Spies in the Himalayas – Secret Missions and Perilous Climbs | Travel Book Review

Americans were planning their first ever K2 expedition in 1974-75 and a team of experienced climbers was chosen to accomplish this insurmountable task. The mission went kaput and a climber who couldn’t make the cut turned rogue and started spreading rumors about the CIA nexus in the Himalaya.

In the same year, Galen Rowell – the then Editor of American Alpine Journal- wrote a brief about CIA and its  climbing interests in the Himalaya. Subsequently, after failure of first K2 mission, Americans successfully climbed K2 in 1978 and interestingly the same climber who turned rogue earlier wasn’t chosen again (surprising eh?)

The tremors of this fallout were felt all over the world as Outside Magazine broke the news in May 1978.

The US President had to call for an inquiry as the report alleged that the Nuclear Covert Operation was carried without the knowledge of Indian Government.

Which wasn’t true obviously. 

Indian government was very well aware of this operation.

The Outside story was titled “The Nanda Devi Caper – How the CIA used American mountaineers to plant nuclear-powered spy station in the Himalaya” written by Howard Kohn, the then Associate Editor of the magazine. The 6 page story discussed the covert operation threadbare and it was later discovered that his story was based primarily on hearsay, but the damage it inflicted was massive. So much so that the then Indian Prime Minister had to issue a statement (along with the findings of the committee constituted to assess the environmental impact of the covert mission) in the Parliament on 17 April 1978.

Nanda Devi Covert Mission – Letter to the US President

Full text of letter can be accessed at CIA Declassified Library (Yeah, you can download CIA Declassified Files :D)

So what was this mission all about? Why was a Commission of Inquiry Constituted? What was the CIA doing in India?

Spies in the Himalayas is a book authored by M.S. Kohli (Team Captain of the 1965 Everest Expedition) and Kenneth Conboy about the secret mission jointly carried by Indo-American govts. from 1965 to 1970. Based on both written sources and oral interviews, it is a gripping read.

Personally, even the thought of taking a nuclear device to Himalaya, howsoever benign the nuclear isotope maybe, is beyond my imagination. However the Indian Government thought better and chose Nanda Devi as a spy station to keep an eye on China’s nuclear weapons tests that started in 1964. It was an unusual covert operation as for this mission, cloaks and daggers were to be replaced by crampons and ice axes. MS Kohli was appointed as the team leader immediately after his successful Everest stint that put 9 Indians on the top of the world.

The book reads like a typical Intelligence Report that starts from the start. Kohli’s background, his ancestry, his stint with the Indian Armed Forces, Indo-US Political relationship in the wake of Indian Independence and growing Chinese influence in the sub-continent, and finally initiation into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary.

Back in the day, when satellite technology was still in its nascent stage, Indian Government used to recruit mountaineers and climbers for its covert operations. Kohli fairly explains the role of his partners and their association with the Indian spy agencies. One of the climbers infact had a climbing school run by and for the Intelligence Bureau. The Indian climbing party had commoners directly on the rolls of IB with official ranks within the Indian Bureaucracy. Having finalized his climbing partners, and finding Kanchenjunga a little too difficult to climb, Nanda Devi was finally selected as the spy station in Mid August, 1965.

For young trekkers, Nanda Devi is a hidden world. All we know about Nanda Devi and the Sanctuary is through old photographs and written records like this book. The author(s) somehow knew that Nanda Devi would be out of bounds for commoners like us and probably that’s why he dedicates two full chapters to explain what it means to be inside the sanctuary. The magnificent valley overlooking the Nanda Devi trio comes alive as you flip through these pages.

And then hits you like a rolling stone. They wanted to install a nuclear device at the most revered place in the entire Garhwal region.

The mission was bound to fail. As the author puts it, the climbing team couldn’t escape the fury of Nanda Devi. The device couldn’t reach the top and it was lost in the massive glaciers of the valley. Subsequently, numerous rescue and research teams visited the valley but the device was nowhere to be found. Subsequently, Nanda Kot and another peak in Ladakh were chosen as spy stations to install the similar device but Mother Nature had other plans. None of the missions succeeded and those few which did couldn’t meet the objective of spying across the border on China.

Imagine a nuclear device buried in the glaciers that feed millions of Indians.

Justifiably an Inquiry Commission was constituted and it filed a report saying that even if the nuclear isotope was washed away, it couldn’t inflict major damage to the lives of people living downstream.

So much in the name of National Security.

The Imminent Fall

For a mountaineer, this book is a sheer delight. But for someone living downstream of the Rishi Ganga gorge, this whole operation is a potent threat till date. The book doesn’t clearly mention Indian interest in the operation. Probably the 1962 Sino-Indian war was still afresh in the minds of Indian authorities and the thought of a nuclear powered China forced them to be a party of this sinister plan.

As B Raman, former counter-terrorism head of RAW puts it, “The book is primarily written from a mountaineer’s perspective. Was our Atomic Energy Commission consulted about the need for and wisdom of such a joint operation and the likely hazards? Why did we not insist on our right to have the device examined by our nuclear scientists before planting it in our territory?

Suggested Reading: Life of Secrecy and Regrets | First Indians on Everest | CIA In Himalaya | Nine Atop Everest

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