Rereading this book for its first publication in India in 2017, I’m struck by how much – but also how little – has changed. The most palpable change is the passing away of some of the members of the expedition: George Band, with whom I shared a tent; Ian McNaught Davis, or ‘Mac’, who campaigned so hard for the Nanda Devi Sanctuary to be opened once more. But little has happened in terms of access. The Sanctuary remains inviolate or inaccessible, depending on your politics. The Indian government is reluctant to disturb the uneasy status quo. At the time of writing, no permits to go there are being issued by the Indian Mountaineering Federation.
In the decade since this book was first published in 2004, I am pleased to say that one of the stories at its heart – how the CIA tried to plant a nuclear spying device on the summit – has had a great more deal more publicity, both in India and abroad.
In 2010, Vinod Jose published a long article in Caravan magazine called ‘River Deep Mountain High’, which included an interview he had conducted with the Indian leader of the 1965 mission, Captain Kohli. This revealed further details about this strange and secretive episode: how thirty-three Bhotia men from Lata and Reini were hired for the abortive expedition, while nine Sherpas were brought from Sikkim for their expertise in climbing glaciers; and that when Kohli and his team returned in 1966, they discovered the five kilograms of plutonium which powered the nuclear device – only one kilogram less than used in ‘Fat Man,’ the bomb dropped on Nagasaki – were nowhere to be found.
Jose’s article also included details about one of the project’s initiators, General Curtis LeMay, then the United States Air Force chief of staff and a Dr Strangelove figure who was ‘one of the most controversial officers in the history of the United States military’. LeMay was a noted proponent of the use of nuclear weapons, and clashed several times with President 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’.
When details of a lost nuclear device were first leaked in the late 1970s, Prime Minister Morarji Desai commissioned a six-member scientific committee to investigate. They produced a 94-page report which recommended continual monitoring of the Sanctuary – presumably why, when our own expedition gained access in 2000, we came across a unit of Indian army sappers. Needless to say, the results of that continual monitoring have never been made public in India, despite the very considerable health concerns, given the possible effect of nuclear contamination to the headwaters of the Ganges.
Vinod Jose made an impressive and determined attempt to contact some of the many organizations charged with nuclear safety in India, like the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). However, in a way the reader may not find surprising, no one in any of these organizations wanted to touch what was clearly a hot political potato – or rather, a hot nuclear device. He was finally able to quote one source on conditions of anonymity, who told him: ‘As far as the Government of India is concerned, it is a closed chapter.’ With even more worrying complacency, this same source claimed that because the plutonium was buried underground, it could not pose a risk – this despite the obvious possible effects of seismic or glacier movement in the volatile Himalayan region.
Captain Kohli, the Indian leader of the expedition, was recently quoted in The Hindu as saying, ‘The life of that capsule is 900 years and only 50 years have roughly passed by. It means the radioactive surveillance equipment will keep ticking somewhere in India for the next 850 years.’ Kohli’s own account of the episode, Spies in the Himalayas, which was published in the United States, has added to the growing debate.
I would hope that the publication of this book in India will in a small way help put pressure on the government to locate the nuclear device using the more sophisticated techniques that are now available and alleviate any local and national concerns about its possible contamination. This particular sleeping dog should not be allowed to lie quietly – because if it does ever wake up, the aftermath could be catastrophic.
Hugh Thomson, 2017