The Nanda Devi mystery

Fifty years after deadly plutonium was lost on India’s second highest mountain, the enigma continues

The face of Nanda Devi. Photographs courtesy Lt Nawang Kapadia Photo Library
The face of Nanda Devi. Photographs courtesy Lt Nawang Kapadia Photo Library

Leading an Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) trekking team to the Nanda Devi Sanctuary in 2001, mountaineer and author Harish Kapadia thought it fit to build a small stone temple at the base camp, a place christened Chaubata.

The temple at Chaubata
The temple was “in the memory” of his son, Lt Nawang Kapadia of 4/3 Gorkha Rifles, killed in a terrorist attack in Kashmir the previous year, but was dedicated to the supreme goddess of the region, Nanda Devi, “to give her rest from excesses”, says Kapadia.

The “excesses” in question relate to a story that is now 50 years old.

In October 1965, the US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) joined hands in a clandestine mission to install a nuclear-powered sensing device on the summit of India’s second highest peak, also one of its most revered: the 25,643ft (around 7815m) Nanda Devi in Uttarakhand’s Garhwal Himalayas.

Three years after India’s defeat to China, at the height of the Cold War between the Western and Eastern Blocs, it was considered essential to keep a tab on China’s growing military might. In 1964, China had conducted its first nuclear tests in Xinjiang province. A remote sensing device atop Nanda Devi could keep track of any further tests.

Installing the device, however, meant carrying up equipment weighing around 56kg, including an 8-10ft-high antenna, two transceiver sets and the most vital component, a system for nuclear auxiliary power (SNAP) generator. The generator’s nuclear fuel, consisting of seven plutonium capsules, came in a special container.

On 18 October, when the team reached Camp IV, at over 24,000ft, a terrible blizzard and severe cold conditions forced a rethink. Team leader Manmohan Singh Kohli, now 83, had to choose between men and machine: He chose to save the lives of his men; “many would have been killed,” he says today.

Local villager Diwansingh Butolia (left) worked as a ration porter during the 1965 mission, though he wasn’t aware of the dangers
The nuclear-fuelled generator, nicknamed Guru Rinpoche by the climbing sherpas, after the Buddhist god, was already emitting heat, he says, and those who knew about its radioactive dangers were apprehensive. Unable to take the generator with them, the team secured it near Camp IV and returned to safety.

When they returned in May 1966, all the equipment—including the deadly stock of plutonium, which was “about half the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima”, says Kohli—was missing. It has never been found. Theories and fears abound, but nobody seems to know what happened.

The plutonium capsules, which according to Kohli’s and other estimates have a longevity of over a hundred years, could still be buried somewhere in the snow. One suggestion is that they were lost in an avalanche. The area has been virtually closed for decades. Barring a few exceptions, such as army or IMF sponsored expeditions, nobody is allowed to climb or explore Nanda Devi, purportedly for environmental reasons.

Kohli says a Hollywood film pivoted on the 1965 incident is being planned. The script is ready, he says, but refuses to give any details. Certainly, it can tap into the veil of intrigue and mystery that shrouds the beautiful mountain 50 years on.

“Considering that over 200 people were involved and it went on for three years, this was the 20th century’s greatest mountaineering-cum-espionage operation. It stretched the limits of human endurance,” Kohli says. In the effort to install the surveillance device, and then retrieve it, nearly a dozen ascents were made from 1965-68 on Nanda Devi, described by climber Tenzing Norgay as among the most difficult Himalayan climbs.

Installation in progress during the first visit to Nanda Kot in 1967, with Nanda Devi in the background
The fear was of large-scale plutonium contamination of the Rishi Ganga, the river that drains the Nanda Devi glaciers into the Ganga. For, as Kohli says, the “lives of millions of Indians would be affected”, especially those living along the Ganga, right up to Kolkata. Water sources and rocks were tested for hints of radiation, and two HH-43B Huskies—ultra-modern, high-altitude helicopters used by the American air force—were pressed into service, writes Himalayan historian and author Prabhat Kumar Ganguli in Nanda Abhiyatra, a book in Bengali published this year.

Kohli’s 8th Indo-Tibetan Border Police Battalion was moved to Tapovan, near the Rishi Ganga banks, to continuously monitor the waters for radioactivity. It virtually became the Nanda Devi Battalion, says Kohli. The mountain and the surrounding Nanda Devi Sanctuary were closed to expeditions.

In 1967, the Americans, with the help of Kohli and other Indian climbers such as Sonam Wangyal, H.C.S. Rawat and G.S. Bhangu, successfully installed a second nuclear-powered listening device on the neighbouring peak, the 22,510ft Nanda Kot. it worked for the greater part of a year before developing a snag.

In his 2005 book, One More Step, Kohli details the scare when a team led by Rawat went to retrieve it from Nanda Kot in the summer of 1968.

“When the team reached the Dome (the Nanda Kot Dome where the device was installed), they were shocked to see no sign of the entire equipment. They dug a couple of feet and saw an amazing sight. There was a perfectly sound cave formed with the hot generator at the centre. With the continuous heat emitted from the generator, the snow had melted up to 8ft in all directions, creating the spherical cave!” He titled this chapter in the book “Cathedral In Ice”.

It was only a decade later, in 1977, that news of the CIA-IB covert operation and the missing plutonium first broke in the international media, in the American magazine Outside. The national and international outrage was immediate. Then prime minister Morarji Desai had to admit to the mission in Parliament.

As the faulty Nanda Kot equipment had been carried away in 1968 in a helicopter by the Americans, he would also declare: “I would also like to assure the House that to our knowledge no other device of this kind exists on Indian soil.”

In 1993, a team was permitted to carry out an environmental study at the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. Kohli, who was shown the samples collected from the site, found that they included “a round steel case which looked familiar”. It was the case in which the seven radioactive plutonium capsules were carried. It is assumed that the ferocity of the elements prised away the steel protection.

A russian MI4 helicopter landing at the Nada Kot Base camp
Yet 1965 was memorable in happier ways too for Kohli, who would spend 42 years in all with the navy, ITBP and Air India. Just a few months before the Nanda Devi assignment, Kohli led an Indian team to the summit of Everest, making India the fourth country to climb the mountain.

The Nanda Devi call-up came soon after. At the time, though, says Kohli, he “didn’t know” about the wider ramifications of the nuclear-powered generator’s loss. “Only after it was lost and we heard that millions of Indians could die did the gravity of the situation dawn on us,” he says on phone from New Delhi.

Spies In The Himalayas, a book on the Nanda Devi episode that he co-authored with Kenneth Conboy, has an anecdote that sums up the tense mood among intelligence circles after the disappearance. Following India’s Everest glory, 8 July 1966 was chosen as the day when the Everest team led by Kohli would be honoured with the Arjuna awards. But B.N. Mullik (along with R.N. Kao, the key intelligence man behind the Nanda Devi mission) wanted Kohli to leave immediately for Nanda Devi to assist in “Operation Recovery”. “India faces an unparalleled national calamity. Forget the Arjuna!” declared Mullik.

Berry Corber and M.S. Kohli busy with the installation
Five decades later, Kohli thinks there is now “very little chance” of radioactivity from the missing plutonium. He bases his belief on the assessment of “the country’s top scientists”, the reports of various expert committees, and his own understanding of the Nanda Kot episode, when they found the plutonium-filled device had melted 8ft of snow and was “lying like an idol” in a cavity. “According to me, the plutonium capsules will remain hot and melt the snow. It is a mystery whether it formed a cavity or travelled to the bottom of the glacier or got stuck somewhere in between. I see very little chance of radioactivity. No chance,” says the mountaineer.

Yet just last year, on the occasion of ITBP’s 53rd anniversary, Kohli wrote in a souvenir that the plutonium capsules could still be “ticking on the mountain somewhere”.

The mystery continues to resonate. In a recent book, Becoming A Mountain: Himalayan Journeys In Search Of The Sacred And The Sublime, Stephen Alter, the Mussoorie-based author of 15 books, including a few on the Himalayas, describes the espionage episode as “Desecration”. “By some accounts, several of the sherpas who carried plutonium up the mountain died of cancer caused by radiation”. On email, Alter says, “There’s a lot of speculation and rumour surrounding those events, but it’s difficult to say exactly what happened.”

Kapadia mentions one bit of speculation provoked by Hugh Thomson. In his 2004 book Nanda Devi: A Journey To The Last Sanctuary, Thomson writes that the CIA thought briefly that the Indians had stolen the device to kick-start their own nuclear programme.

Manmohan Singh Kohli. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Like everything else, there is no unanimity about the effects on the health of sherpas and jawans. Kohli rejects Alter’s claim on the sherpa deaths as “conjecturing”. Kapadia, also a former vice-president of the state-run IMF, recounts a tale common in mountaineering circles. “During an expedition to the Milam glacier (in the vicinity of Nanda Devi) in the 1970s, we heard from ITBP jawans who had participated in the 1965 expedition that a few of them fell sick from exposure to radiation. The sherpas who carried the gadget had a lot of exposure,” says Kapadia, who believes the “threat of radioactivity is certainly there”—still.

American author and climber Pete Takeda, who authored the book An Eye At The Top Of The World: The Terrifying Legacy Of The Cold War’s Most Daring CIA Operation, says it’s a “tricky” question. “Some experts will say that the plutonium represents a major health threat. Others dismiss the danger as no more hazardous than an airport X-ray machine. The truth lies somewhere in between,” he writes over messages on Facebook.

During his research, Takeda had sent water and silt samples collected from the Nanda Devi area between 2004-07 for testing to two American laboratories; the results came in 2008. “One claimed there was no evidence of Pu (Plutonium) other than naturally occurring. The other lab claimed there was proof of Pu from the device in the sample,” he says. Kapadia says these findings were ignored by the Union government. “I don’t feel the Indian Government has enough concern about this issue to take note,” Takeda adds.

Calls and emails to the director of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, one of the organizations that Morarji Desai appointed to investigate the issue of radiation, went unanswered.

IMF vice-president Amit Chowdhury, a former air force officer, says: “There is no proposal to allow climbing of the Nanda Devi main peak or allowing anybody inside the inner sanctuary. I don’t want to hazard a guess on whether the sanctuary and the peak is closed partly because of the missing device from the 1965 expedition. I don’t have any data and haven’t heard about this from anybody, so my guess is as good as anybody’s. I haven’t really followed the story of the missing plutonium. Permission for all climbing expeditions has to go through the IMF and over the last 10 years I haven’t heard of any search operation conducted by the government or anybody else.”

In his book, Takeda describes what went into SNAP. “The SNAP-19’s plutonium consists of seven fuel capsules, small rods inserted in a graphite block. They were arranged in a radial pattern—one axial rod dead centre with the remaining six arranged evenly spaced and equidistant, like a compass with six cardinal points.

“The material is an alloy of Pu-238 with 18 percent Pu-239. Pu-238 gives off far more heat than Pu-239, which... is the fissile material that ‘explodes’ in nuclear weapons. Pu-238 has a half-life of 87 years—half-life is the time required for the material subject to exponential decay, in this case a radioactive element, for half its atoms to lose radioactivity. Alloying the two yielded the most effective combination of lifespan and energy generation. The SNAP was expected to last decades were it to be in the depths of space, or bleak mountaintop.”

In an article on the website, Takeda writes about his meeting with Jim McCarthy, an elite American climber who claims to have handled the plutonium and loaded the device. McCarthy blames this exposure to radiation for his subsequent testicular cancer, from which he recovered. In the same article, Takeda quotes McCarthy: “I saw the sherpas fighting over who got to carry (the SNAP),” adding: “They had no idea of what it was. They’d put the thing in the middle of their tent and huddle around it. I guarantee none of them are alive now.”

A respected author of non-fiction titles on the Himalayas, Bill Aitken says that the first time he heard about the lost plutonium, he was “horrified but then realized that humanity is basically idiotic”. “You have a primitive source like the Ganga, on which millions of lives depend, and then you do something extraordinarily stupid,” he says on phone from Mussoorie.

Given the issue of “national interest”, the publisher of his 1994 book, The Nanda Devi Affair, dropped a chapter that detailed the 1965 incident. “I was annoyed but was later pleasantly glad that characters like (Henry) Kissinger, (Richard) Nixon and (Lal Bahadur) Shastri did not appear in my book on Nanda Devi. Possibly Nanda Devi, the goddess, herself intervened,” says Aitken, laughing.

Once thought to be the tallest mountain in the world, Nanda Devi is venerated in large parts of Garhwal as a temperamental goddess. Natural calamities are often attributed to the goddess’ anger, says Ganguli. Even as he considers himself an atheist, Ganguli says Nanda Devi played the role of a protector when lives were at stake. “When faced with some men’s limitless audacity, the mountain retained the generator,” he says with a smile, adding, “For a lot of people, Nanda Devi means much more than a mountain.”

For at least one American family, Nanda Devi represents a very personal loss.

On a climbing day in September 1976, a short window when expeditions were allowed, Nanda Devi Unsoeld lay dying on the high-altitude slopes of the same mountain from which she got her name. The 22-year-old girl was there to climb the peak along with a team that included her father, the veteran American climber Willi Unsoeld. She was suffering from an acute stomach ailment and high-altitude sickness, and Unsoeld, who named his daughter after a mountain that had left him besotted, couldn’t carry her down the mountain. He tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation but felt her lips growing cold as tears coursed down his beard.

Close to the Camp IV site where the nuclear-power generator was lost, Willi Unsoeld buried his daughter. Amid the murkiness of a nuclear arms race, espionage, and the still continuing narrative of threat, her body remains there as the definitive truth.

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