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An Eye at the Top of the World: The Terrifying Legacy of the Cold War's Most Daring CIA Operation

An Eye at the Top of the World: The Terrifying Legacy of the Cold War’s Most Daring CIA Operation. Pete Takeda. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006. Hardcover. 304 pages. $26.95.

Of all the idiotic things the CIA has dreamed up in its half-century of existence, dragging a nuclear-powered listening device to the top of a remote Himalayan peak in order to spy on the Chinese may top the list. Not surprisingly, this Cold War operation involving Indian and US spooks and elite climbers repeatedly failed with potentially devastating effects for future generations. While the CIA will neither confirm nor deny what transpired high in the Nanda Devi region some four decades ago, a missing load of plutonium, hidden in the belly of a glacier, is likely crawling ever closer to the Ganges River where it will no doubt wreak unimaginable havoc.

Takeda stumbled upon what he calls “the most bizarre and unheralded espionage escapade of the Cold War” around a Yosemite campfire. As Takeda describes in the opening chapters, pursuing this rumor grew into an obsession. Leaving his job behind, Takeda dove headfirst into a three-year process of research and writing on this elusive Cold War subject. An Eye at the Top of the World is the final product of this long journey. While Takeda’s writing is superb, making the book extremely gripping and entertaining, the work unfortunately suffers from an organizational drawback.

Contrary to what the title suggests, the book is not focused exclusively on the CIA operation, but in fact dedicates more space to Takeda’s journey in pursuing the story. In the first half of the book, Takeda manages to weave the narrative between these two parallel subjects. The reader learns about the intricacies of plutonium and the global conditions that lead the US and Indian governments to believe that this outrageous operation was in their interest. Intertwined with this are the confessions of a professional climbing bum with the ability to “squander so much money on such an obscure passion.” At times the connections and transitions between these two subjects are fluid and logical; other times they are forced.

The opening chapters set the scene for the second half of the book, which one would expect to contain a culmination of both the CIA story and Takeda’s personal story. It fails to reach this dual crescendo, however. The CIA story is increasingly eclipsed in the second half of the book by the gripping account of Takeda and friends’ climbing and near-death experience. While superbly written, especially the harrowing description of being repeatedly buried by avalanches high on Nanda Kot—a section that leaves the reader gasping for air—the connections to the purported main subject of the book are almost completely absent from the last 100 pages, including from the epilogue. This is a weakness of the book, leaving the reader with the feeling of having read two books.

Nevertheless the book is well worth a read. Takeda has done his homework and clearly commands the facts. His second chapter, “A Cold War,” is a first-rate sketch of the complicated and ever-changing Cold War international landscape. Equally compelling is his chapter on plutonium. In both of these chapters, which are on par with exposés by the most distinguished foreign correspondents, Takeda proves himself a master of his craft. Furthermore, Takeda’s honesty pervades the work. His is not afraid to be critical, especially of himself. This becomes most evident in the chapters covering his expedition to Nanda Kot and Nanda Devi East, which radiate with lucid self-reflection.

It should be noted that the intended audience is the average layperson, and mountaineers may find several parts of the book unnecessarily descriptive or drawn-out. Everything from belaying to living in base camp is explained in painstaking detail. This must be forgiven, of course, since it is a necessary component of a book aimed at a wider crowd. In writing to this audience, it is clear that Takeda is concerned with setting himself apart from your average weekend mountaineer. He employs the terms, “elite,” “hard core,” “tribe,” and so on, to describe his climbing circle. Although it is surely warranted for Takeda to avoid being compared to the novice mountaineers encountered in certain “epic” books, some readers may find that he crosses the fine line between useful clarification and condescending elitism.

Regardless of these shortcomings, the book is extremely insightful and entertaining. It is a genuine page-turner. Takeda’s writing strikes a refreshing balance between erudite and clear, factual and entertaining, humorous and solemn. The fact that the connection between the CIA operation and Takeda’s own experience is sometimes lacking—again, in many cases it is not—does not diminish the appeal of the individual tales. Certain readers, caught up in the adventure and beautiful language of the book, may not even be bothered by the fact that the focus is sometimes blurred. Others, such as this reviewer, may get hung up on it. Either way, in no other work will one discover such memorable mountain wisdom as why buying a single wall tent is like buying a bikini.

Martin Gutmann