Spies on the Roof of the World

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Lorenzo von Matterhorn
Jan 31, 2009
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Spies on the Roof of the World



In the closing weeks of 1964, the US Central Intelligence Agency was gripped by anxiety in the wake of troubling news. On October 16th, a great mushroom cloud had been spotted towering over the remote Chinese missile-testing range at Lop Nur. All evidence had indicated that Chinese scientists were at least a year away from squeezing the destructive secrets from the mighty atom, but this bombshell underscored the agency’s dangerously feeble espionage efforts in the Far East.

Several months after the Chinese nuclear test, a young doctor at the University of Washington Hospital in Seattle was doing his rounds when he heard his name paged over the intercom. Upon his arrival at the front lobby, he was confronted by an sinister-looking man clad in dark glasses and a trench coat.

“Robert Schaller?” The enigmatic visitor pulled back the flap of his coat to reveal something inside. Jutting from an inner pocket was an airline ticket. “How would you like to go to the Himalayas?” the man inquired.

The CIA, he explained, was seeking a physician with experience in electronics and mountain-climbing, a combination of requirements which produced relatively few candidates. Schaller satisfied all of the criteria, having become obsessed with climbing over the previous few years. In exchange for his service and silence, the agency offered $1,000 per month; a considerable stipend at the time. Unable to resist the generous salary, the once-in-a-lifetime mountaineering opportunity, and the prospect of patriotic employment, he hastily agreed. His training was scheduled to begin almost immediately.

In the fall of 1965, a year after the first Chinese nuclear bomb test, the crew of clandestine climbers assembled at the Sanctuary, a natural fortress of Himalayan mountain peaks which surrounded their objective: Nanda Devi. Previously only six souls had managed to summit the 25,000-foot behemoth— known by the locals as “the Goddess”— and of those six only three had survived the dangerous descent. Captain Kohli and his crew anticipated an even more complicated climb owing to the heavy surveillance package they were required to heft up the mountain with them. But nonetheless Schaller and his mountaineering compatriots were eager to embark on the historic ascent.

Together the dozen climbers and Sherpas slowly scaled the side of the Goddess. By day the extra equipment hindered their upward progress, but by night the atomic contraption provided a pocket of warmth for the adventurers. Nestled within the forty-pound generator was sufficient plutonium to power the surveillance package for a thousand years, thereby providing the US and India with uninterrupted observation of Chinese nuclear bombs and Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) tests.

Faced with the threat of being whisked away by the atmospheric tantrum, expedition leader Captain Kohli concluded that the team must turn back, postponing the mission until the spring climbing season. Kohli ordered that the surveillance package be lashed to the mountainside, much to the surprise and chagrin of his fellow climbers. He reasoned that the team could reacquire the equipment on the next ascent rather than hauling it up the mountain again. The team secured the antenna, two transceiver sets, and nuclear generator on a rocky outcropping, then hastily fled from the detestable weather.

The team returned the following spring, planning to retrieve their nuclear parcel and tote it the remaining distance to the mountain top. When they reached High Camp, Dr. Schaller and his comrades sought out the crag which had cradled their abandoned equipment throughout the winter. Their stash, however, was nowhere to be seen. A quick survey of the scene suggested that the stone ledge had been sheared from the mountainside by an avalanche, presumably embedding the generator and its seven cigar-shaped plutonium rods deep into the ice fields below.

No one could be certain what would become of the core in the glacier’s clutches, but there was cause for great concern. There were two equally alarming prospects: the nuclear fuel might fall into the wrong hands, leading to any number of diabolical designs; or the slab of migrating ice might slowly grind the plutonium into a paste and deposit it into the Sanctuary melt waters, shuttling the four pounds of radioactive material into the vital Ganges River.

For the next two years, the CIA sent scores of Geiger-counter-carrying climbers and specially-outfitted helicopters to comb the ice fields for any trace of the powerplant. Meanwhile, Schaller and his team scaled a neighboring mountain and successfully installed a similar explosion-observing, missile-monitoring apparatus. They then joined the search efforts to locate the misplaced plutonium, but aside from a few Geiger-counter clicks, there was not a trace to be found. The prolonged search did, however, afford Schaller the opportunity to finally summit the elusive Nanda Devi; he stole away from High Camp during the pre-dawn hours for an unauthorized climb. Ever the documentarian, Schaller snapped a photo of himself at the summit for posterity.


As the final Himalayan expedition drew to a close, the team’s official government operative asked to borrow Schaller’s photographs and journals to help him file the mission report. Dr. Schaller happily complied, but after several months the documents remained unreturned. His subsequent requests for the materials were rebuffed, the CIA citing the need for security. Additionally, the doctor was awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit for his contributions, but the two agents who presented the medal in a private ceremony were not allowed to leave the medal with him. Even today, decades after the espionage operations, Schaller’s requests for his documents are met with letters stating that “the CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or non-existence of records responsive to your request.”

To the best of Dr. Schaller’s knowledge, the Central Intelligence Agency never managed to reacquire their missing nuclear appliance. But a water sample from the Sanctuary in 2005 showed troubling hints of plutonium-239
[RTGs which must have been what they were using use Pu238; perhaps they also contain some unintended but unavoidable Pu239 component? - W], an isotope which does not occur naturally.
Thanks for posting that story, that is one I have never heard of.