I’ve posted on the book An Eye At The Top Of The World several times before, but I’ve finaly had a chance to sit down with the book, read it and organize my thoughts.
For those who haven’t heard of the book before, it chronicles the tale of a secret CIA program organzied in the mid 1960’s whose goal was to place a nuclear powered surveillance device on top of Nanda Devi, a 25,646 foot peak in Northern India. At the time, the Chinese nuclear and missile program was just getting underway, and both India and the United States were in a panic to know what the communist goverment of China was up to.
The scheme was hatched, like something out of a James Bond film, and a team of climbers were brought on to serve their country. They would practice on Denali with the ultimate goal of carrying the rather large spy device to the top of the mountain. Eventually, they would make an attempt at completing their mission, and reached high camp on Nanda Devi before being turned back by bad weather. Before they left however, they lashed the device to nearby rocks, with the intention of returning the following Spring to finish what they started.
When Spring came, they did return, but to their surprise, the device was missing. Over the course of the Winter, a massive avalanche swept away the device, and the rocks it was secured to, taking with it four pounds of plutonium. That’s enough radioactive material to poison every living person on Earth, or create one hell of a bomb. The spy device was never recovered, and it now believed to be locked into a glacier at the base of Nanda Devi, where it is carried ever so slowly toward the source of Ganges River. If that River were to become polluted with the plutonium, it would be a disaster of epic proportions, unlike any thing every seen by man.
An Eye At The Top Of The World is written by Pete Takeda, an accomplished climber and writer who has written many articles for Rock and Ice Magazine, Backpacker and many more outdoor periodicals. Takeda begins the book by telling of the first time he personaly heard about this covert opration. It told around a camp fire, with climbing buddies, and in hushed tones. It was a myth in the climbing community that few knew anything about, and fewer still believed.
Taked himself dismissed the story until he was on a trip to India to climb a peak called the Sharksfin. While in a governmental office there, waiting to receiver a permit, he spotted a photo of Nanda Devi and was struck by the beauty of the mountain. While he was examining the photo, one of the officials in the office told him the name of the mountain, and told him it was off limits for climbing. Then, leaning close he whispered in a conspiratorial that the mountain was radioactive.
At that moment, the story told around the camp fire came flooding back to him. Perhaps there was more to it than just a myth after all, and Takeda made it his mission to find out more about this story. He bagan researching the background, finding out the princple players, the circumstances of the climb, and the theories of what happened to the device. He began to think about writing a book on the subject, and planning his own expedition to the region to investigate the story further.
This book is the result of those plans and investigations. It is a mix of styles, being equal parts history, biography, travel journal, and guide to India. He mixes in nuclear physics and climbing in the same book and does an admirable job of blending it together. Takeda sprinkles the book with insights into his own background growing up and learning to climb. He gives a history lesson on the Cold War and the events that led to this daring mission to the top of Nanda Devi. He goes into detail of his own expedition to the region, which reads like a travel journal, and is it’s own adventure, and he gives wonderful advice for traveling in India, making it feel much like a travelogue at times.
Each of these distinct styles come together very well to tell the story. Takeda does a nice job of balancing these parts, and the book never bogs down in the process. He weaves all the elements together in a style that is compelling to read, and each of the individual threads are spun together in fine fashion.
An Eye At The Top Of The World is more than just a climbing book. It’s a slice of history and an adventure tale that seems like it should have been written by Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy. I recommend the book for anyone looking for a good old fashioned tale of adventure. An adventure made even more that will have you reminding yourself throughout the book that it is non-fiction. The old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction” has never been more true. Or more fun to read.
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