A Tribute to Jerzy Kukuczka (Alpine Journal, 1990)

ATribute to Jerzy Kukuczka (24 March 1948 – 24 October 1989)
(as appeared in Alpine Journal 1990; pg 32-34)
INGEBORGA DOUBRAWA-COCHLIN

 

Jerzy Kukuczka

Jerzy Kukuczka (Photo Summitpost.org)

Terzy ‘Jurek’ Kukuczka died on 24 October 1989 when he fell near the summit of Lhotse (8516 m) while attempting a first ascent of the S face. He was one of the greatest Himalayan climbers of all time and he placed the Polish flag on all fourteen 8000 m peaks.

Kukuczka was born in Skoczow, Beskid Slaski, Poland, on 24 March 1948 and was educated in his local school. He became an electrical engineer and worked in the coal mining industry in 1965 he started to climb in the Polish Tatra mountains and became a member of the Katowice High Mountain Club. He climbed the most difficult and demanding routes in the Tatra, both in summer and winter, and did some superb climbs. Then he went to the Alps, the Dolomites, the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and Tibet. In recent years he climbed almost exclusively in the Himalaya. Kukuczka climbed all fourteen 8000 m peaks, as did Reinhold Messner before him, but, unlike Messner, Kukuczka climbed all but one by new routes or in winter.

It had been Kukuczka’s ambition to set up new routes on all fourteen eight thousanders, either in summer or in winter. He climbed all but one of them without oxygen; it was only on Everest that oxygen was used for part of the way up to the South Summit. He achieved ten 8000 m peaks by new routes, climbed Makalu solo, and made four first winter ascents. No other high-altitude climber has matched that record.

Kukuczka’s stamina and strength at high altitudes were phenomenal. He acclimatized slowly but, once acclimatized, he was able to survive for very long periods at high altitude, if necessary without food or drink. An extremely strong climber, he reacted well to danger. He preferred to climb in ‘alpine style’, if possible by new routes or in winter, in a small team and without oxygen.

The most important first ascents made by Kukuczka were Everest by the South Pillar (1980); Makalu solo (1981); Gasherbrum II and I (1982) with Wojciech Kurtyka; Broad Peak – the first traverse ofthe massif of three peaks (1983), also with Kurtyka; Dhaulagiri and Cho Oyu (1985), first winter ascents and in the space of three weeks.

Kukuczka’s ascent of Kangchenjunga in winter (1986) and then the first route on K2 via the South Wall were among his most remarkable climbs. In 1987 he finally completed all fourteen 8000 m peaks. He himself once said that his favorite and most satisfying climbs were Makalu and K2. When he reached the summits of these mountains, beside leaving the Polish flag, he often left little mascots or souvenirs from his two sons.

In 1988, with Artur Hajzer, Kukuczka established yet another route on Annapurna, via the almost 2000 m high right E buttress of the S face. Over the years, he made several outstanding climbs with his close friend and longest serving partner, Wojciech Kurtyka. He also climbed with Czok, Pawlowski, Wielicki, Heinrich, Piotrowski and Hajzer.

Kukuczka received several gold medals in Poland for achieving outstanding results abroad in sport. In 1987 he was made ‘Man of the Year’ in Poland after completing the 8000 m peaks. He also received a crystal trophy from the Polish Foreign Minister ‘for making the name of Poland famous throughout the mountaineering world’. In 1988 he was awarded an honorary Olympic silver medal by the Winter Olympic Committee in Calgary.

Kukuczka was a wonderful husband and father of two sons. He was a quiet, modest and sensitive man, religious, dependable, a considerate friend and tolerant in his opinions of other climbers. His magnetic personality was an inspiration to all around him. His loss is a severe blow to his family, to Poland and to international mountaineering. His eternal bivouac is high among his beloved Himalayan peaks, and his memory will remain for ever with those who climb mountains.

Jerzy Kukuczka’s 8000 m Peaks
(This is a revised version of the list in AJ-93, 258, 1988/89.)

  1. Lhotse – 8516 m – 4.10.1979 – Normal route. (On 24.10.1989 ]erzy Kukuczka died in a fall near the summit of Lhotse while attempting the unclimbed South Face.)
  2. Everest 8848 m 19.05.1980 New route, S Pillar. (Using oxygen only to the South Summit.)
  3. Makalu 8463 m 15.10.81 New route – Flank from Barun glacier and NW ridge. Solo.
  4. Gasherbrum II 8035 m 1.07.1983 New route,SE Flank,via virgin peak 7772 m.
  5. Gasherbrum I 8068 m 23.07.1983 New route, SW wall.
  6. Broad Peak 8047 m 17.07.1984 New route, Traverse of the Massif of 3 Peaks 7538 m, 8016 m, 8047 m. (In 1982 ]erzy Kukuczka climbed Broad Peak via the normal route.)
  7. Dhaulagiri 8167 m 21.01.1985 1st Winter Ascent, normal route.
  8. Cho Oyu 8201 m 15.02.1985 1st Winter Ascent (as a second team), new route, SE pillar.
  9. Nanga Parbat 8125 m 13.07.1985 New route, SE pillar.
  10. Kangchenjunga 8586 m 11.01.1986 1st Winter Ascent, normal route. 
  11. K2 8611 m 8.07.1986 New route, S wall.
  12. Manaslu 8163m 10.11.1986 New route, NE wall.
  13. Annapurna 8091m 3.02.1987 1st Winter Ascent, normal route. (On 14.10.1988 ]erzy Kukuczka established a new route via the E buttress of the S face.)
  14. Xixabangma 8027m 18.09.1987 New route, W ridge.

I have something inside me that makes me have no interest in playing for low stakes. For me it is the high bid or nothing. That’s what fires me. 

                                                                              Jerzy Kukuczka

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Temptation Of The Virgin Pass

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Often attempted, never conquered, the Freney route up Mont Blanc lured Walter Bonatti and six others on a sunny July morning. Only three returned from one of the most tragic Alpine climbs in 20 years

article by Gordon Ackerman (August 07, 1961; Sports Illustrated)

In late spring the snow melts around the base of Mont Blanc and trickles off in streams and rivulets down into the deep valleys on each side of the mountain. Mont Blanc is the highest point in western Europe; it looms up on the Alpine range on the border between France and Italy, just below Switzerland. It is more than 15,000 feet high and looks down on the village of Courmayeur on the Italian side and Chamonix on the French side. These are picturesque resorts for skiers and mountain climbers and are tied together by the highest cable car in the world.

By June most of the skiers have left and the time has come for the mountain climbers. Some of them are dabblers but many are men to whom climbing is a passion and a raison d’�tre—like Pierre Mazeaud, a 36-year-old Paris law professor; or Antoine Vieille, a student and the son of a French admiral; or Robert Guillaume, who three years ago left his job in a Paris bakery to learn climbing and to prepare himself for the next French Himalayan expedition; or Pierre Kohlmann, a French civil engineer who found his love for mountains four years ago when he doubled for the hero of a French adventure film during an Alpine sequence.

To men of this kind Mont Blanc is not only a thing of beauty but also a challenge and temptation. The greatest temptation of all is the Freney Pillar on the Italian side, which begins at 12,500 feet and reaches, in a massive wall of snow, ice and red granite, up to 15,000 feet, not far from the summit itself. Many good climbers have tried for the summit by way of the Freney but none has succeeded.

 

The view from Bonatti’s window

Walter Bonatti, 31, and one of the best Alpinists alive, has tried it a dozen times. At 16 he left his family to work nights as a machinist so that he could learn mountain climbing during the day. At 17 he saved a party of nine French and Italians stranded in a hailstorm on the north wall of Mont Blanc, and at 18 he climbed to the summit of Mont Blanc alone. He has also climbed in the Dolomites and Himalaya, making the triumphant ascent of K-2 in 1954. Bonatti lives in Courmayeur with his wife and family three miles from the base of Mont Blanc. He is a tall, broad-shouldered and tranquil Italian, possessed of that character compounded of tenacity, self-assurance and sincerity which distinguishes so many mountain people. He has lived in Courmayeur for 14 years, and from the windows of his home he can look at Mont Blanc and the Freney, the virgin trail. Bonatti was known as the man to see if you wanted to climb a mountain.

In June, Bonatti had a phone call from an engineer and climber in Milan named Roberto Gallieni. He had never met Gallieni but knew of him as a devoted and impassioned amateur who wanted to be a guide himself and who had done some good work in the Dolomites and Aosta Valley range near Turin. Gallieni asked Bonatti if he wanted to try the Freney. Bonatti did. He suggested they find one other professional climber; then the three of them could start the climb early in July with Bonatti as guide. “We’ll get the virgin,” Gallieni said.

Bonatti found the third man the next day. It was an easy choice; only two months before, he and a 30-year-old climber from Monza named Andrea Oggioni had climbed together in Peru, and they had talked of the Freney then. Oggioni was Bonatti’s best friend, and he agreed at once to make the Freney attempt.

On July 8, a Saturday, Oggioni and Gallieni arrived in Courmayeur. They had dinner with the Bonattis and talked about Freney, planning the trip. They had their equipment and wanted to leave immediately. They started early Sunday, taking the cable car up to the Helbronner shelter at 10,000 feet, each with 50 pounds on his back. From there they began a lateral trek across 8,000 feet of ice and snow toward the Aiguille Noire, the Black Needle, where they would bivouac Sunday night before starting the 2,500-foot vertical ascent up the Freney to the summit of Mont Blanc. Bonatti liked the look of the weather; the sky was clear all the way into Switzerland and France and down into the Aosta Valley. Bonatti led, followed by Gallieni; Oggioni was last, carrying most of the equipment. The snow was soft only to a depth of six inches. On the way Bonatti thought to himself: if the weather holds up like this we should make it all right.

On Sunday afternoon, when they stopped to rest, Bonatti saw, coming down over an ice rise 900 feet above them and a half a mile away, four other climbers. He could see through his binoculars that they were carrying equipment for a long climb. The first man carried a pickax from which a small triangular French flag flew in the cold wind.

The four moved quickly across the ridge and came trotting toward the Italians through the light snow, their faces covered with grease against the wind and sun. The leader came up to Bonatti and they embraced and shook hands; he was Pierre Mazeaud, the Paris professor, who had met Bonatti many times. The other three were also known to the Italians: Antoine Vieille, making his first important climb; Pierre Kohlmann and Robert Guillaume. They had left Chamonix, on the French side, Saturday, and taken the cable car to 11,000 feet, marching downhill all day Sunday to reach the entrance to the Freney. Like the Italians, they hoped to be the first to reach the summit by the Freney route.

Bonatti and Mazeaud, the two leaders, stepped away from the others and talked together. Bonatti explained that his group was trying the same thing; why didn’t they join, he suggested, all seven of them, and try it together? It would be easier with seven: roped together they could resist an avalanche or storm. It would be a French and Italian climb, just as Mont Blanc is a French and Italian mountain. Mazeaud thought it was a fine idea and so did the others. And so at sunset, as the acres of snow and ice turned to amber, the seven men bound themselves to each other with a single rope and in single file started toward the Black Needle peak.

The men got on well together; Bonatti, Gallieni and Oggioni spoke French, and after dinner at the Black Needle they sat inside their tents and talked, listening to young Guillaume joke about his work as a baker and wondering how any man could do work like that when there were mountains to climb; listening to Vieille tell that he would be drafted in August and hoped to get into the ski corps. Gallieni was somewhat worried about his family, as his wife thought he was just visiting the Bonattis in Courmayeur. Kohlmann, who was deaf in one ear, talked little but like the others listened carefully whenever Bonatti spoke. The seven had a lot in common. They were among the 20 best Alpinists in the world, and even Vieille, 22 and the youngest present, was considered a briliant and resourceful climber.

At 10 p.m. they closed their sleeping bags and went to sleep. In Courmayeur, 11,000 feet down, Bonatti’s wife stood at the window of their bedroom and imagined that she could make out the Black Needle, where her husband had told her they would camp the first night. In Milan the Italian meteorological service issued a report indicating the formation of a low-pressure area over the Aosta Valley which by late Tuesday would move northward to form a heavy cloud layer over the Franco-Italian Alpine range, with rain or light snow possible at high altitudes.

From the Black Needle upward

Monday morning the hard work began. Crossing the ice field had been easy, but the route from the Black Needle upward through the Freney to the summit was solid granite and ice, almost 3,000 feet of it. The men started at dawn with two flags, French and Italian, waving in the polar-cold wind.

Through Monday and Tuesday they climbed in fresh snow toward the summit. They made little headway; the winds had become stronger, driving the snow into soft and treacherous drifts. Each hour Bonatti and Mazeaud stopped to rest and check the condition of their men. Vieille had slowed down a little at the end of Monday’s climbing; Mazeaud had asked how he felt, and when Vieille said he felt wonderful but cold, the Italians had given him an extra windbreaker. Bonatti was also worried about Guillaume, who was one of the best French climbers of his generation but who lacked experience on rock ledges and cliffs of the kind the team would encounter before they got to the summit. But Monday night when they camped, Bonatti had found Guillaume confident and in good shape. By noon on Tuesday, when they stopped to eat a lunch of canned meat and milk, Bonatti. and Mazeaud agreed that the Freney was nearly licked. They could see the summit no more than 500 feet above them, looming blinding-white against the purple sky. They decided to climb till sundown and then camp only 240 feet from the summit, attacking it at dawn Wednesday. Looking down behind him, Bonatti could see the ice plain they had crossed together Sunday, vast and vacuous, its lunate ridges shining in the sun.

At 5 o’clock Tuesday afternoon the seven men were 270 feet from the top. They could see it directly above them, at the other end of a granite cliff covered with ice. Bonatti turned to look down once more at the ice plain, and it was gone. A layer of fog had come within half an hour, obscuring the whole valley and village. Mazeaud motioned overhead; Bonatti looked up and saw heading their way a massive layer of gray clouds that extended a hundred miles into Switzerland. It was the last thing he was to see clearly for many days.

Within an hour, the clouds swept over Mont Blanc, covering the summit and the climbers and cutting the visibility to less than a yard. It began to snow, vast waves of snow, sweeping across the Freney and trapping the men so close to their goal. The temperature fell below zero and the wind rose to 70 miles an hour.

Bonatti and Mazeaud tugged on the rope and gathered the men around them, yelling right into their ears to make themselves heard over the noise of the storm. Bonatti saw that Vieille and Guillaume were not in good shape, though they both assured him that they felt fine. Pierre Kohlmann had developed a bad earache, and his lips and face were blue from the cold. He said he wanted to go on, and they all put it up to Bonatti, who was left to decide whether the seven should try to reach the top and the wooden hut there, or start back down the Freney again in the storm.

Bonatti made his decision: down. They started their descent through the fury of the storm, but they had gone only a little distance before they were forced to take shelter in a crevice in the ice. So precarious was this perch that they drove pitons in its walls to cling to. The storm grew worse; Oggioni and Gallieni lost their footing and dangled over the edge, nearly carrying all seven with them before they were hauled back. Mazeaud leaned over to Bonatti and yelled: “It’s the worst I’ve seen, ever.” Bonatti, the veteran of 48 Mont Blanc ascensions, the Himalaya and Dolomites, stared out into the storm and watched the swirling snow. He nodded in agreement.

As they huddled there by the abyss, cold attacked the men insidiously, relentlessly. Bonatti took off his gloves and saw that the ends of his fingers had whitened; he had lost all sensation in them. A moment later Mazeaud, in pain, took off his left boot. His foot, from the toes to the ankle, was purple.

The night passed in wild turmoil, but on Wednesday morning the storm abated slightly. Bonatti decided to continue the descent. He ordered the men to divide into pairs: he and Gallieni leading; Vieille going with Guillaume; Kohlmann with Mazeaud. Oggioni would bring up the rear carrying most of the equipment and acting as a shepherd. Henceforth, except for Oggioni, each would be bound only to one other man, Bonatti reasoning there was too great a chance of all of them falling if they stayed in a single group of seven. He called Oggioni aside and told him they would probably all be separated before they reached the Gamba shelter, 7,000 feet below. They were now at about 14,500 feet. Bonatti told him to watch Vieille as best he could; he was not experienced in rock climbing or storms. Kohlmann, too, was having trouble.

Their arrangements were made; they were about to set off for Gamba, and then the storm suddenly broke into full fury again. Bonatti yelled, calling the men back into the crevice. They were hungry, but the food was gone. Mazeaud’s feet were worse and he could no longer feel anything in his lips or hands. Bonatti ordered them to wait till it cleared, no matter how long it lasted; just to step out of the crevice, he said, would be to commit suicide.

The storm went on for three days and for all that time the men sat cramped and cold. Friday night two avalanches roared past the crevice, pulling four of the men off balance and nearly over the edge. The physical and mental ravages of hunger, thirst, exhaustion, cold and shock began to show. The water was gone and the men started eating snow. They were all suffering to some degree from frostbite, particularly Mazeaud, who had lost all feeling from the knees down. By Friday night Vieille and Kohlmann were semidelirious, Bonatti knew that if they didn’t leave soon they would never leave.

At 2 a.m. Saturday morning Bonatti told them to get packed again. They started, crawling with animal tenacity out of the ice crevice and backing down a hundred foot ledge into the omnivorous and vertical Freney. Oggioni was the last, the watchman and whip, bearing most of the equipment and much of the responsibility, using up his energy by shouting encouragement to the others, whom he couldn’t see. He yelled their names, swore at them, insulted them and pleaded with them to keep moving: “Avanti! Avanti! Avanti!” His voice vaporized into the frigid air around him, heard only by Kohlmann and Mazeaud, the last pair, just behind Vieille and Guillaume.

They plowed through snow and over cliffs and ledges all day Saturday. By noon the pairs had become separated by several hundred feet, which in the storm was as good as a hundred miles because none of them could hear or see more than a yard in any direction. In the lead Bonatti and Gallieni were buried under an avalanche. They succeeded in freeing themselves with their pickaxes just before suffocating, but they were badly weakened. Gallieni was exhausted and, becoming delirious, wanted to bivouac—anywhere. Bonatti’s fingers and palms froze solid, but he knew that if they stopped before reaching the Gamba shelter they would never live through the night; the wind would tear their tents away. He worried about the others but lost contact with all of them except Gallieni. The last he had seen of Vieille and Guillaume, Vieille had had his arm around Guillaume’s shoulder; he could hardly walk. Though it was daytime Bonatti couldn’t see his hand in front of his face and when he felt himself nearing a ledge or precipice he got down on his stomach and inched his way toward it backwards, feeling with his knees for the edge.

Kohlmann and Mazeaud, bound together, became stuck in snow up to their lips. Mazeaud saw his partner’s head weaving and his eyes rolling. He also was near the end, and tried to think of something encouraging to yell to Kohlmann. Instead, he began to doze while fighting through the drifts. Suddenly he felt a tug on the end of the rope and turned to see Kohlmann collapsing, his head sinking out of sight beneath the snow, drowning in it. He struggled back to catch him and as he turned he felt the flesh open up above his ankles.

Kohlmann was unconscious. Mazeaud plucked him out of the snow and yelled at him. He carried him to an ice crevice; Kohlmann woke up but refused to go on. Mazeaud took his pulse: it was weak and slow. Kohlmann’s eyes closed, and, though Mazeaud shook him for fully 15 minutes, he couldn’t wake him. Mazeaud tried carrying him again but couldn’t. He yelled into the storm for help but no one answered, and he felt himself weakening and almost decided to go to sleep beside Kohlmann. Finally he wrapped Kohlmann in two blankets and stretched him out in the crevice, sheltered from the storm, and marked the spot with a green handkerchief. Then he started down again.

Left in a crevice to die

At midnight Saturday Bonatti and Gallieni reached the Gamba shelter, a one-room wooden hut. They literally bumped into it. Bonatti collapsed in the doorway, and Gallieni, trying to carry him, fell beside him and passed out. Bonatti awoke and carried Gallieni to a cot, and then again blacked out. When Pierre Mazeaud arrived, exhausted, three hours later he found them both awake but delirious and mumbling unintelligibly. Bonatti finally recovered and then Mazeaud began to cry, screaming that he had left Kohlmann behind in a crevice to die and that he deserved to die too.

At dawn Sunday, Guillaume, Vieille and Oggioni were still missing. The storm lifted a little and a team of six rescuers, who had started from Courmayeur the night the storm began, arrived at Gamba. They found Mazeaud and Gallieni nearly out of their senses and Bonatti close to unconsciousness from exhaustion, hunger and frostbite. The rescuers gave them hot milk, and Mazeaud and Bonatti stammered out the story of the climb. Together with Bonatti and Gallieni, the rescue team left the hut to search for the missing four.

They started up the slope, retracing Bonatti’s route, and 40 feet from the shelter they found Guillaume dead, entombed in a chunk of frozen snow. He had given up 10 minutes before reaching the hut. Gallieni broke down again and the rescuers insisted he go back to Gamba. He refused, but Bonatti was unable to continue.

Not many yards farther on the searchers found Kohlmann, incredibly alive and sitting in the ice crevice where Mazeaud had left him. Seeing him, they embraced him and tried to carry him on their shoulders.

The night in the crevice, however, had done things to Pierre Kohlmann. He attacked his rescuers, beating them about the face. He then started to run away, screaming into the wind that they were trying to kill him. He got down on his hands and knees in the snow and began to moan. As they ran toward him, Kohlmann dived toward an ice cliff and was barely saved from going over. Seeing Kohlmann closeup, the men were shocked: his face was black, with deep cracks gaping in his chin and nose. He rose unsteadily and attacked again but was finally persuaded to go with them back to the hut.

Near Gamba, Roberto Gallieni lost his glove. As he reached into his breast pocket for another, Kohlmann broke away and started to run, screaming that Gallieni was trying to get a revolver to kill him. He started up toward Freney in the snow, yelling into the wind. They found him dead a few moments later, his face locked in an expression of inviolable terror.

A little farther up the pass the rescuers found Oggioni. He was seated in a crevice, his arm raised as if in salute, frozen and dead. Beyond, across a granite face, they could see through their glasses the shrouded body of Vieille, who apparently had been the first to die.

At 9 a.m. Sunday, just a week after the three Italians started the ascent, a French helicopter settled near the Gamba shelter and carried the three survivors to Courmayeur. Bonatti and Gallieni were taken to the Courmayeur Clinic. They recovered well, but their fingers and feet were permanently affected.

Mazeaud was flown on to a hospital in Lyons and placed under sedation. When the sedatives wore off and he regained consciousness, he learned that his feet might have to be amputated. He grabbed each doctor and intern that came in his room and tried to tell them what happened. Finally he calmed down and told the whole story to his surgeon, from beginning to end in infinite detail, concluding in French: “When you’re worn out, death looks better than life; up there at 10,000 feet Saturday night, death looked to us as sweet as a soft and warm bed.”

Link to the article

Nanda Devi – River Deep Mountain High

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Forty-five years ago, a joint Indo-US espionage mission lost five kilograms of plutonium high up in the Himalaya. It’s still missing—but the government has decided to ignore the ongoing threat.

An Article by Vinod K. Jose
(Executive Editor of The Caravan)
Nanda Devi (Image source Wikipedia)

Nanda Devi (Image source Wikipedia)

I

ONE MORNING IN EARLY AUGUST, in a tiny village in the upper Himalayas, Karthik Rana heard a warning come over All India Radio—heavy rains were on the way. The 80-year-old shouted at his wife, daughters, daughters-in-law and grandchildren: “Get the sheep home! The clouds are going to open!”

I had arrived at Lata Kharak earlier that morning, a few hours before heavy rains and avalanches descended on the Himalayas. A few hundred miles to the north, in Leh, 200 people were killed in a massive cloudburst; across the mountains, in China, landslides claimed 1,000 lives.

The sound of thunder atop Lata Kharak, 2,370 metres above sea level, set heartbeats racing: in a matter of seconds, sheep, cows and naked toddlers emerged from the bushes, frantically running for shelter.

Two villages, Lata and Reini, are the highest inhabited points on Lata Kharak; above them no human beings or tamed animals are to be found. Further still lies the mighty Nanda Devi, India’s second highest peak, towering overhead at 7,816 metres above sea level.

Karthik Rana, a short, toothless man with an athletic body, boyish enthusiasm and a very sharp mind, belongs to a nomadic shepherd tribe of Tibetan origin, the Jad Bhotia. When British surveyors, anthropologists and mountaineers began exploring these hills a century ago, they turned to the men of the tribe to work as porters. Today, Rana is among the oldest porters in Reini—old enough to remember the details of a fateful expedition on Nanda Devi 45 years ago.

Karthik Rana, an 80-year-old porter who participated in the CIA-IB search operations between 1966 and 1968, but missed the initial climbing expedition to Nanda Devi in 1965.

Karthik Rana, an 80-year-old porter who participated in the CIA-IB search operations between 1966 and 1968, but missed the initial climbing expedition to Nanda Devi in 1965.

On 1 September 1965, two junior officers from India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) came to Lata to recruit porters for a joint Indian-American espionage mission on the mountain. “Luckily,” Rana said, “in the early summer of 1965, I was hired by Japanese mountaineers to climb another peak, Trisul, so I missed out when Indian saabs came calling.”

The mission was to scale Nanda Devi and install a terrestrial communication interpreter, powered by a nuclear electrical generator, at the summit. In 1964, China had conducted its first nuclear tests in the western province of Xinjiang, stunning American intelligence agencies, who thought the Chinese were still years away from nuclear capability. The remote sensing device atop Nanda Devi was intended to gather information about any future Chinese atomic tests.

The first major joint operation conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the IB was facilitated by the tense geopolitical developments of the period: only three years earlier, India had faced a humiliating defeat in its war with China, which erased Jawaharlal Nehru’s unadulterated faith in the communist bloc—until then, slogans like ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’ had sounded a promising post-colonial world order. The Americans, for their part, were anxiously waging military and ideological wars against communism. Over the course of 1965, 200,000 US soldiers were sent to fight a futile and costly war in Vietnam.

China’s sudden emergence as an atomic power represented a serious new threat to the Americans, who hatched a plan to install a spying device in the Himalayas to monitor Chinese nuclear tests. But the Americans were convinced that the mission could not succeed without the help of Indian climbers and the country’s defence and intelligence agencies. Beginning in early 1965, American officials devoted all their energy to enlisting the co-operation of their Indian counterparts. By the time the IB men arrived in Lata, the most difficult work was already done. All that remained was to hire and train a team of porters to carry the payload.

Thirty-three Bhotia men from Lata and Reini were hired for the expedition; nine Sherpas, members of a tribe of elite mountaineers, were brought from Sikkim for their expertise in climbing glaciers. The mission would be led by some of India’s most legendary mountaineers—drawn from a team of climbers who had scaled Everest earlier that year.

Capt Manmohan Singh Kohli, the fateful expedition’s leader

Capt Manmohan Singh Kohli, the fateful expedition’s leader

Manmohan Singh Kohli, a Navy commander assigned to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), was the expedition’s leader. With him were four officers from the IB: Harish Rawat, Sonam Wangyal, Gurcharan Singh Bhangu and Sonam Gyatso—all were well-trained mountaineers, and winners of the Arjuna award, India’s highest recognition in sports.

Kohli was in daily radio contact with Rameshwar Nath Kao, who would later become the founding director of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). At the time, Kao was the director of the Aviation Research Centre (ARC), a branch of the IB, and reported to the man known as the pitamaha of Indian intelligence, Bhola Nath Mullik, the first director of the IB after Independence. Mullik and Kao remain the two most important intelligence officers India has ever produced.

Mullik and his CIA counterparts supervised the expedition from Washington and New Delhi, and a CIA case officer in India, Bill McKniff, was stationed at a base camp on Nanda Devi. Three American mountaineers had been hired by the CIA to accompany the Indian team.

The joint Indo-US covert mountaineering mission was the largest and the longest the world has seen, involving an army of porters and Sherpas, twin teams of mountaineers, nuclear experts, intelligence officers, and signal experts. But it would end in disaster: in October 1965, the onset of winter weather forced the mountaineers to abandon their climb. The material intended for the summit of Nanda Devi was deposited at a camp along the ascent, where the climbers expected to find it at the start of the next season. But that winter the equipment—including a 17-kilogram nuclear assembly—was swept away by an avalanche. When Kohli and his team returned in 1966, they discovered that the five kilograms of plutonium 238 and 239 that powered the nuclear device—only one kilogram less than the quantity of plutonium used in ‘Fat Man,’ the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki—were nowhere to be found.

It may not have been the worst failure in the history of Indian and American intelligence, but it would prove to be the one with the most long-lasting consequences. After three consecutive years of searching for the missing nuclear device, the CIA and the IB decided it would never be retrieved. Today, 45 years later, the generator is still at large in the vicinity of Nanda Devi.

The precise dangers still present are unknown: in the worst-case scenario, one of the headstreams of the river Ganges that begins at the Nanda Devi glacier could carry the nuclear material, if it surfaces, down from the Himalayas and into the Ganges basin, home to millions of Indians. If the device is found by someone who doesn’t understand its origins, it could be dismantled and distributed as scrap, spreading the risk of radiation to everyone who comes into contact with it.

The Nanda Devi expedition and its failure remained an official secret until 1977, when a report appeared in an American adventure magazine, Outside. Indian legislators then raised the issue in Parliament, forcing Prime Minister Morarji Desai to acknowledge the mission and order a scientific inquiry into its possible consequences. Six eminent scientists were convened to produce a dense technical report on the risks posed by the loose nuclear material, but their recommendations have been ignored for three decades.

The IB records are locked up. Mullik and Kao are now dead. And the Americans have remained silent. In 2002, Kohli co-authored his own account of the mission, a memoir called Spies in the Himalayas, which was published in a small edition by HarperCollins India and the University of Kansas Press. But Kohli’s memoir, which emphasised the intrigue and adventure of the climb, neglected the outstanding political and scientific questions. From a political perspective, how had a few intelligence officers been able to authorise a risky operation under suspicious circumstances? Had they taken advantage of a window of opportunity that followed Nehru’s death in May 1964? The scientific issues, meanwhile, have been conveniently buried. Desai’s expert committee had presented a series of precautionary suggestions that included the advice to “monitor the environment on a continuing basis to watch for radioactive contamination of any significance.” Needless to say, there is no effort today to monitor the area around Nanda Devi, the water entering the Ganges, or the adjacent fields. The consequences of this intelligence failure are still with us—but the government has elected to pretend they no longer exist.

II

1965 WOULD PROVE TO BE A CRUCIAL YEAR for Indian mountaineering. Twelve years after the British first climbed Mount Everest—followed by the Swiss and the Americans—MS Kohli and his team were feverishly preparing for India’s fourth attempt at the summit. But in February, two days before they were to depart for Nepal, Kohli received an unexpected visitor in Delhi who would set in motion the chain of events that led to the disaster on Nanda Devi.

Barry Bishop was a 33-year-old American who had climbed Everest with the US expedition in 1963. He was working as a photo editor at National Geographic magazine, but his surprise visit to Kohli had nothing to do with pictures. Bishop wanted Kohli to abandon his preparations for Everest and come immediately to Zemu Glacier, at the base of Kanchenjunga, the tallest peak in India, situated on the border between Nepal and Sikkim.

Kohli was astonished. Bishop was well aware that the Everest climb was only days away. “I asked him, ‘Are you mad, Mr Bishop?’” Kohli told me. But Bishop insisted, and that made Kohli all the more suspicious. After Bishop departed without having succeeded in his mission, Kohli penned a short note to Mullik—the ITBP, in which Kohli served, was under Mullik’s oversight at the IB.

“Dear Mullik,” the note said, “I met a very famous American mountaineer, Barry Bishop. To me something looks fishy. Please keep an eye on him. MS Kohli.” Two days later Kohli left for Nepal and the summit of Everest.

Barry Bishop mapping  with a theodolite 1961Photo (c) Barry Bishop & The Bishop Collection

Barry Bishop mapping with a theodolite 1961
Photo (c) Barry Bishop & The Bishop Collection

Bishop, who grew up in the midwestern state of Ohio, had already become an accomplished mountaineer by the time he crossed paths with another Ohioan: General Curtis LeMay, then the Air Force chief of staff. One of the most controversial officers in the history of the United States military, LeMay had led the most destructive aerial bombing campaigns of World War II, which dropped incendiary bombs that killed some 500,000 Japanese civilians over the course of six months in 1945. LeMay was a noted proponent of the use of nuclear weapons, and clashed several times with President John F Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the early stages of the Vietnam War, arguing that he should be allowed to bomb America’s rivals “into the stone age.” LeMay’s urge to start a third world war was legendary, and he was regarded in some circles as a “dangerous screwball.”

Asia had been LeMay’s workshop, and given that the US Air Force was responsible for tracking nuclear tests around the world, China’s detonations in Xinjiang were at the top of his agenda.

It was Bishop’s association with LeMay that launched the expedition. The Chinese were conducting their tests in a region where the Americans had no means to conduct satellite espionage—that technology was still being developed. When Bishop explained that the Himalayan peaks had an unobstructed view into China, the plan took flight.

General Curtis LeMay, the US Air Force chief of staff from 1961 to 1965, who helped conceive the Nanda Devi spy mission

General Curtis LeMay, the US Air Force chief of staff from 1961 to 1965, who helped conceive the Nanda Devi spy mission

But it was the CIA, rather than LeMay’s Air Force, that would have to secure Indian support for the mission. By 1964, the American intelligence agency had begun to build a relationship with the Indian government, facilitated by India’s defeat by China in the 1962 war, which shook Nehru’s faith in the Communist bloc. Nehru let the CIA into the country where, among other things, it formed the ITBP in which Kohli served, set up the ARC that Kao directed, and raised a commando force of Tibetan refugees—but he was careful to prevent India from becoming an American client state like Pakistan, vulnerable to the whims of the American security establishment. But Nehru’s intelligence chief, Mullik, was known for his pro-Western sympathies.

Jawaharlal Nehru inspects preparations for the 1962 war with China at an unknown location

Jawaharlal Nehru inspects preparations for the 1962 war with China at an unknown location

It was Mullik, in fact, who had sent Bishop to see Kohli before the Everest trip. The details remain locked up in secret documents in Washington and New Delhi, but the American mountaineer was on an assignment from the CIA, with Mullik’s approval.

 

III

WHEN KOHLI RETURNED FROM EVEREST—as a national hero—he was met by another unexpected visitor. But this time Kohli could not say no.

On 23 June, a vintage Indian Army Douglas DC-3 landed at Delhi’s Palam airport, carrying the triumphant Indian Everest team. Kohli was the first to deplane, waving his hand at the assembled crowd; eight others followed. The mission had set a record that stood for years, placing nine men on the peak of Everest, and the mountaineers were met by a roster of dignitaries. Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri was on a foreign trip, but the home minister and defense minister, along with the top officers of Indian intelligence, waited for the plane on the burning tarmac. They garlanded the mountaineers with marigolds and presented each with tricolour shawls.

The front page of The Sunday Tribune on 23 May 1965, which announced Kohli’s triumph on Mount Everest alongside the latest grim news from the war in Vietnam

The front page of The Sunday Tribune on 23 May 1965, which announced Kohli’s triumph on Mount Everest alongside the latest grim news from the war in Vietnam

The DC-3’s engines had not yet stopped roaring when a senior intelligence officer, Balbir Singh, pulled Kohli aside.
A deputy to Mullik within the IB, Singh was also the Inspector General of the ITBP; he had noticed Kohli’s mountaineering skills and brought him to the border police from the Navy.

“One Mr Kao is waiting for you behind the plane,” Singh whispered in Kohli’s ear. “Go and meet him.”

Kao, who would lead RAW for nearly a decade, was still a deputy to Mullik—the only man who had a greater influence over the development of India’s intelligence agencies. As the director of ARC at the IB, Kao was already renowned for his polished habits, intelligence and ability to manoeuvre within the political system. Mullik was grooming him to head RAW—where Kao would captain a series of daring foreign assignments, such as the formation of Bangladesh and the annexation of Sikkim to India, before going on to serve as the national security adviser to Indira Gandhi.

Kohli had no idea then what awaited him, but his conversation with Kao marked the beginning of an intense three years of collaboration. Behind the plane, Kao told Kohli, “It’s of serious national importance. We want you and your team to leave immediately for America. We’ve made your passports.”

Kohli, who did not hold a passport, was stunned when Kao told him one had already been prepared, something which in those years in India would take several months of wading through the bureaucracy.

Kohli immediately r recognized that something serious was afoot, but he was reluctant to let go of his moment of post-Everest glory.

“How can we leave so soon? There is a meeting fixed with the Prime Minister when he comes back, and with the President. And I’m invited to speak at the Parliament,” he protested.

Kao paused for a moment, and said, “Ok. But soon after you finish with the receptions, you should leave. Anyway, come and see me in the office tomorrow.”

The next day, sitting in his ARC office in RK Puram, Kao explained that there would be a joint Indian-American expedition to Kanchenjunga—the peak that Barry Bishop had discussed with Kohli—in order to leave “something” at the summit. Kao said he had “no idea” what that something might be. “But you have to do it for the national interest,” he told Kohli. “The Americans will tell you the rest.”

Kohli didn’t ask for further details. “What was that ‘something’? We never bothered to ask. We were mountaineers,” he told me. “Whatever we did it was for the nation. I never wanted to know the details. I simply followed orders.”

The Indian team was brought to America in a special plane, escorted by CIA agents conversant in Hindi and Punjabi. “We were not taken through immigration,” Kohli recalled, “and in our 40 days in the US, the CIA men did not leave us for a moment.”

After some obligatory sightseeing in New York and Washington, the Indian climbers were taken to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, where they were briefed on the mission and conducted mountaineering drills on Mount McKinley, the highest peak on US soil.

The leader of the American team in Alaska was none other than Barry Bishop. By the time Kohli and his team arrived, the Chinese had tested a second nuclear device in Xinjiang: this time they dropped a bomb from an aircraft, and the Americans were convinced that a missile test was around the corner. The pressure on Bishop to rush his team back to India increased by the day.

In the officers’ club at Elmendorf Air Force Base, the Indian team met Bishop and his recruits. The mission was a daunting one: the climbers would carry five loads to the summit of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest peak at an elevation of 8,579 metres. The cargo included the assemblies for a communication interpreter and an accompanying generator. Both would be installed at
the peak.

A CIA technician who was introduced as Gordon Sleeper demonstrated the interpreter and the generator: the sensor had four transceivers to relay information to a base station elsewhere in India, and a six-foot-tall antenna to collect data from the Chinese test site. The generator, known as SNAP 19C—System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power—converted radioactive heat into electricity.

SNAP 19C had five elements: a hot fuel block, radioactive fuel capsules placed in its core, thermometric generators mounted around it, insulation material, and the block’s outer casing. The only extant account of the device is found in the 94-page scientific study commissioned by Prime Minister Morarji Desai. In the report, 9 pages are spent describing the device:

The fuel, an alloy of Plutonium and Strontium—Pu-238, Pu-239, and Sr-90—was divided in seven capsules. Each capsule had an inner cladding of tantalum (0.5 mm thick) with sufficient void space for accumulation of helium gas, the gas emitted on radioactive decay. The heavy-walled outer cladding of the capsule was of a 2.5 mm thick alloy—Haynes-25, which is composed of cobalt, nickel, chromium and tungsten, and possesses high temperature and corrosion resistant properties as well as high structural strength. The fuel capsules were installed in a hexagonal graphite block along with other accessories like thermocouples, thermal insulation material etc.

Those were the early years of the atomic age, and thermoelectric power generators based on radioactive decay had only been developed in the early 1960s. They were used mainly in remote meteorological stations, but in safe and retrievable conditions. The danger of losing a nuclear generator in the snowy Himalayas seems not to have occurred to the American team until it was far too late.

SNAP 19C was not a bomb. To explode, it would need a trigger, which it did not possess. But it was powered by radioactivity, and it would be toxic to any human who encountered it: the plutonium radiation cripples the bones and makes even plants radioactive.

When Sleeper’s presentation came to an end, Kohli was alarmed—but not because of the nuclear material.

“Five loads? 125 pounds?” Kohli exclaimed.

“First, Kanchenjunga itself was a difficult proposition,” he later recalled. “Even a camera looks very heavy at that height. To put the loads on top, and spend couple of hours installing it… I found it was a stupid proposition.”

“I was surprised Bishop suggested such an idea. It was shocking; someone at that level of experience and knowledge in mountaineering should know what was possible and what wasn’t.”

But Kohli never raised his concerns with the Americans. As an obedient Indian officer, he completed the itinerary marked out by Bishop, came back to India and took up the matter with the IB.

“I went straight to Kao and Mullik,” he said, “with a letter written for Mullik.”

But Mullik was a man who did not take no for an answer, particularly from his subordinates. He was regarded as a perfectionist who never wanted to hear an operation was impossible. After reading Kohli’s letter Kao knew Mullik would be furious.

“As India’s leading mountaineer,” the lettter read, “I would be failing in my duty if I didn’t bring this to your attention. It is absolutely absurd and impossible to put all the CIA installations on top of Kanchenjunga. It is not possible, not practical.”

Kao asked Kohli: “How long have you known Mullik? If you knew him well, you wouldn’t write a letter like this.”

Kao tore up Kohli’s note. But Kao went to Mullik himself and convinced the chief that the mission should shift its focus to another mountain. Mullik eventually agreed, but would settle for nothing less than Nanda Devi; taller than Kohli’s suggested alternatives, but not as daunting as Kanchenjunga. Now all that remained was to reach its peak.

 

IV

NANDA DEVI IS A TWO-PEAKED MASSIF, encircled by a dozen equally tall peaks, like a rim that protects something precious in the centre. The western peak, the higher of the two, is known as Nanda Devi, while its shorter sibling is usually called Nanda Devi East. Until the early 19th century, it was regarded as the highest mountain in the world; after modern survey methods came into use, it became the 23rd-tallest in the world, and the second highest in India. For the CIA, only an Indian peak would suffice: the agency didn’t consider Everest, or any other mountain in Nepal or Pakistan; they feared an intelligence leak to the Chinese.

The climb from Lata village to the summit of Nanda Devi stretches over about 125 kilometers  and the teams had divided the distance into seven intervals: from the sanctuary to the base camp, on from there to four more intermediate camps, and finally to the summit. The porters from Lata and Reini carried the rations—purchased locally—to the base camp, and brought the five loads into which the sensor had been divided up to camp two. From there to the summit, the critical equipment would be in the hands of the Sherpas.

According to Kohli, the porters and Sherpas competed to carry the generator: because it gave off heat, they regarded it with a kind of reverence. The CIA technician told them it was safe, but as Kohli recalled, he had also pinned a white badge to each of their jackets, and explained that it would change color if exposed to excessive radiation. The badges remained white for the duration of the climb.

Kohli was the best-qualified person to lead the operation. He was a highly disciplined, energetic officer and mountaineer who understood what his seniors in the government wanted, and knew equally well how to lead his subordinate climbers. From the Nanda Devi base camp, Kohli would stay in radio contact with Mullik and Kao in Delhi. On the ground, he would direct the climbers, porters and Sherpas, and decide what each one of them was to do at particular points of time. Since Kohli was the expedition leader, the American climbers were also placed under him.

Contrary to Bishop’s earlier plan, only three American climbers finally committed to the Nanda Devi expedition: Lute Jerstard, Tom Frost and Sandy Bill. Bishop was not among them. The CIA case officer, Bill McKniff, was stationed at the base camp, while Gordon Sleeper, the technician who had demonstrated the nuclear generator in Alaska, set up a relay station nearby to transmit the information gathered by the sensor to New Delhi and Washington.

The climbers made slow but steady progress between 24 September and the second week of October. The climbing season was nearing its end—normally the mountaineers would have attempted this ascent earlier in the summer. But Kohli and his team had spent the better part of the season scaling Everest and then training in Alaska. As winter began to fall, they battled against time.

Kohli’s plan was to send a team of Sherpas from the fourth and final camp to the summit: they would deliver the cargo to the peak and return. Then a second team, with two Indian and two American climbers, would ascend to the summit and assemble the device. It was 300 metres from the fourth camp to the summit—no more than a five-hour climb on a clear day. But by 16 October, snow was falling at a steady pace: visibility was dwindling, and the danger of an avalanche was serious. The men were beginning to show signs of exhaustion and headaches, and coughing fits and dizziness were widespread. Kohli conferred with Jerstad, a veteran of the 1963 American Everest team, and they agreed the lives of the men were now in real danger. It would be impossible to climb any further with the equipment. Kohli radioed to Delhi to deliver the news. Bringing down the climbers meant abandoning the expedition until the following May, but the officers in Delhi unhappily consented: the ascent would resume at the start of the next climbing season.

Kohli also got permission to secure the generator and the sensor at camp four, so they didn’t have to carry them all over again next year. “It sounded sensible then,” Kohli said.

Bhangu and six Sherpas found a suitable rock cavity. Half the loads were sheltered there and the rest secured to the rock with nylon ropes.

After a full winter’s rest and lots of planning, Kohli’s team returned to Nanda Devi in early May 1966. In the meantime, China had conducted a third nuclear test—this time with a warhead mounted on a missile. Tensions rose in Delhi and Washington, where the failure of the previous year’s climb meant continued lack of information about Chinese nuclear activity.

The plan was to climb back to camp four, unburdened by the loads; the team would pick up the equipment where it had been secured the previous year, and simply take it on the final ascent to the summit.

But when Bhangu and the Sherpas reached the spot where they had deposited the equipment in October, they got the shock of their lives. The loads were missing, and the rock to which they had been secured was gone as well. It was clear that an avalanche had swept away the rock—and the equipment—during the winter, leaving behind no trace of the generator. The radio message announcing the missing equipment sent shivers through Delhi and Washington.

“The Americans were very upset about the generator,” Kohli recalled. “How they made it, how the capsules were loaded, all these were top-secret things. They didn’t expect to lose it. The Indians were worried by the first response from the American scientists, who told Mullik that millions of Indians would die if it reached the Ganges.” This may have been an exaggeration, Kohli suggested—to scare the Indians out of any complacency in the search. But even the unflappable Mullik was seriously concerned by the prospect of a nuclear catastrophe in India.

For two more years the CIA and the IB would dispatch search teams to find the missing equipment; the Americans sent the best technology available in the 1960s—metal detectors and neutron sensors. The device was never located.

 

V

LAST JULY I WENT TO SEE Captain MS Kohli in Nagpur, where he now lives with his wife, Pushpa, in a two-storey house in a posh neighborhood just off National Highway 7. The walls of his house are decorated with neatly framed photos of his mountaineering achievements. It was raining heavily when I arrived, and Kohli led me to the first floor, where he pulled two plastic chairs in front of a window in the bedroom for us to sit and talk.

Kohli is a fit 79: every day he gets up at four and heads out for a walk on the highway to one of the three hotels he now owns—the other two are in South Delhi, adjacent to Lady Sri Ram college, and in Goa, near Baga Beach. (The hotels are decorated with king-size posters of Kohli receiving awards from Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and each of the rooms is named after a legendary climber or mountain.)

“My younger son’s sandhi is from Nagpur. And his father-in-law said Nagpur is an upcoming city and a good place to invest. So we bought some land on the highway,” Kohli said.

After spending nine years in the ITBP and acquiring a captain’s rank in the Navy, Kohli asked for a second deputation in 1972 and moved to Air India as a manager, first in Mumbai, then in Sydney. “I was very tired after the tedious mountaineering assignments, and could not take the Himalayas any longer.”

I took out my recorder and notebook.

“Good—you are recording it? This will become a historical record. After all, I being in the twilight of my life, there won’t be many opportunities for such long recordings.”

In an interview that took four sittings over two days, Kohli recreated the entire operation—going beyond the adventure story to elaborate the planning, the dialogues and the scenes. Kohli thinks it would be wrong to portray him as a spy.

“Look, we weren’t spies, but adventure men. For us, it was a mountaineering expedition with a special purpose.”

Before answering every question, Kohli paused for a while, and went systematically from one point to another, like a dexterous, well-organised climber.

“You should write about the uniqueness of the mission—the Nanda Devi joint operation was the biggest in the world. Biggest, because of the number of people that took part in it. Besides the military of porters and Sherpas, we also had nuclear experts, intelligence officers, specialized agents like communicators, which is not the case in regular mountaineering expeditions. Then this expedition was the longest one. Normally an expedition takes only four months, including Mount Everest. But this lasted for four years. In the season you are on the mountain. In the off-season you are in Delhi, preparing for the next year’s search expedition. Thirdly, it was the most secretive mission. See how many years this has remained a secret. And fourth, it was the most expensive expedition. Besides helicopters and communication equipment, even the blankets provided to us by the CIA were the kind used in the space missions. We had everything fancy for the expedition.”

“How much did you get paid for your efforts?”

“Not a single penny was paid to any of the Indians. All Indian climbers were government servants. So we got only our salaries.”

“The Americans?”

“Ha, Americans wouldn’t do such an assignment for a song. They must have been paid heavily. All their climbers were professionals hired by the CIA. But I have no idea how much were they paid.”

“Did you ever regret the fact that you were part of an operation that ended up so messy?”

“Why should I? I was following orders from my seniors, Kao and Mullik. We were told that this was a mission of national interest for both India and America.”

“When you knew it was a nuclear generator, and weren’t sure if the risk factors were taken into account, did you not doubt the logic behind the mission?”

“My role was limited—it was that of a mountaineer. I didn’t go into the scientific details. I didn’t want to.”

“Was this the case with others in your team?”

“Yes. My colleagues were members of the 1965 Mount Everest expedition. This was another expedition for us. They had no idea how the signals in that equipment would help the Americans get information on the Chinese nuclear programme, or how the location of the Chinese nuclear site would help. That was all science and technology, which we did not understand. We were not bothered about any of it.”

“What level of political approval did the mission have?”

“It had approval from the highest level—Nehru.”

But Kohli’s suggestion that Nehru approved the operation is contradicted by the dates: the first Chinese nuclear test, which led the Americans to formulate the plan for the expedition, took place in October 1964; Nehru had died in May. It is possible, of course, that Nehru approved the operation before his death, but if that had been the case, the expedition would have departed in 1964 rather than 1965; the Americans were in a great hurry, and they would not have let an entire climbing season go to waste.

It seems almost certain, therefore, that the decision was taken between October 1964 and May 1965—when Lal Bahadur Shastri was prime minister. Shastri was known as a weak PM, and it is possible that Mullik simply took the decision himself. But none of these deliberations are part of the public record, and they seem likely to remain classified for years to come, making it all but impossible to determine conclusively who authorized the operation, and more importantly, whether there was any consideration of the risk of installing a nuclear generator at the top of Nanda Devi.
 

VI

AFTER THE FIRST ACCOUNT of the failed expedition was published in Outside magazine in 1977, it came to the attention of Indian parliamentarians, who brought it to the floor of the house and forced Prime Minister Morarji Desai to address the operation. The first questions came from Jyotirmoy Bosu, a communist who supported Desai’s socialist government, but several members of the Congress, who were then in the opposition, lent their support to Bosu’s enquiry. Chaos soon reigned in the house, and Parliament devoted an hour on 17 April 1978 to debating the Nanda Devi expedition.

Desai rose to address the house, and attempted to demonstrate that his government had made serious attempts to investigate the matter. “As soon as it came to our attention,” he said, “we expressed our grave concern to the US authorities and have subsequently been in touch with them in New Delhi and in Washington. We have also made thorough enquiries at our end to obtain as complete details as possible in the last few days. In the light of the international situation prevailing at that time and scientific developments which were taking place both far and near it was decided by the Government of India and the Government of the United States of America at the highest level that a remote sensing device with nuclear power-pack should be installed near the highest point of Nanda Devi with the object of securing information about missile developments.”

Desai continued uninterrupted for 30 minutes, and the members of parliament listened to him like children hearing a fairy tale. At the end of his account, he promised there would be a scientific inquiry “to make ourselves triply sure.”

But several leaders feared a free and accurate scientific study was impossible. K Lakkappa, a Congressman, worried that Indian scientists lacked the guts to stand up to Western pressure. “The scientists of this country are guided by outside forces. It is a great concern to this country whether we should have an independent thinking, an understanding about the sophisticated science and technology that has been deliberated by our scientists.”

Another Congress MP, KP Unnikrishnan, doubted that the government was revealing the entire story. “The Prime Minister’s attitude,” he said, “reminds me of the Chinese monkeys, the famous three monkeys? Hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil—and more so if it is about the CIA. It was not a minor scientific expedition in search of something. What is important is that the CIA exists as a grave danger to the national security of this country and other developing countries. And this political aspect has been totally neglected.”

Morarji Desai concluded the debate: “I do not know what other assurance my honourable friends want. We are truly and properly non-aligned and we want to be friends with all.” The House then moved on to discuss a public accounts committee report.

In less than a fortnight, Desai signed the order to form a six-member scientific committee to investigate the events of 1965. It was led by Dr Atma Ram, Principal Scientific Adviser to the prime minister, along with Homi Sethna, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission who spearheaded India’s first atomic tests in 1974; Prof MGK Menon, the Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister and Director General of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO); Dr Raja Ramanna, the director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), who also designed and installed several of India’s nuclear reactors; Dr V Ramalingaswami, the Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research; and Dr AK Saha of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics. They were the six best Indian scientists in the nuclear and public health fields in that era.

The team relied almost entirely on documents provided by the US because there was nothing else on which they could base their investigation 13 years after the expedition had taken place. Their 94-page report deconstructed SNAP 19C, its individual components and their half-lives, hazardous effects and accident conditions.

The team’s first recommendation to the government was to periodically monitor the environment near Nanda Devi to detect any radioactive radiation in the air, water and soil. The second recommendation was to develop new techniques for locating the device. The committee report suggested that the possibility of an accident involving the missing generator was minimal, based on the partial details about SNAP 19C that were made available to the committee by US agencies, but the scientists still thought it was critical to continue to attempt to secure the missing equipment.

Thirty years later—and 45 years after the radioactive material was lost—there have been no further efforts to locate the generator. Another search seems unlikely: no one in the government today has shown any concern for the whereabouts of the sleeping box.

VII

THE GANGES, one of the largest rivers in the subcontinent, has many headstreams. And one of them, the Rishi Ganga, originates from the Nanda Devi glacier, not far from the village of Reini, where it is fed by melting ice and rain from the Nanda Devi sanctuary.

To reach Reini, I traveled up National Highway 58; during the monsoon months, most of the 250-kilometre stretch between Rishikesh and Joshimath looks like a mucky village road.

Landslides are very frequent along the highway carved from the edges of the mountains. Several metres down the road, in the deep ravines, the Ganges flows in full force. Landslides bring with them massive quantities of rock, mud, uprooted trees, and even plastic bags to the road. Traffic is stranded for hours, and some cases even days. The road here is controlled by the military’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which quickly attends to roadblocks.

Caterpillar excavators are operated by khaki-clad men of the BRO. Teenage boys from Jharkhand, working for BRO sub-contractors, do the final clearing with shovels and spades.

The road is opened when just enough space is made for a vehicle to creep through. Ten vehicles from one side will go first, then ten from the other side. Muddy waters spread particles across the road, and tyres creak and crunch over the debris. One slip, and you’re 300 or 400 metres down the cliff and into the Ganges. At that height, in non-stop rain, you can’t hear the Ganges. But you can see its ferocity. Cusecs of water gush from one rock to another, in humps and downs, and there is tremendous energy in the flow. If the SNAP 19C generator, carrying its load of plutonium, made its way from the Nanda Devi glacier into the river, it would be carried downstream at great speed.

My destination was the furthest human habitation on the Rishi Ganga—Reini village. Reini is 25 kilometres from Joshimath, a Hindu holy town famous as the location where the 8th century revivalist Shankaracharya set up one of his four mutts. But today, the town of less than 15,000 people is dwarfed by the army and paramilitary forces. Stationed in the town are the 9th Infantry Brigade, Garhwal Scouts, Engineers Corps, Signal Corps, Sashastra Seema Bal (Border Guards) and the ITBP. After the 1962 war with China, this border town with Tibet became crucial for India.

As the sun sets, soldiers of the lowest order, the sepoys, take the puppies of their officers out in green Maruti Gypsies. The jeeps stop wherever the road is widest so the sepoys can take the animals out to relieve themselves; the officers watch from the front seats.

Three hours and several landslides after leaving Joshimath, I arrived in Reini: clusters of small houses stood out from the alpine trees. The dwellings, people and trees were at the height of the clouds. Unadulterated sunlight lit everything up in Reini.

Reini is home to about 800 people, almost all from the Bhotia tribe. Besides shepherding, they work in subsistence farming. Pulses, apple trees and pumpkins grow on neatly ploughed terraced land. Most houses are little more than two-room huts and are roofed with slate shingles, which help withstand the heavy snowfall in winter. The rooms have no ventilation, but the moment you step outside amongst the butterflies and dragonflies, breathing the cleanest air on earth, the aroma from the wild flowers is therapeutic.

In 1982, Nanda Devi was declared a national park and closed off to visitors. Eighty-five-year-old Inder Rana, a veteran porter, asked if I was an officer from Dehradun, visiting to see if the park could be opened.

The Nanda Devi sanctuary is rich with over 300 rare species of vegetation—firs, birches and junipers—and 80 species of rare animals like the snow leopard, the Himalayan black bear and the Himalayan musk deer; it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. The entire sanctuary and its summits are off-limits to everyone, including the Bhotias, and criminal cases may be filed against trespassers—but the military occasionally sends its men there for climbing drills.

There are two ways to reach Nanda Devi: you can go back up the Rishi Ganga to its origins, or you can go overland via the adjacent village of Lata. But there’s only one way for SNAP 19C to leave its hiding place: if the glaciers melt or break, the ice and water can carry the box to the Rishi Ganga.

Reini’s people live a few hundred metres up the mountain from Rishi Ganga, but it is their water source for drinking, cooking, bathing and irrigating their crops, brought up from the river through plastic tubes. “For centuries that’s been the case, and we want it that way in the years to come,” Rana told me.

He was the second veteran porter who recollected the three-year search operation on Nanda Devi to locate SNAP 19C. The box was lost several kilometres from here, at a much higher altitude of about 7,500 metres, but Rana, and others who knew that there was an incident where “something important was lost,” did not know precisely what it was. Nor can they imagine the potential danger it could cause if that ‘something’ were to come flowing down theRishi Ganga.

The first recommendation of the scientific committee was that “monitoring should be of all elements of the environment (air, water, local flora and fauna as well as of soil and cross sectional samples of sediments in the water beds).” Clearly, no radiation monitoring is taking place here.

It is not just Reini that lies in the way of a potential catastrophe. The Rishi Ganga joins the Dauli Ganga, the stream that comes from China, and they flow together to the river Alaknanda at Vishnu Prayag, which eventually joins the source of the river Bhagirathi to form the mainstream of the Ganges. Thousands of people depend on these streams, and millions more on the Ganges. The initial alarms given by the CIA to the IB in 1966, soon after it was known that SNAP 19C was lost, suggested that there was great reason for worry—“people up to Calcutta could be vanished,” according to the CIA. But the information later furnished to the scientific committee by the US was significantly less alarming: it suggested that the generator would be unlikely to cause a nuclear catastrophe—it would do minor damage, and only to those who came into direct contact with the radiation in the Himalayas; if the material made its way to the Ganges Basin, the scientists were told, it would be diluted to a very low concentration.

But the impact of radiation, especially at low levels, is never immediately apparent: slow deaths from radiation exposure could go entirely undetected. Medical officers in smaller towns along the Ganges would have no capacity to diagnose radiation as a cause of death, because it would only be fatal months, if not years, after the initial exposure.

In my own search for porters who were hired by Kohli and his team for the initial mission—the men who carried the nuclear generator on their shoulders—I found that all of them had died. According to Karthik Rana and Inder Rana, the two senior porters in Reini, the original porters had died while still in their 30s and 40s, though their peers who missed the trip in 1965 are still alive today, in their 80s. But after all these years, it is impossible to prove definitively that the radiation from the generator caused the premature deaths of the porters who carried it.

It is difficult today to determine the extent of the danger still posed by the missing generator: the American government provided the only information available to the scientific committee in 1978, and there has been no further research into the case. If efforts had been made to monitor the area around Nanda Devi—as the committee recommended—we might now know whether the missing device is a major or merely a minor danger. But no monitoring has been conducted, and the present government clearly has no intentions to start doing so now.

VIII

THERE ARE SEVERAL GOVERNMENT OFFICES that could turn their attention to the outstanding danger posed today by the unsecured nuclear material, including the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the Government of India; the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC); the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE); Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC); the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB); the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA); and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The Indian nuclear bureaucracy, in other words, is a big one.

At least four of the above institutions are headed by nuclear scientists-turned-technocrats. For a month I attempted to make appointments with the chiefs of all these institutions. Two of the offices denied my request by demanding to know why I was investigating this story to begin with. “This is an old story, and no officer would want to be seen commenting on a 45-year-old sensitive issue,” one secretary said. After several attempts, the head of one important office listed above agreed to a meeting—on the condition that I not name him or his institution.

On the morning of the day before Gandhi Jayanti I passed through multiple security checks and reached this un-nameable office. The man who I met has occupied almost every important position related to India’s atomic programmes, both in civilian energy and defence.

The un-nameable chief tried to persuade me not to write about the missing device. He said, “As far as the Government of India is concerned, it is a closed chapter.”

I asked him about the failure to follow the recommendations of the scientific committee report—most of whose authors had been his mentors. Why, I asked, were periodic radiation measurements not being conducted?

“It is an old story,” he said. “Don’t ask me anything about it. Don’t dig it up.” Instead, for most of the hour-long meeting he attempted to provide alternative story ideas about nuclear energy that he felt would make for better—or less politically damaging—articles.

The problem with a messy, unresolved 45-year-old nuclear story is that after one or two generations of scientists have considered the situation and moved on, the files have been declared closed: there is no hope that anyone will demonstrate the will to reopen the investigation. A scientist today who tries to take up the recommendations of Desai’s committee faces massive risks and no rewards; the government considers the matter dead, and there are no prizes for opening and then closing a case that everyone has agreed to ignore.

“I can only tell you this much,” the un-nameable scientist finally said. “This particular nuclear device used in Nanda Devi is under the earth. In 1974 and 1998, we conducted nuclear tests, which was also under the earth. So nothing is going to happen. It is buried.”

But the Indian nuclear tests were conducted under the deserts of Rajasthan. “The Nanda Devi device,” I pointed out, “is under ice, and glaciers move and melt. It could surface one day, right?”

He paused for a few seconds, and said, “I told you whatever I can tell you. Don’t ask me anything more.”

As far as the nuclear scientists are concerned, the generator is buried, and it doesn’t matter where. But glaciologists disagree. Unlike the deserts in Rajasthan where India’s nuclear tests were conducted, the Himalayan glaciers are not standing still. They move. The Nanda Devi glacier, in fact, travels a few centimetres every year.

“It is the sudden surges that you need to be afraid of,” said Dr Milap Chand Sharma, one of the very few glaciologists to have studied Nanda Devi. Glaciology remains a nascent discipline in India, and there are only a handful of experts in the country today. As I searched for a specialist on the Nanda Devi glacier, I was inevitably told to contact Dr Sharma, a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who admits he only began studying Nanda Devi recently.

The contrast between the deserts of Rajasthan and the Himalayan glaciers is even more dramatic from a seismic point of view: not only do these glaciers move, they are located in an area with a history of earthquakes and tremors.

Seismologists identify the Himalayas as a ‘seismic hazard’ area. As the Indian plate continues to hit the Asian plate, a massive tremor is inevitable on the Gangetic Plain, according to a paper published in the prestigious journal Science in 2001, which noted that:

Over centuries immense pressure has built up along the underground faults beneath the front ranges of the Himalayas, and one or more earthquakes will occur in India in the near future… The data indicate that the slip zone located about 12 kilometres underground between the Indian and Asian plates is comprised of hot, steam-like fluid. The temperature, pressure and the amount of fluids affect the entire seismic system.

But such complications are unwelcome news to the nuclear technocrats who advise the government today. Their approach is resolutely single-minded, and they have no interest in the insights provided by seismologists and glaciologists. They refuse to believe that the missing nuclear device, which they insist is buried, could ever resurface.

 

IX

MGK MENON is the only one of the six scientists who served on Morarji Desai’s 1978 committee still alive today, and has a legendary reputation among Indian scientists. After completing a PhD in particle physics in Britain, he returned to India soon after Independence. In the decades that followed, he played a major role in shaping India’s scientific institutions while continuing to conduct his own research into nuclear emulsion techniques and cosmic rays. As an acknowledgement of his contributions to space research, a minor planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter was named in his honour. He was Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, a scientific adviser to Rajiv Gandhi, and Minister for Science and Technology under VP Singh.

The 1979 scientific committee report, whose recommendations have been ignored by every government since its release

The 1979 scientific committee report, whose recommendations have been ignored by every government since its release

Menon is now 82, and mostly restricted to his home and his private office in South Delhi, where I went to meet him in September. His hair and beard have gone grey, and he wore a blue cotton kurta and spoke softly. We sat across a big table illuminated by a small lamp, and Menon maintained constant eye contact throughout our conversation.

I asked him what he remembered about the Nanda Devi expedition and the scientific committee report.

After a long gaze, he said, “That’s all long ago. There was a device; there is no question about that. But the details, it is difficult for me to recollect.”

I took out a spiral-bound copy of the 1979 report from my bag. From across the long table, Menon extended his hand. Turning the pages like an interested student, he said: “This must have been a secret document. Where did you get it? It would have been marked ‘confidential.’” For the next several minutes, he flipped the pages silently.

“All of them are dead and gone—Atma Ram, Sethna, Ramanna, Ramalingaswami, Saha. I’m the only one alive? Hmm…” A long silence followed, and he continued to patiently flip through the pages of the report.

“It is not a bomb, so no cause for alarm. It is a device running on plutonium, which can cause radiation. All that one should do is to monitor the area periodically, and use technology to locate it.”

When I replied that these recommendations—to monitor the area and search for the device—had been ignored, Menon had a clear and concise response: “Someone in the government should look into it.”

I asked Menon about the information that was provided to the scientific committee by the United States: had it been possible, I wondered, for the committee to correctly assess the danger posed by the equipment on the basis of the American disclosures?

“We relied on the documents given to us. Our mandate was limited. It was a generator to power ‘something.’ We had to look into that. We didn’t know what that ‘something’ was, or if that ‘something’ had any nuclear material in it. What that consisted of, we were not told.”

Menon said he did not remember seeing any evidence that the government had conducted risk assessment reports before ordering the operation in 1965—though such assessments are mandatory. “See, it is difficult for me to recollect it now, so I’ll leave it at that.”

Menon remained careful and guarded, and flipped through portions of the report in silence again for a while.

“See, the danger is if this device leaks and plutonium gets into the water…it can kill people. Plutonium is not something you want to get into the human system. It is toxic and radioactive, and if it enters the body, it ends up in the bones.”

“What do you think the government should do now?”

“Keep looking for it. The terrain mapping can be done. We roughly know the place. You can complete it in a few years.”

“But it is going to be costly.”

“Well, if you lost something dangerous, you should locate it, or at least monitor the area so that you act responsibly to the people.”

Menon is not the only person who thinks the government needs to reverse its course and monitor the area around Nanda Devi for signs of nuclear radiation. In Delhi’s political circles, the story of Nanda Devi occasionally resurfaces, and those who have never heard it before are inevitably shocked. When Satpal Maharaj, the MP for Garhwal—the area of Uttarakhand that includes Nanda Devi—learned about the expedition and the missing nuclear material in his constituency, he immediately wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Singh replied back with a perfunctory, one-sentence acknowledgement: “I have received your letter of 26 August 2009 regarding a reportedly missing nuclear device on Nanda Devi. With regards, Yours sincerely, Manmohan Singh.”

Sixteen months later, there has been no further action. When I met Maharaj, who is now the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, he insisted the government needed to act.

“Scientists and the intelligence people can feel embarrassed about it and not address it,” he said. “But we represent the people. It is a matter of great concern. That is why I took it up with Manmohan Singh-ji.”

“What is your demand?” I asked.

“My first demand will be to find it. If that is not possible, then at least to monitor the river. That is doable, and is a must. From Reini village up to Rudraprayag, you have to monitor.”

“But so many months later, you still haven’t heard anything from the government?”

“I plan to take it up again.”

The last search operation was in 1966-68, when the Americans and Indians conducted a panic-driven survey of the area around Nanda Devi. The technology they employed—metal detectors and neutron sensors—was cutting-edge at the time, but science has advanced considerably in the intervening four decades. Today a search could employ ground-penetrating radars and hyperspectral imaging to locate what lies beneath thick rock and ice.

“Technologically it is possible,” I was told by a nuclear scientist who works for the government. “Theoretically it is possible. But it would be hard for the government to justify the cost.”

The Americans, of course, could be asked to share the burden of funding a new search operation. But given that they have refused to acknowledge that the expedition ever took place—even after Morarji Desai admitted the partnership in the Indian Parliament in 1978—it would be naïve to expect the US to help pay for a new search. The entire incident—the initial failure, the subsequent unsuccessful attempts to locate the device and the ongoing refusal to monitor radiation in the area—is a major political embarrassment for both the Indian and the American governments. Nobody wants to take credit for a spy operation that failed, and even less so for the mess that followed.

X

EVEN IF THE GOVERNMENT SCIENTISTS are correct and the missing nuclear device is unlikely to be swept from a glacier into the headwaters of the Ganges, there are still several scenarios in which it might be unearthed and moved by anyone who finds it. If the generator is taken apart by a scavenger, the risk of radiation exposure would multiply, creating a danger for anyone who comes into contact with even a single component of the device.

An incident that took place in Delhi earlier this year demonstrates precisely how such a disaster could arise: when a quantity of highly radioactive material was brought from Delhi University into a scrap market, one worker was killed and two others suffered serious illnesses from exposure.

In 1968, the chemistry laboratory at Delhi University imported a nuclear power-pack from a Canadian firm, with Cobalt 60 as its main nuclear material. After a few years of use, it was abandoned on the university campus, where it sat out in the open for several decades. Last year, the university sold it to a scrap dealer, who had no idea of its contents. He melted it down and broke it up, releasing radiation into the entire scrap market. Even the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board had no idea that the nuclear material had passed into civilian hands. “It was a mistake on our part, from the regulator,” I was told by a very senior nuclear scientist with the government.

The worker at the Mayapuri scrap market who broke open the material died after being exposed to a high dose of radiation. Two others, the owner of the shop and his friend, who kept tiny parts of the fancy-looking nuclear material in their purses, survived because they were lucky enough to get their burns diagnosed as nuclear radiation. With local papers carrying front-page stories, government agencies were under pressure, and now the Cabinet has approved a set of recommendations for stricter standards in dealing with scrap material.

But would it be possible, elsewhere in the country—in the villages on Nanda Devi, for example—to diagnose nuclear exposure as quickly as had been done in Delhi?  I talked to Maj Gen (Dr) JK Bansal, Member of the National Disaster Management Authority, who supervised the treatment of the Mayapuri victims. The facilities to study radiation contamination in humans, he told me, are available at DRDO in Delhi and at BARC in Mumbai.

“So, outside these cities, how equipped are our doctors to diagnose and treat cases of nuclear radiation and chemical toxicity?”

“They will need help from the specialized people.”

In other words, if a nuclear incident happens in India, the medical response will be slow and inadequate.

Dr Bansal showed me gruesome pictures of the radiation’s effects on the Mayapuri victims, which have not been made  public. The burns on their faces were deep black patches, and the ones on the buttocks had several orange bubbles, like miniature volcanic eruptions—the victims had kept the nuclear material in their pants’ pockets, and under their pillows at night, bringing the radiation into direct contact with their body parts.

Today along Rishi Ganga, local residents still find the detritus of past mountaineering expeditions, washed ashore along the riverbanks. A river brings interesting things with it. It brings smooth pebbles in various shapes formed thousands and millions of years ago. It brings roots and wood from trees that you have never seen.

Rishi Ganga also brings the waste of past expeditions—the human waste of about ten or 20 climbers and 30 or 40 of their porters—and hundreds of such expeditions took place before the Nanda Devi Park was closed to outsiders. Tins, boxes, leather shoes, gas cylinders, torches, pressure cookers, ropes, rubber, axes, plastic bags, thermal flasks—Rishi Ganga carries them all. “Our children collect all sorts of strange things and bring them home,” Gopal Singh Rana told me. “That’s how I got my pressure cooker.”

Vinod K. Jose is the Executive Editor of The Caravan.

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The Secret of Nanda Devi

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40 years ago a team of top American climbers participated in a botched CIA operation that lost a Plutonium powered spying device high in the Himalaya. Here is Pete Takeda’s account of that bizarre expedition and its attempt to uncover the truth.

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Nanda Devi (Image source Wikipedia)

Nanda Devi (Image source Wikipedia)

I stumbled upon the legend of Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot and the lost CIA plutonium on a cold October night in 1987, sitting with friends, swilling cheap malt liquor around a roaring campfire in Yosemite. To my best recollection, Tucker recounted the most outrageous climbing yarn I’d ever heard. Tucker, whose low-slung build lent him an authoritative air, was one of those whose expression becomes more earnest and animated with each drink.

Before falling from buzzed eloquence to drunken rambling, the swaying Tucker cast a spellbinding tale of legendary climbers, CIA spooks, radioactive poison and mountains bigger than we could imagine.

Tucker’s story went like this: Elite climbers were trained by the CIA and paid huge sums of money to carry an atomic-powered spy gadget to the top of an undisclosed peak. The stage for the 007-esque drama was the Himalayas. Somehow this plutonium-powered device was lost or stolen, now either providing the fissile juice to a secret Pakistani nuke or threatening every man, woman, and child in India with deadly radiation in the form of contaminated run-off into the Ganges River.

Hunkered around the campfire, I don’t think any of us really believed the CIA recruited climbers as spies or that several pounds of the deadliest substance known to man lay buried at the source of the Ganges River. But the story intrigued me, and nearly 20 years later I began investigating Tucker’s bizarre story, a story whose facts proved to be more outrageous than even the best fiction writer could spin.

From 1965 through 1968, the CIA, with the full cooperation of the Indian Government, trained some of the best Indian and American high-altitude climbers to spy on Communist China. They did so by attempting to deploy two plutonium-powered surveillance devices in the Himalayas.

Legend has it that a chance meeting at a Washington, D.C. cocktail party sparked the Faustian plot to employ nuclear technology to spy on the People’s Republic of China from the Roof of the World. It was 1964 and Cold War paranoia was at its height. No plan was too outlandish, no investment too great and no means unjustified.

The plot came on the heels of an October test of Red China’s first nuclear weapon in the remote Xinjiang province in western China, and the chance meeting was between none other than Barry Bishop and General Curtis LeMay. Bishop was an unassuming climbing legend, a summiteer on the first successful American Everest expedition in 1963, and recipient of the National Geographic Hubbard Medal from President John F. Kennedy himself.

LeMay had his own chestful of medals including the Distinguished Service Cross, an award second only to the Medal of Honor. Called “Iron Ass” by his own troops, he was the archetypal Pentagon hawk—a real-life cigar-chewing model for the rabid General Buck Turgidson of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. LeMay is credited with the infamous quote, “ They’ve [the North Vietnamese] got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.”

At that time, America had no dependable spy network within China, and it was years before effective spy satellites could be deployed. Thus it’s easy to imagine LeMay’s interest when Bishop recounted the unobstructed line of sight he’d had from the summit of Everest: You could see all the way into western China. From this casual exchange emerged an unlikely inspiration: Recruit America’s best high-altitude climbers to place a nuclear powered observation device atop the world’s greatest mountain range.

The peak ultimately chosen was Nanda Devi—a mountain sacred to Hindus as the abode of their preeminent Goddess. The peak, India’s highest, rose from a pristine bowl of alpine meadow bordered by a jagged rim of summits. If anything on earth was Shangri-la, the Sanctuary—as the enclave was known—was it. In 1965, at the start of the CIA field operation only six climbers from various expeditions had stood on Nanda Devi’s summit at a cost of three lives. Indeed, only as late as the 1930s did humans even penetrate the Sanctuary.

The CIA planned to intercept radio telemetry signals between the Chinese missiles and ground control. A transceiver, powered by a plutonium battery pack, would beam information to a CIA listening station, where data analysis would reveal the range, speed and payload of the Chinese missile.

Reflecting the era’s unbridled enthusiasm for atomic power, the transceiver was powered by a System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power (SNAP) turning radioactive heat into electricity. The Nanda Devi SNAP, designated Model “19C,” hid seven plutonium rods totaling 1,900 grams of alloyed plutonium—Pu-238 (half-life of 87 years) and Pu-239 (half-life of 24,400 years). The unit, expected to run the four-part Nanda Devi sensor for two years, was a round microwave oven-sized metal bin with five radiating fins. Towering above was a six-foot long antenna.

Two mountains were targeted. On the first, Nanda Devi, the device was lost—presumably avalanched thousands of feet after being cached in a late season storm 1,500-feet shy of the 25,645-foot summit. To this day, the lost plutonium likely lies in a glacier, perhaps being pulverized to dust, creeping towards the headwaters of the Ganges River.

On the shoulder of the second peak—the square-topped massif of Nanda Kot—the Indo-American spy team successfully installed an identical eavesdropping device. That device, repeatedly buried in frequent blizzards, was eventually recovered after producing no worthwhile intelligence. A non-nuclear component was never located and subsequently abandoned.

With these certainties in mind, I boarded an Air India 747 in late August 2005. I’d quit my day job a year earlier to pursue the life of an author. The spy story was my inaugural title. Part of telling the tale meant going to India to check things out myself. It was a long and tricky process to get permission for Nanda Kot alone, and a year of hopeful wrangling garnered nothing more than a permit denial for Nanda Devi. The reason given was environmental degradation in the Sanctuary, but in my eyes, it was all because of the lurking SNAP.

Clouds rise from the valley below and pour from the summit ridge above, hemming us in a whiteout. A few hours ago our world was a broad vista of ragged Himalayan ridges and peaks—some exceeding 21,000 feet—marching northward to Tibet. Now, in the decreasing visibility, our only sense of what lies ahead is the encroaching rumble of avalanches. Heavy waves of snow lash us. We move from below an ice cliff into an adjacent cave-like gash in the mountainside—the remnants of a deep crevasse, roofed by a sheet of ice—and pitch our tents.

The four of us—ace climber Jonny Copp, a past Himalayan teammate Chuck Bird, and his girlfriend, fellow climber Sarah Thompson—have spent the last few weeks trekking through a Tolkeinesque landscape of vibrant green foothills, deep river gorges, and ghost-towns deserted following Sino-Indian border clashes of the early 1960s. Now we climb into the abode of the gods, surrounded by ranks of peaks including our objective Nanda Kot and the majestic Nanda Devi.

Sleep comes quickly. But at 11:30 p.m. on September 3, 2005, one month after we left Colorado, Chuck wakes with a start. “Oh God!” he screams. He’d been dreaming something dark and nasty, but I’m just awake and annoyed. I don’t vocalize it, but inside I say to Chuck, “Shut up.”

At this moment, I’m convinced we’re on the threshold of success. In perhaps one long day, we’ll summit the hammer-headed Nanda Kot, which at 22,510 feet is merely one of hundreds of such summits in this great range. Her attraction lies neither in her height nor beauty, but in the fact that somewhere on these icy flanks lies a tangible vestige of the most bizarre spy adventure of the Cold War, a vestige that has brought me halfway around the world and could threaten the lives of millions.

Fighting claustrophobia, Chuck unzips the tent door, a noisy process of fumbling for the zipper, and straining for leverage against the reluctant tent fabric. He debates taking a sleeping pill, then decides against it. I just want him to settle down so I can sleep, not knowing that his midnight fumbling will soon save my life. Jonny snores lightly as Sarah settles back into the prone position. I’m anticipating a long day tomorrow and rest is important. The open tent door bathes me in cold unsettling wisps. I close my eyes, hoping for an unconscious reprieve.

The avalanche begins with a jarring crack that shakes the mountain and immediately builds to a deep bass rumble. My mind starts its painfully lazy swim up from the dark blue depths of semi-consciousness. I’m aware on some level that the rumble—now a roar—is coming to kill us. My eyes pop open. The cave is pitch black, but I can feel the air pressure change—I don’t know it yet, but hundreds of tons of snow are rushing toward the entrance. The race is on. I sluggishly shrug off my sleeping bag. Even as my body begins the race for survival, my brain, shaken from a hypoxic torpor, begins to sift the possibilities.

My movements seem slow—languid, like those of a passenger stuck in a low-speed car crash—each moment stretched into a small version of eternity. My brain fumbles through questions in what seems like a criminally slow process. Did our cave collapse? Are we to be crushed, screaming under tons of ice? Is the whole mountain sliding down? Are we to end up in a broken tangle 3,000 feet below? In real time, it’s no more than a few seconds from the first blast when a deafening hiss engulfs our shelter. Our team—split into two pairs ensconced in two separate tents—is perched on the icy floor of the narrow, downward arching crevasse. Picture two tiny nylon bubbles nested in a jagged stab wound piercing the flanks of our mountain. Then picture a colossal dump truck emptying a mammoth load of quickset cement into the hole. As the snow makes its crushing onslaught, I’m halfway out of my sleeping bag, torso through the tent door. I’m almost out as the first swell washes over me. Instantly, I’m pawing through a crushing tide, the consistency of fine sand. It’s like swimming through glue.

The weight is incredible—a remorseless, crushing tide. Behind my shoulder, over the deadly roar I can hear Chuck yell. The only clear word is a drawn out “Fuuuck!” The rest is a nonverbal grind of consonants drowned even as they become audible. He’s behind me by no more than one second—an interval that, in this race, might prove fatal.

As it is, Chuck isn’t fast enough. It’s impossible to see what’s happening in the pitch-black frenzy of action, but as I make my dash to safety the rushing white waves bury him as he struggles to kick his legs free of his sleeping bag. The pressure of snow smashes the tent and wraps his body, pinning his struggling limbs in an irresistible embrace. Then, like cement, the snow closes around Chuck’s head. His mouth and throat fills with suffocating white death.

For a brief moment the deadly flow diminishes—like the trough between two big ocean waves. I make an instinctive grab for the ice screw. I vaguely remember fixing the screw into the blue ice face above my side of the tent during the prior afternoon—an eternity ago. It’s a good thing. As my hand latches the frigid metal, a second, stronger wave swells, and I pull myself up with one arm, right hand locked in a death grip on the carabiner clipped to the ice screw. Having something to pull on makes the difference between treading the snow’s surface and being sucked under. My stocking feet gain the top of the moving mass as the tide slows almost to a halt. Then as fast as it all started, it stops. Billions of ice crystals pay obeisance to the laws of physics as they meet, interlock, and come to rest at the angle of repose. As for the others, they’re gone, washed down the chasm towards the black and bottomless pit.

The whole Nanda Devi affair was a fascinating story, one threatening to fade into history as its participants passed away. The CIA’s Himalayan operation comprised eight separate expeditions and must have cost tens of millions of dollars in helicopter support, supplies and logistics alone. The devices ran up a bill of millions. The climbers—paid $1,000 per month (a decent living in those days, but for the climbers, sporadic work at best)—represented a Sixties mountaineering dream team and included Tom Frost, who to this day holds true to his oath of silence, Lute Jerstad, who suffered a heart attack and died in 1998 while trekking in Nepal, Jim McCarthy, who has retired to Jackson, Wyoming, and Dr. Robert Schaller, who is semi-retired.

Today, though “crippled by arthritis” and his sandy hair gone white, Schaller is still the tall, handsome, driven man of his espionage years. Before making his mark on the medical world as a pediatric surgeon, Schaller made history of another sort, if known only by a few people, with what was then the greatest alpine climbing feat accomplished by an American. A year after the device was lost and while helping search for the lost sensor in September 1966, he climbed alone to Nanda Devi’s summit from Camp IV at 23,750 feet. His journal and photographs, a historic record of those exploits, were confiscated by the CIA. Such secrecy not only denied Schaller his place in climbing history, but also did nothing to assuage the concerns of a wife whose husband had mysteriously disappeared for months on end over a four-year period. With three other CIA climbers, Schaller won an intelligence medal from the Agency. It was draped around his neck—then locked away in a vault at CIA headquarters in Langley. Ultimately, he also lost his marriage, alienated his children and now finds himself, “disappointed by a government I don’t trust anymore.”

The cost runs deep for another Nanda Devi survivor, legendary climber, former American Alpine Club president and retired Manhattan trial attorney Jim McCarthy, whose short, stocky build matches a pugnacious verbal style. He said to me after a half-dozen scotches, “Yeah, the device got avalanched and stuck in the glacier and God knows what effects that will have.”

In 1965, McCarthy, selected for his climbing skill, had been instructed in the use of explosives like C4, and trained by the Atomic Energy Commission to handle the plutonium. “In the Sanctuary, I was the only guy who handled the plutonium, and I’m the one who loaded the device and straddled the fucking thing. Let me tell you, the fuel rods were wildly warm.” McCarthy further says, “No question, there was no shielding at all and I got a large dose of radiation.”

McCarthy blames the radiation for testicular cancer. “In 1971, while climbing on Devil’s Tower,” McCarthy recalls, “I was changing my pants when I noticed one of my testicles is greatly engorged. We drove straight back to New York, found the very best doctor in the Metro area. Two minutes later, I’m in the OR.”

McCarthy recovered, but notes, “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.”

McCarthy had been vehemently against abandoning the generator on the mountain. On the CIA Nanda Devi expedition of October 1965, of which he was a part, a storm forced the hand of Indian climber Captain M. S. Kohli. The CIA expedition and the SNAP were stalled by deepening snow on the flat shoulder of Camp IV at 23,750 feet. The high camp team consisted of an Indian climber and six Sherpas. As leader of the espionage field effort, Kohli radioed for a general retreat, one that entailed leaving the SNAP at the high camp. Says McCarthy, who was recovering from altitude sickness at basecamp, “When I realize that they’re dumping the fucking generator and going down the mountain, I’m like, ‘What the fuck are you doing? Have them bring it down! Are you crazy?’ I’m yelling at the top of my lungs.” According to McCarthy, the CIA case officer nearly had to pull him off Kohli. “He says to me, McCarthy says, ‘You are creating an international incident!’”

“But,” McCarthy adds, “I had a vision of absolute clarity. We’re going to lose a SNAP generator, powered by plutonium, in the headwaters of the Ganges!”

Plutonium is funny stuff—a metal unlike any you’ve ever seen. Changing the shape of a plutonium mass can lead to an uncontrolled release of energy—the same energy that holds matter together. Say you held a sphere of plutonium-239 the size of a coconut. It would feel warm “like a live rabbit” and chances are, you’d suffer no ill effects. But if you could magically compress the ball at an extremely high speed and pressure, you and your surroundings would vaporize in the sudden flash of intense heat, light and radiation. In rudimentary terms, this is a nuclear weapon.

The SNAP-19 plutonium is neither the nuke variety nor the cliché glowing goo leaking from an oil drum. The SNAP material cannot “explode” and its metallic state is resistant to dispersion. Only through dispersion as a fine dust will plutonium live up to the moniker, “the most poisonous substance known to man.”

But the SNAP’s potential is frightening. In 1987, a scrap merchant in Goiania Brazil stole a cigarette lighter-sized amount of Cesium-137 (1,400 curies in terms of radioactivity) from a therapy machine. The blue powder contaminated 200 people. Four died, including a four-year-old girl who had to be buried in a lead coffin. Pavement and buildings needed to be decontaminated. Contaminated soil had to be carted away. The once vibrant Goiania suffered a 20 percent economic drop. Tourism dropped to zero.

The SNAP–19C retains 23,500 curies—20 times that of Goiania. What would happen if it were discovered by an unsuspecting mountain villager? Most experts agree that it made its way to the bottom of the glacier. Could the plutonium be ground to powder that would contaminate the Ganges? Schaller says that the lost material poses “a miniscule threat,” because the plutonium amount was relatively small and the dilution factor—even if the stuff gets into the Ganges—is so great. Most scientists agree with Schaller, though there are a prominent few who point out that this early in our involvement with the material, we cannot know what constitutes a hazard, or what scenario might unfold. While avoiding hysteria, consider another horrifying potential. Dr. Iggy Litaor of the Tel-Hai Academic College in Tel Aviv, Israel, says, “The real threat of the material lost on Nanda Devi is the dirty bomb. Such a device could yield the entire Lower Manhattan uninhabitable, creating a worse economic disaster than the Great Depression.”

In the post 9-11 world the SNAP plutonium is an ultimate terror weapon. Operatives for Osama bin Laden have tried to buy enriched South African uranium on the black market. In 2001, American-led forces discovered documents in Afghanistan detailing the building and deployment of a dirty bomb. Al Qaeda recently paid Jose Padilla $10,000 to carry out a dirty bomb attack—he was arrested. In 2002, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security says, “There is a 10 to 40 percent chance that terrorists will conduct a successful attack with a crude ‘dirty bomb’ in the next five to 10 years.”

The U.S. government, through the CIA, has only this to say when I queried their offices regarding any records of the Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot affair:

“The CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence nor non-existence of the records responsive to your request—such information unless it has been officially acknowledged would be classified for reasons of National Security under the Executive Order 12598. The fact of the existence or non-existence of such records would also relate directly to the information concerning intelligence sources and methods.”

In 1978, the affair surfaced in the press, fomenting a storm of controversy and accusations that rocked all the way up to the office of the Indian Prime Minister. An inquiry was launched, the analysis of which stated that the device, “could have fallen on the southwest face of the mountain,” and, “though damaged outwardly as a result of the fall … it could still be intact.”

The results of those findings led to speculation that the SNAP could have been buried in the glaciers in the mountain or in the debris on the slopes of the mountain. The worst scenario saw the SNAP having fallen into the mountain streams and finally reached the gorge of Rishi Ganga (the river issuing from the Nanda Devi Sanctuary), and, as a result of multiple impacts during the fall the device might have been very badly damaged/disassembled and thus scattered all over, in which case radioactive material would have got released in the environment.

By some miracle, Chuck and I collect ourselves in the darkness moments after the avalanche. A few short seconds ago, the roaring tide had us swimming for our lives. Now we stand in waist-deep snow, clad only in our socks and thermal underwear.

Whatever fear existed moments before is translated into movement, a frenzied struggle made almost pathetic in the face of the titanic, heartless forces at work. The formula for life becomes beautifully simple—do what you can, and the rest will happen on its own accord. It was a glimpse into what we’ll all ultimately face—death—the absolute loss of control.

As I struggle, I have the vision of being crushed under the debris of a collapsing cave, the solid roof of ice falling with abrupt finality. In that split second I imagine the irresistible tons of ice popping my skull, breaking me like a stick. Worse, the thought crossed like lightning, I’d be trapped, pinned, broken and screaming, my last few seconds, or minutes, or hours on earth, helpless, rendered immobile, with no escape, except the relief of dying. Not even Chuck, who is right next to me could hear my screams. Nor I his.

As I exit the tent I hear Chuck’s cries—the panicky note of someone facing the specter of mortality for the very first time. Chuck’s mouth and throat were filled with snow and he starts choking. In a final desperate gesture, his right hand shoots through the snow, grasping up into the cold air. At that very moment, my own left hand reaches back and grabs the first thing it touches—Chuck’s outreached palm. We lock in an instinctive fireman’s grip. Clasping an ice screw with my right hand, I give an adrenalized heave with my left. Chuck, his furry nylon fleece pants clumped around his ankles, rips loose and pops to the surface, heaving and hacking, fleece pants stripped down to his ankles by the snow’s grip. “You saved my life,” he gasps, coughing up snow.

Our headlamps—critical pieces of survival gear—are buried under the snow. I yell into the darkness at Jonny and Sarah. A shrill and edgy, “Are you guys all right?” flies into the darkness, flat and toneless. There’s no echo and no response. I think to myself, if they aren’t dead yet, then they are dying.

The clock is running as, from somewhere in my mental litter-box, I know that after 15 minutes, the search for an avalanche victim becomes a body recovery. My secret fear is they’ve been washed into the bottom of the bottomless crevasse.

Chuck is tense, but controlled and deliberate. With plenty at hand to manage, he’s detached from the predicament of our teammates, despite his intimate connection with Sarah.

Just then, a scream pierces the darkness. It’s Jonny. For an instant, I shudder, wondering if he’s crushed and momentarily coming out of shock. The tone registers an angry “Fuuuuck!” And for a horrid instant I picture a mess of broken limbs and mangled bodies. After a few moments Jonny yells, “We could use some help down here!” The words are edgy but lucid. They are a few feet from the edge of the pit. Kneeling blind and bootless on the avalanche debris—poised as it is on the angle of repose—there’s nothing we can do. It’s many tense hours later that we find almost all of our gear. Then we four do nothing but wait.

Days later we emerge from our shelter into the blinding sun of a clear day. Scores have perished in the same Himalaya storm and the chop of distant helicopter blades usher the departure of a neighboring climbing team—their leader dead of a stroke.

Over the three storm-bound days, we’d suffered two more avalanches, one completely burying our crevasse under almost 20 feet of snow. I had to tunnel an air hole with our shovel. We spent the hours playing word games before retreating into the haven of unconsciousness. In basecamp we’d been given up for dead.

Jonny and I have a psychological box into which we put our harrowing adventure on Nanda Kot. We’ve chosen our lifestyles, and long ago both accepted such risk as part of climbing. Chuck, and especially Sarah, haven’t the experience or background to shake the ordeal. Thus, three days after emerging from our tomb, Jonny and I attempt to climb Nanda Devi East, while the rest remain in camp.

At almost 24,390 feet, Nanda Devi East is bigger, harder and higher than Nanda Kot, and is a sister summit to Nanda Devi, which lies roughly one mile to its west. It’s never been climbed by Americans and is one of the hardest summits in the Himalaya, having just one route to its summit. Tenzing Norgay, of Everest fame, stated it was the hardest thing he’d ever climbed. Our attempt was the most intense mountain experience I’ve ever had. In four days Jonny and I got within 200 meters (one hour) of the top in an alpine-style effort before a blizzard blew in. We bailed from 23,500 feet with no food and a half can of fuel left. While we didn’t make the summit, we did get a tremendous view into the Sanctuary and a panorama that included the fall line of the SNAP.

For the next few weeks we journeyed to the western side of the Sanctuary (nine days and hundreds of miles by bus and foot). We saw Nanda Devi from the Rishi Ganga side and also interviewed a host of locals, including a porter who claimed to be 101 years old, and remembered expeditions back to the 1950s.

We also filled three bottles with samples of silt and water from the stream that issues from the Rishi Ganga as it enters one of the three tributaries of the Ganges. Though Indian government testing of glacial runoff in the late 1970s revealed no evidence of contamination, it is unclear if that testing has been conducted on an ongoing basis.

Back home in Boulder I sent the samples off to a lab for testing. The report came back saying that the alpha, beta and gamma counts were, “above expected levels for natural sediments,” and that “It certainly looks like you have something interesting going on with these samples.”

While these tests are inconclusive, at press time the silt samples are undergoing more detailed analysis. Four decades after the SNAP device was lost, we are no closer to solving the mystery—the one thing that is certain is that the plutonium remains out there, buried in the Sanctuary, grinding inexorably toward whatever fate may bring, a Pandora’s box locked in ice.

By Pete Takeda

Pete Takeda lives in Boulder, Colorado. His recent book is: An Eye At The Top Of The World: The Terrifying Legacy of the Cold War’s Most Daring C.I.A. Operation

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Spy Robert Schaller’s Nanda Devi adventure, life of secrecy, betrayal and regrets

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The Goddess looms in his memory. She is both muse and Mata Hari, and for a brief moment nearly half a century ago, she was his.

But Nanda Devi, the Himalayan peak known as the Goddess for her beauty and her wrath, is a fickle mistress. She has stolen other men’s lives and sent a woman to her grave. She has claimed a piece of Robert Schaller as well.

In 1965, Schaller was part of an American spy team that tried to place a nuclear-powered surveillance device on top of Nanda Devi, one of the highest mountains in the world.

That mission was a spectacular failure. The device and its nuclear core vanished along with, or so the CIA hoped, any news about it.

But even secrets leave traces. Today, India restricts access to the mountain. Climbers whisper she is radioactive. And information the government likely hoped would remain buried forever has slowly begun to surface.

Now, Schaller’s participation in that covert expedition has sent him on a new, perhaps equally remote quest. He wants to reclaim something else he lost on Nanda Devi — something now in a place even less accessible than the ice vault of the mountain.

For Schaller, there is no half-life for regret.

In 1965, Robert Schaller was a golden boy Harvard grad who could run a mile in a second shy of four minutes. Recently arrived from the East Coast, he had come to Seattle to start his medical residency at the University of Washington. Blue-eyed and engaging, Schaller had a wife, two young children and an addiction the day the CIA came calling.

Schaller is 72 now, his surgeon’s hands crippled by arthritis, but two moments sear like snow blindness in his memory — the day he got hooked on mountain climbing and the day the government took advantage of that.

Schaller had been a climbing fanatic since the instant he had arrived in Seattle in 1960. He had driven his beat-up Mercury cross-country to start his residency, and it broke down, still packed with all his belongings, on what was then a two-lane highway near the Issaquah turnoff. The car gasped to a stop at precisely the gap in the view where Mount Rainier presided over the horizon. Stranded, the Detroit-raised Schaller stared at the mountain for several hours.

“It blew me away,” he said.

After that, he spent every available weekend learning to climb, testing his endurance equally against the rock and his long hours on call as a young surgeon.

Schaller had just returned from climbing Mount McKinley when the CIA reached out.

The front desk at University Hospital paged Schaller out of rounds in the middle of a spring day in 1965. He hurried to the lobby, his imposing frame — 6 feet 3 inches — still clad in the short white lab coat, white pants and the white shoes typical of interns of that era. The man in the entrance foyer wore a trench coat and dark glasses.

The agent sneaked open his coat, and Schaller glimpsed an airline ticket.

“How would you like to go to the Himalayas?” the agent asked.

Schaller couldn’t say yes fast enough.

The government was looking for a physician with some interest in electronics who also had a background in high-altitude medicine for a classified mission to place a “listening device” somewhere on the Roof of the World.

“There weren’t very many IBM cards that dropped out with those qualifications,” Schaller said.

Schaller had an additional qualification that appealed to the CIA — he was a patriot.

A few months earlier, the Chinese government had set off a nuclear test, triggering an anxiety attack throughout the West.

“They waved the American flag at me,” he said “This was a unique opportunity to do something really exciting and serve my country.”

 

Robert Schaller, a former pediatric surgeon who still teaches at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, looks over a copy of "The Ascent of Nanda Devi." In 1965, Schaller tried to scale the peak to install a listening device that never made it to the top. (Photo Credit: Grant M. Haller/Seattle Post-Intelligencer / SL)

Robert Schaller, a former pediatric surgeon who still teaches at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, looks over a copy of “The Ascent of Nanda Devi.” In 1965, Schaller tried to scale the peak to install a listening device that never made it to the top.
(Photo Credit: Grant M. Haller/Seattle Post-Intelligencer / SL)

Spies in the Sanctuary

 

In the 1960s, the Himalayas were still a climber’s Shangri-La, a wild, legend-making place free of the commerce and celebrity that would characterize climbing in the late 20th century.

The last-wilderness aspect of it appealed to Schaller.

“We had to really struggle just to get to the mountains,” Schaller said. “We were very much out there on our own. We didn’t have the help of modern telecommunications, or weather reports. Porters were hard to come by.”

Nanda Devi is one of the 25 highest peaks in the world — the second-highest in India — and stands at the heart of a vortex of stunning crests that form a geographical fortress known as the Sanctuary. The ice fields of the Sanctuary feed the headwaters of the Ganges, which in turn sustains one of the world’s densest population bases. The Ganges is also considered sacred in the Hindu tradition. A sip of its waters with your last breath is said to guarantee the soul’s passage to heaven.

Bathing in its waters will cleanse the soul of sin.

No recorded expedition had breached the Sanctuary until 1934, and Nanda Devi, rising to more than 25,000 feet, wasn’t climbed until 1936.

Years later, Nanda Devi would earn her reputation as an angry goddess when Devi Unsoeld, daughter of famed Washington climber Willi Unsoeld, died while climbing her namesake.

What captivated the U.S. government about Nanda Devi in 1964, however, was not the grail of its summit, nor its mystic powers, but its unobstructed view over Tibet and beyond to the Xinjiang province, site of the Chinese missile-testing ranges.

In October 1964, the Chinese government had detonated its first nuclear test near Lop Nor. That combined with its burgeoning missile program worried the U.S. and India sufficiently for the two governments to hatch what even at the time must have seemed a 007-esque scheme. With the American fledging satellite system unlikely to be able to track the Chinese tests, they needed a different vantage point.

Schaller and a team of elite American and Indian climbers were to scale Nanda Devi and secure an instrument, powered by a plutonium generator. The device would intercept and transmit radio signals from the Chinese missile tests. The plutonium mixture would generate enough heat to make the electricity needed to power the transceiver, making the equipment self-sustaining in a hostile environment, a strategy since deployed in space as well.

It was a seemingly brilliant plan that hinged on one task — getting such a device planted atop one of the most unforgiving mountains in the world.

 

Lessons in the trade

 

The government dangled $1,000 a month in front of Schaller for his participation.

“That was a lot of money then,” he said.

But in the months after Schaller’s first meeting with the federal agent, he would begin to understand the cost of his participation. For months at a time, he would leave his family for training in tradecraft.

“It was very cloak-and-dagger,” Schaller recalls. “We would go to a place, be blindfolded and led into a canvas tunnel to an airplane with blacked-out windows.”

He guessed some of his fellow mission specialists were college professors because of their nuclear knowledge. Some also were renowned alpinists, including famed big-wall climber Tom Frost, who made history with his Yosemite climbs in the early 1960s.

Frost, a friend of Schaller’s, continues to honor his oath of secrecy, although both he and Schaller were named by Indian expedition leader M.S. Kohli and author Kenneth Conboy in their book, “Spies in the Himalayas,” and later by Pete Takeda in his book “An Eye at the Top of the World.”

“I can’t talk about that,” Frost said recently when given the opportunity once again to field questions about the missions.

But he did say Schaller was a good guy to climb with.

“We’ve spent some time together,” Frost said. “He has a real passion, a love for climbing and he does it well. He’s a good companion. He’s the kind of person you like to hang out with, particularly if you’re in a tough spot.”

“Whatever Rob says,” he said, “you can take that to the bank.”

Kholi, the Indian expedition leader, was a noted climber as well, having just put nine climbers on top of Everest in 1965.

The Americans operated with pseudonyms. “Mine was of someone who was dead — Norris P. Vizcaino,” Schaller said. “I never did find out who he was.”

The team flew to undisclosed locations. “We learned to blow up things using C3 and C4 (plastic explosives),” he said. “We jumped out of helicopters.”

The training missions lasted two to three weeks. “I couldn’t tell my wife or family,” he said.

That was the beginning of the secret keeping.

 

Disappearing

 

There would be a half-dozen missions in all over a period of three years.

Retired surgeon Tom King, who was a young resident alongside Schaller in the 1960s, recalls how his fellow doctor would just disappear.

“He would come back and have lost weight,” he said. “One time he came back with a broken leg. We all wondered what he was doing. But he would never say anything about it.”

His chief of staff, Dr. K. Alvin Merendino, now in his 90s, also confirmed granting Schaller multiple absences.

Schaller’s cover, if asked, was that he was training as a scientist-astronaut, and in some ways, the operation was as complex as putting a man in space.

According to Takeda, who spent years researching the history of the spy mission, only a half-dozen climbers had stood on the summit, and only three had survived to talk about it.

Schaller faced his own personal hurdles as he prepared in the spring and summer of 1965. Training injuries threatened to keep him off the mountain, grounding him from a training climb on Mount McKinley. At another point he got violently ill with typhoid fever and was forced off the initial attempt on Nanda Devi to recuperate in Delhi.

If he worried about his body breaking down, though, he kept it to himself and retained his focus on gritting his way to the Himalayas. The government’s agenda may have been a secret, but Schaller had a mission of his own.

 

The weather turns

 

In the fall of 1965, a year after the first Chinese nuclear test, the assembled climbers made their first push to put the spy device on top of Nanda Devi. About a dozen climbers and Sherpas portaged the equipment in pieces up the knife-edge route toward the summit.

The generator, which weighed about 40 pounds, held at least a half-dozen cells — each about the size of a cigar — containing an alloy of plutonium 238 and plutonium 239.

It was the potent combination of the two that made the device both hardy and heat-generating, so warm that the Sherpas would cozy up to it at night, Schaller said.

Just as the team reached Camp 1V, the last camp before the peak, however, a blizzard blew up and forced them to abandon the summit ascent. With no choice but to turn back, Kohli made a fateful decision — to lash the contraption to a ledge of rocks and leave it behind to avoid having to carry it a second time up the mountain.

The plan was to return in the spring climbing season to finish the job, Schaller said.

Throughout his training, Schaller had tried not to think about potential radiation damage in personal terms, though handling the warm cells made him nervous. With the equipment now at the mercy of the mountain, he remembers having qualms on a larger scale.

“I was very much against leaving the device,” he said.

 

A shocking discovery

 

In the spring of 1966, Schaller and the team returned to Nanda Devi with the goal of packing the equipment the rest of the way to the top. When the climbers arrived at the location where they had left the instrument, however, the entire rock ledge was wiped away, sheared off by a huge avalanche.

“The generator was completely gone,” Schaller said. “It caused great distress — a nuclear-powered device lost on a glacier on Nanda Devi.”

There were two concerns. The first was that the technology might fall into the wrong hands. The second, perhaps more ominous, was that the radioactive core might melt its way through the mountain’s glacier and into the headwaters of the Ganges.

In his book, Takeda estimates the amount of plutonium at 4 pounds — enough, he writes, to potentially threaten the lives of millions of Indians if released into the water.

The plutonium fuel cells had been rigorously tested. Schaller himself had helped drop them out of airplanes from 10,000 feet onto granite.

“They were known to be sturdy,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine how they could ever be destroyed.”

But if the fuel cells burned their way to bedrock, could the massive tonnage of the glacier, grinding away for decades, or centuries, destroy the core and release the plutonium to the environment?

No one can say.

This month, however, a potential clue emerged. In 2005, Takeda took a sample of sediment from waters in the Sanctuary. Recent tests on that coarse sample show the likely presence of plutonium 239, an isotope that does not occur in nature.

Stealing the instrument was, perhaps, the Goddess’ way of getting even, Takeda said in an interview between climbs from his base in Boulder.

“They had brought poison to her flanks, and she responds by batting it down and burying it where we can’t find it,” he said. “It was like a hand slap — a reminder that though we had this knowledge, control of it was out of our grasp.”

After numerous searches were unable to locate the lost device on Nanda Devi, Robert Schaller climbed in the Himalayas again to install a similar device on the neighboring peak of Nanda Kot. The device, like the lost one, contains plutonium fuel cells to power its transceiver. (Photo Courtesy Of Robert T. Schaller, M.D. / SL)

After numerous searches were unable to locate the lost device on Nanda Devi, Robert Schaller climbed in the Himalayas again to install a similar device on the neighboring peak of Nanda Kot. The device, like the lost one, contains plutonium fuel cells to power its transceiver.
(Photo Courtesy Of Robert T. Schaller, M.D. / SL)

At the top of the world

 

The loss of the generator triggered fallout in the Indian government, according to Kohli’s book, and a massive joint effort to save face and recover the device. Between 1966 and 1968, the CIA flew stripped-down Husky helicopters through the thin air of the Sanctuary, scouring the side of Nanda Devi where the device was lost. They photographed each grid, and sent climbers in to search for debris with Geiger counters.

The loss also spawned a second mission — successful this time — to place a similar device on Nanda Kot, a neighboring peak.

For Schaller, the recovery effort and Nanda Kot expedition were bonuses. They gave him more time to climb in the Himalayas. He had been warned not to climb when he was off duty, but he couldn’t resist the mountains’ siren call.

“I climbed everything in sight on my off days,” he said.

He carried his small half-frame Olympus camera and a journal with him, recording his personal feelings and logging notes about the climbs, a personal record of his life at the top of the world.

One pre-dawn in September 1966, Schaller and his tent-mate Frost stole away from the high camp on Nanda Devi and started toward the summit. At their first rest point, Frost abandoned the ascent. He wasn’t feeling well, Schaller said.

But Schaller pressed on.

“The weather was perfect,” he said. It was a windless, dark-blue sky day and the sun was shining. He knew this was his shot.

Crampons on, he slogged for hours toward the peak until he reached what looked like the final cliff between himself and the summit. The route should have taken him around the cliff and to the top, but he thought he would forge a shortcut.

“Altitude plays tricks on your mind,” he said. About 40 feet up the rock face, breathless and dizzy, he toppled backward. He lay in the snow, regrouping and feeling for broken bones.

“I was lucky,” he said. “I wasn’t killed.”

After 40 minutes of rest, he followed the known route, and finally, after all the months and failed starts and doubts, he reached it.

“I was laughing. I was exhilarated, and exhausted,” he said. “It was spectacular to be up there — to look out at the world around me.”

He snapped a photo of himself at the top.

Over the next several decades, Schaller would climb more than a dozen times in the Himalayas — scaling the Northeast Ridge of K2 among others. But that one morning on Nanda Devi stood out above all others as his personal zenith.

“This was long before (Reinhold) Messner had soloed Everest,” said Jim McCarthy, a retired trial lawyer from Jackson Hole who climbed alongside Schaller for the CIA. “Schaller’s ascent might well have been the singular achievement of the ’60s — if it had been known.”

The climbers never did find the instrument lost on Nanda Devi.

Toward the end of the final Himalayan expedition, the federal operative on the team asked to see Schaller’s journals and his film. He told Schaller he thought it would help him file his report to headquarters. Schaller, who to this day is an eager teacher, shared it readily, assuming he would get them right back.

When he asked for his materials later, however, the agent refused.

Schaller realized that he had just made what Kohli, Takeda and others have since called the greatest alpine climbing feat accomplished by an American up to that time.

But it was Schaller’s word, and the mountain’s secret.

He had no proof.

 

The cost of secrets

 

Schaller received an Intelligence Medal of Merit for his contributions to the espionage missions. Two agents came to his house and draped a silvery medal on ribbons around his neck. Then they took it away. He presumes it is locked in a vault at the CIA’s Langley headquarters along with myriad other artifacts that officially don’t exist.

Along with his journals and photographs.

At home, his absences exacted a different price. His wife, Jane, was left to handle two young children and a demanding job on her own. The two had met in medical school, where she was one of only four female students. They were a handsome, accomplished couple — and had fallen hard in love.

“We eloped after two dates,” he said.

Though she also loved the mountains and climbed Mount Rainier with him in their early years of marriage, she didn’t love the obsession, or the risk, their son said. And the unexplained absences frayed their connection, until it finally broke.

“He couldn’t tell her where he was going,” said Robert Schaller, the couple’s first-born, who was only 2 years old when his father began disappearing. Over time, his father adapted to his clandestine way of life, but his mother never could.

“The culture of secrecy itself became for my father a valid way of conducting his affairs,” said Schaller, now a filmmaker, who is attempting to document his father’s CIA life. The senior Schaller eventually left the family in a bitter parting after 13 years of marriage.

He married twice more and has seven children. But he has just begun assessing the cost of his secret life.

“It had a lot to do with the end of my first marriage,” he said. “I never should have left my first wife.”

 

A personal wilderness

 

Today, Schaller is a man reckoning with legacies.

After his government service, and three years as an Army doctor, he settled into a long, prestigious surgical career in Seattle that included a wide range of operations, from separating conjoined twins to organ repairs in the tiniest preemies, work he loved.

“I would buy tickets to do this job,” he said.

“He was the go-to pediatric surgeon in Seattle,” said Dr. Bob Sawin, current chief of surgery at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center. “At one point, he personally did more surgeries than all the other pediatric surgeons combined. He has always been very, very busy.”

He was also a meticulous documentarian, compiling thousands of slides of his surgeries over the years, an effort Sawin called unparalleled.

They’ve piled up in boxes at the Bellevue house where he now lives alone, separated from his third wife, wishing for a reconciliation and struggling with a failing body.

He regrets he will never be able to show his younger children the mountains in the way he once knew them.

He feels he has paid for his secrets. “I gave (the government) quite a lot of my life,” he said.

A self-described workaholic, he believes his single-mindedness in pursuit of his goals — both in climbing and in medicine — cost him his dearest relationships, and his health.

He has had both knees replaced, and his spine fused. He is 4 inches shorter than he was as a young man. He faces the likelihood of more surgery on his hands. He gave up operating about three years ago. His solace now is teaching.

He still lectures once a week at Children’s and sprinkles his talks with slides of mountains he has climbed.

On a recent weekday, Schaller, wearing a bulky neck brace, hunched over the computer in his cramped hospital office. He fiddled with the color on one of his slidestrying for a digital match. His hope is to turn his personal archive into a working atlas for medical educators.

Schaller seems reassured, if somewhat overwhelmed, to have this project. It’s evidence of his years of work as a doctor.

“This will be my legacy,” he said.

About his other legacy, he is less certain. He regrets the CIA team was never able to find the remains of the device and recover the plutonium. Although he believes a serious environmental threat is only a remote possibility because of the vast dilution any leak would face, he subscribes to the mountaineer’s ethic to leave nothing behind.

Abandoning plutonium on the mountain was a violation of its sacred trust, he said.

And a violation, perhaps, of another oath he took: First, do no harm.

He has made an amend of sorts. In 1968, he testified before Congress in support of establishing the North Cascades National Park.

“Wilderness has intrinsic value that cannot be priced,” he testified. “What would you pay for a view of snow-sparkling, glaciated mountain peaks? … Once this wilderness is lost, it can never be reclaimed.”

His testimony, along with that of others, helped secure the park’s wilderness status.

 

An unclaimed past

 

A final historic legacy still eludes him — his unverified first solo ascent of Nanda Devi.

In 2005, after reports had surfaced in Kohli’s book and in magazine articles about U.S. climber-spies in the Himalayas, Schaller began another quest — to reclaim his records from those secret climbs.

Three times he appealed to the government through Freedom of Information Requests asking for his personal diary and photographs from the Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot climbs.

Each time he was denied.

“The CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or non-existence of records responsive to your request,” the letters said. “Such information — unless it has been officially acknowledged — would be classified for reasons of national security … . The fact of the existence or non-existence of such records would also relate directly to information concerning intelligence sources and methods.”

The CIA made a similar denial when the Seattle P-I made a request for records of the expedition.

Schaller also appealed to Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, as well as Rep. Dave Reichert, but has gotten nowhere.

Under a new law, the government automatically declassifies documents more than 25 years old, unless a specific exemption is sought.

“I feel betrayed by this process,” he said. “I can’t see how my personal diaries and photographs would be of any risk to national security, and they certainly don’t reveal anything about the operations of the CIA”

Schaller’s agitation brims, and he turns from his computer. He gazes out the window toward the Olympic Mountains in the distance.

“Look,” he says. “The Brothers are out.”

The view makes him wistful. He is a man facing the most unassailable peak of all — his mortality.

There is a piece of his life likely boxed and forgotten in some deep CIA archive.

He just wants it back.

*  *  *  *  *
Article by Carol Smith (P-I reporter)

Published Sunday, March 25, 2007
Link to the source article 

The founding of the HIMALAYAN CLUB

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THE FOUNDING OF THE HIMALAYAN CLUB

authored by G. L. Corbett  |   as published in April 1, 1929

MR. DOUGLAS FRESHFIELD tells me that the idea of a Himalayan Club goes back so far as 1866, when it was formally suggested to the Asiatic Society of Bengal by Mr. F. Drew and Mr. W .H. Johnson. And Mr. Fresh field himself, writing in The Alpine Journal in 1884, advised that our knowledge of the Himalaya might thus be extended. ” The formation at Calcutta or Simla,” he said, ” of an Himalayan Club, prepared to publish  Narratives of Science and Adventure’ concerning the mountains, would be the most serviceable means to this end.” The idea must have recurred to many, but it never took shape, not because a Club was not wanted, but because in this land of endlessness it is only now and then that the two or three are gathered together. The thing had hung in the balance for years when a chance talk at Simla tipped the beam, and the Himalayan Club was born on the path behind Jakko on the afternoon of the 6th October, 1927.

I wrote first to Major Kenneth Mason of the Survey of India, who also had long cherished the hope of a Club ; to Major-General Walter Kirke, then acting as Chief of the General Staff ; and to Brigadier E. A. Tandy, Surveyor General of India. I was diffident, for there seemed no reason why the time should now be fulfilled. Mason replied that he was with me heart and soul; Kirke that he would do anything he could to help ; Tandy that he would help in any way he could. So encouraged, I went ahead. The Viceroy, Lord Irwin, the Commander-in-Chief, Field-Marshal Sir William Bird wood, and Sir Malcolm Hailey, then Governor of the Punjab, were among the first to whom . I told our plans. Others were Mr. T. E. T. Upton, Solicitor to the Government of India; Sir Edwin Pascoe, Director of the Geological Survey of India; Major-General Kenneth Wigram and Brigadier W. L. 0. Twiss who still, they say, count for something among Gurkhas; Mr. G. Mackworth Young, Army Secretary; and Mr J. G. Acheson, Deputy Foreign Secretary. Mason meanwhile had consulted Major E. 0. Wheeler of the Survey of India, and Captain J. G. Bruce, 6th Gurkhas. These were the founders of the Himalayan Club, and it is to their confidence and sound judgment that the Club owes its constitution. There were three others who had no claim to be members of the Club, but whose interest and advice meant much to us : the Foreign Secretary, Sir Denys Bray ; the Education Secretary Mr. J. W. Bhore, who included in his Department the Survey of India ; and the Private Secretary to the Viceroy, Mr George Cunningham. It was Denny Bray who determined the quality of our founder members : ” What you want,” he said, “is a solid core of men who have done things.”

We proceeded deliberately, remembering always that it’s the first step that counts. There were three things to be decided : What should the Club be called ? What should be its objects ? Who should be asked to become founder members ? The name of the Club was soon settled. ” The Alpine Club of India ” had been suggested, but seemed likely to scare those whose interest was not high mountaineer­ing ; nor had we need to look for a name beyond our own great range. Almost from the first we thought of ourselves as “The Himalayan Club. It was agreed that our objects should be based on the famous definition in the Rules of the Alpine Club. But it is shikar that first impels nine-tenths of those who go to the Himalaya ; and though we were unwilling to admit shikar as a specific object of the Club we thought that our objects should recognise that knowledge of the Himalaya is extended through ” sport,” which would cover mountain climbing and ski-running as well as shikar. In this way we arrived at our definition :—

” To encourage and assist Himalayan travel and exploration, and to extend knowledge of the Himalaya and adjoining mountain ranges through science, art, literature and sport.”

The list of those who should be asked to become founder members, was anxiously and carefully compiled. Our intention was to include everyone who had ” done things in the Himalaya; and if anyone was inadvertently omitted, I hope he will forgive and join us now. On the 20th December, 1927, Mason and I sent out our circular letter, and then we waited apprehensively for the replies. We had never dared to hope for such a response. From all over India and beyond, and from the back of beyond, from Europe, Africa and America, replies came welcoming the Club and making varied and valuable suggestions. Almost everyone replied, and almost everyone who replied became a founder member. Our 127 founder members contribute to the objects of the Club much that there is of Himalayan knowledge and experience. The Club was formally inaugurated at a meeting held in Field-Marshal Sir William Bird wood’s room at Army Headquarters, Delhi, on the 17th February, 1928.

While we were still intent on our first step, we learnt that ” The Mountain Club of India ” had been formed at Calcutta on the 23rd September, 1927. Mason and I took an early opportunity to meet Mr. W. Allsup, its moving spirit, and it was agreed that the two Clubs should go forward with mutual good-will, and that the question of fusion should be considered later. At the inaugural meeting of the Himalayan Club it was decided to ask the Mountain Club whether it would be willing to amalgamate. A general meeting of the Mountain Club on the 14th December, 1928, agreed to amalgamate ” for the benefit of the common aims of the two Clubs,” and we are now one strong and united organisation.  Allsup to our regret has now left India, but the combined Club will not forget how selflessly he advocated amalgamation.

We owe much too to the Alpine Club, and in particular to Colonel E. L. Strutt, the Editor of the Alpine Journal, who is also one of our founder members, and to Mr. Sydney Spencer, the Honorary Secretary. From the first and throughout I have been in close correspondence with them, and their ungrudging help and wise advice have never failed me. Members of the Alpine Club who come to the Himalaya may be sure of a warm welcome and all the assistance that the Himalayan Club can give.

And so the Himalayan Club is founded, and we hope great things of it : the geographer that the blank places on his map may be filled in ; the scientist that our knowledge of the Himalaya, its rocks and glaciers, its animals and plants, its peoples and their way of living, may continually expand ; the artist that its glories may inspire fine pictures. The mountaineer may dream of the first ascent of a thousand unclimbed peaks, the shikari of record heads shot in nalas yet unknown. My own hope is that it may help to rear a breed of men in India, hard and self-reliant, who will know how to enjoy life on the high hills.

G. L. Corbett

Link to source article

* * *

HIMALAYAN NOTES   (as published in April 1, 1929)

Photographic Exhibition.

THE FIRST public activity of the Club has been an exhibition of photographs of mountain scenery taken by members. The exhibition was held in Simla during ten days in September in connection with the Simla Fine Arts Exhibition. The Com­mittee of the Exhibition very kindly placed a small room at the disposal of the Club but owing to the uncertainty as to whether any space would be available, only short notice could be given to members of the Club who were known to be interested in photography.

Considering the shortness of the notice, the response was very gratifying and sufficient pictures were received to make a good show. The standard of photography was high and the subjects were of such interest that they were certainly appreciated by the general public that visited the Fine Arts Exhibition, The collection included pictures contributed by Mr. C. P. Skrine, Lieut.-Colonel D. M. Field, Major Kenneth Mason, Mr. Tombazi, Colonel Spalding and Captain K. Dawson. Major Mason also contributed the beautiful little picture of K2 by H. R. H. the Duke of the Abruzzi, which appears as frontispiece to this Journal.

Mr. Skrine’s photographs, some of the most striking of which were of Rakaposhi, were very effective. Their large size made them particularly suitable for a public exhibition. The gem of the collection was a view of Rakaposhi taken at dawn, a most difficult subject, magni ficently rendered. Mr. Tombazi’s contribution included views in the Eastern Himalaya and also some of the Swiss Alps. These were shown separately from the Himalayan subjects. Lieut.-Colonel Field contributed some figure studies from Leh, including an interesting one of a Lama band. These figure studies were welcome as affording a contrast to the other exhibits. Captain K. Dawson showed some effective pictures of hill scenery and one of clouds. Major Mason’s pictures which included views of K2 and of four giants of the Muztagh from the Aghil Range were of particular interest in view of the lecture that Major Mason had given recently on Himalayan exploration.

Many of the pictures that were shewn have been presented to the Club and will form the nucleus of a collection that should prove very valuable in the future to members who wish to obtain some idea of the appearance of the country that they propose to visit.

It is hoped that in 1929, it may be possible to arrange for a similar exhibition and that by giving longer notice it may be possible to obtain contributions from a much larger number of members and to shew a greater variety of Himalayan subjects. It would assist in the staging of such an exhibition if members would in their spare time prepare a few pictures. For display on the walls of an exhibition, prints smaller than 10×8 are less suitable than those of this size, or larger— the larger the better. The pictures should, if possible, be mounted on stout card considerably bigger than the print ; they should not be framed.

W. B. S.

Royal Geographical Society Awards, 1928.—-His Majesty the King-Emperor approved the award of the Founder’s Medal to Dr. T. G. Longstaff, for his discovery of the Siachen Glacier and his long-continued geographical work in the Himalaya.

Dr. Longstaff first visited the Himalaya in 1905, when with the two Brocherels he attempted the ascent of Gurla Mandhata, 25,350 feet. From a camp at 20,000 feet, the party reached a height of 23,000 feet on the western arete of the mountain. From here they were swept away by an avalanche to the glacier 1,000 feet below. They succeeded however in extricating themselves, and camped in the shelter of some rocks near the glacier. This they ascended the following day, and reached a point above 23,000 feet, where they spent another night out in the snow. On the fifth day of the climb, they made a final effort to reach the summit, but were forced to return from a height of probably a little over 24,000 feet.

Two years later, Dr. Longstaff was back again in the Himalaya, where he successfully climbed Trisul, 23,360 feet, in Garhwal. The ascent of nearly 6,000 feet in 101 hours at this high altitude on the last day, was the great feature of this climb. As far as we know  Trisul is still the highest summit that has been attained. After this expedition Dr. Longstaff was awarded the Gill Memorial by the Royal Geographical Society.

In 1909, Dr. Longstaff reached the upper Siachen glacier and proved it to be the longest glacier outside sub-Polar regions. Ever since its snout was first visited by Henry Strachey in 1848, its great length had been unsuspected. During the Great War, Dr. Longstaff served in the Political Department as Assistant Commandant with the Gilgit Scouts. He was subsequently on the Mount Everest Committee, and went on the Second Mount Everest Expedition in 1922. He revisited Garhwal in 1927, to explore the approaches of Nanda Devi.

Away from the Himalaya, Dr. Longstaff has almost as distinguished a record. In 1903 he visited the Caucasus with L. W. Rolleston, making five first ascents. In 1910-11 he was climbing and exploring in the Canadian Rockies and Selkirks, and visited Yukon territory and Alaska. In 1921 and 1923 he was in Spitzbergen with the Oxford Expeditions and in 1928 took a party of Oxford biologists to West Greenland. In the intervals between these journeys Dr. Longstaff has been a frequent visitor to the Alps. He has been a Member of the Alpine Club since 1900, and was Vice-President of it in 1927-

The Council of the Royal Geographical Society awarded the Murchison Grant to Captain C. J. Morris of the 3rd Gurkhas, for his explorations on Mr. H. F. Montagnier’s expedition to Hunza. The main results included the exploration of the lower Ghujerab valley and gorge, and of the main glacier tributaries of the Chapursan. Captain Morris was transport officer and assistant photographer on the Second Mount Everest Expedition.

Note on K2.—The second highest mountain on earth, a photo­gravure of which appears as frontispiece to this Volume, is not visible from any inhabited spot, and has no native name. In 1856, when Montgomerie was observing from the station of Haramukh, east of the Wular lake in Kashmir, he entered in his angle-book the peaks that appeared in the direction of the Karakoram, as K1, K2, K3, etc. The surveyors found a local name for K1,—Masherbrum, and for K3, K4, and K5—Gasherhrum. For K2, however, no name could be obtained. Yet when its height was worked out, it was found to exceed the accepted height of Kinchinjunga by 104 feet.

The name Godwin Austen was proposed by General Walker in England in 1888, after the distinguished surveyor who first mapped its approaches, but though this name still appears on some unofficial maps, it was not authorized by Godwin Austen himself nor approved by the Survey or Government of India, on the principle that personal names are objectionable. Other native names have been proposed, Dapsang, Chiving, Chogo Ri, Lanfafahad, etc. : but they are not known to-day by natives, and objection has been raised to all of them. Curiously enough the writer of this note has heard two ” native ” names used for the peak : Kechu, and Cheku. These are obviously only corruptions of the symbol K2, which, having been now in use for over 70 years, appears to have come to stay.

The officially accepted height is 28,250 feet. This height was deduced by Colonel Montgomerie from the mean of the heights derived from nine stations of observation ranging in height from 16,000 to 17,500 feet and distant from K2 from 61 to 136 miles. The accepted height of Kinchinjunga is 28,148 feet, but recent investigation points to this height being too low, and it is just possible that the day may come when K2 may have to take third place among the highest mountains of the world.

The Baltoro glacier, at the northern extremity of which rises K2, was first discovered by Godwin Austen in 1861 ; it was first reached from the north by Sir Francis Younghusband in 1887, when the northern face of the great mountain was first described. In 1892 the whole glacier was surveyed by Sir Martin Conway. The large northern branch (” the Godwin Austen glacier “), was first visited by a party comprising Messrs. Eckenstein, Crowley and Knowles, and Dr. Pfannl, Wessely and J. J. Guillarmod in 1902. The first serious attempt to climb the peak K2 was made by H. E. II. the Duke of the Abruzzi in 1909. A complete reconnaissance was made of the mountain from north-west through south to north-east. The Duke reached a point about 21,000 feet on the southern ridge, ascended the snow saddle, 21,870 feet, on the north-west arete, and climbed to an altitude of 21,650 feet on the southern ridge of  Staircase Peak,” north-east of K2. From this point he took the very beautiful photograph which appears in this volume. The conclusion reached by the expert mountaineers of this expedition is that the technical climbing difficulties are probably insurmountable at so great an altitude.

Ice pinnacles of Kyagar Gl. are 200 – 300 feet high
(Photograph: Kenneth Mason)

Pre-Ghal in Waziristan.—In the Geographical Journal for October 1928 is printed the very interesting lecture delivered by Captain W. E. Hay, dealing with his visit to and ascent of Pre-Ghal, the highest mountain in Waziristan. The statement of the Mahsuds who accompanied Captain Hay, that the Bospa plateau, about 2,000 feet below the summit, is 46 the highest point on the mountain which any European has previously been allowed to reach ” has been corrected by Captain Hay in the G. J. for December, where he remarks : ” It is quite clear that a party of three British officers, with a number of rank and file of the Indian Army, and some local tribesmen acting as guides reached the summit of Pre-Ghal on 8th May, 1881.”

It appears also from the narrative report of Major T. H. Holdich, r.e. (now Colonel Sir Thomas Holdich, k.c.m.g.. k.c.i.e., c.b.), who was in charge of the survey operations in Northern Baluchistan in 1880-81, that the summits of both Pre-Ghal and Shuidar were reached and observed from. In a recent letter Sir Thomas remarks that Captain Gerald Martin, Survey of India (afterwards Assay-Master in the Bombay Mint), was the officer who ascended the peak. Captain Martin was in charge of the survey work with Brigadier-General Kennedy’s Column. He was presumably one of the three British officers mentioned by Captain Hay. It would be interesting to know the names of the other two.

The Workmans’ climbs near the Skoro La, 1899.—-With reference to Dr. Balestreri’s ascent of Cheri Chor, described on page 89, it may be of interest to mention that in 1899, the Workmans made two ascents in the Skoro La neighbourhood, with Zurbriggen, as their guide. There is a photograph opposite page 134 of the Workmans book, In the Ice-World of Himalaya, entitled “Siegfriedhorn, 18,600 feet, and Skoro La, 17,000 feet, from Avalanche Camp.” This photograph was taken from the north-east of the Skoro La, and Siegfriedhorn, the name given by the Workmans to the broad ice-domed summit east of the pass, is evidently the same mountain for which Dr. Balestreri obtained the native name, Nakpu Gang The climb to the summit on the 7th August, 1899, took 5 ½ hours, and is described by Mrs. Bullock Workman on pages 138 sqq. of her book. According to her, the height is 18,600 feet, which is probably approximately correct. A few days later the Workmans climbed a second snow-dome on the watershed, height 19,450 feet. This peak was the fifth furthest east from Nakpu Gang, and is close under Mango Gusor. It has no accepted name.

Hawk Moths—The family of Sphingidse (sphinx or hawk moths) occurring in the Himalaya is not well represented in Home museums or private collections. A great deal remains to be learned about its distribution, habits, etc. Major F. B. Scott, Survey of India, Shillong, Assam, will be very glad to receive specimens of this family from the Himalaya or adjoining regions, and to have them classified. Specimens should be packed in paper envelopes, with the wings folded back to back. The date, place of capture, height, and a serial number should be carefully entered on the envelope containing each specimen.

The Birds of Kashmir.—Many members will be interested to learn that Mr. Hugh Whistler is engaged in writing a book on the Birds of Kashmir. His intention is, as far as possible, to write a com­plete monograph on all birds found within the political boundaries of H. H. the Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir, including the highly diverse  avifaunas of Kashmir proper, Ladakh, Baltistan, and Gilgit, as well as of Punch and Jammu.

Mr. Whistler will be glad if members will give him any observa­tions they may have made during their visits to Kashmir, however limited they may be. Single records of time and place of a single species, if accurate, are often of considerable value when collated with other records. Nor need members feel that records are chiefly required from the most out-of-the-way localities. It is noticeable that there is least information available about such parts as the southern slopes of the Pir Panjal, the areas round the Jhelum valley motor-road, Bhadarwar and Kishtwar, while the plains of Jammu are ornitho- logically practically unknown. A very valuable ornithological trip could be made into the Himalaya from Jammu either by the Banihal pass or better still, up the Chenab. Even a week-end spent at Jammu town verifying the commonest birds (the House- Crow, the Kite, the Babbler, etc.) would be of value. Mr. Whistler is particularly anxious for information as to where in this neighbourhood the plains avifauna merges into the Himalayan. Observations on distribution, both local and altitudinal, dates of arrival and departure of migratory birds, dates tending to show altitudinal movement, observations on habits and behaviour and welcomed. Mr. Whistler will also be most grateful for shooting notes and records of game, wild-fowl, etc., descriptions of good davs’ sport and of methods found satisfactory for shooting small game ; accounts of native methods of trapping and snaring ; and legends and folk-lore pertaining to birds. Commutations should be sent to Hugh Whistler, Esq., Caldbec House, Battle, Sussex, England. Mr. Whistler will be most happy to reply to any enquiries and will carefully acknowledge his indebtedness to those willing to assist him in the manner indicated.

Moorcroft.—One of the outstanding personalities of Himalayan exploration in the  beginning of last century was Moorcroft, the superintendent of the Honourabhflast India Company’s stud at Delhi. He travelled extensively in Kashmir, Ladakh and Tibet. In many ways he was a remarkable man, far ahead of his time, and as yet full justice has not been done to him. In a recent letter, Sir Aurel Stein wrote : ” He was unfortunate in dying at Balkh, before he could write up his abundant materials, and afterwards in having his travel notes locked up in the office-table of a ‘Political’ limited in his outlook, for close on 20 years.. The man is worthy of real respect and ought to find a fit biographer. Indirectly we owe to him most of our early knowledge of Tibetian literature and Buddhism.”

The Editor will be glad to receive any original documents or little-known contemporary notes or notices dealing with Moorcroft, and to know of any member who would care to undertake his biography.

Winter Sports Outfit.—Skis are now made in Srinagar by the Kashmir General Agency, from Kashmir ash, which though not so good as hickory, seems to be harder and tougher than Swiss ash. Toe irons and bindings are made up by Amira the gunsmith of Srinagar, but they are not yet so satisfactory as those obtainable from Switzerland. Waterproof boots cannot be purchased in Kashmir, either for climbing or winter-sports. The Army ammunition boot affords a substitute, though an unsatisfactory one, and this important item should invariably be obtained from Europe if time permits.

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Banff Mountain Film Festival 2012

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Author and Banff Mountain Film Festival veteran David Roberts recounts his 2012 experience in this highly enjoyable article.

Banff 2012, Part I : You Had to be There

I was eating a burger on the patio of the Cowgirl in Santa Fe. It was a breezy day in May 2008, with the sun dancing in the cottonwood leaves. All around me, New Age cowgirls and ‘boys were chatting away over their own burgers, but a single voice, more strident than the others, wafted toward me from about five tables away.

“And then Krakauer got up and just blasted Anatoli.”

“No.”

“Yeah. And Anatoli just sat there, deer in the headlights. ‘What you say? My English not so good.’ But he knew he was getting slammed.”

“Wow. Really?”

“And then Roberts got up—Roberts was Krakauer’s teacher somewhere, you know? Then Roberts let Anatoli have it, too.”

“Christ.”

“Yeah. Poor Anatoli.”

I paid the bill and sauntered over. “Excuse me, guys, but I couldn’t help hearing my name bandied about.”

The raconteur stood up, blushed, and introduced himself. It was Nick Heil, a young writer for Outside. He half-apologized, then introduced his companion: Lincoln Hall, the fine Australian climber, who had cheated death on Everest two years before. We shook hands. I said to Heil, “Don’t worry, you’re not the first guy who’s thought we were pretty hard on Anatoli.”

As I walked back to my car, I reflected, The amazing thing is that Heil was telling it like it happened last week. In point of fact, however, the confrontation between Jon Krakauer and Anatoli Boukreev had occurred eleven years earlier, in November 1997. Nick Heil must have been a teenager when he sat in the audience that day.

That’s Banff, I mused. What happens in Banff doesn’t stay in Banff.

*   *   *

Photo Credit: Flickr/JoyTrip

Last week, I participated in the 37th annual Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, generally acclaimed as the preeminent conference of its kind in the world. As I sat in the Max Bell Auditorium listening to climbers tussle with the conundrum titled “Chomolongma: Goddess or Gong Show?,” I flashed back on that explosive exchange in the same venue way back in 1997. Into Thin Air was number one on the bestseller list, but Jon had declined to serve on the panel debating the 1996 disaster on Everest. Anatoli, whose performance as a guide for the ill-fated Mountain Madness team Jon had excoriated in his book, was on the panel. His own version of the debacle was about to come out in his ghost-written book The Climb.

On the panel, Anatoli spoke very little, claiming his English was poor, so his girlfriend, Linda Wylie, spoke for him, explicating his version of the Everest events. But then Anatoli took the mic to argue that because journalists always get it wrong, a media blackout on Himalayan expeditions might be a good thing. (The “journalist” in 1996, of course, was Krakauer.) That was too much for Jon, who stood up and spoke from the audience. As he later wrote in a postscript to the 1998 edition of Into Thin Air, “The upshot was that at one point I rose to Boukreev’s bait and some ill-advised, very heated words were exchanged across the crowded auditorium.”

Some of those heated words were mine. Loyal to my former protégé, I seconded Jon’s attack. I remember using the words “dishonest” and “self-serving.” The hall buzzed with catcalls and cheers. Moderator Geoff Powter tried to douse the flames.

As his postscript indicates, Jon felt bad about his outburst almost immediately. Once the panel had dispersed, he found Anatoli outside the auditorium, where the two men had a long talk. They came to some sort of truce.

A month and a half later, Anatoli was dead, buried in an avalanche on an attempt on a new route in winter on Annapurna. Jon ruefully ended his 1998 postscript, “I realized that I’d begun my conciliatory efforts much too late.”

Nothing happened at the festival last week quite as explosive as the 1997 showdown, but for five days I reveled in the usual potpourri of mind-blowing films, provocative speakers, long-dormant friendships renewed in the hallways, and drunken debates waged long into the night at Banff Centre receptions and downtown pubs. The whole time, I reminisced about memorable episodes from my eight or 10 previous trips to the festival. You had to be there . . . .

You had to be there when Stevie Haston, the bad boy of British climbing, gave a slideshow in which he managed at the same time to convey supreme ennui as he explicated his own genius to the masses and snide dismissal of the rivals who thought they might be in his league on crag and couloir. According to Haston, Greg Child, who had given his own slideshow the night before, was “a wanker.”

The next day in the Max Bell, when a panelist dryly alluded to “egomaniacal performances like the one we watched yesterday,” a sudden noise erupted from the audience. Haston burst from his congenital slouch, shouted, “Oh, fuck off!,” fled for the exit, and slammed the door behind him.

You had to be there in 2000 for Chris Bonington’s two-and-a-half-hour slideshow about his reconnaissance of some obscure and nameless peak in western China. Bonington was the featured Saturday night speaker in the Eric Harvie Theatre, and every one of its 956 seats was occupied. I sat near the back with photographer Chris Noble. We began to suspect that something was amiss when, 20 minutes into the show, Bonington had barely begun the hike in to base camp. “This porter was a remarkable fellow,” he said as a slide of a thin man bent under a hundred-pound load lingered on the screen, “and his uncle was even more remarkable. Let me tell you a little story about the uncle.” Next slide, please, I silently begged, but Sir Christian was riding the flood of his manic enthusiasm.

At last, fifteen minutes past the scheduled hour limit, Bonington’s team got to the mountain, identified the most likely route, and packed up to head home. I said to Noble, “Okay, a little long-winded, but not bad. Nice reconnaissance trip for Chris, especially at his age.”

But then Bonington brightly intoned, “That was 1998. We decided to go back in 1999. Next tray.” The audience suppressed a groan. Noble whispered to me, “Let’s get out of here.”

At the designated festival pub downtown, we swigged our beers. “How can a guy who’s given so many slideshows,” I wondered out loud, “who’s got the whole routine down pat, go on and on like that?”

Noble smirked. “Saturday night at Banff? It’s a big deal, even for Bonington. He got carried away.”

One by one, other refugees showed up at the pub. “Has he gotten back to base camp yet?” Noble and I hooted. “No, he’s still telling every porter’s life story,” someone answered. (I later learned that festival director Bernadette MacDonald, in a backstage wing, was frantically trying to catch Bonington’s eye as she pointed at her watch. Had she had the proverbial vaudeville hook, she would have deployed it.)

Photo Credit: Flickr/JoyTrip

In the pub, as wave after wave of escapees arrived, the mirth crescendoed. But then a dark thought bloomed in my brain. “You know,” I said to Noble, “when the show’s over, Chris himself is going to come to the pub, and he’ll expect everybody to tell him what a great job he did.”

Sure enough, almost three hours after he had launched into his presentation, the last refugee arrived in the person of Bonington. He was beaming with satisfaction. (Bernadette told me later that at the end he had asked her, “Did I go on perhaps a wee bit long? Ten or fifteen minutes over?”) In the pub, all of us stared into our beers, avoiding Bonington’s eye, hoping he wouldn’t pull up a chair at our table.

To this day, I wonder if Bonington knows about the Banff legend to which he gave birth.

*   *   *

You had to be there in another Banff pub in November 1999 when Wade Davis and David Breashears strummed their dueling banjos. Some nine or 10 of us had assembled around a long, narrow table, and by chance Davis sat at one end, Breashears at the other. Though not a climber, Davis had announced that he was going to write a big book about George Leigh Mallory. He had signed a handsome contract and was well into his research.

The only trouble was, just the previous May, Conrad Anker had discovered Mallory’s body sprawled face down on the north face of Everest, and now Conrad and I were co-writing a book about it, to appear soon as The Lost Explorer.

Davis now declared to our table that he had never really intended to write a book about Mallory, except insofar as the man had played a part in the early exploration of the Himalaya. Gathering steam, he launched into the kind of brilliantly articulate monologue he seemed to have mastered. “What’s quite interesting to me,” he told us, “is that when John Noel crossed the Sepo La in 1912—“

Breashears had been watching Davis with a jaundiced eye. Now he interrupted: “1913. Yeah, I’ve been there. It’s the shortest way to the Kampa Dzong.”

This footnote only drove Davis to further expostulation. The rest of us remained mute as the two experts traded volleys. The Harvard Ph. D., National Geographic Explorer in Residence, versus the Kloberdanz Kid, who never went to college. Book learning versus the learning under one’s boots. The duel escalated. Conrad, sitting opposite me next to Jenni Lowe, stared slack-jawed at the combatants, swiveling from one to the other, as if watching a high-speed ping pong match—or perhaps a couple of boxers trading haymakers.

How is this going to end? I wondered. Abruptly, Breashears played his trump card. With Davis in mid-peroration, Breashears yawned, stood up, stuck a quarter in the nearby pool table, racked the balls, and started pocketing them right and left. Davis spluttered on, but there was nobody left to one-up.

Well, last week Wade Davis was back at Banff. It had taken him 12 years to write Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. There was a lot of buzz about the book. It had been short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize, Britain’s most prestigious award for non-fiction. It was expected to win the grand prize at Banff. And on Saturday night, in the same slot Chris Bonington had occupied more than a decade earlier, Davis was going to tell an audience of 1,250 everything we needed to know about Mallory and Everest.

Banff 2012, Part II : Riffing on Mallory, Everest and Sex

The biggest event at Banff is the Saturday evening presentation, which opens with the festival’s semi-mythic film trailer. As the room darkens, the big screen lights up with micro-snippets of badass stunts in the outdoors, syncopated to a booming four-chord progression, overlaid by a stentorian voice proclaiming the words to live by of the two chief sponsors: “National Geographic: One hundred and twenty-five years . . . and the adventure continues” and “The North Face: dedicated to [something or other] . . . and to never stop exploring.” (Let us forgive the split infinitive.)

That opener revs up the already revved-up crowd. It reminds me of ABC’s old Wide World of Sports—“the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” with the gruesome clip of the skier cartwheeling off the jumping ramp. Or, more recently, Monday night’s “Are you ready for some football?” And after the trailer blazes on the screen of Eric Harvie Theatre, the presenter invariably steps up to the lectern and demands, “Is everybody having a good time?” Because the roar is never loud enough, s/he follows it with, “What? I can’t hear you!”

Wade Davis (Photo Credit: Kim Williams)

Bathing in this cacophony a week ago Saturday, Wade Davis was quite at home. Anthropologist, writer, and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, Davis was invited to speak about his 2011 book, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. Without a word of preamble, he launched into his dissertation. While I’d seen him do his thing before, it never fails to amaze me. For 50 minutes, with scarcely a glance at his notes, he speaks not only in finely crafted sentences, but in Ciceronian paragraphs. Others have told me that if you hear Davis speak at one venue one evening and at another a week or two later, the talks are identical, word-for-word. It’s as if the man had effortlessly memorized a speech the length of a Bill Clinton State of the Union address.

“So what?” someone at Banff rejoined when I mentioned this phenomenon. “It’s exactly what a stand-up comic does. It sounds spontaneous, but it’s rehearsed to a tee.” I nodded. “Except that a comic,” the fellow added, “doesn’t have to keep it going for 50 minutes.”

I confess I haven’t yet read Into the Silence, though some of my friends have told me it’s a terrific book—all 655 pages of it. Davis’s central premise is that the heroic and tragic British Everest expeditions of 1921, 1922, and 1924 had their spiritual genesis in the horrors of World War I, in which nearly all the members of the three expeditions had served in the trenches. To quote the dust jacket, “Mallory and his generation found themselves and their world utterly shattered” by the war, so that the effort to climb Everest “emerged as a symbol of national redemption and hope.”

Damn it, I berated myself when I first cottoned on to Davis’s thesis, why didn’t I think of that? At once I was reminded of the scholarly coup Peter and Leni Gillman had scored in The Wildest Dream, their 2000 biography of Mallory. For decades, mountaineering historians had wondered why Mallory chose the inexperienced 22-year-old Sandy Irvine for the fatal last attempt in 1924, rather than the well-conditioned, immensely competent Noel Odell. Was Mallory secretly in love with the handsome young Oxford blue? Was he, despite his three children and his devotion to his loving wife, Ruth, a closet homosexual?

The historians had combed through Irvine’s journal, Mallory’s letters, the memoirs of their teammates, without coming close to solving this prurient question. The Gillmans simply went to Bloomsbury, where they discovered rather easily that in 1909, four years before he met Ruth, Mallory had had a one-night stand with James Strachey (later to become the great translator of Freud into English) and had immediately freaked out, never to repeat the experiment. The reason Mallory chose Irvine for the last attempt was simple. Irvine was a mechanical genius, Mallory a mechanical dunce, and the crucial oxygen apparatus had broken down again and again. (Odell, in fact, found evidence in the highest camp that in the last minutes before setting out on June 8, 1924, Irvine had desperately tinkered with the tanks and regulators.)

So, motivated by envy of his tour de force delivery, I found myself listening to Wade Davis with only one ear on his disquisition, the other straining to pick up his quirks and tics. He seemed to have coined the term “ethnosphere.” Stirring phrases, such as “born in the mud of Flanders,” spilled like coins from the pockets of his mind. Davis’s favorite adverb, I realized, was “famously.” “Mallory famously hated Canadians,” he declared, in defense of Oliver Wheeler, the sole Canadian on the three Everest expeditions. “You must remember, it was Wheeler, not Mallory, who found the way to the North Col.” While I nudged myself to remember that datum, I also remembered that Davis had been born in Vancouver.

Brilliant Wade Davis unmistakably is, but no one ever accused him of modesty. I marveled at how smoothly he slipped in kudos to his own research—“twelve years, sixty different archives all over the world”—and a sly boast about receiving “the biggest book advance in the history of mountaineering literature.” (Could you look it up, I wondered?)

For Christ’s sake, Roberts, the censorious imp I all too often drown out now whispered in my ear, give the man his due. He’s wowing a crowd of more than a thousandYou just wish you could do that. I remembered the pithy comment of a friend of Shannon O’Donoghue, former director of the Banff festival, who suggested the shindig be renamed The Festival of Egomaniacs with Inferiority Complexes.

Near the end of the talk, Davis shamed me further, as he lavished praise onThe Lost Explorer, the book I had written with Conrad Anker after Conrad had discovered Mallory’s body in 1999. Davis summarized Conrad’s definitive analysis of why it was almost impossible that Mallory and Irvine could have reached the summit before they died. But then he climbed through the loophole: The possibility of a snow ramp bypassing the Second Step at 28,200 feet in 1924. “And so perhaps Mallory made the first ascent of Everest after all.”

This was the ending all mountaineers wish they could believe. It’s the ending I clung to as a teenager, when I first read about Mallory, and then in college, when I went on expeditions with two of Mallory’s grandsons. It was the ending the Banff audience craved.

Standing ovation. Standing myself, I thought, It’s Mallory we’re cheering for as much as Wade Davis. And then: It’s Banff, cheering itself. Is everybody having a good time? You bet we are.

Two days earlier, a panel of experts had solemnly debated an unanswerable question: What was “The Best Mountain Book Ever Written”? Expecting to nurse my scorn and disapproval from the audience, I ended up deciding that the panel was the high point of the week.

Banff 2012, Part III : The Best Mountain Book Ever Written

Well, they asked for it, proposing a panel with such an ex cathedra title as “The Best Mountain Book Ever Written.” So it wasn’t surprising when Katie Ives, editor of Alpinist and the panel’s moderator, launched the discussion by calling it “a utopian and elusive project.” Or when Bernadette MacDonald, whose recent book about the great Polish Himalayan mountaineers, Freedom Climbers, won multiple awards, chimed in: “It is irresponsible of us to do this.”

Bernadette McDonald (Photo Credit: Donald Lee)

But then all five panelists eagerly rolled up their sleeves and went to work. The brilliant stroke was that none of the five was privy to the others’ choices beforehand. I was afraid that the panel was going to feel the need to wrangle the competition down to a single winner, leaving masterpieces strewn by the wayside, but no such mayhem ensued. Instead, each contributor named five or even eight favorite candidates, and only reluctantly bestowed a gold medal for number one.

Harry Vandervlist, the Canadian literature professor, turned his presentation into show-and-tell, pulling dog-eared paperbacks out of his daypack, starting with Dante’s Purgatorio (Wow, I thought, just which route did Dante and Vergil put up, and who led the crux pitch through the Gluttonous band into the Lustful summit plateau?) and ending, yep, with Wade Davis’s Into the Silence.

By the time the dust had settled after an hour and a half, we had a stellar reading list of no fewer than 35 excellent mountain books, some of which I’d never heard of (they happened to be written by Canadian authors). Only one of the 35 was a novel: James Salter’s Solo Faces, nominated by MacDonald. “Where is the great mountaineering novel?” Ives wondered out loud, prompting Canadian journalist Jon Popowich to scold the youngsters in the audience: “Hey, all of you, stop blogging and sit down and write the great North American climbing novel.”

In the audience, prepared to disapprove of the whole silly exercise, I found myself won over by each panelist’s thoughtful rationale as to how he or she devised a list of finalists. (Immodesty compels me to admit that I was mollified by three of the dignitaries nominating my own The Mountain of My Fear.) Stephen Venables, the crack British mountaineer and a writer who has won both the grand prize at Banff and England’s top prize, the Boardman-Tasker award, declared that he had restricted his choices to firsthand accounts of climbs. His hero was H. W. Tilman—“the Jane Austen of mountaineering literature,” as Venables dubbed him—and if he had to choose a single book, he’d settle on The Ascent of Nanda Devi, with its immortal line as Tilman and Noel Odell stood on the summit: “I believe we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands on it.”

Geoff Powter and Stephen Venables (Photo Credit: Donald Lee)

The debate sent my memory winging back to 2004, when National Geographic Adventure decided to proclaim the 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time. As a contributing editor, I tried to talk the staff out of their folly, and then grew downright indignant when I learned that the magazine was determined not only to find those hundred books but to rank them from one to 100. But when I realized that the gang was not about to relent, I plunged into the fray, sending little-known classics their way and vetoing impostors. And I felt a weird satisfaction when Adventure bestowed its highest honor on Apsley Cherry-Garrad’s The Worst Journey in the World, the single book that, if I had to choose, would be my own top pick.

I had expected that the two books that would dominate the Banff panel would be Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air—far and away the two best-selling, most influential mountain books ever written. But only Geoff Powter, editor of the Canadian Alpine Journal and longtime Banff moderator, chose Annapurna, and not one of the five panelists had Into Thin Air on his or her short list. During the Q & A, I asked why not. Venables explained that Krakauer’s account was not the narrative of a great climb but rather of a “colossal cock-up.” Powter mused, “Yes, Into Thin Air is a great book, and it’s so well-written, but it’s kind of the Dragon Tattoo of mountaineering literature.” (This aside brought the house down.)

What surprised me most was the absence of agreement among the panelists. Only three books—classics all—claimed the barest preponderance among the five sages’ lists: Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider, Gaston Rébuffat’s Starlight and Storm, and Lionel Terray’sConquistadors of the Useless. As a young beginning climber, I had read all three and been profoundly inspired by them—as well as by Herzog’sAnnapurna.

In 1974, writing for Ascent, I had declared Conquistadors of the Uselessthe finest climbing autobiography ever written. Thirty-eight years later, I see no reason to revise that judgment. And in the days leading up to Banff, as I pondered the “utopian project” the panel had foolishly undertaken, I found myself wondering which book I would have chosen, had I been on the panel. My thoughts kept circling back to Terray.

Since the age of twenty, the man had been a personal hero of mine, along with his inseparable partner, Louis Lachenal. In college, my best friend Don Jensen and I so identified with the legendary French duo that we nicknamed each other “Louis” and “Lionel.”

More than three decades later, as I poked around France researching a book I called True Summit—a debunking of Herzog’s Annapurna as a dishonest, semi-fictionalized account of the breakthrough 1950 ascent of the first 8,000-meter peak ever climbed—I declared my esteem for Les Conquérants de l’Inutile (Terray’s original title) to many of the climbing cognoscenti in Paris and Chamonix. In return, some of them shattered my hero-worship.

Terray didn’t write his own book, several experts insisted. It was ghost-written by an editor named Roger Nimier. “Terray was a bit of a country bumpkin,” Françoise Rébuffat, Gaston’s widow, told me. “His writing, even in his letters, was only semiliterate.”

Terray had also been the boyhood hero of my French editor and climbing pal, Michel Guérin. And Michel knew Terray’s widow, Marianne, well. In 1965, Terray had been killed in a long fall from a moderate climb in the Vercors. The attic of his house in Grenoble had been locked up and left to gather dust ever since. Thirty-four years after the fatal accident, Michel and I entered the attic with a key Marianne had lent us. We searched for relics from the great man as if excavating a prehistoric site.

There was clutter everywhere. Speckled mirrors, a broken stereopticon, a crumbling bust of Beethoven. Unpaid bills addressed to Terray’s father, who had only grudgingly allowed his son to climb. Faded photos of Terray’s mother riding a horse in Brazil. We were about to leave when Michel found a bulging cardboard folder, labeled “COURSES EXPLOR BRESIL ATEURS.” We opened it to find a manuscript.

“My God,” said Michel. “That’s Terray’s handwriting.” We read on and on. “It’s the manuscript of Les Conquérants,” Michel whispered. Later we compared it to the published text. Not a word was different. So much for Roger Nimier.

We retrieved the manuscript and delivered it to Marianne, who in 1999 still talked to her dead husband every day, and prayed to him when things went wrong. I am no literary sleuth, but that moment in the attic in Grenoble was the most thrilling historiographical discovery I ever hope to make.

This November, I walked out of the Banff panel oddly exhilarated. There is, of course, no definitive greatest anything all-time, not even Tiger Woods or Babe Ruth. But as I left, I promised myself I’d reread Tilman and Rébuffat and Salter. And check out Gabrielle Roy and Mary Schaffer Warren—even if they were Canadian.

The Top Picks:

From Jon Popowich
Starlight and Storm by Gaston Rébuffat
Conquistadors of the Useless by Lionel Terray
The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer
Beyond the Mountain by Steve House
The Seventh Grade by Reinhold Messner
A Hunter of Peace/Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies by Mary T.S. Schäffer-Warren
Song of the Mountain by Gustavo Brillembourg

From Stephen Venables
The Ascent of Nanda Devi by Bill Tilman
That Untravelled World by Eric Shipton
One Man’s Mountains by Tom Patey
Summits and Secrets by Kurt Diemberger
Sacred Summits by Peter Boardman
Thin Air by Greg Child

From Bernadette McDonald
Conquistadors of the Useless by Lionel Terray
Deep Play by Paul Pritchard
The Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts
Postcards from the Ledge by Greg Child
The Ascent of Nanda Devi by Bill Tilman
Kiss or Kill by Mark Twight
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow by Maria Coffey
K2: The Story of the Savage Mountain by Jim Curran
Solo Faces by James Salter
Learning to Breathe by Andy Cave

From Geoff Powter
Kiss or Kill by Mark Twight
And One for the Crow by John Redhead
Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts
The Totem Pole by Paul Pritchard
A Slender Thread by Stephen Venables
In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods by Galen Rowell
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson

From Harry Vandervlist
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis
The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek by Sid Marty
Freedom Climbers by Bernadette McDonald
The Hidden Mountain / La Montagne Secrète by Gabrielle Roy
The Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts
Purgatorio by Dante

Banff 2012, Part IV : Night of the Legends and New Kids

The Banff festival reaches its frenzied peak on the weekend, when films stream nonstop before packed houses in both the Eric Harvie and Margaret Greenham Theatres. Many ticket holders consider this the main reason for coming, but as for me…well, I’m not the type who can sit through more than three movies in a row without getting bleary-eyed and fidgety. I need to roam the hallways or swig a beer at the Maclab Bistro in hopes of bumping into an old friend or making a new one.

The films inevitably celebrate the recent and the spectacular. This year, a French base jumper rethinking her sport, a psychedelic, illegal big-wall assault on a jungle cliff in Venezuela, Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra grunting fiercely as they duel over 5.15 in southern Spain, and the like.

Yet something Banff also does really well is to thrust venerable writers, climbers and wanderers in front of youthful audiences who, if they have ever heard of these ancients, know them only as hazy rumors. Last year the festival lured Dervla Murphy out of her native Ireland, three weeks shy of her 80th birthday. I first read her astounding book, Full Tilt, about bicycling solo from Ireland to India, armed with spunk and a pocket pistol, in 1965. When I saw her name on the Banff program, my first thought, I’m ashamed to say, was, My God, is she still alive?

Films be damned—Murphy stole the show in 2011.

This year it was Colin Thubron, one of the finest travel writers alive. I knew Thubron was indeed alive, for I had just read his wonderful memoir,To a Mountain in Tibet, about his pilgrimage in the aftermath of his mother’s death to Kailas, the peak that is sacred to one-fifth of the world’s population. Before his reading, I asked five people in the audience under 35 if they’d ever heard of Thubron, who is only 73. Nope.

Colin Thubron (Photo Credit: Kim Williams)

Slender, dignified, with a great plume of white hair swept back from his forehead, Thubron opened with a sly disclaimer: “In spite of the immense promise of this screen behind me—” he waved his hand at the centerpiece of the Max Bell Auditorium, “I must apologize for showing only one slide.” The slide was a map of his route to Kailas.

Thubron didn’t steal the show as Dervla Murphy had, but in his own self-effacing way he delivered one of the deepest 40-minute talks I’ve ever heard. I jotted down: “Formidable erudition. Grasp of history. Curiosity about the world.” The central motif of Thubron’s talk, as of his journey, undercut the cherished platitude that I was willing to bet 99 percent of the Banff crowd subscribed to: The notion that mountains are all about self-fulfillment, affirmation, triumphing over obstacles. “In Buddhist and Hindu culture,” Thubron remarked, “the ascent of mountains means death. Pilgrims go to Kailas to practice their own death.”

Beneath the chill of that assertion, I felt the jolt of a rare discovery: Here was a profound idea that had never occurred to me before. I wanted to march up to the Eric Harvie and tell the crowd, “Stop watching all these goddamn films! Go listen to Colin Thubron. You shall not look upon his like again.”

This year Banff also had Fred Beckey. No other American has ever put up half as many first ascents as Beckey has, and some of them are world-class touchstones, such as the first ascent of Devils Thumb in 1946 or the Beckey-Chouinard route on South Howser Tower in 1961. I’ve known Fred for almost 50 years, but I’ll never figure him out. At 89, almost deaf (he refuses to wear a hearing aid), he remains a piece of work: The self-styled scrounge and dirtbag climber, the guardian of secret routes he plans to knock off before the next generation steals them.

Fred Beckey (Photo Credit: Donald Lee)

In The Club, a quasi-saloon beneath the Eric Harvie, Fred limped in, bent forward at the waist, his weathered face craggier than ever, sat down, and started shouting into the microphone. His slide show was a piece of work, too. He started in with a characteristic conundrum that I’m still trying to decipher. “Fortunately,” Fred announced, “the earth has got a lot of good mountains in different places, but it hasn’t always been that way, because the earth used to be flat.”

For the next hour-plus, Fred flashed dusty old slides of one of his climbs after another on the screen, his voice never varying from its monotone boom. He lavished the same care on some grubby 5.6 crack in the Olympics as he did on his first ascent of Denali’s Northwest Buttress. A grainy 1949 film clip took my breath away, as in tennis shoes, pounding soft-iron pitons into cracks with what looked like a ball-peen hammer, he stood on his belayer’s shoulders as he fought his way up Lighthouse Tower in the Cascades. Good lord, I said to myself, what a graceful climber Fred was in his prime!

Some six or eight of his photos showed avalanches in full career. “You wouldn’t want to camp there,” he said each time. He had his formula down for transitioning from one range to the next: “Taking another big camera jump,” Fred announced as he leapt from the Tetons to Yosemite. Whenever a slide of a familiar peak came up, Fred would intone, “Mount Robson needs no introduction to this audience.” “This is El Capitan in Yosemite, which needs no introduction here.”

Fred has been accused of having no sense of humor. Yet the audience in The Club was hanging on his every word, and howling with laughter at many of his deadpan utterances. And surely there was a soupçon of irony at his own expense in the last slide he showed. There was Fred standing on a highway, holes in his shabby shirt and trousers, his thumb stuck out, as he held a hand-lettered cardboard sign that read, “Will belay for food.”

Yeah, the oldies were goodies this year at Banff. But some of the goodies were young. Last year the Voices of Adventure colloquy featured Edurne Pasaban, the first woman to climb the fourteen highest peaks in the world. This year the Friday night speaker was Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, who last summer became the first woman to climb all fourteen without bottled oxygen. (Pasaban had climbed her first, Everest, with supplemental oxygen in 2001, all the others without.) Both women had become superstars in their native countries (Spain and Austria), and each was selected by the National Geographic Society as its Adventurer of the Year.

Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner (Photo Credit: Kim Williams)

For Outside magazine in 1982, I had interviewed Reinhold Messner in Munich, as he was closing in on becoming the first man to climb the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. In my single hour in his apartment, I realized I was in the presence (“glare” would be a better word) of one of the most titanic egos I had ever met. And though Messner dismissed his race with the brilliant Polish climber Jerzy Kukuczka to reach the finish line first as “a media invention,” there was no ignoring the bitterness of that rivalry.

It was at Banff that I first met both Pasaban and Kaltenbrunner. I subsequently profiled Edurne for Rock and Ice, and right now I’m trying to help them both get their memoirs published in the U.S. They could hardly possess more different personalities. Pasaban is vehement, emotional, driven and prone to deep depressions. Kaltenbrunner seems so polite, sunny, and even-keeled, it’s hard to picture her fighting her way up the north side of K2 in storms that defeated most of her teammates, as she did on Friday night, wowing the audience.

Face-to-face with each superwoman, I tried to get them to confess to a rivalry akin to the Messner-Kukuczka war, but it just wasn’t there. Each testified so ingenuously to her deep friendship with and encouragement of the other that I finally had to squelch my cynicism. As proof, both recounted how they had climbed to the top of Broad Peak arm-in-arm in 2007, embracing on the summit.

At the end of the Friday show, in an onstage Q&A, Bernadette MacDonald posed her last query: “What would you say to young girls?”

Kaltenbrunner beamed as she gazed over the audience. “Find your own passion,” she exhorted. “Feel enthusiasm for what you’re doing.”

It wasn’t quite as epiphanic a statement as Colin Thubron’s insight about Kailas, ascent and death, but I do believe that near me in the audience, young girls were swooning. At Banff, there’s nothing wrong with a feel-good ending.

Banff 2012, Part V : The People’s Choice

All right, it’s a film festival. And the manic week in Banff reaches its climax on Sunday evening, when the prizes in several categories of cinematic excellence are announced. A couple of years ago, I served on the film jury at Telluride Mountainfilm. It’s really hard work, staying indoors to watch every entry in its entirety, when you’d rather be outside on a sunny late-May afternoon kibitzing in the streets or going for a hike. But it was at Telluride that my fellow jurors and I discovered Sender Films’ brilliant “Alone on the Wall,” and thereby discovered Alex Honnold, the world’s foremost free-solo rock climber. We ended up unanimously choosing that film for best picture, doing our small part to help Honnold vault from complete obscurity to “60 Minutes,” where Lara Logan caressed his fingertips as she tried to divine the secret of his genius.

On Sunday night in Banff, we learned that 369 different films had been entered in competition, from which 79 finalists had been culled. My God, I thought, imagine the ordeal of the jurists who had had to weed out those perennials from the mere flash-in-the-pan annuals. During my stay in Banff this November, I managed to sit through nine of the 79 finalists. Some I attended out of a guilty sense of responsibility: if you’re going to report on a film festival, you probably should watch some films. A few I actually wanted to see, including Sender Films’ follow-up on Alex, “Reel Rock 7: Honnold 3.0,” which documents the incredible Yosemite Triple Alex had pulled off the previous June (“daisy-soloing” the three biggest faces in the Valley back-to-back in nineteen hours). And a couple of films I had never heard of caught me in stunned surprise.

Thank God the festival eschews the largess of the Academy Awards. No celebrity presenters dressed to the nines (the standard Banff uniform is jeans, T-shirt, and a North Face sweater or jacket). No envelopes, no “And the winner is…” hokum. Just one presenter after another announcing the winner, and, if the filmmaker is in the audience, a couple of minutes on stage to thank everybody in and out of sight and to comment on how the footage was compiled.

There are, to be sure, some fifteen categories to be saluted, ranging from “Best Film—Mountain Culture” to “The Banff Centre Award for Creative Excellence,” whatever that is. And there’s a grand prize for the best film of all. But the highest accolade the festival bestows is its “People’s Choice” award, as voted hours earlier by the throngs who sit in the Eric Harvie and Margaret Greenham Theatres.

A great film can make you laugh, or it can make you cry. At the end of “Nuit Blanche,” a twenty-minute Belgian recreation of a failed rescue effort in the Alps, I burst into tears. The acting, mostly via fading cell phone calls from the victims to a beleaguered search-and-rescue pro relaying increasingly desperate advice, had the spare, understated economy of early Ingmar Bergman. Without hesitation, I voted for “Nuit Blanche” for People’s Choice. I doubt that many others did.

Banff Center (Photo Credit: Flickr/Afagen)

The one film that had everybody (myself included) laughing out loud and cheering on the protagonists was “Crossing the Ice,” an Australian documentary detailing the efforts of a pair of semi-bunglers, nicknamed Cas and Jonesy, to become the first explorers to ski without outside support from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. As they begin their trek, they discover that a far more savvy Norwegian, Aleksander Gamme, is launching his own quest along the same route—solo. It’s Amundsen versus Scott all over again, a century later.

So the festival comes down to Sunday night, and this year, among the fifteen-odd winners, there were two clear-cut champions. Early on, Sender Films’ “Wide Boyz” won the prize for Best Short Mountain Film. Peter Mortimer, founder of Sender and of the Reel Rock tour, came on stage and politely grasped the wavy glass landscape objet d’art that is Banff’s Oscar. Twenty minutes later, Mortimer was up there again, having won the Best Film—Climbing award for “Honnold 3.0.”

The buzz all weekend had been about “Crossing the Ice,” so it was no surprise when the film won not only the Best Film—Exploration and Adventure award but also the Grand Prize. Having traveled all the way from Australia, Jonesy himself (Justin Jones) came up to accept the awards. He looked as startled as a boy caught playing hooky, but a lot healthier than he had on screen, with blistered lips and blackened toes, as he neared the end of his Antarctic ordeal. He was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation.

The festival acknowledges the importance of the People’s Choice award by saving it for next-to-last. This year there were two winners. The People’s Choice for Radical Reels was claimed by yet a third Sender Film, “Reel Rock 7: La Dura Dura,” featuring Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra going head-to head to “send” what might be the hardest single pitch of rock in the world. “This is getting a little ridiculous, Pete,” said the presenter, as he handed an almost sheepish Mortimer his third glass trophy of the night.

Then the audience went—yes, wild—as “Crossing the Ice” won the overall People’s Choice prize. It was a rare double—Grand Prize on top of People’s Choice—at the most prestigious adventure film festival in the world. Jonesy stumbled back on stage, and amidst his startlement, actually broke out in a smile of relief and happiness.

“Honnold 3.0,” I guarantee you, will make your palms sweat the twentieth time you watch it. And “Crossing the Ice,” I have to admit, is a great film. But the Aussies benefited from a perfect and unforeseeable turn of events at the end of their race with the Norwegian. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you how it unfolded. You had to be there…

No, wait. You didn’t have to be there. No matter where you live, even outside North America, you can catch these films and the other winners sometime this year or next, as the Banff Mountain Film World Tour gallivants around the globe. Check it out. You won’t be sorry.

As for me, I’ll be back at Banff next year…if they let me come.

David Roberts

David Roberts is the author of seventeen books on mountaineering, adventure, and the history of the American Southwest. His essays and articles have appeared in National Geographic, National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, and The Atlantic Monthly, among other publications. He lives in Cambridge, MA.

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THE GREAT GAME OF MAPPING THE HIMALAYA

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Indian survey porters carry the equipment needed for the massive task of mapping India. This nineteenth century lithograph, shows a tripod, measuring chain and levelling staff which measures 10 feet (3 metres) high.
Image © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Kipling popularized the term ‘Great Game’ for rivalries and conflicts among Britain, Russia, France, and China to gain political and economic control of the Indian subcontinent and central Asian highlands during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Much of the literature on the Great Game, for instance Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game (1990), has focused on its political history. This article deals with the topographic surveys, geological mapping and geographic exploration of the Himalaya as a direct consequence of the Great Game. This subject offers a fascinating field of research into the history of science and also sharpens our knowledge of Himalayan geography and geology. Here we particularly focus on how British institutions and personalities in India played a paramount role in the mapping and exploration of the Himalaya-Tibetan region. (A number of Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, Swiss and Russians contributed to this venture as well, but are not discussed in this article.)

The East India Company and Governor-General of Bengal

Although the British East India Company’s activities in India date back to the early seventeenth century, the year 1765, when Captain Robert Clive (1725-1774) forcefully obtained the sovereign rights (‘Diwan’) of Bengal from the Indian Mogul emperor Shah Alam, and the year 1772, when Warren Hastings (1732-1818) became the first Governor-General of Bengal, are starting points in our discussion because these events ushered in systematic exploration activities in the Indian subcontinent and the Himalayan region supported by both political and commercial entities based in Calcutta (Kolkata). This situation remained intact until 1858 (a year after the Indian Mutiny) when the seat of power moved to Delhi, and British Raj came under direct rule of the British Crown and Parliament represented by the India Office in London, and Governor-General of India and the Queen’s Viceroy in Delhi.

In 1767, Clive appointed Major James Rennell (1742-1830) as the Surveyor-General of Bengal. Sometimes called the British ‘father of Indian geography,’ Rennell prepared the Bengal Atlas and the Map of Hindoostan. (He was succeeded in 1794 by Robert Colebrooke.) In the same year, Clive also sent Captain Kinloch on a military mission to Nepal, who brought back the first sketch maps of that country although his army was defeated. In 1774, Hastings dispatched George Bogle (1747-1781) for a year-long trip to Bhutan and Tibet. His journey was followed in 1783 by that of an army officer and Hastings’ cousin, Samuel Turner (1826-1868), whose Account of an Embassy to the Court of the Teshoo Lama in Tibet (1800), remained for nearly a century the standard European book on Tibet because that country closed its borders to foreigners. In 1792, Hastings sent Colonel William Kirkpatrick to Nepal (to help the Nepalese court with a minor war with Tibet). The first Englishman to visit Kathmandu, Kirkpatrick gathered geographic information about Nepal in his Account of the Kingdom of Nepaul (1811). (In this expedition, John Gerard prepared a route map to Kathmandu.)

During 1801-1804, Charles Crawford, then Surveyor-General of Bengal, mapped parts of Nepal, and during 1802-1803, Francis Buchanan Hamilton (1762-1829), a physician and geographer, visited Nepal with the military mission of Captain Knox. Although like Kirkpatrick before him, Hamilton stayed only in the Kathmandu valley, he derived much information from the native people, and thus published An Account of the Kingdom of Nepal and of the Territories Annexed to This Domain by the House of Gorkha (published in 1819), which also included the results of Colonel Crawford’s mapping.

In 1808, Robert Colebrooke planned to explore the source of the Ganga (Ganges) in Garhwal; however, he could not partake in the expedition due to illness and died in the same year. John Garstin succeeded him as Surveyor-General of Bengal. The expedition work was continued by William Webb, Captain Felix Raper, and Hyder Hearsey, who produced the first map of the Bhagirathi valley. They also sent Hearsey’s Hindu munshi (assistant) to Gangotri and incorporated his observations in their final report (published in Asiatic Researches, volume 11, 1810), which demonstrated that the source of Ganga lay within the Himalaya, not in Lake Manasarovar in southern Tibet, as was then widely believed.

In 1811, Thomas Manning (1772-1840) became the first Englishman to enter Lhasa. (His travelogue as well as that of Bogle were not printed until 1876 when Sir Clements Markham, a geographer at the India Office in London, published them in a single volume, Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet and the Journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa, which became so popular that a second edition was brought out in 1879). During 1811-12, William Moorcroft and Hyder Hearsey made their first trip to Lake Manasarovar (reported in Asiatic Researches, volume 12, 1816).

After a triumphant war with the Gurkhas of Nepal in 1814-16, the British fixed the western boundary of Nepal along river Kali; thus Garhwal and Kumaun regions of the Himalaya came under British control. (These regions were included in what was initially called the Ceded and Conquered Provinces, then the Northwestern Provinces in 1836, the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh in 1902, and finally Uttar Pradesh, meaning ‘northern province’ in 1950. In 2000, the western part of Uttar Pradesh became a separate state called Uttarakhand, also meaning ‘northern province.’) The Scottish painter and travel writer, John Baillie Fraser, was the first European to reach Gangotri in 1815; his Journal and paintings of the Satluj and Ganga valleys were published in 1820. From 1816-1820, William Webb spent five lonely years surveying Kumaun (he determined the height of Peak XIV or Nanda Devi as 25,669 feet, just 24 feet higher than today’s measurement), Laidlaw served as mineralogist to the Survey of Kumaun (1817-1821), and John Hodgson (Surveyor of the North-West Provinces) and James Herbert mapped Garhwal. In 1821, in a controversial move, John Hodgson (several years junior to Webb) succeeded Colin Mackenzie as Surveyor-General of India, and the following year, Webb resigned from the Survey and returned to England. From 1823-29, Herbert served as the Geological Surveyor of the Himalayan Mountains. Meanwhile, the three brothers, James, Alexander and Patrick Gerard (nephews of John Gerard), made their specialty the exploration of the Satluj valley and Shimla Hills (Himachal).

In 1817 Ranjit Singh, Maharaja of the Punjab, conquered Kashmir, and thus the British, through their friendly relationship with Ranjit, could explore Kashmir, Ladakh and Baltistan. William Moorcroft (1767­-1825) was one of the greatest Himalayan explorers of the nineteenth century. During 1819-1825, he and George Trebeck (a geologist and surveyor from Calcutta) journeyed Ladakh, Kashmir, Baltistan and Afghanistan. Although both of them died mysteriously on their way back from Afghanistan, their painstaking report was preserved and published in two volumes, Travels in the Himalayan Provinces of Hindoostan and the Punjab (1841).

The Anglo-Burmese war of 1824 increasingly drew the attention of the East India Company to the northeastern parts of the Himalaya. Richard Wilcox and James Burlton were pioneers of exploring Assam and the Brahmaputra valley during 1825-1828. Wilcox’s report was published in Asiatic Researches (volume 17). An 1830 survey of Darjeeling by James D. Herbert and James Grant appeared in the Journal of the Bengal Asiatic Society (volume 2, 1831).

During 1831-33, Alexander Burnes (1805-1841), a political agent-cum-explorer travelled across the Punjab and Afghanistan as far north as Bokhara. One of his companions and a sailor with Indian Navy, John Wood (1812-1871), reached the source of the Oxus river in 1838. Burnes in 1834 (Travels into Bokhara) and Wood in 1841 (A Journey to the Source of the River Oxus) published their travelogues. Burnes, who eventually became Britain’s political agent in Kabul from 1836 to 1838, also documented his observations in Cabool, published posthumously in 1842.

From 1831-1854, Captain Proby Cautley (1802-1871) engineered the construction of the Ganga Canal in order to divert the Ganga water into the Doab (‘two water’) area, between the Yamuna and the Ganga. The Ganga Canal project (described in Cautley’s 1860 book The Ganges Canal) put an end to the serious and frequent famines that hit this region. As a result of surveys and excavations made for the Ganga Canal, the Siwalik mammalian fossils were unearthed in the Siwalik Hills near Haridwar (named after Hari or Lord Shiva). Cautley and the paleontologist Hugh Falconer (1808-1865), who studied the Siwalik fossils for two decades, gave the name of ‘Siwaliks’ to the sedimentary rocks of the hills in which the fossils were found.

In 1846, Henry Strachey (1816-1912), and two years later his younger brother Richard Strachey (1817-1908), visited Lake Manasarovar via Kumaun. Like Moorcroft and Hearsey before him, Henry Strachey disguised himself as a Hindu pilgrim; his full report (On The Physical Geography of Western Tibet) was published in 1853. He discovered that the watershed of the Indian rivers did not correspond with the Great Himalayan peaks as seen from India, but lay beyond the Himalaya. Richard Strachey mapped the geology of Kumaun and southern Tibet, and determined the position of Mount Kailas and calculated its height to be 22,000 feet (only 28 feet lower than later measurements). His important works were published in the Quarterly Journal of Geological Society and Journey of Royal Geographic Society in London in 1851.

Following the 1845-1847 wars with the Sikhs, the British annexed the Punjab. In 1847-48, Thomas Thomson made a journey to western Himalaya and Tibet, and scaled the Karakoram pass. His account (Western Himalaya and Tibet) was published in 1853.

The first attempt to present a coherent geological picture of the Himalaya was made by James D. Herbert, Deputy Surveyor-General of India, whose paper was published in 1842 (nine years after his death) (Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, volume 11, 1842, and map in volume 13) although his field work was conducted in 1818. Based on his observations in the Satluj and Kali valleys, Herbert divided the Himalayan rocks into the ‘primary’ formations (central gneiss and schist) and the ‘secondary’ formation (sandstone). He also noted that these rocks formations dip towards the central gneiss, and that gneiss lies on top of the schist, and schist on top of the sandstones — an arrangement which was not true stratification, but (in his opinion) produced by ‘concretionary action.’

Brian Hodgson (1800-1894), a naturalist and British agent who lived in Nepal, also published general views on the geography of the Himalaya. In his 1849 paper (Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, volume 18), Hodgson argued that numerous Himalayan streams flow from the snowy peaks at right angle to the strike of the Himalaya, but converge to form huge rivers close to the plains. He thus divided the Himalaya into spurs on the basis of these transverse river systems, and mistakenly thought the Himalaya did not continue as a single mountain range.

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) explored Sikkim and Bengal during 1848-52 and published a fascinating account, Himalayan Journals, in 1854. In the same year, the first geological map of India was brought out by George B. Greenough (1778-1855, founder of the Geological Society of London), based on information and maps provided by British explorers working in India. Also in 1854, Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893) published his famous book, Ladak: Physical, Statistical and Historical, in which he introduced the term ‘trans- Himalaya’ for a range immediately beyond the Himalaya (Cunningham eventually rose to become the first Archaeological Surveyor of India).

The Asiatic Society of Bengal

The word ‘orientalism’ appeared in the English language in 1769. In British India, orientalism was supported by Warren Hastings and like- minded scholars, notably Sir William Jones (1746-1794), who felt the need and opportunity for systematic studies of India rather than relying on travel tales of a few adventurers (for details see O.P. Kerjariwal’s The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India’s Past, 1988). This led to the establishment of the Asiatic Society (of Bengal) in Calcutta in 1784 by Jones who remarked that ‘the intended objects of the Asiatic Society were Man and Nature — whatever is performed by the one, or produced by the other — within the geographic limits of Asia, with Hindustan as a centre’.

Henry T. Colebrooke (1765-1837), who succeeded Jones as the Society’s president, was not only a champion of Sanskrit literature but also carried out topographic surveys. Indeed, he was the first person in 1816 to designate the Himalaya (based on his observations of Dhaulagiri) as the world’s highest mountain range, surpassing the Andean summit of Chimborazo (in today’s Ecuador), which was then believed to be the highest peak. Early geological and geographic papers on India and the Himalaya were published in the Asiatic Society’s periodicals: Asiatic Researches (1798-1839) and Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1832-) (the latter was a continuation of Gleanings in Science, launched by James D. Herbert in Calcutta in 1829). A sister institution, the Asiatic Society of Bombay (initially called the Literary Society of Bombay), was founded by Sir James Mackintosh in 1804 (which merged with the Bombay Geographical Society in 1873 and the Anthropological Society of Bombay in 1896).

The Survey of India

Photo of a theodolite taken from Historical Records of the Survey of India, vol. IV.
Image © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

The origin of the Survey of India dates back to Rennell’s work in Bengal in 1870s; the survey work was later shifted to southern India. Following the defeat of Tippu Sultan of Mysore by the East India Company forces led by Arthur Wellesely in 1799, two survey works were initiated in southern India. The first was a route and topographic survey carried out by Francis Buchanan (1762-1829) and Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821), and the second was a geodetic survey (triangulation survey equipped with theodolites) conducted by William Lambton (1753-1823). Colonel Mackenzie became Surveyor-General of India in 1815, and assembled the Topographical and Revenue Services under his authority in 1817. Lambton’s work, the Trigonometric Survey of the Indian Peninsula, was expanded into the Great Trigonometric Survey (GTS) in 1818 when George Everest (1790-1868) succeeded Lambton. Everest was promoted to be the Superintendent of the GTS in 1823 and Surveyor-General of India in 1830.

The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India
Image © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

By 1841, the geodetic survey of the Great Indian Arc of Meridian (about 2500-km long) from Cape Comorin (Kanya Kumari) to the Himalayan foothills in Dehra Dun was completed, and Everest retired in 1843. The Great Indian Arc became a baseline for surveying the Himalaya in the following decades. Andrew Scott Waugh (1810-1878), who succeeded George Everest, conducted the North-East Himalayan and North-West Himalayan series.

Sir George Everest (Photograph Carte de Visite)
Image © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

During the late 1840s, the survey was pushed into the Himalaya foothills and the heights of many peaks, including those in Nepal, were scaled by triangulation. As a result, it was discovered in 1852 that Peak XV, then estimated to be 29,002 feet tall (26 feet less than the 1955 measurement), was the world’s highest mountain. At Waugh’s suggestion (and despite George Everest’s objection), this peak was named Mount Everest (for Nepal being a closed country then, the native name of Chomolungma was unknown to the surveyors).

This is the first ever printed (Jan 1858) map that names Peak XV (as it was formerly known) as Mount Everest.
Image © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

During 1855-1864, the Great Trigonometric Survey began a major work in Kashmir. In charge of the survey was Thomas G. Montgomerie (1830-1878), aided by two energetic colleagues, William H. Johnson (?- 1892) and Henry H. Godwin-Austen (1834-1923). This team surveyed Kashmir as well as the Karakoram, and calculated the height of the world’s second highest peak, K2, to be 28,287 feet (overestimated by 37 feet). Godwin-Austen, a geologist-mountaineer, pioneered the mapping of the Karakoram. Montgomerie then extended his work to Garhwal and Kumaun in 1867.

In 1868, the Great Trigonometric Survey began its work in Assam, along the course of the Brahmaputra. The Assam triangulation was completed in 1878. In the same year, James T. Walker (1826-1896) was appointed Surveyor-General of India. He combined the Great Trigonometric Survey, and the Topographical and Revenue Surveys as the Survey of India, headquartered in Dehra Dun.

Sir Sidney Burrard (1860-1943) was Surveyor-General of India from 1910-1919. He ordered a re-survey of Kashmir (1909-13, led by J. Hunter and H.G. Bell) and Assam (1911-13, led by C.P. Gunter, E.B. Cardew, F.M. Bailey, H.T. Morshed, and O.H.B. Trenchard). During 1927-30 Kohistan (now in Pakistan) was surveyed by C.G. Lewis, and in 1935-38 Kumaun was re-surveyed by Gordon Osmaston.

Primary sources of information on the heroic activities and results of the Survey of India include C. R. Markham’s A Memoir of the Indian Surveys (2nd edition, 1878) and R. H. Phillimore’s Historical Records of the Survey of India (1945-1962, consisting of five volumes: I. 18th century; II. 1800-1815; III. 1815-1830; IV. 1830-1843; and V. 1844­1861). Popular accounts of this history are given in S. Styles’ The Forbidden Frontiers (1970), M. Edney’s Mapping the Empire (1997) and John Keay’s The Great Arc (2001).

The Geological Survey of India

Systematic geological studies of the Himalaya began with the establishment of the Geological Survey of India (GSI) in Calcutta in 1851.

The original scope of the GSI was limited to exploring India’s coal reserves. In 1936, the Government of Bengal formed a Coal Committee to study the coal supplies for use in the steamers on the Ganges. In the early 1840s, the Coal Committee’s secretary, John McCelland, contacted the Government of Bengal and eminent geologists in Britain, and persuaded them to setup a proper geological survey in India. In 1846, David H. Williams was appointed as Geological Surveyor to the East India Company. Williams worked for three years in India, exploring coal reserves. He died of illness in 1848. John McCelland took his place until 1850, and finally in 1851, Thomas Oldham was appointed in Calcutta as a Williams’ successor.

Thomas Oldham (1816-1878), a former professor of geology at Dublin and a local director in the Geological Survey of Ireland, was the real architect of the GSI, and aptly gave himself the title of the Superintendent of the Geological Survey. During his 25 years of tenure, GSI became one of the finest geological surveys in the world. Oldham hired many excellent geologists, including the two brothers John G. Medlicott and Henry B. Medlicott (1829-1905, served 1854-1887), the two brothers William T. Blanford (1832-1905; served 1855-1882) and Henry F. Blanford (1834-1893; served 1855-1862), William Theobald (served 1848-1881), R. Bruce Foote (1834-1912; served 1858-1891), Arthur B. Wynne (1835-1906, served 182-1883), Ferdinand Stoliczka (1838-1874; served 1862-1874), Frederick R. Mallet (1841-1921; served 1859-1889), Ottokar Feistmantel (1848-1891; served 1875­1885), Wilhelm Waagen (served 1870-1875) and Richard Lydekker (1849-1915; served 1874-1883). The reputed publications of the GSI, Memoirs of the GSI (1856~), Paleontological Indica (1865~), and Records of the GSI (1868~) were also launched by Oldham.

GSI geologists carried out pioneer work in the Himalaya even though field work conditions were then very difficult. Medlicott single- handedly worked out the geology of the Siwaliks between the Ravi and Ganga rivers and discovered the Main Boundary Fault between these sediments and the Lesser Himalaya to the north (GSI Memoir, 1864, 212 pp.). (Medlicott succeeded Oldham as Director of the GSI in 1878.) Stoliczka mapped Spiti (GSI Memoir, 1865, 154 pp). (Stoliczka eventually died of altitude sickness in Ladakh, the first Himalayan geologist to die in the field.) Mallet’s 50-page GSI Memoir (1875) still serves as the foundation of geological knowledge on Darjeeling. Wynne mapped the Salt Range (GSI Memoir, 1878, 413 pp). Lydekker mapped Kashmir and Chamba (GSI Memoir, 1883, 344 pp). Carl Griesbach (an Austrian geologist who joined GSI in 1878) produced an excellent report on the Central Himalaya (GSI Memoir, 1891, 232 pp). (Griesbach became Director of the GSI in 1894). Charles Middlemiss (who served at the GSI from 188-1917) mapped the Hazara area (GSI Memoir, 1896, 302 pp), and his report (GSI Memoir, 1910) on the 1905 Kangra earthquake ran 409 pages, probably still a record for a single- author report on a single earthquake!

During 1879-1887, A Manual of the Geology of India was published by the GSI, bringing together a vast geologic knowledge of India and Himalaya. It consisted of four parts: Part I. Peninsular India (by H.B. Medlicott and W.T. Blanford, 1879), Part II. Extra-Peninsular Area (H.B. Medlicott and W.T. Blanford, 1879-1881); Part III. Economic Geology (V. Ball, 1881); and Part IV. Mineralogy (F.R. Mallet, 1887). A second edition was published in 1893, revised by Richard Dixon Oldham (1858-1936), Thomas Oldham’s son.

The twentieth century began with major changes in the GSI. Within half-a-decade several outstanding figures passed away, including C.A. McMohan in 1904, W.T. Blanford and H.B. Medlicott in 1905, A.B. Wynne in 1906, C.L. Griesbach in 1907 and R. Strachey in 1908, and a new generation of geologists continued the mapping and studies of the Himalaya. Thomas H. Holland (1868-1947) succeeded C.L. Griesbach as Director of the GSI (1903-1910). H.H. Hayden published excellent works on Spiti (1904), Tibet (1907), northern Afghanistan (1911) and Gilgit (1915). (Hayden, GSI Director from 1910 to 1921, was killed by a rock fall in the Alps in 1923. He was, in turn, succeeded by Sir Edwin Pascoe.) Henry Guy E. Pilgrim (1875-1943) proposed a stratigraphic classification of the Siwalik Group (1910, 1913), which is still used to this day. In a series of publications in Paleontological Indica, Carl Diener and Frederick R.C. Reed made detailed studies of faunal fossils from the Tethys sediments of Kashmir, Spiti and Kumaun. During the 1930s, D. N. Wadia in Kashmir, Ladakh, and the Punjab, William D. West in Himachal, and John B. Auden in Garhwal produced some of the finest works in Himalaya geology.

Two important GSI publications in the first half of the twentieth- century summarised the knowledge of Himalayan geology: (1) A Sketch of the Geography and Geology of the Himalaya Mountains and Tibet (1907) by Sidney G. Burrard and Henry H. Hayden (revised by S.G. Burrard and Alexander M. Herron in 1934); and (2) the third edition of Manual of Geological of India and Burma (3 volumes) revised by Edwin Pascoe (Director of the GSI from 1921-32), who worked on the new edition during his retirement but the publication was delayed until 1956.

The last British Director of the GSI was D.N. West, who served only from 1945-47. (Dr. West later joined Saugar University in 1955, and developed a geology department, serving there until his death in 1994.) The first Indian Director of the GSI was M.S. Krishnan (1898­1970), author of a well-known textbook, Geology of India and Burma (1943, fourth edition in 1960). His tenure began in the same year as a new journal, Indian Minerals, joined the family of GSI periodicals. N.P. Chaudhuri’s Story of GSI 1851-2001 offers a comprehensive account of the GSI’s history.

The Pundit Missions

One of the remarkable achievements of Thomas Montgomerie was the training and dispatch of the ‘Pundits’ to explore and map the southern part of Tibet. The Pundits, who journeyed in disguise as traders or pilgrims, were native Himalayan men. Often referred to as British spies, the Pundits indeed advanced the geographic knowledge about the courses of the great Himalayan rivers, the Trans-Himalayan Range, and Lhasa. Accounts of their life and geographic work, especially of Nain Singh Rawat (No.1) and his relatives Mani Singh, Kalian Singh, Kishen Singh and Kinthup, make some of the most fascinating and heroic stories of Himalayan exploration during the 1860s-1890s. These men covered a vast mountainous region from river Kabul on the east to the Yangtze on the west, and from Darjeeling as far north as Kashgar. For detailed information see I.S. Rawat’s Indian Explorers of the 19th Century (1973), D.J. Waller’s The Pundits (1990), and Jules Stewart’s Spying for the Raj (2006).

This painting shows the pundit, Sarat Chandra Das, travelling incognito on a yak in 1879. He is crossing the Donkhya Pass in India at 18,000 feet (5,486m).
Image © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Colleges and Universities

According to Larwood (‘Science in India before 1850′ in British Journal of Educational Studies, 1958) geology and mineralogy were taught at the East India Company’s colleges. This education was intensified in the second half of the nineteenth century as the need for coal and other mineral resources in British India grew. In 1854, Henry B. Medlicott became Professor of Geology at Thomson College (founded in 1847, and later named as the Roorkee Civil Engineering College). A more systematic effort in geology education was made at the Presidency College in Calcutta (originally established in 1817 as the Hindu College by Raja Ram Mohan Ray, and changed to Presidency College in 1855). Henry Blanford was the first Professor of Natural Science at Presidency College, and Himalayan geologists from the Geological Survey of India often taught there. In 1892, an independent department of geology was opened at the college, with Sir Thomas Holland as its first professor. The University of Calcutta was founded in 1857 as an affiliating body of numerous colleges in north India (modeled on the University of London). One of these colleges was the City College (Amherst College), where Sashi Bhusan Day obtained an M.A. degree in geology under the supervision of Thomas Holland (the first Indian to do so). Presidency College in Madras (Chennai) was founded in 1840 and formed the core of the University of Madras (1857). It was also a centre of geology education (as part of the natural science) and its independent geology department began in 1910. The University of Jammu grew out of the Prince of Wales College (later Government Gandhi Memorial Science College) where geology education began in 1907 (the second college in India, after the Presidency College of Calcutta, to do so). The founder of the geology education at Jammu was Dr. D.N. Wadia (1863-1969), the renowned Indian geologist (a Parsi from Gujarat) and author of the celebrated textbook Geology of India (1919, sixth edition 1966). (The author of this article is proud to say that he first studied the geology of the Himalaya at this university in the early 1980s.)

Colleges and universities were wide spread in British India. To facilitate exchange of information among them, the Association of Indian Universities was established in Delhi in 1925.

Everest Expeditions

After Colonel Francis Younghusband (1863-1942) invaded Tibet in 1904 and opened the ‘forbidden city’ of Lhasa to the western world, it gradually became a fascination for British mountaineers and explorers to ascend and explore Everest. Younghusband himself was a noted explorer of India and the High Asia, and wrote several books on this subject, including The Heart of a Continent (1896), India and Tibet (1910), Wonders of the Himalaya (1924) and Everest: The Challenge (1936).

World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) hampered all exploration works in the Himalaya; however, between the two wars, the idea to ascend Everest was materialised in the form of British expeditions supported by the Royal Geographic Society, the Alpine Club, and the Viceroy of India. These expeditions often included geographers and geologists, and published reports and maps, thus hugely contributing to the mapping of Everest and the routes leading to it. The early British expeditions included those in 1921 (led by Charles K. Howard-Bury: Mt. Everest, The Reconnaissance), 1922 (led by Charles G. Bruce: The Assault on Mount Everest 1922), 1924 (led by Bruce and E.F. Norton: The Fight for Everest, 1924), 1933 (led by Hugh Ruttledge: Everest 1933), the 1933 flight over Everest expedition (led by P.F.M. Fallowes: First Over Everest), 1935 (led by Eric Shipton), 1936 (led by Ruttledge: Everest, The Unfinished Adventure), and 1938 (led by Harold Tilman: Mount Everest 1938). All these expeditions attempted Everest from the Tibetan side and were unsuccessful in reaching the summit.

Cover of the programme to the 1922 Mount Everest Expedition film made by Captain J B Noel.
Image © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

After Nepal opened to the outside world in 1949, British and other expeditions approached Everest from Nepal (southern side). These ventures included those in 1951 (led by Shipton: The Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition 1951), the 1952 Swiss expedition (led by D. Wyss-Dunant), and the 1953 British expedition (led by H.C.J. Hunt: The Ascent of Everest) which put Edmond Hillary and Sherpa Tensing on the summit.

Walt Unsworth’s Everest: A Mountaineering History (3rd edition, 2000) recounts the fascinating story of all these expeditions.

Concluding Remarks

In his book India Revisited (1981), John Keay remarks that ‘no subject people, no conquered land, was ever as exhaustively studied as was India during the period of British rule.’ The extensive mapping and exploration of the Himalayan region during the Great Game were due to several factors: (1) The British Raj authorities intended to obtain geographic knowledge of the region for their geopolitical, diplomatic and expansionist purposes. (2) They also desired to explore the region for its mineral resources and natural resorts. (3) Many European geologists and geographers of the Himalaya held purely scientific intentions; they wanted to contribute to science by mapping these highest mountains on Earth. (4) There also were many adventurers who were drawn to the Himalayan region for personal reasons (sport, spiritual, curiosity and thrill of outdoors), but returned with valuable reports from these exotic places and peoples. Many of the institutions of British India and the Great Game that contributed to exploration and studies of the Himalaya have survived, and after the end of British India, have continued their works. Over the recent decades, both indigenous efforts and international groups have further enriched Himalayan studies, science and exploration.

authored by Rasoul Sorkhabi  |   published in 2009 Himalayan Journal #65
(Link to the original article)

Homemade lightweight backpacking stove

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Having made and used an open flame non-pressurized ‘cat-can’ alcohol stove earlier it was time for myself to indulge in the more effective, simple to construct, pressurized versions that can be made from  a remarkable array of aluminium beverage cans to empty deodorant canisters.

How-to-make the stove : click HERE for step-by-step instruction(s)

Here are some photograph(s) of two stoves (with different fuel capacity), a common extinguisher (lid) with holder, a pot stand made from aluminium hanger.


Two stoves with common extinguisher lid


Stove with extinguisher lid (smaller capacity)


Stove with extinguisher lid (larger capacity)


Extinguisher lid made from another can (bottom)


A folded thin strip to make the handle


Pot stand made from an aluminium hanger


Packed together with the cooking pot(s)

Stove Test

it took 3.5 minutes to boil 1 cup of water

Below are a series of photographs showing the stove in action. Notice how the flame starts to build up with accumulating pressure within the side walls. The small stove took 3.5 mins to boil 1 cup of water


All image(s) © Ashish Chanda, 2012

British / Indian Nanda Devi East & Changuch Expedition (2009)

Located in a remote mountainous area, Nanda Devi (7817m), the highest peak entirely in India is considered one of the most beautiful and challenging mountains to climb in the world. Nanda Devi is a twin peak with its companion, Nanda Devi East, standing 7434 meters (24,389 ft) in height and is the intended subject for this interesting short film.

The video was shot few years back by a British team that traveled to India to climb Nanda Devi East. Facing many obstacles and deciding to abort their Nanda Devi East plan, the team re-focused on a 6322 meter (20,741 ft) unclimbed mountain known as Changuch. The 13-minute expedition film wonderfully chronicles the culture, history, and plenty of amazing mountain vistas.

The 2009 British / Indian Nanda Devi East & Changuch Expedition by Rob Jarvis on Vimeo.