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Five Minutes (or more): Pete Takeda

Submitted by j_ung on 2009-03-09 | Last Modified on 2009-03-13

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by J. Young

Please see here for the review of Pete Takedaís book, An Eye at the Top of the World.

By J. Young

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Johnny Copp leading out on Nanda Kot. Imagine carrying a small nuclear device up this. At least you'd be warm.

Sitting around a campfire swilling beers in Yosemite, a young Pete Takeda first heard the story of how the CIA recruited a bunch of dirtbag climbers in the 1960s, many of whom had been regulars in that very campground, to spy on China, then a fledgling nuclear power Ė and about how the team lost enough Plutonium at the headwaters of the most populated river drainage on Earth to kill everybody thereÖ twice. The details of the story were so fantastic, so outlandish, and involved such unlikely characters, that Takeda thought there was no way the story could be true. He dismissed it as bullshit. Years later and halfway around the world, Takeda saw a faded picture of Nanda Devi, the peak that is central to the story, in a dingy Indian office, and the whole thing seemed somehow more real. Somewhere along the line, his perspective on that bizarre tale changed. He began to believe it that people he actually knew had planted a nuclear-powered listening device on the roof of the world, and his research into it only served to enhance that belief. Takeda became the latest in a long and illustrious line of people to become obsessed with Nanda Devi, but he may be the first of them to end up better off for it.

The story of an eye at the top of the world is true.


Jay: An Eye at the Top of the World is not the first book dealing with the subject of the CIA/Indian Intelligence expedition to place a nuclear-powered listening device on the high peaks. Most notably, thereís MS Kholi and Kenneth Conboyís book, spies in the Himalayas. Whatís your overall impression of that book?

Pete: Well, it is the first book written on the subject that tends to be comprehensive.

Jay: In your interviews did you come away with the impression their book is accurate?

Pete: In general, but you get the feeling, too, that itís very one-sided. Itís not a very journalistic perspective. I think the only person involved with the expedition who was really interviewed was Kholi. There are smatterings here and there from other people.

But that book was kind of the break through that got other people talking it. When I did my book, there were people who aware that the story had been published, and they were willing to talk. So, I think Conboy probably did the best job he could with it. He definitely kind of cracked the box open as it were. But I think he was limited in the resources he could draw upon.

Jay: Your book is also not really just the story of the CIA team and the devices. Itís really more about you, even though the CIA expedition is the impetus for the whole thing. Was that your original intent going into this?

Pete: Kind of. I wanted to get more of a wide range of perspective on this from the Indian side and the American side, too. The original intent was to gain access to the Sanctuary, but due to problems that arose, we couldnít get that access to get in there.

Jay: What is ďthe Sanctuary?Ē What is its importance to this story?

Pete: The Sanctuary is this cirque, this terrestrial bowl. Itís about 100 square miles. It contains Nanda Devi as its crown jewel. Ringing this bowl are peaks ranging from 17,000 to 22,000 feet, so itís kind of this natural, impregnable fortress in the mountains that people couldnít get into until the late thirties. That also happens to be the place where they lost the Plutonium. And itís also the headwaters for the Ganges River.

Jay: Thereís a part in the book where you describe how difficult writing this it was: ďHad I known how difficult this process would be, I might have balked, for more than once in the following three years I came to the breaking point.Ē What were some of those low points?

Pete: Iíd say the low points are, you know, you quit your job... I became totally destitute. If youíve never written a book, you donít know how to do it Ė the hoops you have to jump through. Thereís a lot of financial hardship. And authors donít get paid very well, especially for their first couple books. I generated a ton of credit card debt. I was in my late thirties, living in a basement basically, trying to figure out how to do this and put it all together.

Jay: Are you still with Deann?

Pete: Yeah!

Jay: So, that worked out over the long haul.

Pete: Yeah, weíve been married for all of five months now.

Jay: Congratulations! In the book, in the midst of hardship and tribulation, you describe your budding relationship with her as this beautiful thing, and you say that the best part about it is that sheís willing to give you the freedom to go off and do something like this. My wife and I both wondered how that panned out.

Pete: In this process one thing I learned from her is that on some level she just trusts what Iím doing. Any other relationship they would have told me to just go to Hell. They would have said, ďMan, this guyís so out lunch,Ē or, ďThis will never work.Ē But Deannís always been so supportive without even saying anything. Itís almost like thatís the biggest acknowledgement of belief a person can have is they just support you without even trying to analyze it. I wouldnít see her for days on end during all this. Iíd be down in the basement, going ďI canít be bothered. Donít disturb me. Donít call me. Donít bother me, because I have to get this done.Ē

I think the other thing, too, is she worries about me not coming back alive from these trips, but she wonít stop me from doing that. As individuals we all have things we need, in order to just be ourselves. Thatís one thing that has borne out over the years, and it was really apparent during this project.

Jay: Letís talk about the expedition itself. In the very beginning of it, you describe this feeling of dread you have when youíre at the airport and people are calling you, wishing you good luckÖ And you say this is something you feel at the start of every expedition, because youíve tied up your loose ends and you donít for sure if youíre ever coming back. But your feeling of dread was even more so than what you felt on previous expeditions. How so?

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Progressing in the snowstorm that would eventually seal the team in an ice cave high on Nanda Kot.

Pete: You know itís weird. You go on enough of these trips and itís fairly standard get-out-the-door kind of stuff. But this trip felt like there was more at stake. It wasnít just going on a trip to try and climb something. There was the whole part of doing research for a book. There was the whole having-people-on-board-for-an-insane-climb, who have a variety of different skill sets or experience in the mountains.

What was your take on that?

Jay: From the book or from my own experience?

Pete: From both. Iím just curious.

Jay: From my own experienceÖ like, I just want to get out. I want to get to a point where Iím not expected to call anybody or email anybody, and everybody knows Iím out of touch, and Iíll contact you when I get can. That feeling of freedom when right when I cross that line and turn off my phone is one of the things I love about it the most. Then one of the things I hate the most is coming back to hundreds and hundreds of emails. You want to just provide quick answers and move on, but everybody wants to know how the trip was. And by the time Iím done talking to the last person, Iíve gone through the story so many times that Iím totally handing out the abbreviated version, because I donít feel like doing it anymore.

Pete: Yeah, thatís pretty much the same MO as me. I want to feel that I donít have to deal with everybody elseís expectations.

Jay: Itís a narrowing of focus where I donít have to think about anything but these two or three things right here.

Pete: I think thereís danger in retelling a story over and over again to a bunch of people who all have a slightly different expectation or thing they want to hear. Itís in the nature of any person to sort of adjust the details of the story to suit the listener, and pretty soon you get this kind of homogenized mythology.

Jay: A large chunk of this book, especially near the end, deals with the avalanches on Nanda Kot, when you and the team are trapped in an ice cave wondering if youíre ever going to get out. Itís integral to the book, because it really provides this gripping climax. But you couldnít have foreseen it, obviously. So, if I had asked you on the day you left for India what your highest hopes were for the trip, what would you have said?

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Takeda digs out from an avalanche on Nanda Kot. It was only the beginning of the ordeal.

Pete: [Laughs] It would be to find a piece of the device, whether on Nanda Kot or Nanda Devi and almost get killed, but not quite.

Jay: Youíre batting .500!

Pete: I was almost ecstatic when we had that experience Ė when I knew we were going to be okay. To have an experience like thatÖ even in climbing, I think thatís something Iíve always been after.

Jay: And if I ask you that same question now?

Pete: Nothing, Iím done. I look back and I wish I would have had significant editing during the writing process. I had a really short deadline. I wrote this book in four and half months. Seasoned writers I talked to said, ďThereís no way youíre going to finish. Nobody can possibly do that.Ē I think it shows in the quality of the book. In a fantasy land, I could re-edit the book, but I know thatíll never happen. But the most I could want out this now is it becomes a really good film, and it launches me into a career as a screen writer or producer or something like that.

Jay: OK, last bits. Nanda Devi, the mountain, has claimed a lot of obsession over the years. Youíve got the whole Willi Unsoeld story, etc. Are you one of those? Are you planning on going back there at some point in time, or is this chapter of your life over?

Pete: That chapterís done. Iíve done two big trips subsequent to that, and I definitely have other things Iím interested in. Unless they opened it up to climb. Iíd go in a heartbeat.


Pete Takedaís hopes for An Eye at the Top of the World have taken a step in the right direction. The three-person team that produced the film adaptation of Cormack Mccarthyís The Road has acquired the bookís option, and Ryne Pearson, who co-wrote the screen play for the recent Nicholas Cage film ďKnowing,Ē is at work on the script.


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4 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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that looks miserable!
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4 out of 5 stars I think I'm going to read this book. Looks interesting.
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I think I'm gonna wait for the movie :P
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Nice interview Jay. Think you hit on some good themes and asked interesting questions.

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