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.
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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