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Pete Takeda: An Eye at the Top of the World

Submitted by j_ung on 2009-02-15 | Last Modified on 2009-06-09

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by J. Young

By J. Young. Be on the lookout for an interview with Pete Takeda in the coming the week.

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In the early 1960s the CIA and the Indian Intelligence Bureau launched a joint clandestine mission to plant a Putonium-powered listening device atop the high peaks of the Garwahl Himalaya, where it could peer into freshly nuclear Communist China. The expedition, which involved recruiting several dirtbag American climbers, was doomed from the get-go. At the pivotal moment, in deteriorating weather near the close of the climbing season, the team decided to abandon its bid and leave one of the devices anchored high on the flanks Nanda Devi. When they returned a year later to complete the mission, the device was gone – likely swept onto and into the glacier below… the very headwaters of the Ganges River. You read me correctly. The CIA paid climbers, some of whom you have undoubtedly heard of, to spy on China. And, near the headwaters of the most populated river drainage on Earth, they lost enough poison to kill every person there.

An Eye at the Top of the World is not that story.

Okay, truthfully, it is partially that story. Unlike his predecessors, M.S. Kohli and Kenneth Conboy who co-authored 2002’s Spies in the Himalaya, Takeda had an advantage. The story was already out there in the public eye somewhat, and for Takeda, many of the climbers involved were willing to speak on the record after years of silence. The result is a more complete picture of the events surrounding the loss of the device. But that’s not the only difference between the two books. Takeda – as author, as story-teller – actually becomes part of his story. So much so that, while a large portion of the book deals with its professed subject, the real attraction is Takeda’s quest to travel to a mountain that has been closed to climbing for many years and see it all himself. The climax of the book is not when the CIA expedition falls just shy of its ultimate goal to plant the device on Nanda Devi’s Summit and abandons it. It’s when Takeda and his team are fighting for their own lives, buried in an avalanche on Nanda Kot.

This is an epic tale spanning many years. It involves spies and government intrigue, a looming threat from a belligerent enemy, climbing, a touch of romance, pulse-pounding danger and suspense, beautiful scenery and more climbing. And Takeda’s familiar style, blending poignant introspection, analogies and humor in passages that describe perfectly what most of us know but cannot, for the life of us, express, pushes it inexorably forward to its stunning conclusion that is no less stunning for the fact that you can pretty much see it all coming.

The only place where An Eye at the Top of the World falls short of its potential is in editing and proofreading. Takeda himself admits that if he could change anything, it would be to add more time to edit. He spent months virtually sequestered, barely eating and sleeping, pushing the project forcefully to fruition. The result is that there’s no small supply of typos. For people who love to get lost in a story, this is a little like trying to get a good night’s sleep next to a tent mate who has a bladder the size of a lima bean. Just as you surrender to your imagination and the world melts away, the fucker has to go again.

But just as a slightly incontinent partner won’t ruin a perfectly good expedition, typos won’t ruin this book. Takeda’s talent is as evident as always. It pulls through in a big way, delivering stunning descriptions of everything from the quietly devastating radioactive menace slowly making its way to the headwaters of the Ganges to philosophical waxing about why we climb. Indeed, it’s one of those that actually almost brought a tear to my eye when Takeda voiced something I’ve never been able to: “There’s something I love about the tension of these moments. There’s something so real, so immediate, so alive. Pounding an ice ax into a shelf of hard snow I’ve cleared, I feel that seductive power of someone who knows what he is doing and why he is doing it. Despite the fear and fatigue, it is in these moments that I am sure I made the right choice – to do what I love and do it the best I can. Implicit in that feeling is the absence of subjective morality, irrelevant emotion, or the matrix of artifice through which we filter the majority of our actions. To myself I wonder, Is this what they mean by ‘self-actualizing?’

All things considered, An Eye at the Top of the World is much like its author’s quest to live it and write it – not without glitches, but when it really counts, Takeda delivers.

An Eye at the Top of the World is available from online booksellers and Thunder’s Mouth Press.


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5 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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thanks jay
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i really enjoyed this book!
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this sounds awesome. i'm definitely going to pick it up.
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Wow, nice book review!
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Just finished reading the book. If you want to read a well-written book about climbing Nanda Devi, this is it. If you really want to know more about the CIA caper, maybe not so much. That was my biggest disappointment-- that there wasn't more about the CIA listening device. I guess I wanted some kind of closure on it, and because it's the CIA, the fact of the matter may be that there will never be closure on it. But overall, I enjoyed the book. I would have enjoyed it more if I had been primed for "Climbing Nanda Devi. Oh, and a little about the CIA stuff." Also, as someone mentioned, it needs proofreading badly. It was almost distracting at times. Not editing, mind you, but plain old proofreading.

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