(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, July 26, 2006)

In 1965, the CIA dreamed up one of its more harebrained schemes. China
had detonated its first atomic bomb in 1964, just after Narinder
‘Bull’ Kumar led an Indian team to a successful ascent of Nanda Devi,
the second highest peak in India.

Those two apparently disparate events would end up being closely
linked. The CIA decided to plant a spying device on the heights of
Nanda Devi, because of its proximity to the Tibetan border. As Hugh
Thomson writes in Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary ,
this set off a series of unfortunate events.

The attempt to plant a plutonium-powered nuclear spying device in
autumn 1965 was carried out by a team of Indian and American climbers,
but bad weather forced the team to abandon the device more than
halfway up the mountain. The Indian climbers were sent back in spring
1966 to complete the mission—but the device was lost, buried under a
landslide. More attempts were made—one involved trying to wash off the
debris covering the device by using fire hoses and water from a
mountain stream. It’s left to the reader to imagine just how comical
this attempt to locate a lost nuclear device while hauling rubber
hoses up one of the toughest peaks in the world must have been.

A 1967 expedition managed to locate the device and install it near the
summit. Unfortunately, it stopped transmitting in 1968. Another team
was pressed into service. Thomson writes: “What [they] found was
chilling: the heat of the nuclear generator had caused it to sink far
down into the ice dome on the summit of Nanda Kot. The ice had then
re-formed over the top again…”

In 1978, a sketchy but accurate version of the Nanda Devi story broke,
setting off an uproar in Parliament. Mountaineers within the Sanctuary
at the time were arrested by the Indian government in an exercise that
seems somewhat pointless now. From 1982, the Sanctuary was closed off
to all visitors. Thomson was a member of the only team of mountaineers
and travellers to be allowed into the Sanctuary in a twenty-year
period, for a brief point in 2000.

Two things mark Nanda Devi stand out from the crowd of
mountaineering books. One is Thomson’s admiration for mountaineers
like Eric Shipton, who, in 1934 was the first to find a way (along
with Bill Tilman) through the circle of 20,000 ft peaks that formed an
apparently impenetrable fortification around Nanda Devi. Shipton’s
1936 account of that expedition is a classic. And Shipton’s philosophy
informs Hugh Thomson’s own view of mountaineering, making this book
very different from the usual narratives where summitting is
everything, and where the “conquest” of the mountain is more important
than the climb.

Thomson is clear that the goal of the 2000 expedition to the Nanda
Devi Sanctuary was to explore territory that was “beautiful and
forbidden”, not to climb the mountain itself. Shipton laid the trail
for the mountaineers who were willing to attempt the austere challenge
Nanda Devi set, so different from the harsh but well-known slopes of
Everest, but he never summitted. Writing of Shipton’s 1934 ascent,
Thomson says, “The fact that he never stood on the summit does not
matter; indeed, it is a testament in itself. Shipton was a wanderer in
the best traditions of German romanticism…not obsessed by the need to
plant a flag on the top.” The scrambling, commercial, brutally
unco-operative expeditions that Jon Krakauer deplored in his classic
book of a year of disaster on Everest, Into Thin Air , are far
removed from Thomson’s vision of travel.

This is what makes this small book so unusual. It focuses on a place
that has become truly impenetrable, truly a last sanctuary. It is not
the story of a climb, but of the spirit of the climbers who at one
time represented the best of mountaineering. And a book dedicated to
Nanda Devi, when the market is glutted with Everest chronicles, should
be of particular interest to Indian readers. It helps that Thomson is
a generous, unselfconscious writer, willing to share what he has
learned.

The most memorable of his stories, for many, is the explanation of why
the Nanda Devi sanctuary has been closed for so long, with its
chilling footnote. As Thomson recounts, the CIA never managed to bring
its nuclear device back home. “The buried plutonium-238 sits
somewhere under the rocks of Nanda Devi. Plutonium-238 remains
radioactive for between 300 and 500 years. The outer shell [of the
device] will corrode long before that, releasing radioactive materials
close to one of the sources of the Ganges. For once, the phrase ‘time
bomb’ seems appropriate.”