Five kilos is enough to make bomb, by the way.
River Deep Mountain High
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.
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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.
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