Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Spying Mountaineers

As I read The Eiger Sanction, about Ueli Steck turned James Bond, I am reminded of the lecture that Broughton Coburn gave at Hamilton last semester. His focus was on the first American ascent of Everest in 1963 by an expedition led by Jim Whittaker and on the West Ridge expedition by Tom Hornbein and Willie Unsoeld. After he had talked extensively about the cultural and historical significance of each climb, Mr. Coburn turned to an interesting story that is not well known involving both spies and mountaineers.

After their successes on Everest and various other Himalayan expeditions, many of these climbers were recruited by the CIA to place nuclear powered spying instruments on the summits of various Himalayan mountains on the Chinese border. These expeditions came during the height of the Cold War when tensions were high and America was doing everything it could to gather information about its enemies. These expeditions were highly classified until very recently and I can't help but compare this fictional portrayal of the mountaineer spy with real life stories of mountaineers hauling nuclear powered communication equipment to over 7,000 meters. It's a good thing they didn't fall...

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