A SPARKLING BLONDE, A FOUR HORNED SHEEP, A NEVER SEEN BIRD & A HIDDEN NUCLEAR DEVICE
By Special Correspondent
Nanda Devi, the second-highest mountain in India, after Kangchenjunga, is known as Bliss-Giving Goddess of Himalayas. The twin peaks of Nanda Devi (7,816 m) and Sunanda Devi (7,434 m) of Kumaon stand majestically in the centre of a ring of mountains, distinct and beautiful, particularly during sunrise and sunset. It is believed that Nanda Devi, who is the manifestation of Parvati (daughter of Himalayas and consort of Lord Shiva) fulfills any wish, whether in anger or in pleasure.But few know that a bubbly American girl, who was named Nanda Devi after her mountaineering father Willi Unsoled, even before her birth, was mesmerised by the twin-peakmajestic mountain range.
During one of his trips Willi dreamt that he should have a daughter, who will be as beautiful as the mountain will one day climb the same. She did when She grew up and remained there, immortal. But fewer still know that she died in mysterious circumstances when trying to climb one of the highest peaks of the world, then forbidden for ascent, especially for women. It used to be believed that the mountain itself is the incarnation of the Goddess and how could a man or woman climb on to it?
Nanda Devi died in the mountains during an arduous expedition in 1976 and her body has remained there ever since. The 25,645 feet peak was forbiddingly guarded by a ring of lesser peaks of India, near the border with Nepal. Reaching the foot of Nanda Devi involves a steep journey up the gorge of the Rishi Ganga River and then a trip through treacherous terrain at 14,000 feet.Way back in 1974, Nanda Devi Unsoled, the dreamed daughter of Wills Unsold was a 20-year-old with plenty of international travel under her bel Besides Willis, Nanda Devi and Adams Carter, Louis Reichardt, John Roskelley, Dr James States, John Evans, Peter Lev, Ms Marty Hoey, Elliott Fisher and Andrew Harvard, all mountaineers formed a team to climb the Nanda Devi peak.
All decided that climbing from the north face side of the mountain, which no one had tried yet, would be a grand way to mark the 40th anniversary of its first ascent. Two climbers from the Indian army were recruited for the team as well -- Kiran Kumar and Nirmal Singh. As all were aware, anyone in the party who climbed the peak would make mountaineering history, on a never before attempted route in a scarcely accessed region. Obviously, when the Indo-American Nanda Devi Expedition of 1976 arrived in New Delhi at the beginning of July, the Indian media mostly wanted to talk about the girl named after the bliss-giving goddess. And Devi was a willing, charming interview subject. “I feel a very close relationship with Nanda Devi,” she told one reporter in Delhi. “I can’t describe it, but there has been something within me about this mountain ever since I was born.”
The journey started and the porters on Devi’s expedition began calling her Didi (“big sister”) and took her connection to the peak very seriously. They considered Devi kind of a goddess. But there was concern that she would not come back from the mountain. And, of course, the father- daughter duo pooh- poohed all that. But soon troubles started during the expedition. Devi had developed a protruding hernia on her groin. Doctors were of the opinion that this was a high-risk thing, having that protruding hernia and climbing to an altitude. But Devi remained in high spirits.
She moved around the campsite at night, helping the porters set up tents, using her rudimentary Hindi and Nepali to communicate. She was involved in the Save Tiger project in Nepal for a long time. Before turning in, she’d occasionally join Willi for a duet of camp songs on flute and harmonica. Two weeks into the expedition, just before reaching the inner circle of the Nanda Devi sanctuary, the climbers reconsidered the plan for their ascent. The climbers had already established a base camp at around 14,000 feet.
Meanwhile young Harvard and Devi developed close relationships and had decided, with Willi’s blessing, to get married. After this expedition, the couple planned to travel through Asia together. Before the four of them went to sleep on September 7, Devi told the men that if the weather was clear in the morning, they should go to the summit. But in the morning, Devi’s face appeared bloated and blue. With a blizzard outside the tent, there would be no summit attempt; everybody needed to descend as soon as they could.
They were aware how dangerous going down will be, especially given Devi’s condition. Just before noon Harvard and Devi sat in the tent, shoulder to shoulder, putting on their boots and getting ready to leave. Devi was sipping hot cocoa. Suddenly, she asked him to take her pulse. Then she said, “I’m going to die.” And then, the next second, she pitched forward and threw up what looked like a huge volume of coffee grounds. Harvard rushed to Devi’s side. Willi came running from outside the tent. “It was pandemonium.”
Devi showed no signs of fear, but Harvard and Willi ere frantic. Their efforts at CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation did no good. Willi felt her lips turn cold under his own no more than 15 minutes after she collapsed, but they continued trying to revive her for more than half an hour. She was dead, just like that. The men knelt beside her body in utter shock. There was no question in Willi’s mind about what to do next. He announced to the men that they would commit Devi to the mountain, as if conducting a burial at sea. Willi and Harvard put Devi in her sleeping bag. In the snow outside the tent, they knelt beside her and said a prayer. Then they tossed her over the ledge just beside the tent door, and her body tumbled down the north side of the mountain. Willi made a sound he’d used to communicate with Devi in the mountains so many times before. Only silence followed.
Devi’s body may never turn up, and because there was no autopsy, Devi’s cause of death will always be a mystery. Willi told his family that he was sure it was not anything related to altitude, but rather “something massive and abdominal”. Days later, from base camp, Willi wired messages to his family and to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. “Devi died on 8th September Camp IV Acute Mountain Sickness,” he wrote. “Body committed to the mountain. From beauty into beauty.” In New Delhi, shortly before boarding a plane back to the States, he told reporters: “Nanda Devi died doing the thing she loved most. She died fulfilling her dreams, out of her enormous love for the high Himalayas.” When asked at the time if he had regrets, Willi said, “No regrets.” He added, “To do so would be denying reality. Nanda Devi died fulfilling her dream. There are worse ways of dying.” In one of the first public statements back home, Devi’s mother echoed the same sentiment.
A major theme in the aftermath of the tragedy was a fascination with Devi’s connection to the mountain. In 1977, Carter published an article in the American Alpine Journal, in which he analysed the spiritual significance of the goddess Nanda Devi. He also wrote that one of the Indian members of the expedition had offered him a different explanation: that Devi was a physical reincarnation of the goddess Nanda and had orchestrated her return “home” without knowing exactly who she was at the time. “Devi lives, she has not died,” the Indian climber wrote to Carter. “She was the goddess personified.”