The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) said on February 21 that after the recent flooding in northern India and the collapse of a dam that killed dozens of people and left hundreds of others missing, local residents believed that it was the result of an “explosion” of a nuclear device buried under snow and rocks among snow-capped mountains. Behind these seemingly absurd statements lies a secret, dusty history: In the 1960s, the United States and India conspired to spy on China’s nuclear tests at the “roof of the world.
U.S. and India both wanted to spy on China
On October 16, 1964, a huge mushroom cloud rose from Lop Nor and China conducted its first atomic bomb test. The news shocked the world. The United States was anxious to get details of the Chinese nuclear test, but struggled to find the right means of intelligence. India was also anxious to obtain information about China’s nuclear capabilities, as it was just a short time after China’s self-defense counterattack against India.
Driven by their mutual needs, the United States and India signed a secret agreement to jointly collect information on China’s nuclear tests. At the time, reconnaissance satellites were poorly imaged and high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft were prone to reveal their targets. How could we obtain information on China’s nuclear tests? The U.S. and Indian intelligence services were both worried. Finally, the two countries’ intelligence officers decided to install monitoring equipment on the Indian side of the Himalayas to collect information on China’s nuclear tests.
According to U.S. intelligence expert Kenneth Comparet, the idea came from the then chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, Curtis Lee May, who in 1964 was chatting with a National Geographic photographer who had climbed Mount Everest when he learned that “standing on Mount Everest, the view of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau in unobstructed”. This statement gave Lee May an idea: Why not place monitoring equipment on the top of the snow-capped mountain to monitor China’s nuclear bases and missile tests from above for a long time?
Theoretically, this was a possible solution: China’s ground-based nuclear tests at the time produced trace radiation particles that were blown southward by the wind and could be automatically captured by a sensor at the top of the mountain. By studying these trace particles, important data such as the yield of Chinese nuclear weapons could be obtained. In addition, with the average elevation of the Himalayas at over 7,000 meters, the distant test sites in China can be viewed as long as the electronic equipment is powerful enough.
The next question is – who is going to climb up the steep Himalayas? You know, that is the world’s highest mountain range, trying to pull the heavy monitoring equipment up is not an easy task.
“Brave men with heavy rewards”
According to the recollection of the famous Indian mountaineer, former Navy Lieutenant Commander, in May 1965, who led the Indian mountaineering team that triumphantly scaled Mount Everest, he was taken to a secluded place just as he arrived at the airport in New Delhi, and informed that he was to go to the United States to carry out the task. On June 19, 1965, Kohli and his party secretly flew to New York, and were joined by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officials McLeave. They were then sent by the U.S. to Alaska for three weeks of secret training. It was then that they learned that the CIA was going to ask for their help in installing secret nuclear test monitoring instruments in the Himalayas near the Chinese border in order to keep track of the Chinese nuclear test site at Lop Nor.
After returning to India, Kohli and his party began to prepare for the climb with the help of the American side. The first thing to determine was, which mountain to climb? The highest Mount Everest was ruled out ab initio as the equipment provided by the U.S. side was so heavy that experts believed that it would be impossible to carry them up Everest. So they had to settle for the second best, and set the target at India’s second highest peak, Nanda Devi, at 7,817 meters, close to the Sino-Indian border.
To be on the safe side, the CIA also hired a team of American climbers who were paid $1,000 a month, which was a considerable amount of money at the time. A total of 14 American climbers joined the Indian climbing team led by Kohli in the United States for targeted and secret training. During the months of training, the American and Indian team members were able to skillfully jump from helicopters and destroy targets with plastic explosives, as well as learn to use nuclear devices. During the training, they also had to repeatedly drag the equipment up the steep cliffs of Alaska, in preparation for future climbs of the Himalayas.
Halfway through the first attempt
In the fall of 1965, the U.S. and Indian climbers gathered at the base of Nanda Devi Peak. A total of six people had previously summited the snow-capped mountain, but only three came down alive. Kohli expected the climb to be more difficult because of the need to carry heavy surveillance equipment. Once the ascent began, the first 12 climbers and local Sherpa guides began a slow climb. While carrying the nuclear equipment up the mountain was strenuous and inconvenient, they provided a little warmth for the climbers at night: the 18-kilogram nuclear batteries (isotope heat sources) provided enough power to keep the surveillance equipment running for 1,000 years, enough to allow the U.S. and India to continuously monitor Chinese nuclear and ICBM tests.
For several days, the climbers on a secret mission, spiked boots and ice axes in hand, climbed up the front face of Mount Nanda devi, crossing the crevasse-littered glacier and inching closer to their last stop before the summit, the alpine camp, which loomed about 300 meters above them.
However, when the team reached the alpine camp, the sky was suddenly cloudy and the cold, wet air signaled an impending snowstorm. At this point, if they went in, they were likely to be swallowed up by the bad weather, so Kohli decided to temporarily withdraw and climb again in the spring of next year.
To save the trouble of carrying surveillance equipment again on the next climb, Kohli ordered the team to pack the equipment and fix it on the mountainside. They tied an antenna, two signal transmitters and nuclear batteries to a protruding rock, then hurried down the mountain.
The nuclear batteries were gone!
The next spring, the U.S. and Indian climbing team regrouped and climbed again, but when they arrived at the high camp to find the location of the package, the rock was gone! After looking around, they surmised that the rock had probably been cut off by an avalanche, and that the nuclear cell and seven cigar-shaped plutonium fuel rods were probably buried deep under the snow and ice.
Although no one can figure out what happened, the consequences of losing the nuclear cells are serious: If the fuel falls into the wrong hands, it would be like opening Pandora’s box. If a moving ice sheet crushes the plutonium fuel rods, the radioactive leaks would flow into the Ganges with the melting snow, an even more chilling result.
The loss of the nuclear battery caused the Indian government to panic.. Between 1966 and 1968, at India’s urging, the CIA had to go back and clean up the mess, with helicopters circling back and forth in the thin air of the mountains, photographing every inch of ground they swept over, and search crews with Geiger counters scouring the ground, but ultimately to no avail.
After the loss of the nuclear battery, the U.S. side eventually accepted Kohli’s suggestion to abandon plans to install the equipment at the peak, changing the location of the monitoring equipment to a place on Mount Nanda Devi at an altitude of 7,300 m. In 1967, after the third climb, the U.S. and Indian climbing team installed an explosion observation and missile surveillance device in the Himalayas. According to the person’s recollection, soon after the successful installation of the equipment, signals from the equipment were received by the concerned parties. The monitoring equipment did not stop working until October 1997, after China suspended its nuclear tests, and several repairs were made in between.
“God knows what the impact will be.”
When the spy tour in the Himalayas came to a close, the CIA gave strict orders to the Americans involved to keep it secret, and all photos and logs were taken away by the CIA. India also kept the operation strictly secret, and even the then Indian Chief of Staff of the three armies was kept in the dark.
But paper can’t hold fire after all. In April 1978, then-Prime Minister Desai revealed that India and the United States had cooperated at a “high level” to install a nuclear device on Mount Nanda Devi. On April 15, 1978, about 60 people protested outside the U.S. Embassy in India, opposing the “CIA’s activities in India.”
McCarthy, an American climber who had participated in the probe, later said, “The nuclear device would have hit an avalanche and gotten stuck in the glacier, and God knows what the effects would have been”. Schaller, the American climber, confirmed that the CIA never found the missing nuclear device afterwards. Horrifyingly, plutonium-239, an isotope that does not exist in nature, was detected in water samples taken from the base of the mountain in 2005. But the CIA’s attitude toward these frightening prospects remains one of “neither confirming nor denying”.