Wilting in Delhi’s fearsome summer heat and humidity, and still wary because of the pandemic, I am currently on a mountain reading binge, trying to imagine/will myself out of the heat and up into the hills.

Of all the books I’ve read of late, this one might just be my favourite.

This slim, elegantly written book tells the story of an expedition not to climb the sacred Nanda Devi mountain, but to reach the base of it. Nanda Devi is closed to climbers and explorers, but at the turn of this century, in 2000, special permission was given to a joint Anglo-Indian expedition to go to the sanctuary surrounding the mountain.

To quote the author in his foreword

“Ever since the first publication of this book in Britain, it has been a great frustration of mine that it was not available in India.

Over the years, the increasing interest in the CIA conspiracy which tried to plant a nuclear powered spine device on the summit of the mountain has made a publication in India even more urgent. The fact that, as this book reveals, there is a ticking time bomb of nuclear contamination now lost somewhere near the headquarters of the Ganges is one of those political issues that has stayed hidden for far too long.”

Mr. Thomson writes engagingly and thoughtfully about the sacred mountain herself, about previous expeditions and the history that links the colourful and formidable team with whom he is traveling.

One of the 2 expedition leaders is John Shipton, whose father Eric Shipton found the first passage through the sanctuary to the mountain in 1934.

There is also George Band, who was the youngest member of the first successful Everest expedition in 1953.

As a Yorkshire woman, I had a particular weakness for fellow tyke Ian McNaught-Davis, the president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, who cheerfully swears his way through the Himalayas.

Then, of course, there is the whole extraordinary story of the CIA conspiracy, which Mr. Thomson shares in as much detail as he can garner. I first heard about this story on one of my own (much more modest) climbing trips, and I clearly remember sitting in the mess tent with my team mates, listening in total disbelief.

“Meanwhile the buried Plutonium-238 sits somewhere under the rocks of Nanda Devi. Plutonium-238 remains radioactive for between 300 and 500 years. The outer shell of the SNAP generator will corrode long before that, releasing radioactive materials close to one of the sources of the Ganges. For once, the phrase ‘time bomb’ seemed appropriate. It was a sobering thought.”

I hadn’t realised that for many years the book was not available in India, making the CIA episode all the more intriguing.

An affectionately written book by a man who states quite clearly in his introduction, that

“This is not a book about climbing, nor do I claim to be a climber. It is a book about mountains – and one mountain in particular, Nanda Devi, which lies in the Himalayas, on the border between India and Tibet…. If Everest is a mountain that has become littered with the corpses and detritus of previous expeditions, then Nanda Devi remains the epitome of the inviolate mountain – which is perhaps what mountains should be about.”

100% recommended. This is a delightful read, about history and adventure and exploration.

A quick reminder that I recently enjoyed another excellent book about Nanda Devi –

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