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Published on: 09/24/17 9:23 AM


Book review: Nanda Devi, a Journey to The Last Sanctuary by Hugh Thomson

Nanda Devi, A Journey to the Last Sanctuary by Hugh Thomson, Hachette India publishers.

At 25,650 ft asl,  Nanda Devi is India’s highest mountain; Kanchenjunga, which is higher, is on the border of India and Nepal. It has been closed to climbers by Indian authorities for years, since 1982 in fact,  because of its sensitive proximity to Tibet and the protection of its fragile ecosystem.

However, in 2000, the government allowed a group to do a survey climb. The explorer and filmmaker Hugh Thomson was part of the team and from that climb comes this slim volume that is a departure from the conventional mountaineering books on a few counts,  and contains a startling reveal at its heart.

So here`s the thing. This book was first published across the world in 2005 but was not allowed into India. Now, better sense seems to have prevailed and a dozen years later, this slim volume is a revised version of the original, with a new foreword by the author accessible to us here in the land of the Nanda Devi.

Nanda Devi has long been a holy mountain, worshipped in the Garhwal as a manifestation of Lord Shiva’s consort Parvati.  Thomson makes a disclaimer early on: “This is not a book about climbing, nor do I claim to be a climber.  It is a book about mountains – and in particular one mountain, Nanda Devi, which lies in the Himalaya, on the border between India and Tibet.“

In another departure from your usual mountaineering book, Thomson zeroes in not on the mighty mountain but the Nanda Devi Sanctuary which lies in a bowl just at the foot of the Nanda Devi. What is extraordinary about this high circular valley is the ring of 20,000 ft peaks, connected by massive cliff-walls, which enclose the great mountain at their centre. Moreover, the Sanctuary had never been seen by humans till 1934. The ascent of Nanda Devi is impossible if a passage into the Sanctuary is not found. The mountaineer  Hugh Ruttledge has famously said, “gaining entry to the Nanda Devi Sanctuary alone was more difficult than reaching the North Pole.“

Thomson records that the way up is hugely arduous, traversing tiny ledges on impossibly steep routes, one difficult section following another,  seemingly without end. However, the Sanctuary once reached, overwhelms the climber.

There,  the great brooding mountain Nanda Devi looks down at them, pale gold now, pink after a while, steely blue still later.  Thomson sounds almost lyrical when he says,  “We would occasionally get glimpses of Nanda Devi, but often it would be hidden by gorges or by cloud. This was the way you got to know a mountain, from different angles, obliquely and with respect.“

And that is when the reader  realises  that Thomson may try his best to sound phlegmatic about this trek but as a matter of fact, this is a love poem to Nanda Devi.

This is the author on the Sanctuary itself: The harsh scree slopes softened and we came down through a forest filled with birches and tree ferns lit up by the late afternoon light. We could hear the streams leading into the Rishi Ganges (Rishiganga) long before we saw them. Then we came to the beautiful meadow of Dibrugheta. In spring, it is carpeted by iris, white garlic and forget- me- nots; in late summer,  the meadow is full of tall angelica, roses, coneaster and Himalayan asters, with Himalayan fir behind. Gentians scrambled in the little rock ledges around the meadow.

Another way in which this book differs from the usual mountain climbing exploits detailed in other books of this genre, is the many lookbacks and musings about how the nature of both the climber and the the act of mountaineering has changed and not for the better, either, giving way to what the author calls the `supremacist climbing culture.`

These are the unsavoury politics of professional mountain- climbing and Thomson spares none. “It`s all about how fast, how high, how little oxygen you need, how hard you are,“ he rues and then talks of the littered trails , the non- decomposing dead bodies left as they died on the mountain, and tellingly, how today`s climbers do not pay heed to local lore which plead with them to desist from summiting certain pristine mountains for religious reasons.

Thomson also tells of the tragic death of climber Nanda Devi Unsoeld, who went to the mountain she’d been named after with her father and her fiancé in 1976, fell ill and died just below the summit. At 24,000 feet,  the others knew it would be impossible to get her body back down, so they “bundled Devi up in her sleeping bag and slipped her over the precipice of the North-east Face as if, in her father`s Willi’s distraught words, ‘committing her body to the deep’.”

And now for that reveal. Apparently, the CIA in 1965 decided to install a nuclear-powered surveillance gadget on Nanda Devi`s summit, where it could overlook and report on what was going on in Chinese-occupied Tibet.

Unfortunately,  the gadget got buried in a landslide. Another device was then installed on Nanda Kot but stopped transmitting soon enough; the horrifying truth was that the heat of the nuclear generator had caused it to sink far down into the ice dome on the summit of Nanda Kot.  This they managed to retrieve and take away from Nanda Kot.

But the gadget on Nanda Devi remains, its plutonium-238 core probably  oozing radioactivity into the adjacent headwaters of the sacred Ganga for anything up to the next 500 years. And there you have it.

Very good read, this book.

Related Links:

Book Review: The Himalayan Arc Edited by Namita Gokhale

Book review: Wild Himalaya by Stephen Alter

Book review: Himalaya, an Anthology edited by Ruskin Bond and Namita Gokhale

Book review: Walking The Himalayas by Levison Wood

Book review: Sikkim by Andrew Duff

Book review: A Step Away From Paradise by Thomas Shor

Book review: Where the Indus is Young by Dervla Murphy

Book review: Becoming A Mountain by Stephen Alter

CIAclimbingHugh ThomsonmountaineeringNanda Devi A Journey to the Last Frontiernuclear-powered intelligence devicethe Nanda Devi Sanctuary

Sheila Kumar • September 24, 2017

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  1. Meera Mohan September 24, 2017 - 10:51 am Reply

    Great review Sheila…since i have been to the Base Camp..A hard terrain it definitely is in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand…Nevertheless…Serene & Beautiful ..

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