Sonam Wangyal: From Surviving a Chinese Ambush to Standing on Mt. Everest

A legendary mountaineer, Wangyal summited Everest at the age of 23 and was a part of one of the most audacious espionage missions in the world.

As news of the fatal clash between troops of the 16 Bihar Regiment and PLA on June 15 in the remote Galwan Valley in Eastern Ladakh trickled in, a soft-spoken octogenarian, currently living roughly one thousand kilometres from the site of the deadly skirmish in Dehradun, overcame with a brooding sense of déjà vu.

The news of 20 Indian soldiers who were killed in action by the Chinese, using ‘stone-age weapons’, evoked a churn of emotions in Sonam Wangyal— a former Intelligence Bureau (IB) officer, who was deputed to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) for a better part of his career. Wangyal retired from service in 1993 as Assistant Director, ITBP. He served as the principal of the Sonam Gyatso Mountaineering Institute in Gangtok, from 1976 to ’90, where he supervised the training of officers from the Indian Army and IB. The institute was set up in ’63 to train Indian Army soldiers and IB operatives in mountaineering.

Wangayal is no ordinary resident of Leh. Born in Sikkim, he came to Ladakh in the fifties to live with his brother, who was serving in the Nubra Scouts (presently known as Ladakh Scouts). After trying to find gainful employment as a teacher, he ended up joining India’s fledgeling intelligence service as a surveyor.

A legend of Indian mountaineering, he was among the nine men, who stood on the summit of Everest in the summer of 1965, on May 22, at the age of 23, to become the youngest person to bag the holy grail of mountaineering—a record that stood the test of time for a good nine years. The 1965 Everest expedition, led by Capt. Manmohan Singh Kohli of the Indian Navy, was India’s first successful attempt to scale the world’s highest mountain peak after the failures of 1960 and ’62.  He received the Padma Shree and Arjuna Award for his mountaineering achievements.

Even before the team could savour its Everest success, the leader of the expedition, Kohli, along with Wangyal and three other members of team were bundled off to a secret CIA base in Alaska to undergo training for one of the most audacious espionage missions in the world, spanning for over three years. It involved planting nuclear-powered listening devices on the peak of the Nanda Devi (25,640 ft) and its sister mountain, Nanada Kot (22,510 ft) in the Garhwal Himalaya to eavesdrop on Chinese missile testing telemetry. The story of this jaw-dropping mission first came to light when Outside magazine published an article in its May 1977 issue.

Also read: How Zhou Enlai’s Ghost Still Haunts the India-China Border Dispute in Ladakh

Chinese heat at Hot Springs, 1959

On June 16 and 17, as details of the Chinese incursion in the Galwan Valley, and its bloody consequences began to emerge, Wangyal’s mind turned to the events that panned out over three day from October 19 to 21, 1959, three years before the 1962 war.  After Dalai Lama’s escape to Tawang in March, the Chinese turned on the heat all along the disputed border, stretching from Eastern Karakoram (Aksai Chin) in the North to Arunachal Pradesh (then a Union Territory) in the east.

At that time, a young Wnagyal was attached as a surveyor from the IB to the Central Police Force (the precursor to today’s CRPF), entrusted with guarding India’s border with Tibet. After the Chinese incursion in the Chushul area in September, a contingent of around 70 CPF personnel, drawn from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions, under the command of Deputy Superintendent, S.P. Tyagi and Karam Singh, Deputy Central Intelligence Officer, was asked to set up a forward base in the Hot Springs area to keep watch on PLA activities. Wanagyal was part of this contingent that set up one India’s first forward posts in the cathedral of barren mountains and ridges, criss-crossing streams that change course on a whim and a terrain that’s littered with gnarly rocks and boulders.

“By the time we arrived in the Hot Springs area to set up the camp, above 13,000 feet, it was bitterly cold. We did not have adequate winter clothing and the weather had already started turning in,” recalls Wangyal. “On October 19, three reconnaissance teams, comprising two to three men, were sent out deeper into the valley to detect any Chinese activity. By evening, only two of the three teams returned to the camp. The third team comprising one guide and two constables failed to show up by nightfall. Initially, we thought they must have lost their way in the confusing landscape.”

On October 20, a team of 10 men, including Tyagi and Wangyal, set out in the morning to search for the lost scouts. The sturdy 18-year-old Ladakhi surveyor climbed up a few mountain features to get a better view of the valley. “There was no sign of our people. It seemed they had simply disappeared. We continued searching late in the evening, but were forced to return to the camp due to nightfall,” says Wangyal. By late evening some members of the search party detected hoof marks deeper inside the valley.

The next morning, on October 21, an even larger search party comprising around 40 men, armed with vintage, bolt-action .303 rifles, and horses carrying ammunition and ration was assembled. One group was under Tyagi and the other was led by Karam Singh. The two parties split up in order to cover a bigger area. The group led by Singh followed the hoof tracks along the banks after crossing the Chang Chenmo river, towards a hill feature. That’s when all hell broke loose. The search party ran into well-hidden Chinese positions of a large number of PLA soldiers, dominating the heights. They had built well-camouflaged bunkers and machine gun nests into the mountainside.

Also read: ‘I Doubt We Are All Fine’: Chinese-Indians and the 1962 Fear

“Suddenly, we heard gunshots. We couldn’t make out who fired the first shot; us or the Chinese,” says Wangyal. “But we quickly realised that we were surrounded by PLA soldiers, who were firing at us with automatic carbines and machine guns from the dominating heights. Our troops retaliated, but the bolt-action .303 rifles kept jamming, first due to the extreme cold and then the barrel would heat up due to repeated firing. It was an unequal flight.”

Pangong Lake. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pangong Lake. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Singh’s men bore the brunt of the first volley of Chinese firing. “They were just caught in the intense Chinese firing. Almost instantly, his party lost 10 men and the Chinese captured another 10 men, including Karam Singh. They also started rolling down big boulders and raining down rocks on us, which injured more of our men.

“In the bedlam caused by the gunfire and falling rocks, some of our horses panicked and bolted with ammunition and other supplies. We kept firing the best we could, forcing the Chinese to retreat, but they had captured 10 of our men and killed another 10. It was the worst form of savagery I have seen,” says Wangyal over phone from Dehradun, where he stuck due to the travel restrictions.

When the Chinese retreated, they carried with them the bodies of Indian policemen killed in action and the prisoners. Wangyal’s narration of the events of those three days in October of ’59 matches closely to an article published in the November-December, 2018, issue of the Indian Police Journal. After almost a fortnight of negotiations, the Chinese handed over the bodies of the fallen Indians on November 13 at Hot Springs and released the 10 captive policemen the next day. Since that fateful day at the Hot Springs, October 21 is marked as the National Police Commemoration Day.

In Wangyal’s mind, there is no doubt that the Chinese have violated the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh in various sectors. He knows the Pangong Tso, Hot Springs and Daulat Beg Oldie complex, like the back of his hand. “We used to camp where the Chinese have intruded on the other bank of the Pangong (Finger 4). As long as any Ladakhi can remember, the nomads and sheep and yak herders have been taking their livestock for grazing to the pastures between the lake and Hot Springs. People from the bordering villages, close to the LAC, have had historic grazing rights on the land that the Chinese are now claiming as their own,” he says.  For him, the June 15 incident in the Galwan Valley bears uncanny resemblance to the Chinese ambush that he was caught in 61 years ago.

After the events of the Hot Spring, Wangyal returned to Leh as tensions with China continued to mount, leading to the 1962 Sino-India war. In 1960, he was drafted into the ITBP mountaineering team that was attempting to scale Stok Kangri, the 20,190 ft that overlooks Leh. That was his initiation into mountaineering, without much of formal training. Over the next five years, he was part of various expeditions and intelligence gathering missions, though he prefers to be tight-lipped about his work in ’62.

Also read: Mao’s ‘Smile’, Nixon’s ‘Frown’: What Modi Can Learn From Indira’s Mistakes in Befriending China

Nanda Devi adventure

Sonam Wangyal’s rapid progress as a mountaineer with a growing reputation for brute physical strength and endurance at high altitudes earned him a place in the ’65 team. The story of India’s first successful expedition is well-documented in Kohli’s book—Nine Atop Everest: Spectacular Indian Ascent. The expedition created a world record of putting the maximum number of climbers on the summit. But unbeknownst to Kohli and team members, India’s top spymasters, R.N. Kao, the founding director of Aviation Research Centre and B.N. Mullick of IB, had other plans for the jubilant party of climbers.

Kohli selected four of his strongest climbers, out of whom three were Everest summiteers and all were IB operatives. That would ensure complete secrecy to the mission that Kao demanded. The four Indians were Sonam Wangyal, Sonam Gyatso, Harish Rawat and Gurcharan Singh Bhangu, who was the wireless operator on the Everest expedition. “In the summer of 1965, we were flown to Alaska. Initially, we were told that the training would last for six months. Before departure, we weren’t told much about the exact nature of the mission,” recalls Wangyal.

An article by Pete Takeda—a mountaineer and author—published in the January 2007 issue of Rock And Ice magazine on the Nanda Devi affair, suggests that the bizarre plot came to life after a chance meeting at a cocktail party in Washington DC between mountaineering legend, Barry Bishop, who won the National Geographic Hubbard Medal for being the first American to summit Everest and General Curtis LeMay, a decorated US Air Force officer. He popularly credited with the infamous quote of bombing North Vietnam “back to the stone age” despite relinquishing charge as Air Force chief of staff before the bombing raids began.

Mount Everest. Credit: WIkimedia Commons

Mount Everest. Photo: WIkimedia Commons

When Indians reached the Alaska training base, they were joined by 14 of US’ best mountaineers, who were recruited by the CIA for a monthly retainer of $ 1,000. As part of training, the members climbed the highest mountain in the US, Mt. Mckinley to get used to assembling the device in freezing temperatures, using a dummy replica. During the training none of the Indian climbers were told that the device would have a nuclear-powered electricity generator. “Our six month training period was cut short due the impending 1965 Indo-Pak war. We returned to India much earlier than intended and were forced to shorten the time-table for the mission. We did not have much communication with the Americans,” says Wnagyal.

The declassified CIA memo indicates that the Outside article created quite a furore in the US. In April 1978, two Congressmen, John D Dingell and Richard L Ottinger, fired off a letter to President Jimmy Carter, demanding a Congressional enquiry into the Nanda Devi fiasco. They also wrote to the then Indian ambassador to the US, Nani A Palkhivala, requesting the Indian government to provide information of the ill-fated mission.

It’s not clear whether Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, who succeeded Shastri after his death in Tashkent on January 11, 1966, were informed about the mission. The letter written by the Congressmen to President Carter seemed to indicate otherwise.

Also read: An Enduring Mystery on Everest: The Story of Mallory and Irvine

The device was a four-part unit, weighing 125 pounds (56 kg) comprising a flag antenna, two trans-receivers and the power unit called SNAP-19C (System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power). The trans-receivers would then transmit the Chinese telemetry data to a base station, set up approximately 40 km from the mountain. The Americans codenamed for the operation was HAT (High Altitude Test).

The equipment was carried by porters and Indian climbers. While strapped to the back going up the mountain, they could feel the heat generated by the nuclear power unit, leaving a warm patch on the skin for a long time, according to Wangyal. The porters would huddle around the device at night inside their tents for warmth. “We had no way of knowing the exposure levels,” said Wangyal during my earlier meetings in Leh.

When the climbers were around 200 feet below the Nanda Devi summit, the weather turned hostile. The climb was abandoned after deciding to stash the device at a suitable place to return the next year to complete the operation.  That one decision, to leave it behind high up on the mountain, continues to haunt all those involved till date. Much has been written and said about the lost device.

Of the many accounts about subsequent attempts to retrieve the device, the one mentioned in Outside article stands out for its hilarity. The Americans tried to wash and melt the avalanche debris. “The diverted water was supposed to wash away the snow and exhume the nuclear treasure,” wrote Howard Khon in the Outside article. “In theory, perhaps, the idea held traces of brilliance. But a mountain stream if not easily converted into a fireplug. Mud and sticks clogged the hose opening, requiring a frigid cleaning every few minutes; and water pressure at the other end was equal to that of a bucket being emptied out of a first-floor window.” Over the years, multiple expeditions were launched to find the missing nuclear treasure, to detect radioactivity in the region, in water and soil, but they all returned empty-handed. Nanda Devi has kept the secret hidden in her bosom till date, as if in protest of her desecration.

In the summer of 1967, Wangyal, Gyatso, Rawat and Bhangu along with American climbers once again returned to the mountains. They successfully deployed the second device on the dome of Nanda Kot and it worked for the better part of the year, before developing a snag. For the fourth time, in the summer of ’68, the same climbers headed up Nanda Kot to retrieve the equipment. But the Americans lost two climbers, when they were struck by an avalanche triggered by bad weather. Eventually, a team of climbers finally made it to the Nanda Kot summit and retrieved the device, there was a mild panic. The Americans took the SNAP unit of the second device out of India after flying it into Delhi in a chopper from the Nanda Kot base camp.

That marked the end of the insane idea with the CIA and Indian intelligence agencies deciding not to pursue any more harebrained missions into the high mountains. But until date the fate of the lost radioactive Plutonium remains unknown. “We were lucky to survive,” says Wangyal, looking back at the heady days of ‘The Nanda Devi Caper’ as Outside titled the article.

Vivek Mukherji is an independent journalist and contributing editor to Gfiles Magazine. He has previously worked as the managing editor of Sports Illustrated (India).