March 2, 2021
The CIA Tried to Have Climbers Plant a Nuke-Powered Antenna in the Himalaya
This is a story that has floated around a bit over the years, often mentioned in passing when telling other stories about the Cold War or Himalayan climbing in the 60s, but it’s rare to get the full telling. In a nutshell, the US government realized that a receiver planted atop one of the highest peaks on the planet could intercept radio transmissions between personnel working on China’s nuclear weapons systems. Especially if that receiver was sitting atop a mountain peak that nestled right up against China’s border, perhaps one within the borders of India, a US ally. The government decided on Nanda Devi, a 25,643-foot high peak once thought to be the highest in the world. They recruited top climbers of the day, including Tom Frost, and sent them up with a nuclear-powered radio receiver that would run as long as the plutonium at its core remained active.
It was an absolutely dismal failure.
In foul weather, the crew was forced to abandon the device under a ledge about 2,000 feet from the summit. They hoped to retrieve it the following winter. It was never seen again.
When pieces of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off this winter, creating an ice dam that eventually burst, causing terrible flooding in Uttarakhand, some locals wondered if the misplaced plutonium-powered radio receiver was to blame.
Rock and Ice published a terrific story about the Nanda Devi debacle years ago, which you can read, here. It begins with this wonderful lede from author Pete Takeda: “I stumbled upon the legend of Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot and the lost CIA plutonium on a cold October night in 1987, sitting with friends, swilling cheap malt liquor around a roaring campfire in Yosemite.”
How could you not be hooked?