The past few months have seen a rise in volatility along the Indo-Tibetan border, with the forces of both India and China coming to blows. While these events are extraordinary in present times, the border has witnessed far more heated exchanges, most notably during the 1962 Indo-China War.
The unforgiving terrain that marks the frontier creates an additional dimension to the already complex nature of these clashes, whether in regard to more conventional manoeuvres, or other irregular military activity which is far more frequent. This is the story of the latter kind of action, that of daring espionage against Communist China, played for the highest stakes with the greatest risks.
Cold, harsh, inviolate. Straddling between the Kumaon and Garhwal districts of Uttarakhand, deep in the Himalayas, stands Nanda Devi. The second-highest mountain in India, towering at an astonishing 25,646 feet, it is named after the patron goddess of Uttarakhand— the mountain being her temporal manifestation.
Its unique topographical environment makes it one of the most inaccessible places on Earth. Surrounded on three sides by massive mountain ramparts—its natural fortifications measuring at no point below 17,000 feet— only the narrow and dangerously steep Rishi Ganga river gorge allows access to it. The mountain in itself is a citadel of rock and ice, with steep, angled faces and avalanche-prone ridges guarding its summit. Its immense proportions make it far tougher to climb than Everest. It is at once a supremely magnificent and terrifyingly intimidating mountain.
For much of the 19th and early 20th century, before it was finally summited in 1936, it was considered to be the third pole – a point of virtual inaccessibility. However, this awe-inspiring creation of nature shelters a device, abhorrent to nature, manufactured by man. Somewhere high on the harrowing slopes of Nanda Devi, buried deep in snow, lies a lost nuclear listening device slowly depleting its plutonium cores. Containing 5kg of plutonium – 1 kg less than the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki – with a predicted lifespan of 900 years, this nuclear trespasser has been forfeited to the mountain forever.
This is the story behind one of the most audacious acts of espionage in the 20th century.
Cold War In High Places
The year was 1965, and the Cold War was reaching its apogee, with America stretching its geopolitical reach to all corners of the world in order to counter the communist influence. Closer to home, the War of ’62 had left India intensely wary of its neighbour, China. To add fuel to simmering embers, China carried out its first nuclear test in 1964 in Xinjiang, a province that borders the northern tip of India. In this atmosphere of intense mutual suspicion and paranoia, the Pentagon began concocting a plan that would help both India and America keep a closer eye on China, especially with regard to its nuclear programme.
With satellites that could gather useful photographic intelligence still a few years away, America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) along with the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB) planned on placing a powerful listening device at a point of extreme prominence along the Indo-Tibetan border. The site where the device would be placed was key as it would need to have uninterrupted access in order to intercept Chinese radio signals. This meant it would have to be positioned on a mountain that was high as well as close to the Tibetan plateau. With an unparalleled height advantage and an unobstructed view of China from its summit, there was no better choice than Nanda Devi.
To ensure the longevity and endurance of the device, which was supposed to work at an altitude of nearly 26,000 feet, it was decided that it would be nuclear-powered.
A System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power (SNAP) generator was designed so that it would power the telemetry functions of the device, a power unit similar to the ones being used in space at the time.
It was within the SNAP that seven plutonium fuel rods would be stored, made from a compound of Pu-238 and Pu-239. Once activated, the SNAP would constantly be converting radioactive heat energy created by the rods into electricity, which would power the multiple-sensor device as well as its six-foot-long antenna.
With the technical aspect settled, the question of who would carry and set up all this equipment remained. Only two expeditions had summited the mountain up until then, and more than a few climbers had died. There was no doubt that only the very best mountaineers could be trusted to carry a nuclear payload up one of the most difficult mountains in the world.
League of Extraordinary Climbers
A group of 14 American and four Indian mountaineers was assembled. In totality, they represented the cream of a mountaineering generation. Among the Americans, some of the more famous climbers were Dr Robert Schaller, Tom Frost and Jim McCarthy. The Indian contingent consisted of Captain M S Kohli, Sonam Wangyal, H C S Rawat and G S Bhangu. All four had been members of the successful 1965 Indian Everest Expedition, which had put a record nine climbers on the summit. They were in fact enlisted for this covert expedition just a few days after returning from Everest. Together, the entire group was no less than a mountaineering dream team.
After having sworn their respective oaths of secrecy, the climbing team was flown to Mount McKinley in Alaska, the highest mountain in North America, to prepare for the arduous expedition ahead. While all of them were without doubt among the most experienced climbers at the time, they were rather new to the more idiosyncratic aspect of the expedition – that of dealing with nuclear material.
American climber Jim McCarthy was appointed as the designated member of the team who would handle the plutonium rods. Through the summer of 1965, officials from America’s Atomic Energy Commission trained McCarthy to load and unload the device without disturbing its deadly occupant. Other team members were briefed on the dangers of their special load as well, and ways to ensure minimum exposure to the deadly radioactive isotopes.
All climbers were going to be paid $1,000 per month, a hefty amount in the 1960s. While there would be personal gratification from having been of service to their respective nations, they were on no account to tell anyone about the nature of their expedition. The cover for the entire team was that they were a joint Indo-American mountaineering team conducting research for high-altitude flight for the American Air Force. Before departing for India, the covert operation was finally given its official codename: Operation Hat.
Into the Sanctuary of the Goddess
In an effort to attract minimal attention, most of the mountaineers were flown into base camp by helicopter in September 1965. However, the climbing equipment, rations, and of course the listening device itself — stored inside a solid lead casket — were transported in the time-honoured fashion, carried by nearly 150 dotial porters through the Rishi Ganga gorge. The special load did not go unnoticed among the porters, and apart from its unusual weight, many of them alleged to have felt heat emanating from the casket. Mounted on poles, some climbers later noted its uncanny resemblance to the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, in the manner it was transported as well as the supreme power it possessed.
After having established themselves at the base of the mountain, the mountaineers methodically began making their way up Nanda Devi. Establishing a series of camps along the climbing route, the team was finally positioned to make an attempt on the summit in the middle of October. It was then that catastrophe struck.
A violent storm hit the mountain and made it impossible to continue. The summit team, along with the device, was encamped just 2,000 feet below their objective. The extreme conditions, however, greatly endangered their position. Keeping in mind the extreme volatility of such storms, Captain Kohli — the leader of the climbing team — called for an immediate retreat.
Carrying the 56 kg listening device in deteriorating weather conditions at 23,000 feet was going to be a Herculean task. Prioritising the need for a quick descent to minimise the risk to the lives of his fellow climbers, Kohli decided to ditch the equipment in the high camp. He reasoned that another expedition could always be mounted when weather conditions improved, in order to retrieve the device. On the other hand, the life of a fellow climber was irreplaceable.
Thus, with all the climbers having safely descended, the expedition came to an end. Being late in the year, the weather window to climb Nanda Devi was now closed. Any new expedition would have to bide their time till the following year. The nuclear device too, abandoned on a high precipice of the mountain, would have to wait.
With the arrival of spring in 1966, a second expedition was launched to locate the equipment, and most importantly the nuclear device, that had been left the previous autumn. The composition of the climbing team was more or less the same, and soon they were scouring the slopes of Nanda Devi, trying to find their highly valuable and potentially dangerous belongings. But it was all in vain. Upon reaching their high camp from the previous year, they found their campsite had vanished, and there was a large mass of snow and rock in its place. The nuclear device was nowhere to be found.
The panic-stricken climbers immediately reported this to their CIA and IB handlers, and there was much to and fro between Delhi, the Base Camp, and the high camps on the mountain itself, in an attempt to understand where their nuclear device could have vanished. While many believed an avalanche must have swept their camp, more sinister explanations began to be voiced as well.
The idea of an undercover Pakistani expedition that happened to steal the device to further their own nuclear programme was seen as plausible, although an expedition of such scale not having been noticed by any Indian authority made it highly unlikely. Within the CIA, however, some were suspicious of their Indian counterparts, believing that the Indians had pocketed the device for the development of their own nuclear capability. Regardless of what had actually happened, the device was never recovered.
Nonetheless, in an act of great persistence, the CIA and IB decided to renew Operation Hat by placing a similar device on the neighbouring mountain of Nanda Kot. Being far shorter than Nanda Devi, it was thought that it would not pose the more complex issues presented by its greater sister peak.
In 1967, the team was finally able to place a listening device, along with its SNAP generator, near the summit of the 22,500-foot mountain. The climbers had to dig to form a natural platform, and much care had to be taken during the final positioning of the device. Upon switching it on, a deep hum, heavy vibrations, and a sudden wave of heat confirmed that the nuclear generator had started. Finally, the listening device had been activated.
A Nuclear Legacy
Unfortunately, after so many trials and tribulations, the device on Nanda Kot did not prove useful for long. After a year of intercepting Chinese radio transmissions, it stopped sending signals back to the CIA station. Another expedition was launched to Nanda Kot, with Captain Kohli leading it as before. When they finally came upon the device, they were startled. Due to the immense heat generated by the SNAP, it had slowly melted into the face of the mountain. By the time the climbers had arrived, it was nearly 8 feet deep and had formed a cove-like structure around it.
Having developed a technical issue and not wanting to risk losing nuclear material on Nanda Kot as well, the SNAP generator along with the rest of the listening device were flown out of the mountain. After having formally ended the operation, the CIA and IB were eager to turn the page, never to revisit the memory of their misadventures in the Himalayas. This was not to be.
In 1977 a highly detailed account of the entire operation was published by Outside magazine in America. The author, Howard Kohn, had learnt of the covert operation and had assiduously pieced together the entire undertaking. There was immediate international uproar, especially about the device lost on Nanda Devi. Outcry about it was particularly sharp in India. The then Prime Minister Morarji Desai was grilled from all sides about how such a dangerous predicament could be hidden from the nation, and more pressingly, blatantly ignored.
The glaciers of Nanda Devi eventually feed into many of the tributaries that later form the Ganga, a river that was at the time a lifeline for more than 200 million people. A few weak rumours notwithstanding, the nuclear device was still somewhere on the slopes of Nanda Devi. If nuclear material from the device was to ever make its way into one of the tributaries, it would be an apocalyptic catastrophe.
While much was promised in the immediate aftermath of the story, there was little done in terms of finding it. The mountain and its surrounding sanctuary were eventually closed off for ‘conservation reasons’. Apart from the occasional military expeditions, Nanda Devi now remains in its primordial state: inviolate and inaccessible.
In the mid-2000s, water and slit samples taken from around Nanda Devi were sent to two different American laboratories. While one laboratory considered the samples to be normal, the other laboratory produced findings that indicated the presence of plutonium similar to that in the SNAP generator.
These findings were submitted to the Government of India, but no formal response or action was taken. One can only hope that the device, instead of flowing into the glaciers, has melted its way into the rocky core of the mountain. If so, Nanda Devi is keeping vigil over her devotees, as she has been since time immemorial.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Currently at the Department of War Studies, KCL, Ranvijay Singh is a keen, albeit amateur, aficionado of military and South Asian history as well as mountaineering literature. His Twitter handle is @ranvijayhada.
An effort like this needs your support. No contribution is too small and it will only take a minute. We thank you for pitching in.