The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

There's been a story going round in mountaineering circles since the early 1960s. It sounds like one of those conspiracy tales that always involve the secret services of various countries. The CIA has a foot in it, as does the CBI, and possibly Indian military intelligence, and successive governments in Delhi.

Shortly after the Chinese whupped the Indians in a border war in 1962, the Americans got increasingly worried about Chinese military activity in Tibet. This worry turned to outright panic in 1964 after the Chinese exploded their first nuclear device. The CIA concocted a scheme to install an autonomous surveillance device on the summit of Nanda Devi, a high peak in the Garhwal Himalaya. They required the assistance of Indian military intelligence for the logistics. Both the intelligence agencies then recruited some of the most skilled American and Indian mountaineers for the task.

The Americans paid $1000 per month for their climbers, many of whom had just ascended Mt Everest in 1963. These fellows were made to sign confidentiality agreements and were whisked off to Langley where they were given instructions on how to assemble the surveillance device. The money went a long way in assuaging any feeling of anxiety - the device was to be powered by a small amount of plutonium-238.

Meanwhile, the Indians organised their own team. If there was any concern about installing a nuclear device near the headwaters of India's most sacred river, the Ganges, these were not voiced publicly. Security trumps all, no doubt. Indian climbers from their own recent ascent of Mt Everest were roped in, and the team was headed by Captain Mohan Kohli.

The Indo-American team was despatched to climb Mt McKinley. They failed to summit the great peak, in retrospect quite a harbinger.

Nanda Devi has long been a very special mountaineering challenge. It is in the centre of a ring of high peaks, many of which are over 20,000 feet tall. A circular valley then separates the inner ring from an outer ring of equally formidable peaks. The valleys themselves are a natural treasure-trove, but very treacherous to traverse. Flash floods and avalanches are common.

In 1965, the combined team assembled in Garhwal to begin the assault on Nanda Devi. The Indians were sufficiently paranoid about security breaches that they persuaded the Americans to apply deep tanning solutions on their exposed skins, and to stay out of sight of the locals as much as possible. They were to be referred to as 'our friends', while the Indian contingent were 'the members.' The operation was named 'Blue Mountain.'

The Americans flew into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary by helicopter, bearing the spy system. The Indians got there on foot. The porters hired for the Americans were told they were bearing something precious, possibly even gold. A cover story was bandied about that the various teams were investigating the effects of low oxygen on the human body. The device itself was called SNAP (which stood for Space Nuclear Auxiliary Power), but the expanded name was almost never used - for obvious reasons.

With winter approaching, the climbers managed to carry the device to within 2500 feet of the summit. Bad weather forced them to postpone their final assault. Rather than carry the device back down the mountain, they left it hidden on the slopes.

The following year, the Indians returned to the mountain. To their horror, they found that a landslide had hidden the nuclear generator. A missive of masterly understatement found its way to the CIA ('We may be experiencing a small operational problem with Project Blue Mountain'). The Americans returned in force to attempt to salvage the device.

All sorts of harebrained ideas were mooted, and as quickly abandoned. There was one particularly risible attempt to wash the landslide aside by means of pressurised water, which was discarded when they realised that the force of a mountain stream would scarcely budge even a small boulder from the mountainside.

While the boffins plotted increasingly desperate plans to rescue the device, the assembled mountaineers began to chafe at the restrictions placed on their movements. They had been told not to attempt any unnecessary ascents of the peak; ignoring the interdict, two of them made solo climbs to the summit of Nanda Devi, truly stupendous achievements considering that the mountain had only been scaled twice in the previous 30 years. Neither of the two mountaineers (Gurcharan Bhangu and Robert Schaller) could publicly reveal their achievement in view of the secrecy, so they are not recorded in the annals of mountaineering, but among those in the know, this was widely recognised as true feats of achievement.

Eventually, the Americans and the Indians decided to leave the device buried. Despite the potential environmental disaster, both parties kept the story very very quiet.

Meanwhile, the Chinese launched a strategic missile from their test facilities in Sinkiang, which prompted fresh panicked reactions in the Americans. Unchastened by their experiences on Nanda Devi, they along with their willing Indian partners undertook to install a similar device on Nanda Kot, a neighbouring peak. After a brutal ascent that nearly ended in disaster for the Indian team and Captain Kohli, the surveiller was affixed near the summit in 1967.

And less than a year later, it stopped operating. To figure out what had happened, another Indian team laboriously climbed up Nanda Kot, and found to their utter consternation that the device, heated by the plutonium, had melted its way deep into the ice on the mountainside. The ice had then reformed above it, sealing it away. After considerable tunnelling work, the Indians were able to retrieve the generator; an American helicopter then carried it away.

By then, of course, such devices were anyway rendered superfluous by the spy satellites that were circling the planet. The CIA washed its hands of the entire sorry affair.

The nuclear powered device on Nanda Devi remained unknown to the general public for years, but the mountaineering community was well aware of it. In 1978, an American specialist climbers' magazine named Outside finally published the story.

Massive outrage enveloped India. (I don't remember any of it, I have to admit.) There were questions in Parliament. Morarji Desai and his government found it prudent to blame their predecessors, Indira Gandhi's cabinet. Then they arrested members of the Indian mountaineering team that had been involved in the clandestine effort. In 1982, the Nanda Devi Sanctuary was closed to all visitors.

(More recently, after it was named a World Heritage site, it has been partially opened to very select expeditions.)

Indian army sappers went into the area to try to retrieve the device, but had to return defeated. The plutonium powering the device will decay in about 400 years. Long before that, however, the protective casing enclosing it will have corroded, releasing the radioactivity into the wild, close to the one of the sources of the Ganges.

Once the matter became public, rifts appeared between the Indians and the Americans. It was bruited about that the Indians had been relegated to the duties of coolies, while the Americans stayed as far away as possible from the nuclear generator. Many of the porters involved were rumoured to have developed cancerous tumours.

The porters themselves hadn't minded lugging the thing into the Sanctuary. The heat emitted from it kept them cosy and warm, and they named the device Padmasambhava. There had long been legends in the Himalayas about Buddhist teachers who had hidden works of great wisdom in the snows of the mighty peaks. Padmasambhava had been among the most celebrated of them, riding from massif to col on a tiger, to leave things of great portent for his successors to discover.

1. Hugh Thomson, Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary.
2. Amitabh Pal, Legacy of CIA Himalayan Operation Could Imperil Millions, The Progressive, June 15, 2007.


Sreekanth Menon said...

Excellent post and well written.

Thanks for sharing.

Poojak said...

Wow! Nice post

Fëanor said...

Thanks, folks.

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