Big Lama, Little Lama

The little-known story of how the CIA recruited Barry Corbet ’58 and other Dartmouth Everesters for a Cold War secret mission.

There’s more to the Barry Corbet story.

A year before Corbet’s death in 2004, his daughter Jennifer began to hear rumors. She learned that her father had been recruited, four decades earlier, for a clandestine expedition to a peak in northern India known as Nanda Devi. In fact, between 1965 to 1968 the CIA assigned several climbers and a cast of Sherpas to place a plutonium-powered surveillance device high on the peak—with the intention of spying across the expanse of western Tibet to where the “Red Chinese” were undertaking nuclear missile tests.

Corbet told his daughter the story of their mission and proudly admitted that, at the end of the operation, he was presented a medal in a private ceremony in Washington, D.C. But a moment later, in a scene that calls to mind Catch-22, the medal was taken away from him. “You’re not allowed to keep the medal or talk about it,” the case officer informed him. There was no official acknowledgment that it had even been awarded.

Thirty-six years later Jennifer Corbet wanted to see if she could get the medal back.

“Have you ever tried calling the CIA?” she said. “You can’t. Their website doesn’t list phone numbers. If you do find a working number, every line leads you to recorded messages that don’t have voicemail boxes.”

Jennifer, a tall, self-confident young mother, called the office of Colorado Sen. Tom Tancredo. One of Tancredo’s staffers contacted the agency. Before long Jennifer received a call from a man who sounded severe, yet vague. He gave no hint of who he was or what he was calling about.

“I’m fairly straightforward,” Jennifer said. “So I simply asked him: ‘Is this the C-I-A?’ ”

It was. A date was set up for an official medal presentation. In late 2003 a knock was heard on the door of Corbet’s house. The visitor, a sweet-faced man in his 30s, identified himself as a CIA case officer.

Advising the gathered family that he was “still under cover,” the case officer began the ceremony. With reverence and solemnity—the man was clearly honored to be in Corbet’s presence—he recited a tribute recognizing James Barry Corbet for service to his country. He then presented Corbet with a certificate, a pin and the medal itself: the CIA’s coveted Intelligence Star, awarded for actions of “extraordinary heroism.”

Other Dartmouth veterans of the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition—Barry Bishop ’53, Dave Dingman ’58 and Barry Prather ’61—also played a role in this quixotic (though eventually successful) enterprise. Dingman joined the CIA surveillance operation during its second year, and he shared many of the stories and details covered in the story that follows.  It’s a tale of Dartmouth Everesters on a secretive, patriotic mission to a little-explored part of the world. In the 1960s Barry Bishop was known within the Washington, D.C., beltway as both an adventurer and researcher—for his work on Greenland’s glaciers and with Admiral Byrd’s expedition in Antarctica. Now Bishop was an Everest summiter, too. In 1963 he came home without his toes, but with a cover story for National Geographic. Now he was about to take on another assignment, but not for a magazine. It was something he would never write or speak about.

At a D.C. cocktail party Bishop spoke with Gen. Curtis LeMay, the severe-looking chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force. LeMay, a National Geographic Society trustee, had extended the Air Force’s support and some funding to the Everest expedition. He was curious about Bishop’s views on that part of the world. Specifically, he wanted to hear more about the view from its highest point, looking north. But it wasn’t the scenery that interested him.

LeMay—the reputed inspiration for Gen. Buck Turgidson, George C. Scott’s unforgettable role in Dr. Strangelove—was a ringleader of America’s missile program. He was increasingly nervous about China’s developments in nuclear warfare and technology, a blind spot in U.S. intelligence. The CIA was aware that China was building a nuclear test facility at Lop Nur, a 10,000-square-kilometer dry lakebed a few hundred miles north of the Himalaya. Beyond that, they had little hard information.

In October 1964 China conducted its first nuclear test at Lop Nur. Among other concerns, the CIA feared that China’s ability to launch a thermonuclear bomb could raise the stakes in the expanding Vietnam War.

India was also keen to gather as much intelligence as it could on the Chinese threat. The Indian military had been beefing up its northern borders ever since the Sino-Indian War of 1962, when the Chinese Army (with its better-acclimatized and better-equipped troops) stormed through a string of border outposts in northeast India.

At the same time, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was hesitant about partnering with America. The legacy of British colonial rule had made India distrustful of the Western world. India was also offended that the United States was providing military support to Pakistan, its mortal enemy. The United Sates had previously been conducting overflights of China with the U-2 spy plane, based out of an airfield in Pakistan. But Pakistan withdrew the use of its airfield in 1960 when a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union.

Spy satellites offered a partial alternative, but they weren’t yet perfected. Ground-based sensors, however, were powerful enough to intercept radio signals between China’s military technicians and its missiles. There was one rub: These sensors needed direct line of sight.

A Himalayan peak just might offer this. From an elevated perch, a spy transceiver would be able to peer into the test site at Lop Nur. It could then relay the data to a listening station, allowing the CIA and Indian intelligence to monitor the range, speed and payload of China’s missiles.

Such a surveillance system would need a reliable source of power. The government had successfully used small plutonium-powered units to run weather stations at the North and South Poles. While raising funds for the 1963 climb the expedition’s leader, Norman Dyhrenfurth, had proposed installing such station on Everest’s South Col as part of the team’s research program.

Gen. LeMay was confident that Bishop was the right man to help concoct a clandestine surveillance operation. National Geographic granted Bishop leave, and the CIA recruited him.

First, Bishop needed to select a reasonably high peak that didn’t share a border with China, which eliminated Everest (and many other summits). But Kanchenjunga—at 28,169 feet, the world’s third highest mountain—was situated on the border between Nepal and Sikkim. It might be ideal.

Next, Bishop needed climbers. The 1963 Everesters were obvious candidates for such an innovative and risky mission. They formed the largest known pool of American climbers with Himalayan experience. Bishop’s first choice for this Mission: Impossible team was Lute Jerstad, his partner on Everest. Jerstad quickly signed on. Another was West Ridge first ascender Tom Hornbein, then working at the University of Washington in Seattle. When Bishop called, Hornbein told him that his boss had already been wondering why “all these FBI guys have been coming around to talk to me.” But Hornbein was beginning a career on the UW faculty and wasn’t interested in joining.

Hornbein’s partner on the West Ridge, Willi Unsoeld, was likely viewed as being off limits because of his employment as director of the Peace Corps in Nepal. The organization went to great lengths to distance itself from the CIA in order to avoid the suspicion, in countries where the corps operated, that its volunteers were agents or spies.

The spy operation would be executed jointly with Indian intelligence. In the early spring of 1965 Bishop flew to New Delhi to seek out naval captain Mohan Singh Kohli, one of India’s best-known climbers. In addition to being a military man, Kohli was a veteran of the nearly successful 1960 and 1962 Indian Everest expeditions. Kohli had been appointed leader of India’s third attempt on Everest and was leaving for the mountain in several days. He and his fellow climbers would be able to join the Kanchenjunga team only during the fall climbing season.

On May 14, 1965, the Chinese detonated another nuclear explosion at Lop Nur, this one dropped from an airplane.

The Indian climbing team was on Everest at the time. On May 20 two of their climbers reached the summit, and within the next nine days seven more tagged the top. But when Capt. Kohli returned to New Delhi he was given little time to celebrate. Indian intelligence spirited him to the United States, where he joined Bishop, Jerstad and other climbers at the Bishops’ home in Bethesda, Maryland.

Kohli was familiar with Kanchenjunga. The peak, he warned, is scoured by frequent, deadly avalanches. Only six climbers had ever reached its summit; three others had died trying. A serious attempt would require bottled oxygen and a carefully designed pyramid of logistics.

Bishop and the others agreed to choose another mountain. That was fine with the CIA. Their technicians had already confirmed that a lower summit—Nanda Devi, the 25,645-foot peak that Willi Unsoeld had admired in 1949—could provide a line of sight across Tibet to Lop Nur.

In the fall of 1965 a team of Americans and Indians—including Lute Jerstad and 19 Sherpas—were choppered in to Nanda Devi Base Camp. Only here were some of them informed that the “special load” they would be carrying—five porter loads, actually—would require assembly near the mountain’s summit, under unpredictable conditions.

What surprised the Sherpas, some of whom had climbed on Everest with the Americans, was that one of the nondescript boxes they were carrying seemed to emit heat. This was the SNAP (for “System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power”) generator, a thermoelectric energy system fueled by plutonium. The Sherpas, eager to absorb warmth from the degrading plutonium, argued over which tent would shelter the SNAP generator at night. They named the device “Guru Rinpoche,” after the eighth-century patron saint of the Sherpas: a legendary Buddhist sorcerer whose supernatural powers included the ability to provide protection and sustenance. They dubbed two smaller surveillance devices—the sensor and transceiver—“Big Lama” and “Little Lama” out of respect for the inscrutable, mystical power they seemed to command.

On October 16, 1965, the climbers and Sherpas reached Camp 4, within 1,900 feet of Nanda Devi’s summit. It began to snow—heavily—and they hunkered in their tents. The drifts grew as their stockpile of provisions and supplemental oxygen declined. It would be difficult and dangerous, they finally decided, to attempt the summit, especially with five loads of cargo. They radioed for permission to retreat, then waited again while word of their stalled mission worked its way up and down the Indian intelligence ladder. The authorities deferred to the climbers’ judgment.

Before descending Jerstad and the Indian and Sherpa climbers at Camp 4 anchored their loads to the side of the mountain with ropes and pitons. Another team could return the following spring, they figured, to take the thing to the top and finish the job. There was little chance of the surveillance gear being discovered in the meantime; Indian officials wouldn’t be granting climbing permits to Nanda Devi, anyway.

The American CIA operatives at Nanda Devi Base Camp were not pleased that the climbers were about to leave the device on the mountain. But they were powerless to intervene, due to a strict injunction against American voices speaking over the radio. The Chinese might be monitoring their exchanges.

Over the winter the Chinese conducted two more nuclear tests at Lop Nur.

The following spring, in 1966, a team of Sherpa and Indian climbers returned to Nanda Devi’s slopes. The CIA had already revised its plan for the surveillance system: Instead of moving it higher up the mountain, they decided, it should be retrieved and then placed on a lower, more accessible peak. But when the small recovery team arrived at Camp 4, they were dumbstruck. The SNAP generator and other loads they had secured in October were gone. What they found instead was a scoured-out depression. An entire section of the mountain had slid away.

The possibility that the SNAP generator had been damaged in the landslide—and that highly radioactive plutonium might be leaking out—was not lost on either the Indians or the CIA. Fortunately, a fresh team of four American climbers had already been trained and was en route to India. They could be assigned to find the thing; they’d have a larger team, with helicopter support.

American Everest veteran Dave Dingman had been recruited for the 1966 team. But early that year Dingman had been drafted for service in Vietnam—an inconvenient development falling right in middle of his medical residency. Just before being shipped out, he received a mysterious phone call.

“Dr. Dingman…would you like to work for the government on a special project?”

“Well, I’ve already been drafted,” he responded with wry resignation.

“We can fix that,” said the caller, who claimed to be with the CIA.

Dingman’s curiosity was piqued, and he returned to Baltimore for a meeting. He said that he’d consider the Nanda Devi mission, but only if the CIA interceded with the draft board and allowed him to complete his final year of medical residency. The agency agreed.

Early in the summer of 1966 Langley phoned back, saying that they needed him in India right away.  They signed him up and gave him an alias. In June Dingman and his colleagues—all clueless as to where they were going—were flown in a twin-engine Aero Commander with blacked-out windows to a location in the American Southeast. From there they continued to an unnamed island for “bomb school.”

“The teachers were soldier-of-fortune-type characters,” Dingman recalled. “About 10 of us recruits gathered around a large table and fashioned charges from C-4 plastic explosives and duct tape. The instructor observing our progress said something I have never forgotten: ‘Remember, gentlemen: A neat bomb is a happy bomb.’ ”

The cloak-and-dagger chapter of the operation was about to begin. From the island they were flown to Delhi and lodged in a “safe house” for the better part of a week, and were barred from touring the city. Dingman knew little about the mission, except that it was being kept under tight wraps while Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s political campaign was building steam. The opposition party had already accused her of collaborating with the CIA.

Taking a series of aircraft, the climbers flew north. Once in the mountains, they were transferred to American helicopters operated by U.S. Air Force pilots and were ferried the final leg to a base camp at about 16,000 feet. Then Dingman was informed that the mission for which they had earlier been briefed—to place listening equipment on the southwest side of Nanda Devi—had already been completed a year earlier. Except that a snag had occurred: A “key part” of that surveillance gear had gone missing. Their new assignment was to find the lost device and transport it to the neighboring peak of Nanda Kot. Once it was set it up there, at a more manageable altitude of 22,000 feet, they could all go home.

At the time, Dingman was unaware that his Everest buddies Bishop and Jerstad had been drawn into the same project the previous year—along with a handful of other wildcat mountaineers handpicked from the American climbing scene. Like Dingman, they were all oddly patriotic, despite most mountaineers’ temperament of being iconoclastic loners. They quickly deduced that climbing exotic, beautiful mountains and getting paid for it—$1,000 a month wasn’t bad in the 1960s—was a fine way to serve their country. They could be James Bonds in crampons.

The SNAP generator could have fallen thousands of feet. Surely it would be found in the scree and landslide debris below Camp 4. To calculate which direction it might have gone, a helicopter dropped some empty butane canisters as it hovered over the camp while spotters watched where they fell and rolled.

For days Dingman and the other climbers scrambled up rocky, frozen couloirs while being pummeled by monsoon rain and rockfall. A search from the air might be faster and safer, they decided, so they shifted gears and began flying helicopter missions. Their chopper was a HH-43B Huskie, a boxy-looking aircraft able to climb as high as 24,000 feet. They removed the rear door of the helicopter to reduce the weight and sat in the back with a neutron counter—their legs hanging out as if they were perched on the tailgate of a pickup truck.

“At one point the American pilot—a guy on leave from the Air Force—wanted to shoot a spiral-horned Marco Polo sheep,” Dingman said, aware that Marco Polo sheep can be found at elevations over 16,000 feet. “This involved flying on a ‘search mission’ along high ridges, looking for the animals, while I sat in the doorway with a loaded .44-caliber revolver. The HH-43B is an agile helicopter, and we spotted some sheep and chased them—but we were no match for a sheep running for its life. We didn’t bag a sheep—but we did return alive.

For Dingman, himself a licensed pilot, the flying was the scariest part of the operation. “There are two types of helicopters,” he remarked. “Those that have crashed; and those that will crash.”

The recruits were energetic and adventure-starved, but they knew “dangerous and futile” when they saw it. “You can’t let a bureaucracy run a mountaineering expedition,” one of them commented.

“The Indians clearly didn’t care if the thing was found in our lifetime,” Dingman observed. Weeks of searching turned into months. They found no missing device and heard nary a peep from the radiation detectors. Some speculated that India had retrieved the device early that spring in order to dismantle the SNAP generator, remove the plutonium and use it to fashion a nuclear bomb. “I’m not the first to speculate that the Indians found the generator and took it away—before we even arrived on the scene,” Dingman said.

Though this theory was never proved, there remained a symbolic irony to the caper. Nanda Devi is regarded by Hindus as the abode of the goddess Nanda, a consort of Shiva, the Destroyer. She could, at turns, be kind—or wrathful. The nuclear device placed on her flanks had become an inadvertent offering—a double-edged gift of almighty energy, potentially beneficial, possibly harmful.

The CIA recruits were tired of the obfuscation and lack of direction, and Dingman had a fellowship in cancer surgery to return to. In late September 1966 he snagged a helicopter ride to New Delhi and left India, disillusioned by the political morass. By abandoning the mission he courted disfavor from Indian and American intelligence, but his motivation had been humane: Had they continued, he felt, someone was likely to be killed. Shortly afterward the rest of the team disbanded and the mission was terminated. For that year, at least.

When Dingman returned to the United States, he was snatched up by the draft board. The CIA had promised him credit for military service—but his contract had been signed by his alias. He had no way to appeal, much less to prove where he had been.

The CIA and the Indians were still desperate for intelligence on the nuclear testing at Lop Nur. In 1967 Prather, Corbet and two other American climbers were recruited for another surveillance mission to the Indian Himalaya. The two Barrys—a superb handyman and a brilliant, frustrated scientist—were attracted as much by the technical and research elements of the operation as by the climbing. They had both dropped out of Dartmouth, and perhaps could continue at least part of their education on a challenging assignment with the government.

A new surveillance unit and SNAP generator had been brought to the mountains. The team carried it up Nanda Kot, spent a day assembling it and anchored it to a relatively level shelf not far below the summit. They turned the device on and received confirmation from below that it was working fine.

China performed more nuclear tests while the Nanda Kot device was operational. The intelligence gleaned indicated that the People’s Republic did not have the capability to deliver a warhead over a long distance. Three months later the surveillance unit was buried in winter snow and ceased functioning. The device and its plutonium-powered core were retrieved the following spring and never replaced.

Within a few short years satellite surveillance technology made ground-based sensors obsolete. In the 1970s details of the secret Nanda Devi operation—and the loss of the first SNAP generator—were leaked to the press. A scandal erupted across India, fueled by accusations that plutonium-laced water was contaminating the headwaters of the sacred Ganges River. The Indian government responded by closing Nanda Devi and its surrounding peaks to climbing and tourism for almost a decade. After it reopened in 1976, Everest West Ridge climber Willi Unsoeld and his daughter—Nanda Devi—were among the first climbers to take on her namesake peak.

Pete Takeda’s An Eye at the Top of the World: The Terrifying Legacy of the Cold War’s Most Daring CIA Operation (New York: Basic Books, 2007) is a well-written account of the CIA-funded caper on Nanda Devi in the mid-1960s, and it provided background to this story, along with M.S. Kohli and Kenneth Conboy’s Spies in the Himalayas: Secret Missions and Perilous Climbs (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002). Jim McCarthy, who offered valuable advice to the operation in its early stages, was especially helpful, as was Dave Dingman. Indian intelligence was officially known as the research and analysis wing of the Cabinet Secretariat. Tibet scholar Warren Smith believes that the island where Dingman and others went for training was probably Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands, which was captured from the Japanese during WW II, used as a B-29 base to bomb Japan, then repurposed as a CIA base. The first CIA-trained Tibetan guerrillas were trained there, and Radio Free Asia’s largest transmitters are now located on Tinian.

Dingman spent the two years following his tour of duty with the operation at Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, South Dakota, as chief of surgery at a 100-bed hospital. “At that time, my peers in surgery were wearing military uniforms in Vietnam, and some were being shot at,” he said. “Continuing with military service in a medical setting seemed the right thing to do.”


Broughton Coburn has written or edited six books, most of them set in the Himalaya. This story is adapted from The Vast Unknown: America’s First Ascent of Everest, copyright © 2013 by Broughton Coburn. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc.


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