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Nanda Devi: The forbidden mountain, part 1
image story



Feb 25, 2005 10: 34 EST
Previously published Feb 22, 2005 11: 17 EST

Hidden deep in the Garhwal 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.).

The Sanctuary is difficult to access and remained untouched by humans until the 20th century. Since then, people have almost destroyed the mountain with their trash, quarrels, and …nuclear devices.

Access is once again difficult, but this time intentionally, rather than because of nature: Climbers are not allowed to enter. And so we’re going to take a look at Nanda's history in this two part series - to maybe learn a few things so that we don’t repeat mistakes and get kicked out of another mountain.

Shipton and Tilman

Since Europeans saw Nanda Devi for the first time, several explorers attempted to reach the base of the mountain, but couldn’t find a pass. In those days, expeditions involved animals, tons of gear, and hundreds of porters, so explorers could not get all that baggage through Nanda Devi’s natural defenses. Small teams and alpine style expeditions were not done back then.

But soon, two Britons chose to try a minimalist approach to climbing. Their names were Shipton and Tilman, true pioneers of simplicity and two of the most remarkable explorers of the 1900s. In fact, their lightweight approach was exactly what got Eric Shipton sacked from the 1953 Everest expedition. Shipton and Tilman had made numerous Everest attempts, one already before the WWII reaching 8300 meters on the North side. Their experience was much greater than Hillary's – but the British sponsors for the Everest expedition wanted a big team with tons of gear and over 100 local porters. When Shipton opposed this approach, the sponsors instead hired John Hunt and Edmund Hillary. Thus, it wasn't Shipton, but Hillary who entered the history books as the first Everest summiteer, "knocking the bastard off," as he would put it.

Entering Nanda Devi’s Sanctuary

Instead of launching huge expeditions, Shipton and Tilman used small teams or wandered on their own, reduced gear to a minimum and searched for food in the lands they traversed. In this fashion, the two men discovered places that even today are hard to find. During one of these trips in 1934, they managed to enter Nanda Devi’s Sanctuary. Afterwards, Shipton described the feeling when he wrote:

"Each step I experienced that subtle thrill which anyone of imagination must feel when treading in hitherto unexplored country. Each corner held some thrilling secret to be revealed for the trouble of looking. My most blissful dream was to be in some such valley, free to wander where I liked, and discover for myself some hitherto unrevealed glory of nature. Now the reality was no less wonderful than that half-forgotten dream; and of how many childish fancies can that be said, in this age of disillusionment?"

Tilman to the top

Two years after finding the secret passes to the mountain base, Tilman would return and achieve the first summit along with British geologist N.E. Odell from the South Ridge. The team had four British veterans and four American students from Harvard’s Mountaineering Club. It was not an easy trip for the Harvard students, who had to adapt to Tilman's minimalism. With Tilman leading the way, the team quickly abandoned all their canned and processed foods as well as most of their gear. During the climb, American Charles Houston fell ill, and Tilman moved up to join Odell for the final push to the top. The expedition also suffered the first fatality with the death of Kitar, a porter, at base camp.

In 1936, the summit of Nanda Devi (7816m/25,643ft) was the highest point ever reached by a human. The record would remain unbeaten until 1950, when French climbers summited Annapurna.

A Polish team would later climb the east summit of Nanda Devi, but the mountain remained otherwise untouched due to its isolated location. A second ascent was accomplished by a French team in 1951 and Indians completed a third ascent in 1964.

However, the fourth team who summited the peak was moved by reasons other than alpine glory. Nobody would know of that expedition for years, and that’s because they weren’t supposed to: It was top secret mission controlled by the CIA, more armed and dangerous than anyone could imagine…

Second part: Nuclear Temptation

Nanda Devi, the ‘Blessed Goddess’, is the Highest peak in Garhwal 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.

Image of Nanda Devi, by Bhumesh Barthi, courtesy of Nanda Devi Campaign.
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