“For much of the 19th and early 20th century, before it was finally summited in 1936, it was considered to be the third pole — a point of virtual inaccessibility…Somewhere high on the harrowing slopes of Nanda Devi, buried deep in the snow, lies a lost nuclear listening device…Containing 5kg of plutonium — 1 kg less than the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki — with a predicted lifespan of 900 years, this nuclear trespasser has been forfeited to the mountain forever.”
— Ranvijay Singh Hada, Live History India
In February of this year (2021), flashfloods devastated a village not far from the mountain of Nanda Devi. According to Shivani Azad at the Times of India, villagers reported a powerful “pungent smell” before debris fell from the mountain, triggering the floods.
The government blamed the flooding on a breaking glacier. However, the people in the region believe it’s something more sinister.
Immediately, villagers pointed to an evil which lurks in the mountain as the cause. However, this force isn’t a god or demon. Superstition isn’t powering their assumptions and their fear of a hidden, dark force may be all too real.
The malicious specter the people blamed is manmade and has a plutonium core. While its story may be one that resembles fiction, the tale is all too true.
In the 1960’s a dream team of Indian and American rock climbers was hired to plant a nuclear-powered listening device on the peak of Nanda Devi. Unfortunately, they never completed the mission, and the device was lost.
The villagers know the story intimately because they served as porters on the mission. In fact, Azad reports a wife of a porter died in the flooding.
It’s a story involving geo-politics, rock climbing, nuclear physics, and off-the-wall James Bond style spy craft. The tale of the CIA’s botched Operation Hat may sound too far-fetched for the movies. However, it’s all too real.
So, the thought may have entered your head: why would somebody put a nuclear device on top of a mountain. It sounds crazy. However, at the time it made sense, in a Cold War cloak and dagger type way. Let’s rewind the clock a bit.
In an article published by Outside Magazine in 1977, Howard Kohn explains in 1964 China exploded its first nuclear device. The United States found itself in a precarious situation. They didn’t have satellites good enough to spy on the remote testing site in Sinkiang. Plus, ones they did have were busy with the Soviet Union.
While the military wanted to attack China before they could begin an offensive, the State Department wanted to open talks. The Johnson administration took a third route — a CIA plan to spy on the site.
It just so happened a large mountain in India gave a direct view of Sinkiang: Nanda Devi
The CIA figured a nuclear-powered listening device could survive the cold and incredible conditions. Furthermore, they could get access to a dream team of mountain climbers. Most were poor. So, the promise for $1000 a month (approximately $8,500 today )from the agency and a free climbing trip was just about irresistible. Over a dozen excellent climbers signed up.
However, just looking at Nanda Devi on a map and getting there was an entirely different thing. It might be the hardest peak to climb in the world. Geoffrey Moorhouse in his article in the Guardian explains the mountain is 25,000 feet high but its complications involve more than height. In his review of Hugh Thomson’s book Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary, he also learns it’s a more difficult climb then Everest.
The famed British climber and explorer Hugh Ruttledge, climbed Mount Everest multiple times, but had three failures on Nanda Devi. According to Ruttledge, just getting to the base of the mountain was “more inaccessible than the North Pole”. Let alone climbing to the peak itself.
According to Kohn, the CIA contacted the Indian spy agency (CBI), who agreed to keep the project secret from their prime minister. They also provided four experienced climbers to round out the team. Singh Hada says the Indian climbers were Mount Everest veterans.
The American team was first taken to Langley Virginia, then to a CIA training site and given a crash course on assembling the device and nuclear technology. They were also given some training with plastic explosives. A spot on the mountain needed to be carved out to plant the nuclear bug.
Eventually the Americans were introduced to the Indian team and both were flown to Mount McKinley in Alaska for training. Afterwards, the team was taken to India.
Assembly of the SNAP 8 Reactor Core — U.S. Department of Energy, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGs, provide electrical power for spacecraft by converting the heat generated by the decay of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) fuel into electricity using devices called thermocouples. Since they have no moving parts that can fail or wear out, RTGs have historically been viewed as a highly reliable power option.”
— Explanation of RTGs via NASA Website
The nuclear-powered RTG technology the CIA planned to employ was well tested by NASA. According to the space agency, Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power or “SNAP” systems were developed for use in harsh environments where normal power sources wouldn’t be adequate.
In other words, these nuclear-powered battery systems were ideal for space. They could also generate their own heat source, protecting components from the freezing temperatures probes could encounter. Although the radiation did require protection for astronauts.
The Office of Nuclear Energy also reminds us similar systems were used to power the two Voyager Space Probes dispatched in the 1970s. They’re still functional today.
Singh Hada says an American mountaineer, Jim McCarthy, was tasked with handling the plutonium rods. The NYU undergrad from Port Washington, New York got specific training from the Atomic Energy Commission. So, he’d have to scale an impossible mountain and be responsible for nuclear material.
It might be considered a stressful job, but after hanging from the face of mountains, you might say McCarthy was risk averse. As he mentioned to Sports Illustrated, “Climbers are people who relax in thin positions.”
According to Kohn, the team arrived in India and told any inquiring mind, they were performing a high-altitude test for the Air Force. Their mission was called operation HAT (High Altitude Test) as a cover. It was also a coy referral to the device, which looked a bit like a stove pipe hat.
Porters helped carry the led casing which protected the plutonium. Singh Hada recounts that the enclosure was attached to sticks, which made it look like the Ark of the Covenant. The climbers also started to refer to it with that moniker, due to the power inside the box.
Obviously, this assembly was too cumbersome to drag up the mountain. At a given time, likely McCarthy put the plutonium into the device for easier travel. Once assembled, the mountaineers took turns touching the outside of the assembly, feeling the otherworldly source of heat.
They started their trek in September of 1965, and by October they slowly made progress up the mountain. They set up a series of base camps and closed in on the summit. In their final push, the mountain shoved back. A powerful storm developed putting their lives at risk and further ascent was impossible.
Captain M S Kohli, leader of the group, called for a retreat down the mountain. The team stashed the device at a shielded spot at their basecamp and left. They figured they could always return in safer conditions and continue the mission.
The Recovery Attempt
Plutonium 238 Pellet — Picture By United States Department of Energy [Public Domain]
Another mission was sent in April to recover the device, but it appeared an avalanche wiped out their previous camp. The SNAP generator was gone. After returning, the team relayed their message to the CIA. The agency was stunned.
Waters from Nanda Devi were a source of the Ganges River. Plutonium leaking into that major waterway would be a humanitarian and diplomatic disaster. The agency attempted an even crazier idea to try and recover the device.
Kohn explains the CIA sent agents to procure hoses all throughout India. They flew all these hoses to the base of Nanda Devi, then drug them up the mountain. They joined all the hoses, putting one end in fast mountain streams, then aimed the other at the avalanche debris field. In theory, it would wipe away the snow and uncover the device. In practice, it was a failure.
Despite the disaster, and a coverup that followed, the CIA still had the problem of the Chinese and their new nuclear arsenal. They decided to repeat the plan, planting another SNAP listening device on a mountain next to Nanda Devi — Nanda Kot.
This mission succeeded, sort of. The climbers did make it to the top and planted the device. However, it only worked and intercepted radio signals for a year. Singh Hada says the heat from the device eventually melted through the snow and it sunk about 8 feet into the mountain. But this device was recovered. By this time effective satellites were in service, and the listening device was mothballed.
“According to the author, Howard Kohn, there are two nuclear-powered monitoring devices — allegedly for the surveillance of Chinese atomic weapons testing — high in the Himalayas. The devices, containing plutonium, were placed on two mountains, one of which, Nanda Devi, is the source of India’s Ganges River…One of the monitoring stations is said to have been buried by an avalanche, and thus might be currently leaking plutonium into the Ganges…”
In 1977, author Howard Kohn released a story about the Nanda Devi mission in a magazine created by Rolling Stone. The story sent shock waves through the diplomatic community. The letter above is part of the fallout.
Despite the chaos, the event was effectively buried by the CIA and CBI until the article came out.
Currently, the whereabouts of the lost SNAP generator are still unknown. Despite some speculation the device was stolen, it’s believed to still be sitting somewhere enclosed in the mountain. No recovery efforts appear to be ongoing.
The story has gotten press, but it may heat up a bit in the near future. According to The India Times, Hollywood plans to make a movie about the event. If it does, you might see an actual effort to recover the device.