When Indians reached the Alaska training base, they were joined by 14 of US’ best mountaineers, who were recruited by the CIA for a monthly retainer of $ 1,000. As part of training, the members climbed the highest mountain in the US, Mt. Mckinley to get used to assembling the device in freezing temperatures, using a dummy replica. During the training none of the Indian climbers were told that the device would have a nuclear-powered electricity generator. “Our six month training period was cut short due the impending 1965 Indo-Pak war. We returned to India much earlier than intended and were forced to shorten the time-table for the mission. We did not have much communication with the Americans,” says Wnagyal.
The declassified CIA memo indicates that the Outside article created quite a furore in the US. In April 1978, two Congressmen, John D Dingell and Richard L Ottinger, fired off a letter to President Jimmy Carter, demanding a Congressional enquiry into the Nanda Devi fiasco. They also wrote to the then Indian ambassador to the US, Nani A Palkhivala, requesting the Indian government to provide information of the ill-fated mission.
It’s not clear whether Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, who succeeded Shastri after his death in Tashkent on January 11, 1966, were informed about the mission. The letter written by the Congressmen to President Carter seemed to indicate otherwise.
The device was a four-part unit, weighing 125 pounds (56 kg) comprising a flag antenna, two trans-receivers and the power unit called SNAP-19C (System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power). The trans-receivers would then transmit the Chinese telemetry data to a base station, set up approximately 40 km from the mountain. The Americans codenamed for the operation was HAT (High Altitude Test).
The equipment was carried by porters and Indian climbers. While strapped to the back going up the mountain, they could feel the heat generated by the nuclear power unit, leaving a warm patch on the skin for a long time, according to Wangyal. The porters would huddle around the device at night inside their tents for warmth. “We had no way of knowing the exposure levels,” said Wangyal during my earlier meetings in Leh.
When the climbers were around 200 feet below the Nanda Devi summit, the weather turned hostile. The climb was abandoned after deciding to stash the device at a suitable place to return the next year to complete the operation. That one decision, to leave it behind high up on the mountain, continues to haunt all those involved till date. Much has been written and said about the lost device.
Of the many accounts about subsequent attempts to retrieve the device, the one mentioned in Outside article stands out for its hilarity. The Americans tried to wash and melt the avalanche debris. “The diverted water was supposed to wash away the snow and exhume the nuclear treasure,” wrote Howard Khon in the Outside article. “In theory, perhaps, the idea held traces of brilliance. But a mountain stream is not easily converted into a fireplug. Mud and sticks clogged the hose opening, requiring a frigid cleaning every few minutes; and water pressure at the other end was equal to that of a bucket being emptied out of a first-floor window.” Over the years, multiple expeditions were launched to find the missing nuclear treasure, to detect radioactivity in the region, in water and soil, but they all returned empty-handed. Nanda Devi has kept the secret hidden in her bosom till date, as if in protest of her desecration.
In the summer of 1967, Wangyal, Gyatso, Rawat and Bhangu along with American climbers once again returned to the mountains. They successfully deployed the second device on the dome of Nanda Kot and it worked for the better part of the year, before developing a snag. For the fourth time, in the summer of ’68, the same climbers headed up Nanda Kot to retrieve the equipment. But the Americans lost two climbers, when they were struck by an avalanche triggered by bad weather. Eventually, a team of climbers finally made it to the Nanda Kot summit and retrieved the device, there was a mild panic. The Americans took the SNAP unit of the second device out of India after flying it into Delhi in a chopper from the Nanda Kot base camp.
That marked the end of the insane idea with the CIA and Indian intelligence agencies deciding not to pursue any more harebrained missions into the high mountains. But until date the fate of the lost radioactive Plutonium remains unknown.