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Spies in the Himalayas: Secret Missions and Perilous Climbs

Spies in the Himalayas: Secret Missions and Perilous Climbs. M.S. Kohli and Kenneth Conboy. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2003. 248 pages. Hardcover. $29.95.

It’s hard to imagine climbers playing a role in the nuclear political drama of the Cold War, which one usually associates with secret agents in trench coats, top secret scientific facilities, and ultrasophisticated military units. But they did. Spies in the Himalayas chronicles the several covert CIA-backed expeditions undertaken between 1965 and 1970, only bits of which have surfaced over the past four decades. These involved American and Indian climbers attempting to place a nuclear-powered listening device in the Indian Himalaya; their attempts to retrieve the device after it plummeted off Nanda Devi and into the headwaters of the Ganges River; and subsequent fall-back efforts to accomplish the objective.

The authors—Kohli, an Indian naval officer and top Indian climber assigned to run the various covert expeditions, and Conboy, a former U.S. think tank policy analyst—provide the historical and political context for these expeditions. The October 1964 detonation of the first Chinese atomic weapon caused the CIA to wonder whether the Chinese also possessed the rocket technology to launch atomic payloads. An intelligence-gathering project was proposed. India was a willing participant in this scheme because it had been involved in brief border skirmishes with the Chinese and there existed continual fear that the Red Army would invade India, as it had Tibet.

As the story begins, the goal is to plant a 125-pound plutonium-powered listening device on a Himalayan peak so that telemetry data from rocket tests can be obtained. The site must be sufficiently high and close to the Chinese border to “see” into the Chinese testing grounds, but isolated enough so that the device is neither obscured by adjacent peaks, nor likely to fall into Chinese hands. Initially 27,500-foot Kangchenjunga is the preferred peak, though eventually, for a host of factors, sights are lowered to 25,645-foot Nanda Devi.

American and Indian climbers are chosen for the expedition largely from the successful 1963 American and 1965 Indian Everest expeditions. The two teams unite in the U.S. during the summer of 1965 for a training exercise (ultimately making a failed 10-day attempt on Denali’s South Face), then helicopter to a remote glacier in what is now Denali National Park to assemble the Rube Goldberg-like listening device. In mid-September they regroup in the Nanda Devi Sanctuary and begin their campaign for the summit in hopes of planting the listening device.

Political pressure to get the device to the summit and get it operational is intense. However, as climbers know, Mother Nature is immune to imposed deadlines. The expedition makes good headway establishing camps on the mountain, but by mid-October the post-monsoon climbing season is fast drawing to a close. Expedition members are poised to take the device from Camp Four to Camp Five when a storm sets in and Kohli makes the decision from base camp to abandon the climb. He orders the device and generator lashed to the mountain; they will come back the following spring to take it all the way to the summit.

Over the winter the CIA determines the listening device will work fine from a lesser altitude and a decision is made to retrieve the device and transport it to 22,510-foot Nanda Kot, a lower and less significant mountaineering objective. But when the return expedition arrives at Camp Four they receive a shock: the listening device and nuclear-powered generator are nowhere to be found. They have vanished from the mountain, presumably carried down the south face by an avalanche.

Several expeditions follow—some joint, some solely Indian—to find the missing Nanda Devi generator, to place a second listening device atop Nanda Kot, and then to establish a conventionally powered listening device atop an even smaller peak when conditions on Nanda Kot render the device useless for most of the year.

Spies in the Himalayas tries, but ultimately fails, to combine an intelligence history with mountaineering drama. Its dry prose adequately conveys the whos, whats, and wheres of the intelligence story, but we learn little about the climbers and their motivations to participate, or the climbing action taking place on these peaks. Dramatic falls and improbable saves come across as just another day on the mountain. Meanwhile, most of the climbers—but especially the Americans—appear as two-dimensional cutouts. In fact, we often are told more about the intelligence service desk jockeys than we do about the climbers.

Despite the plodding nature of the book, it does offer up a few mountaineering gems. We learn of Rob Schaller’s solo ascent of Nanda Devi and the superhuman summit push by Gurcharan Bhangu and Sherpa Tashi from Camp Three, though neither is discussed with the detail or passion it deserves. Schaller’s was the highest solo ascent then done by an American, while Bhangu and Tashi climbed the 4,500 feet from Camp Three to the summit and back in less time than all previous parties had done from Camp Five. In the hands of more capable authors, these mountaineering achievements would shine.

In the end, Spies in the Himalayas sidesteps the most significant questions about these expeditions: how and why a plutonium-powered generator found its way into the headwaters of the sacred Ganges River, which supports a half-billion Indians, there to remain. While it is easy in hindsight to second-guess decisions that were deemed necessary at the height of the Cold War, the environmental legacy of the nuclear arms race is hard to overlook. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara devoted a whole book to explaining how many of his Cold War decisions regarding Vietnam were wrong. It is unfortunate that Kohli spends little time reexamining his decision to leave the nuclear generator on the mountain without a proper installation, a decision that may affect his countrymen well into the future.

Lloyd Athearn