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Nanda Devi part 2: Nuclear temptations
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Feb 22, 2005 11: 17 EST
Hidden deep in the Garwahl Himalayas and protected by a wall of high peaks, is Nanda Devi. Her story is one of childhood dreams, tragic fates and atomic espionage. The mountain has two summits: The main one at 7816m (25,643ft) and the other, Nanda Devi East, at 7434m (24,389ft). The inner circle within the surrounding mountains is the Nanda Devi Sanctuary—an amphitheater seventy miles in circumference and 6000m high (19,685 ft.).

Climbers are not allowed to enter. In this 2 part series, we take a look at why. Yesterday, Shipton and Tilman found a way in the Sanctuary and , two years later, Tilman led the first expedition to the summit of Nanda Devi. Today, the final entry in the series.

Part 2: Nuclear temptations

Nuclear Alarm

During the middle of the Cold War in 1965, the CIA suspected the Chinese military of testing missiles in Tibet and wanted to put a spy device on the summit of a Himalayan peak to keep watch. They considered Everest and Kangchenjunga but decided against them because of the difficult climb with the heavy load. They eventually chose Nanda Devi; it was high, isolated, and a perfect observation peak. To ensure the device’s durability once up there, they used a nuclear-powered core of plutonium-238.

The CIA recruited a group of American and Indian climbers to complete the mission. But even on a CIA expedition, things can go wrong…and things did. During the climb, the team was caught in a storm. The climbers retreated and left their packs in a cache. But when the sky cleared, no one was able to find the cache, including a pack containing a radiation-oozing gadget. In the following months, three top-secret searching expeditions looked for it , but couldn’t find it: A nuclear device was missing on Nanda Devi.

Washington, we have a problem

However, the main concern was not just contamination of the mountain for the next 300 years. The real danger was that when the snow melted, the radioactive water would end up feeding the rivers which led to the sacred Ganges. A nuclear nightmare was about to come true and Nanda Devi was closed.

The names of the climbers were never released. Rumors claim that some of them may have died of radiation poisoning. According to several newspapers, American authorities told New Delhi that if any radioactive emissions ever reached the rivers, they’d be too diluted to harm anyone. It is unknown if the nuclear device was ever recovered. It may remain there to this day.

Forbidden is tempting

During the years Nanda Devi was closed, its forbidden status increased its appeal to climbers. When it reopened in 1974, teams jumped at it. Fifteen expeditions would attempt Nanda Devi and Nanda Devi East between 1974 and 1982. One of them shocked the climbing community for its accomplishment and tragic destiny.

Nanda’s fate

In 1976, a 12-member Indo-American team attempted a new route though NW face and N ridge. The leaders were Ad Carter, a member of the original 1936 team, and Willie Unsoeld - known for having climbed Everest East ridge- who had been dreaming of climbing Nanda Devi for years. His obsession reached the point of christening his daughter with the name of the mountain. He was now about to realize his dream, and so was his daughter!

Nanda Devi Unsoeld was also to climb the mountain she was named after. The expedition was complicated by the weather and difficult route. Nevertheless, John Roskelley, Jim States, and Louis Reichardt made the summit. However, tragedy stained the happy ending—Young Nanda caught an illness and died in camp IV.

Roskelley would later describe the events in his book, “Nanda Devi, the Tragic Expedition.”

Closed again

Several expeditions climbed different routes and left nasty traces behind them. Base camp was filling up with garbage, trees were cut down and animals started to graze in the Sanctuary. The delicate ecosystem of the once untouched area was in danger. Things got worse until Indian authorities, upon the recommendation of scientists and wildlife experts, upgraded Nanda Devi Sanctuary to national park status. One year later, all treks, expeditions, and grazing were banned in the core area (the inner Sanctuary), including mountaineering on the main peak. Nanda Devi East remained open from the south side.

Nanda Devi PN is now one of UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserves. It is considered a ‘Strict Nature Reserve’ in the WCMC Protected Areas Program. In June 2003, the reserve was opened up to limited tourism. The new plan allows 500 visitors a year to enter the reserve under strict surveillance and itineraries. The future of the area and the possibility of opening Nanda Devi to climbers depends on how the natural resources of the area evolve.

Nanda Devi, the ‘Blessed Goddess’, is the Highest peak in Garwahl Himalaya (India). It has two summits: The main one at 7816m (25,643ft) and Nanda Devi East at 7434m (24,389ft). The inner circle within the surrounding mountains forms what is known as the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, an amphitheater seventy miles in circumference and 6000m (19,685 ft.) high, surrounding the Rishiganga valley. The lowest pass in the cirque is over 4200m.

Image of Nanda Devi, by Suresh Subramanian, courtesy of Boston Global Action.
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