In the 60s the Himalaya was still considered the Shangri-La of exploration, a wild and legendary place free from celebrity that would have characterized it thanks to the mountaineering of the late twentieth century. The story I am about to tell concerns the 24th highest mountain in the world, the Nanda Devi (7,816m), which is located in India in the Great Himalaya in the northern sector of Uttar Pradesh in the domain of the Kumaum region, one of the areas with highest population density in the world.
The inhabitants of this region consider Nanda Devi a sacred mountain, its name means “Goddess of Bliss”, considered the incarnation of Parvati the wife of Shiva in Hindu popular beliefs. In addition, the Ganges river is also sacred in the Hindu tradition, adored throughout its course in the Asian continent, the destination of numerous pilgrimages and legends.
It is said: “that a sip of the waters of the Ganges with the last breath of life can guarantee the passage of the soul to heaven”.
In 1964 what interested the government of the United States of Nanda Devi was not its mystical powers, but its unobstructed vision of Tibet. In fact, at that time the Vietnam War was starting to grow together with the tensions between neighboring states; so that in October of the same year the People’s Republic of China detonated its first nuclear test near Lop Nor, in a secret facility a few hundred miles north of the Himalaya mountains. US intelligence estimates of the range of Chinese missiles and compatibility with nuclear warheads were unclear. The Himalayan mountain range blocked ground equipment to pick up radio telemetry signals from missiles obscuring espionage activities. As if that wasn’t enough, Pakistan had just barred American planes from its airspace, and unfortunately the satellite technology of those years still did not allow espionage from space. So the Americans decided to use the Himalaya as an observatory of the Chinese plains. The CIA was commissioned to organize a team of climbers and spies joined to a team of Indian Intelligence officers, led by Navy commander Manmohan Singh, who interested: scientists, doctors and telemetry experts with 30 local porters and 9 original Sherpas from the Sikkim region, experts in climbing glaciers.
The operation called Blu Mountain, had an apparently achievable goal, to install a spy antenna on the Nanda Devi, connected to a nuclear generator (Lo Snap0 19C), powered by 5 kilograms of radioactive plutonium 239. The plutonium mixture used could produce enough heat to generate the electricity needed to power the transceiver, making the equipment self-sufficient in a hostile environment such as the Himalayas, which in winter can reach temperatures below -50 ° C.
Plutonium is a metal different from any other on earth. Varying its mass can cause an uncontrolled release of energy, the same that holds matter together. Let’s assume we have a portion of plutonium 239 the size of an apple, it would be warm to the touch with a temperature above 40 ° C. If the sphere could be compressed at extremely high speed and pressure, with a flash of light and intense heat it would instantly vaporize the surrounding environment and make the area radioactive. Plutonium 239 has a half-life of its radioactive emissions of around 24 thousand years.
The expedition started in September 1965, during the ascent to Nanda Devi, the CIA officers applied thermal detectors on the clothing to the mission components, which by changing the color would have indicated that the radiation had become dangerous. While the porters and the Sherpas quarreled over who had to carry the plutonium containers, having no idea what it was, just for the fact that by giving off heat it kept them warm during the march, also using it as a stove in the tents in the base camps. At about 7000 meters above sea level the mission becomes more complicated, with the unfavorable weather more than expected for several days, combined with the incessant avalanches. Failed mission! He puts the equipment safe in a cavity in the rock thinking about returning after the winter to retry the operation.
In May 1966 the expedition retraced its steps, but found neither the cavity nor the equipment with plutonium, as everything was blown away by avalanches. The research goes on for three years: in winter to study the maps, in summer to patrol the offending area both on official paths and with the help of helicopters. Scientists are alarmed: “If plutonium contamination via the Rishi Ganga tributary, which originates under the Nanda Devi reaches the Ganges river, millions of Indians will die.” There have also been hypotheses that Indian intelligence had stolen the equipment for start your own nuclear program. The following year, as plutonium was not found, another mission places the same type of equipment under the top of Nanda Kot, a mountain nearby. He was buried in the snow three months later and stopped working. When the expedition returned to Nanda Kot to collect data from the device the following year, they were shocked! A perfectly spherical cave had formed, formed by the continuous heat emitted by the nuclear generator. In an attempt to install the surveillance device and then attempt to recover it, from 1965 to 1968 almost a dozen climbs were made on the Nanda Devi, described by the famous climber Tenzing Norgay among the most difficult Himalayan climbs. Although the device installed on the Nanda Kot had collected enough data from tests via Chinese equipment to indicate that China did not yet have a long-range nuclear warhead. Unofficial testimonies claim that all the people who have been in close contact with plutonium over the four years of missions have passed away.
The Nanda Devi area has been closed for decades, with some exceptions, such as expeditions from the army. No one was allowed to climb or explore the mountain until the year 2000, officially for environmental reasons, to protect native species of rare plants and animals such as the snow leopard and the black bear under the patronage of UNESCO.
The photo below was taken in 1963, in which the participants in the first American mission that conquered Mount Everest were immortalized. Among the participants was William Unsoeld one of the most renowned American Himalaysti. In 1948 William Unsoeld saw the snowy Nanda Devi for the first time and was so amazed by its beauty that he said:
“I dreamed of having a daughter and calling her like the mountain.”
Twenty-eight years later, 50-year-old Unsoeld returned to the mountain in a time window in which he was allowed to climb the mountain, with an Indo-American expedition accompanied by his daughter Nanda Devi Unsoeld to whom he had given the same name as the Goddess of Bliss.
Devi was a beautiful blonde girl who learned mountaineering and became an expert climber. She became increasingly attracted to the mountain which was a driving force for her father to undertake the climb of the summit that bore his own name. The Sherpas had always thought that Devi was something divine in that she spoke Nepali, having lived a third of her life in Nepal.
On September 3, 1976 Devi Unsoeld, Peter Lev and Andy Harvard a young climber to whom the girl was engaged, reached camp 4 at 7,300m late at night, while Devi being the least experienced of the group took nine hours to ascend the last stretch of 120 meters. The strong wind and the incessant snow forced the square to stay at the camp until September 7 where they also found William Unsoeld. The next morning Devi started to feel weak and then she probably got sick from the altitude. Then he blanched and whispered, “He’s calling me. I’m going to die.“
The three climbers tried in every way to revive her, Devi died in their arms. Although everyone was paralyzed with pain, decisions had to be made. With great self-control, Father William decided to hand over Devi’s body to the mountain forever. They wrapped her in a sleeping bag, then in tears took leave of her, letting the body slip from the north-eastern wall of the mountain, which had shaped her so much in the twenty-two years of her life.
The Goddess of Bliss had claimed her soul. And thanks to Nanda Devi this mountain will always have a special meaning.
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