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October 2002

Dreams Of Tibet: Exploring Lost Himalayan Mountains And Cultures

Deep in the heart of the forbidden Tibetan kingdom, a long-awaited adventure inherited from the author's father takes an unexpected twist.

The greatest invention in human history is the library, where dreams are born. It was 1979 when I pulled Seven Years In Tibet off the shelf at a university in southern France. I recall tipping open Heinrich Harrer’s masterwork to photos of 7-foot-tall Tibetan monks dressed in maroon robes guarding Lhasa’s 1,000-room Potala Palace. Strange dancers in fantastic headdresses seemed to jump off other pages. Barren landscapes held yak-hair tents tethered against the wind. And in the background were soaring, snow-covered peaks no one had thought to climb. The images and the stories of forbidden landscapes and foreign cultures stirred me like few things ever had. At 23, I’d climbed all across North America and Europe, reveling in the feel of rock beneath my hands and the camaraderie of kindred mountain spirits. But in Harrer’s exotic images I suddenly recognized a wholly different and more profound opportunity for discovery.

Seven Years chronicled Harrer’s 1943 escape from a British prisoner of war camp in India, the 2 years he spent crossing western Tibet, and his 5 years in Lhasa, which at the time was closed to foreigners. Home to the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama–the living Buddha who for over a millennium had been the political as well as spiritual leader of all Tibetan Buddhists–Lhasa was without doubt the most closed, mysterious, and sought-after city on the planet. Harrer’s journey seemed the perfect quest: adventure elevated to pilgrimage.

And then I discovered that Harrer had been my father’s hero, not only for Seven Years in Tibet, but also for The White Spider, his definitive climbing history of Switzerland’s Eiger. Harrer had made the first ascent of the notorious north face (also known as the Murder Wall) in 1938. My father made the first English-speaking ascent of Harrer’s route in 1962; 4 years later, when I was 9, he fell 4,000 feet to his death on the same wall. The connection added personal resonance to my hungry read of Seven Years, as it did to my passion for climbing. I wanted to hold dear the things my father held dear, to know him better by living out some of his unfinished dreams. Dad had been making plans for Himalayan climbs just before his rope broke. In my early 20s, I felt my own destiny pulling me there as well.

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