harrer, now 85, who divides his time between homes in Liechtenstein and Hüttenberg, Austria. “The last mystery on earth.”

Since 1792, when foreigners were excluded from Tibet, few Europeans had entered the capital. But the Tibetans were so impressed by tales of the young men’s daring that the peace-loving locals welcomed the scruffy strangers into their homes and lives. In time, even the cloistered young god-king—the 14th Dalai Lama—called Harrer a friend. Recounted in 1952’s Seven Years in Tibet, one of more than 20 books Harrer has written and the basis of Brad Pitt‘s new film by the same name, that journey was but one adventure in a lifetime of exploration that took Harrer from the jungles of Borneo to the glaciers of Alaska. He reserves his rarest superlatives, however, for the strange land on the roof of the world. “It was the most unforgettable life there,” he says. “I changed in Tibet.”

The extent of that transformation has only recently come to light. In May, Austrian journalist Gerald Lehner revealed that Harrer had been a sergeant in Hitler’s dreaded SS. Interned for most of the war, Harrer took no part in atrocities. “I regret, I repent,” he says. Still, the revelations have cast a pall over the adventurer’s hero status in his Austrian homeland and forced French director Jean-Jacques Annaud to make last-minute changes in the film version of Seven Years in Tibet. The irony is hardly lost on Harrer. “Some people, when they get to the top of a mountain, they celebrate,” he says. “I do not. Too much can happen on the return trip. From the top you fall much harder.”

Growing up in the Austrian Alps, Harrer became a climber by necessity, running miles on errands for his mother, Johanna, a homemaker, or to deliver messages to the post office where his father, Joseph, worked as a clerk. At school in the town of Graz, he mastered the slopes on skis he had crafted himself and dreamed of another mountainous land that appeared in his school books. In one, Harrer recalls in a stage whisper, he read of the “one mystery left in the world: this country called Tibet. There is a god-king living there, and hundreds of thousands of monks. They are capable of separating their minds from their bodies.”

The dream lingered through his years at Graz University, where Harrer studied sports, geography and glaciology. A member of the 1936 Austrian ski team, he won international acclaim for scaling the treacherous north face of the Eiger two years later. Though Harrer says he joined the Nazis in 1938 and was ignorant of the party’s dark intentions, Lehner claims that a handwritten résumé dates his involvement back to 1933. Certainly his Eiger conquest was hailed as a triumph for the Third Reich. But Harrer answers that he had no time for politics. “My ambition,” he says, “was [only] to climb higher, more beautiful mountains.”

One irresistible opportunity came in 1939, when, as a ski instructor for the SS, Harrer joined a German expedition to climb Nanga Parbat, a 26,000-foot peak in the western Himalayas, leaving his wife, Lotte Wegener, behind. That year, war broke out; Harrer and his team were captured and ended up in the British camp near Dehra Dun in the Himalayas. “It was an invitation,” says Harrer of the camp’s alluring location. “The British just asked me to escape.”

It took several attempts, but Harrer finally made it in April 1944, walking right through the main gate with six other prisoners disguised as Indian laborers and British officers. Early in his imprisonment, Lotte, whom he divorced while in the camp, had borne his only son, Peter, now a TV cameraman in Switzerland. With no family life to lure him home, Harrer fled to Tibet.

“Europe was in ruins, but in Tibet we were useful,” Harrer recalls. “We could build a dam or a canal. I could teach, build houses.” While Harrer taught the locals to play tennis and ice-skate, the Dalai Lama watched from a high window of his palace. “Professor Harrer,” the Dalai Lama said teasingly years later, was a bit of “a rascal, [but] I never had the opportunity to be a bad boy.”

By the late 1940s, as Communist China was poised to invade Tibet, it became clear that the Dalai Lama, then a teenager, would ultimately be forced to flee, and he turned to Harrer as a window to the West. “I taught him to shake hands. I introduced him to Western films,” Harrer says. “And he is a teacher for the world.” Indeed, Harrer says it was he who had most to learn. He remembers once telling two monks the news that airplanes could cross the Atlantic in a mere six hours. “One monk looked at the other,” recalls Harrer, “and said, ‘Why?’ For the Tibetans it didn’t matter. Six hours. Six years. No difference.”

When he left Tibet soon after the 1950 Chinese invasion, Harrer took with him the monks’ philosophy of patience and peace. On subsequent adventures he ate only local food and never carried a gun, even in the highlands of New Guinea, where he encountered headhunters and cannibals and survived a 130-foot plunge over a waterfall. The German journalist Axel Thorer, who documented two of Harrer’s expeditions, wrote that before meeting the explorer he had “stumbled through the world like a tactless fool.” Harrer, he says, taught him “that the word primitive does not apply to human beings.”

But despite his humanitarian impulses, Harrer’s long silence about his Nazi past has triggered a bitter avalanche since it came out. “Harrer is no different today,” says Austrian mountaineer and author Reinhold Messner. “If he were, he would distance himself from the Harrer who joined the SS.” For his part, Annaud believes the controversy makes for a richer story. “Although he experienced great success and fame, he will always regret what he thought in the early days,” says the director, who met frequently with Harrer. “This is an enormous personal drama. It’s a very tragic kind of life.”

And a painful last few months. Harrer skipped the film’s Sept. 13 world premiere, retreating instead to the mountain home he shares with his third wife of 35 years, Carina, 75. (A brief second marriage ended in 1954.) In their front garden, Buddhist prayer flags and a Tibetan gate take their place among the alpine flowers. “We are peaceful here,” says Harrer, surveying the scene from his porch. “Or so we thought.”