THE PANTHEON OF SURVIVAL STORIES, THERE ARE THOSE THAT STAND TALL AMONG THEIR PEERS AS TRULY EPIC, STORIES THAT ARE SPOKEN OF WITH AWE, EVEN AMONG THOSE WHO HAVE LIVED THROUGH THEIR OWN ORDEALS. THE STORY OF NANDO PARRADO AND THE FORTY-FOUR OTHER PEOPLE WHO BOARDED A CHARTER FLIGHT FROM MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY, TO SANTIAGO, CHILE, ON OCTOBER 13, 1972, IS ONE OF THOSE. FOR MORE THAN TWO MONTHS, THEY ENDURED SOME OF THE MOST HORRIFIC CONDITIONS IMAGINABLE BEFORE TWO AMONG THEM MADE A FINAL, DESPERATE TREK INTO THE HEART OF THE ANDES TO TRY TO FIND HELP.
Along with some friends and family, Nando Parrado and his fellow members of the Old Christians Rugby Club were on their way to Santiago to play an exhibition match against a Chilean team. Spirits were high as the players, most in their early twenties, boarded the Fairchild twin-engine turboprop for the three-and-a-half-hour flight across the Andes. But when the pilots heard of bad weather in the mountains ahead, they decided to set down for the evening in the small town of Mendoza, just on the eastern edge of the great mountain range. The weather had not improved significantly the next day, and the pilots struggled to make a decision. Nando and his teammates, full of the piss and vinegar that so often defines young athletes, jeered the pilots for not daring to attempt the passage across the mountains. Eventually, the pilots acquiesced, and they took off shortly after 2 p.m. on October 14.
The flight was uneventful at the start. The boys laughed, played cards, and marveled at the vastness of the Andes below them. Here was a mountain range like few of them had ever conceived of, let alone seen. Given that some of the mountains in the range easily eclipsed the maximum cruising altitude of the Fairchild (22,500 feet), the pilots had charted a course through narrow Planchon Pass, where the ridges were low enough to allow passage of the craft.
Yet, as is often the case in these situations, the break in the weather that the pilots had hoped for never materialized, and the steward was soon asking the passengers to fasten their seat belts due to approaching turbulence. The Fairchild pitched and moaned in the ferocious wind, and at one point lost several hundred feet of altitude in a matter of seconds. When the cloud cover stubbornly refused to lift, the pilots were forced to rely on dead reckoning for navigation. Nando leaned forward to comfort his mother, Eugenia, and sister, Susy, who were accompanying him on the trip. Seconds later, Panchito Abal, one of Nando’s best friends, pointed out the window. Through the sporadic break in the thick cloud they could see the dark walls of the mountains flying past, not more than fifty feet away. The engines whined as the plane tried desperately to climb. Seconds later, all hell broke loose.
The Fairchild careened off the mountain and the fuselage split into two pieces, with the tail section falling away. Everybody sitting behind Nando was lost immediately, including one of his best friends, Guido Magri. Miraculously, the front section of fuselage hit the snow at almost precisely the same angle as the slope itself, preventing it from disintegrating on impact. Instead, the severed plane careered down the icy mountainside like a runaway toboggan at speeds near 200 miles per hour.
The fuselage eventually slammed into a snow berm, partially crushing the nose of the craft and dooming the pilot and copilot. The force of the impact ripped all the remaining seats from their anchors and hurtled them to the front of the plane, killing several of those who had survived the initial impact. All told, thirteen people were already dead once the plane came to a fitful rest on the side of what is now known as Mount Seler.
Nando lay unconscious as the others began their survival ordeal. Gustavo Zerbino and Roberto Canessa, both medical students, took stock of the living. Amazingly, some of the players had suffered only minor scrapes and bruises, while others had far more gruesome injuries. Enrique Platero was impaled by a steel pipe during the crash; when Gustavo pulled out the pipe, a few inches of Enrique’s intestine came with it. The calf muscle on one of Rafael Echavarren’s legs had been almost completely torn off the bone and was dangling around the front of the leg.
Almost instinctively, Marcelo Perez del Castillo assumed his position as leader of the group and earned his C as team captain. He was brilliant in the early moments after the crash, organizing the uninjured and setting them to work to help the others. This was the perfect response, because it was action—proactive action, which is vital to making it through any kind of survival ordeal. Action immediately dispels panic, which can be horribly contagious in grim situations. While you might almost expect panic to have occurred, it didn’t. I believe Marcelo was instrumental in keeping this runaway emotion at bay, which in turn likely helped save lives. It gave people something to focus on other than the sheer terror of their circumstances.
Now came the first of many difficult decisions the survivors would have to make: who would get attention first and who would be left to possibly die. In other words, triage. Search and rescue teams receive extensive training on what kind of victim is most likely to survive an accident; these people receive attention first. Gustavo and Roberto did the same, working their way through the plane, determining which victims they would spend their energies on and which were too close to death to warrant aid. The dead were removed from the fuselage and moved outside; the injured were carried gently out to the snow while those fit enough for work set to the task of clearing the debris from the plane. Though they may not have realized it at the time, the decision to move the injured out into the snow was brilliant. The cold began to dull their pain. Anyone who has ever iced an injury knows that, once the pain of the cold eventually subsides, the pain of the injury does as well. This move certainly slowed the metabolic processes of many of the injured, thereby improving their chances of survival.
Marcelo proved his natural leadership—and survival—abilities in those frantic early hours in more ways than one. Having organized the healthy into work crews, he then set his mind to assessing the reality of rescue. Marcelo realized that, since the plane had crashed late in the afternoon, there was no way rescue crews would find them before the next day, at the earliest. With this in mind, he realized that his next step must be to ensure that he and the others survived the night perched on the side of the icy, windswept mountain.
To make the survivors as comfortable as possible, Marcelo and the others who were healthy cleared space inside the fuselage. He then assessed the structure of the plane itself, and took another brilliant proactive step. He realized that, while the fuselage would provide protection from the elements, it was full of holes, particularly a gaping one at the rear, where the tail section had ripped off. He organized his friends to seal these holes, to prevent the frigid (below -20°F or -30°C) air from ripping through their flimsy shelter, and even to build a wall of snow at the far end of the plane. Were it not for this last bit of leadership, few would have lived to see the next day.
A long and brutal night ensued for the survivors, most of whom had never experienced any kind of cold, let alone the kind of bone-numbing temperatures found high in the Andes. As morning dawned, Marcelo was first on his feet, rousing the others to action. He coaxed the living to keep faith. He was convinced that rescue was no more than a day away, but he didn’t let that get in the way of his survival instincts. He directed the others to gather up any food they could find scattered about the craft, and began to carefully ration it among the survivors. Meals became little more than a square of chocolate or smear of jam washed down with a mouthful of wine. This was not an easy decision, but it was certainly the right one. As difficult as it may be to steel yourself against the pains in your stomach, the practice of rationing is one that should never stop in a survival situation.
Coco Nicholich was put in charge of the cleanup crew—another important early decision by Marcelo. It not only ensured that people remained focused and occupied, but ensured a tidy survival site. The Cree people of northern Quebec, when living in the remote northern bush in winter, meticulously clean snow off their clothing before coming in from the cold. Every snowflake is removed from their outer clothing and brushed from their footwear. The alternative is to see the snow melt, and getting wet in temperatures that can sink to nearly -60°F (-50°C) is a dangerous thing. The rationale is really quite simple: a clean and organized survival site (or camp, in the case of the Cree) is an effective survival site. You don’t waste time looking for things. You maximize usage of space. You are as comfortable as possible. Bottom line: it makes you feel better.
Coco also helped keep his friends’ spirits buoyed by telling jokes and stories, a great way to boost morale.
While on a six-day adventure race, my team and I were beginning to hit a mental and physical wall in the middle of the night as we pushed through thick forest. It occurred to me that it was my turn to bolster our collective spirits, so I began to sing. I soon stopped, thinking that I might have been annoying my teammates, but they called out in unison for me to continue. Whatever your party trick is, whatever skill you have, it may be employed to keep up the spirits of those caught in the ordeal with you.
Nando was among the most seriously injured in the crash. For three days he lay in a coma, the result of a head injury he suffered upon impact. Once he regained consciousness, though, it didn’t take long for stark reality to slap him in the face. As he opened his eyes for the first time in more than seventy-two hours, he put a hand to his injured head and was sickened by the spongy feeling under his fingertips: he was pressing pieces of shattered skull into his brain. As he looked around the plane, Nando observed that, while he and his friends seemed able to cope well enough with their situation during the brightness of day, with darkness came misery. As the survivors lay there cold, alone, and forlorn at night, some wept with grief, others screamed in pain. I believe it was only the strength of Marcelo that kept the others from losing their minds in the grim early days of the ordeal.
The agony of nighttime survival, particularly in the cold, is difficult to appreciate. For Nando, his first night of consciousness was sheer hell, a feeling he captured in his 2006 book, Miracle in the Andes:
Time itself seemed to have frozen solid. I lay on the cold floor of the fuselage, tormented by the icy gusts blowing through every gap and crack, shivering uncontrollably for what seemed like hours, certain that dawn must be only moments away [italics mine]. Then someone with anilluminated watch would announce the time and I would realize that only minutes had passed. I suffered through the long night breath by frozen breath, from one shivering heartbeat to the next, and each moment was its own separate hell [italics mine].
I can’t claim to have ever experienced the terror that Nando and his friends did, but he magnificently describes many frozen nights I have spent trying to find sleep in the confines of a small survival shelter.
Curing the Nighttime Chills
Luckily, there are a few solutions to the problem of nighttime chills.
The first time I ever filmed myself in a survival situation, for a film now titled Stranded, an unexpected cold snap descended during my sixth night in the field. My shelter, which to that point had seemed comfortable and well built, turned into a wind tunnel. The only way I could contend with the cold was to force myself to go outside and do stride jumps and push-ups, which worked brilliantly. The exercise cost me valuable calories, but it warmed me enough to allow me to then doze off for twenty minutes, which seemed like an eternity at a time when sleep deprivation had already begun to take its toll on me.
On another occasion, I was perched on a mountaintop in British Columbia during a fierce rainstorm, and found myself trying to sleep under a huge boulder. It was critical to stay dry inside the shelter. I employed a yoga-like method, systematically flexing and relaxing my individual muscle groups from my toes to my neck, and back down again. I was amazed at how much of the chill could be dispelled using this Zen-like approach to warming. I paid special attention to my stomach and core muscles—pulling in my abdomen hard and strong—which helped create heat within my core, an important place to keep warm when hypothermia is a real risk. An additional, highly effective way to create inner heat is to breathe deep and long, and, on the exhale, make the sound of the ocean, the air passing through the back of your throat, which should be narrowed to create a smaller escape hole. Be sure to pull up on the stomach muscles through the whole breath.
The survivors were also hampered by the thin air, something they had never experienced in the coastal city of Montevideo, which sits less than 150 feet above sea level. Even the strongest athlete struggles with thin mountain air. Imagine having your mouth taped around a straw and your nose pinched, then having to climb a set of stairs or jog. Most people eventually acclimatize to altitude, but it can take days, or even weeks. In the meantime, you have to deal with the nausea and dizziness that accompany it. During a ninety-mile walk (uphill all the way) in the mountains of Peru, where the altitude was between fifteen thousand and seventeen thousand feet above sea level, the air was so thin that I frequently had to stop and inhale vigorously to catch my breath. No matter how hard or how fast I sucked in air, I never hyperventilated or got dizzy, because there was so little oxygen in the air to begin with. Meanwhile a sixty-six-year-old Queros elder (a direct descendant of the Incan high priests) was happily scooting past me straight uphill. The Queros’ lungs and hearts have been proven to be a half-size bigger than those of people who live at lower altitudes.
Once Nando regained his wits, the stark reality of their situation began to wash over him. His mother had been killed on impact; his beloved sister, Susy, was still alive, though badly injured. Nando made his way over to where Susy lay, and spent every possible moment holding her in his arms, touching her skin, talking to her. During these quiet moments with his sister, Nando was able to fully comprehend the true nature of his situation. The immediacy of danger was everywhere; he felt it deep in his bones.
This is a more important realization than you might think. It shows that, on some level, Nando understood that the danger was immediate. Such a realization will keep a survivor on alert, either for an answer or for protection. The other option is not as pretty: survival victims who remain oblivious to danger are more likely to place themselves in even more danger by remaining passive and allowing the forces of the dangerous predicament to overtake them, instead of preparing and steeling against them.
Nando’s innate survival instinct should be considered legendary. Almost from the moment he regained consciousness, a voice in his head accompanied him, told him what to do to improve his chances of survival. When he first learned of his mother’s death, Nando’s instinct was to cry. Yet the voice told him not to cry, because to cry meant to waste precious salt. He recognized that he and his friends would only be able to survive if they could successfully react to the additional challenges and catastrophes that would soon be thrown their way. The only problem? None of them had any real outdoors or survival experience, and they really had no idea what was on its way.
Nevertheless, Nando and his friends were motivated, a crucial element in any survival situation. They were young, fit, and had everything to live for. Yet their motivation took several different forms. Marcelo’s was rooted in his own dark belief that he was somehow to blame for the crash. After all, he had been the one who organized the friendly match and booked the charter flight. Nando was fueled more by love—for his mother who had died, the dying sister he held in his arms, and the father and sister he left at home. In those first few days, he vowed that he would not die on that mountain, and repeated his mantra whenever things looked grim: “I will not die here. I will not die here.”
Though there had not yet been any sign of rescue, their fourth afternoon on the mountain was punctuated by the sound of a small prop-driven plane flying over the crash site. The survivors screamed and waved; one among the group was sure he had seen the plane briefly dip its wings. Rescue, they now believed, was imminent, though nobody could be sure they had actually been seen.
Did the plane see us? This is a common refrain among lost victims who desperately want to believe that rescue is only a plane ride away. Unfortunately, it would have been very difficult to spot the wreckage of the Fairchild from high above. The plane itself was white, and the debris around it would have seemed like little more than specks in the snow. It’s a tragically ironic twist that, simply due to the color of the plane, it could not be spotted while it rested out in the open—quite the opposite of trying to spot Yossi Ghinsberg deep in the thick, green jungle foliage. In any case, it is highly unlikely that a plane has spotted you unless it makes a very obvious display to the contrary. No rescue pilot worth his or her salt who spots the victims will simply fly by with a slight dip of the wings. They will circle and dip wings at least twice, or until they are assured that you have seen them, too.
So, while many of the survivors prayed for rescue, Nando and a few others took a more pragmatic view of the situation and realized being saved might not be an option. In the end, the plane never came back and never dropped supplies. Nando was again advised by the voice in his head that would prove to be a constant companion in the many long weeks to come. Prepare yourself for the long haul, it told him. This kind of phenomenon—such as hearing voices or being accompanied by an imaginary being—is a common occurrence among people at the edge of death in survival situations, and usually encourages them to make one final effort to survive. Yossi Ghinsberg, alone in the Amazon jungle, was on his last legs when a young lady appeared before him, apparently begging for help. Yossi vowed to protect her, and it led him to salvation. In Nando’s case, the voice was always with him, almost from the moment he regained consciousness.
Extended exposure to the thin air found at high altitudes can lead to a potentially deadly malady called altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness begins as a series of nonspecific symptoms that can resemble anything from the flu to a hangover, which makes diagnosis particularly challenging. However, most cases are typically characterized by headaches, which can be accompanied by any number of other possible symptoms, including shortness of breath, rapid pulse, headaches, drowsiness/malaise, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness, loss of appetite, and swelling of the hands, feet, and face.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that people react differently to the stresses of high altitude. What seems perfectly bearable to one person can be excruciating to another. Yet few are immune to the most serious forms of altitude sickness: high-altitude pulmonary edema and high-altitude cerebral edema, both of which can prove fatal if untreated.
High-altitude climbers and mountaineers prevent altitude sickness by ascending slowly and methodically, thereby acclimatizing their bodies to the stresses altitude places on them.
Yet Nando was certainly not alone in his will to survive on that snowy mountainside. Not long after the crash, Arturo Nogueira, whose legs had been shattered in the crash and who was confined to a makeshift hammock in the fuselage, spent hours poring over the flight charts recovered from the cockpit. Using those, as well as information gleaned from the copilot before he died, the survivors determined they had crossed the Andes and were now somewhere in the western foothills of the great range. They became fixated on one fact: Chile was to the west. And while that knowledge would ultimately lead to their salvation, the survivors ran the risk of becoming too rigid and stubborn in their beliefs. Chile may have been to the west, but their attempts to scale the mountain that stood between them and their destination—instead of following its natural course down—nearly killed them several times over.
This is where gaining knowledge is tricky. For while knowledge is indeed power, it still needs to be tempered with reality. There is no place for stubbornness in a survival situation. There was no way of truly knowing for sure that Chile lay to the west, so alternative answers should never have been counted out.
As their fifth day on the mountain dawned, Nando and his friends realized they would have to take matters into their own hands if they were going to stand a chance of surviving. Four of the fittest among them decided to head out on a reconnaissance mission to the top of the mountain, to see what the horizon held. Carlitos Paez, Roberto Canessa, Fito Strauch, and Numa Turcatti were also seeking the plane’s wrecked tail section, which they believed held vital food and clothing, and batteries for the plane’s radio. They were aided by Fito’s stroke of sheer MacGyver genius: a few days earlier, he had fashioned snowshoes from the plane’s seat cushions and used bits of cable or seat-belt webbing to attach them to the hikers’ feet.
Yet despite their best efforts, the climbers were unable to attain the summit. The mountain was too high, the air too thin, and their experience too little. They concluded they would have to find another way off the mountain.
Nando spent nearly all his time at his sister’s side, holding her, whispering to her, encouraging her to fight to stay alive. But on the eighth day of their ordeal, Susy died in his arms. He spent the night hugging her now-lifeless body, desperately trying to maintain sanity in what seemed like an increasingly cold, cruel world. With his mother and sister now gone, depression became a real possibility for Nando. Unlike panic, which manifests itself as a sudden rush of debilitating emotion, depression is more insidious, but no less dangerous. Indeed, as time passes in a survival situation, loneliness, boredom, and apathy begin to creep in. Depression is never far behind.
Yet Nando’s instinct was strong. He didn’t allow himself the luxury of tears or of sinking into depression over the loss of his friends, his mother, and his sister. Spurred on by the inner voice he often described as cold and unfeeling, Nando stayed in survival mode, suppressing more complex emotions and narrowing his focus to one thing: staying alive and returning to see his father and sister once again.
As driven as he was to survive, Nando was, on some level, convinced that it was only a matter of time before he died. At these moments, when panic drew uncomfortably close, Nando experienced a feeling that washes over many people in similar situations: a manic urge to flee, which is the “flight” part of the fight-or-flight response. In these moments, it can feel like there is a giant monster chasing you, forcing you to pick up the pace, perhaps even to start to run. Run away from your fear. Run away from your pain. Run away from the situation you are in. This is when panic hits full bloom—and takes over.
As dangerous as panic may be, and as instantaneous as it usually is, it doesn’t always happen right away. Panic can crop up later, long after you made your assessments and organized your situation into something survivable. This is why it is vitally important to never stop organizing your supplies, fixing your shelter, searching for food. Tasks such as these occupy the mind, and in a survival situation, an occupied mind is a good thing.
Nando certainly occupied his. With Susy gone, he became obsessed with the idea of affecting his own survival. He assumed all along that rescue would never arrive, so he began to run through various scenarios in his brain, all of which revolved around him setting out to find help. In making these considerations, Nando did the right thing and considered all the factors relevant to the decision: Did he have the strength to survive a trek in the mountains? How steep were the slopes? How cold was it at night? Was the footing stable? What path should he follow? What would happen if he fell? What lay to the west?
As part of his obsession with leaving, Nando began to visualize the journey in exacting detail: how he would claw his way up the mountain, what he would see from the top, what he would say when he met his rescuers, how his father would look, feel, and smell. Although often used in sports, visualization techniques are rarely mentioned in survival, but they’re highly useful. I’m sure there are lots of naysayers out there, but I think there’s a lot to be said for the idea that if you can visualize your objective, it will happen.
As the days went by without rescue, spirits began to drop. Some of the survivors began to sink into depression and became listless, apathetic. This certainly caused some tension between the remaining survivors, but if I had my choice, I’d take the tension of group survival over the loneliness of solo survival any day. Group survival can pose challenges. The danger of contagious panic is always present. There are more mouths to feed, and the many bodies that may require medical attention can be taxing on resources. But the advantages—the camaraderie, the various forms and sources of motivation, the effect of shared workloads—all outweigh such drawbacks as resentment and petty arguments.
Questions to Ask Before moving on
• How far away is safety?
• Which way does safety lie, and do you know how to get there?
• If not, do you run the risk of getting even more lost if you head in the wrong direction?
• Do you and your traveling partners have the strength to make it there? Are any of you too injured?
• Do you have enough supplies?
• Does anybody know where you are?
• Is there a chance rescuers may coming looking for you? How long before they start looking?
• Are you on a well-used trail that might have other people on it?
• Is it more dangerous where you are now or where you are going?
• Does your current location offer water, shelter, fire/fuel, and food?
• Are you with a vehicle or other large object that may be easily seen from the air?
For example, it was the ingenuity of one person that solved the problem of water for the entire group. Although the plane was lying on top of a snow-covered glacier, getting enough drinking water for the survivors was always a concern. At first, Nando and his friends simply ate snow, but after a few days at high altitude, their lips became so cracked and tender that it became a near-impossible task. So they turned to melting the snow in the sunshine, whether in wine bottles or on top of the silver fuselage.
Fito helped solve the water conundrum by fashioning a bowl and spout from a discarded piece of aluminum, filling it with snow and setting it out in the sunshine. The device melted snow so effectively that others quickly constructed similar ones, putting an end to the group’s collective concerns about dehydration. This is the type of inventiveness I would have hoped for in their situation. There was a real sense of urgency when it came to water, and for good reason. Humans can go several weeks without food, but deny us water for a few days and death is imminent. Dehydration is a real risk in any survival situation, but it becomes even more acute in cold weather and at high altitudes, when it sets in more quickly. What’s worse is that, while dehydration in a place like the desert is always on your mind, it may be overlooked in alpine environments.
But now there were other concerns with which to contend. As the last of the rations were doled out at the end of their first week on the mountain, starvation became a very real possibility. That night, as Nando lay freezing in the remains of the plane, trying to fall asleep, a grisly realization came to him. If he and his friends were going to survive long enough for rescue to arrive or for them to hike to safety, they would need food. And there was only one source of food available.
As you might imagine, the idea of eating the dead spurred days of lengthy moral debate among the survivors. Most of the players were Catholics; some were concerned that eating the flesh of another human would condemn them to eternal damnation. Others simply couldn’t come to grips with the idea of cutting their friends into pieces. In the end, though, the stark reality of their situation left them no other choice. They gathered in a circle, and each pledged that, if he or she died, the others had permission to use their bodies as food.
Even the staunchest holdouts in the group quietly acquiesced. The most religious among them drew strength from the idea that they were drawing life from their friends’ bodies in much the same way they drew spiritual strength from the body of Christ when they took Communion. Nando was far more pragmatic. His friends were gone, and the bodies now represented meat and sustenance, nothing more. The subject of eating the dead—necrophagy, as it’s called—has stirred controversy for years. Yet, as far as I’m concerned, it was the right thing to do, a desperate measure in a desperate time. As the group concluded, their friends’ souls were gone, and their friends would want them to do everything they could to survive. In starkest terms, the dead bodies represented sustenance—meat and fat and bone, all good survival food. The notion of butchering and eating another human being goes well beyond the “plate fright” that I often talk about, where people balk at the idea of eating a creepy-crawly. And yet—like eating bugs and other slimy critters—it’s something I think most people would do if starvation were the only alternative. Nando and his friends had no choice: eat the dead or die themselves. In the end, they made the only decision they could if they expected to survive the ordeal.
By the eleventh day on the mountain, little had changed for the survivors, other than the ready store of food the survivors now had on hand. That morning, eighteen-year-old Roy Harley managed to coax back to life an old transistor radio salvaged from the wreckage. The signal crackled and popped, but those crowded around the device heard a news report that, after ten days of searching, Chilean authorities had called off the search for the missing rugby team. The mountains were too dangerous, the report said, and there was no chance anyone would have survived more than a week in the frigid mountain air.
The news caused a huge mental and emotional shift among the survivors. Many of them threw their hands up in despair; rescue was the only thing keeping them sane. Others considered suicide. Nando was one of them, but those fearful thoughts were soon quelled by his inner voice, which again steeled him for the reality he would one day face: he would have to climb to the top of the mountains, and then venture off into the distance to find help. He frantically tried to begin his climb right then and there, but his friends talked him out of what would have been a very foolish decision.
It is said that information is power. That statement is never more true than in a survival situation, where information provides the power to make decisions. In this case the radio report finally gave them what they needed: knowledge that the search had been canceled. As difficult as it may be to believe, there is a strange sense of relief in receiving terrible news such as this. You may feel hopeless and discouraged for a while, but it is liberating to finally know what you need to do to set your own rescue plan in motion.
None in the group seemed worse affected by the news than Marcelo, who changed from fearless leader to somber and reserved victim almost instantly. Marcelo had put all his eggs in one basket, the God basket, and thought that divine intervention would send rescue their way. With those hopes shattered, he didn’t feel he had much to live for. Luckily, his feelings were not shared by all. As the reality set in, a few of the others made plans for another assault on the mountain. Three men—Gustavo, Numa, and Daniel Maspons—gathered up what little provisions and equipment they could muster and set off shortly thereafter. Among the gear they took were the fruits of their survival ingenuity: sunglasses they made by cutting tinted plastic sun visors from the cockpit and stringing them together with copper wire.
They didn’t return that night, a night of frigid temperatures and howling winds. When dawn finally broke, the survivors at the crash site were heartened to see three specks high up on the mountain, moving slowly down the slopes above them. When they finally made it back to camp later that afternoon, they looked as if they had aged twenty years in one night. Gustavo, whose glasses had broken during the climb, was suffering from an intense case of snowblindness. As the climbers slowly warmed themselves, they shared the story of their harrowing night on the mountain.
They had climbed only halfway up as dusk approached, so they decided to find shelter and climb again the following day. They found a level place near a rocky outcrop, built a small rock wall to protect them from the incessant wind and huddled together to keep warm. This is a simple, yet effective way of staying warm in group situations, especially for the middle person. Better yet is to lie skin to skin with another person. It may be uncomfortable to do so with someone you might otherwise consider a stranger, but modesty can make for a lot of very cold nights; “cuddling” can spell the difference between life and death. It has come in handy for me on numerous occasions.
I was traveling with a friend on a very cold night, trying to make it to his backcountry cottage. We didn’t make it, and decided to spend the night in a cabin we had recently passed. The cabin had no heat and no blankets, so we stripped to our underwear, crawled between two mattresses, and slept with our bodies back to back. This technique worked wonders for keeping us warm, much more so than if we had stayed in our clothes and avoided contact with one other. This experience, however survival oriented it might have been, doesn’t come close to a hundred other nights I have spent surviving outdoors in the cold winter air, and is a very far cry from what those men went through that night on the mountain.
The second attempt to summit the mountain yielded a bit more information than the first. They had not found the much-sought-after tail section of the plane, but did come across pieces of wreckage, some luggage, and the bodies of several people who had fallen out of the plane when it split apart, many of whom were still strapped to their seats. The one thing the search failed to yield, however, was an idea of which way civilization lay. They were still trapped and alone.
As the days passed, the survivors became more efficient at processing the dead into food. Grisly, yes, but this was yet another necessary step in their evolution as survivors. To make the meat more palatable, they cut it into small pieces and dried it in the sun. Sometimes they cooked it, on those rare occasions that they had a fire.
While the meat from their fallen friends certainly kept the survivors alive, Nando could not help feeling that he was slowly and inexorably losing his strength, which would ultimately hinder his attempts to seek help. This is a common issue among survivors: they don’t try to affect their own rescue when they are strong and healthy, but end up doing it when they are physically compromised. Of course, there are times when sitting and waiting makes more sense than moving, such as when you’re injured or in an otherwise dangerous situation. But in this case, the survivors became slightly weaker with each day they clung to the hope that they would be found. So if you have to move, do it when you are strong, healthy, and prepared. Leave markings, notes, and other signs to indicate where you have gone, in case someone happens upon your trail or camp.
By the last week of October, Nando and the twenty-six others who were still alive had been on the mountain for more than two weeks. As the days passed, the survivors became encouraged by Nando’s insistence that he would climb the mountain and find rescue. Marcelo’s spirits continued to sag, and Nando began to emerge as the group’s leader. Now they had a plan and a purpose: they would eat the meat of the dead, regain their strength, wait for the weather to improve, plan a route, and find help. But first, all hell would break loose—again.
It was October 29, 1972, and the twenty-seven survivors had settled in for yet another frigid night in the fuselage. As they began to doze, the powerful force of bad luck struck when a massive avalanche swept down the mountain, burying the remains of the plane under several feet of hard-packed snow. Nando was encased in what seemed like cement, and he waited for death to take him. In some way, it was a relief to finally face his end. There would be no more struggles, no more frozen nights. Then a hand shot through the snow and uncovered his face, and Nando was able to breathe again.
After a few frenzied moments of chaos, he was free to witness the macabre scene around him. Some people were lying motionless, others rising slowly from the snow like corpses from the grave. There were a few brief moments of silence, and then the details of the avalanche began to filter through. There was a distant roar on the mountain, which brought Roy Harley to his feet. Seconds later, a wave of snow plowed through the makeshift wall at the back of the fuselage, burying Roy to the hips and covering all those who had been asleep. Roy desperately started digging the others out. Those who were uncovered by Roy started digging for their friends, too. But they were too late for many. In total, eight died in the avalanche: Marcelo, Enrique Platero, Coco Nicholich, Daniel Maspons, Carlos Roque, Juan Carlos Menendez, Diego Storm, and Liliana Methol.
In the aftermath of the avalanche, Nando began to question his purpose. Why had he survived while others had died? Daniel and Liliana had been on either side of Nando, only inches away, as he lay down to sleep. Yet they were dead and he was still breathing. His luck was good and theirs was bad. They had chosen their sleeping spots, and those choices proved deadly.
The hours and days after the avalanche were a living hell, a nightmare of unimaginable proportions. Although there was a fresh air supply (courtesy of a hole Nando had poked through the snow with a piece of metal pipe), the plane was dank and dark, the air thick. The only source of water was the filthy snow that filled the plane, the same snow the nineteen survivors were crawling around on, sleeping on, and relieving themselves on.
Food was also a problem. Trapped as they were with no access to the bodies outside, the survivors had nothing to eat. They recognized that the avalanche victims were buried underneath them, but the closeness of the operation was too much to face. Until that point, bodies had been butchered outside the fuselage, away from general view. If they were to resort to that same grisly option inside the snow-encased plane, however, it would be there for everyone to see. They swore they would rather starve than face the prospect of butchering the freshly dead.
With no other choice but to dig through the tons of snow that now surrounded them, the survivors took turns scraping and digging away at it. Eventually, they made their way to the surface through the cockpit, only to be met with a blizzard of such furious proportions that they had no choice but to stay inside the fuselage until it abated. In the meantime, they had ample opportunity to revisit their plans for escape. The prevailing feeling was that, although Chile certainly lay up over the mountain and to the west, they might have better luck hiking east, down the mountain and toward the broad, white valley that swept away into the distance. Their hope was that the valley would eventually turn toward the west and rescue. When someone mentioned that summer in the Andes arrived promptly on November 15, Nando threw down the gauntlet: he would leave on that day, with or without partners.
By the third day after the avalanche, hunger had become so acute that the survivors had no choice. Someone found a piece of glass and began slicing into one of the dead. The sound of the shard cutting flesh was revolting enough; eating the meat was almost impossible. Before the avalanche, the meat had been dried in the sun, weakening its taste and making the texture more palatable. Now the survivors were handed soft, greasy pieces of flesh, streaked with blood and gristle. Most of them choked it back with great difficulty; others could not bring themselves to do it at all.
It wasn’t until November 1—four days later—that the blizzard finally stopped and the survivors emerged from the fuselage. It took an additional eight days of backbreaking work to clear the plane of the tons of snow that now filled it. At the same time, Nando and the other expeditionaries were preparing for their departure. Although they were encouraged by the gradual improvement in the weather, they were also disheartened that several among them continued to weaken. Arturo died early into the second week of November.
On November 15, Nando, Numa, Roberto, and Antonio “Tintin” Vizintin set out eastward down the mountain. They had walked for only an hour when a blizzard kicked up with a fury, sending them scrambling back to the fuselage. The storm kept them there for two more days, when they started out again, this time without Numa, who had weakened considerably. The trio hiked for hours in fine weather and eventually came across the tail section of the plane, and the treasures it had held secret for more than a month: suitcases with fresh clothing, rum, chocolates, a camera with film, and the extra batteries for the plane’s radio.
After what seemed like a luxurious night of sleep—the first when they were able to stretch out and roll around—the expeditionaries continued their eastward journey the next morning. The going was difficult in the bright sunshine, and progress was slow. They spent a long, cold night huddled together under a rocky outcrop, during which Nando was sure he would freeze to death. The next morning, they continued the hike, though Roberto and Nando were both beginning to doubt that the valley ever turned to the west. Their route, they determined, was only taking them deeper into the heart of the Andes. They decided to return to the Fairchild, where they would try to coax the radio back to life with the batteries from the tail, and call for rescue. Ultimately, they left the heavy batteries in the tail section, deciding instead that it would be easier to carry the radio down. When they finally made it back to the fuselage, they learned that Rafael Echavarren—whose calf muscle had been nearly torn off during the crash—had died.
In the days that followed, they worked furiously on the radio. Eventually, they got it to the point where it might work and hiked back to the tail section, where they had stashed the batteries. The device yielded nothing but static. Although his friends still held out hope for rescue, Nando was resolute: he was heading up over the mountain and to the west. The hike back to the fuselage was hampered by a raging blizzard. In the midst of the whiteout, Nando had to rescue Roy Harley, who had fallen and curled up in the snow, waiting for death to come. Somehow, they made it back to the Fairchild, utterly spent.
The survivors began to sink deeper into despair. Their food supply was running out, and the gruesomeness of the situation had assumed stark proportions. Where they once limited themselves to the most generalized pieces of flesh of their comrades, starvation had forced their hand. Now they had no choice but to broaden their diet to organs, hands and feet, brains—even the blood clots that formed in the large blood vessels of the hearts. Even so, the bodies of the three women who had died—Nando’s mother, Eugenia, his sister, Susy, and Liliana—all lay untouched under the snow. Even in desperate times, the survivors had stayed true to their promise not to touch those three bodies. They never would.
By the first week of December, Nando and his fellow expeditionaries had regained enough of their collective strength to once again begin preparing in earnest for their westward journey. As part of these preparations, they again trolled the depths of their human inventiveness to make the trip as comfortable as possible. The key innovation was a sleeping bag they sewed together from the quilted batts of insulation they had gathered from the tail section of the plane. They hoped it would keep them alive as they slept out in the open. The sleeping bag was ready by the first week of December, but Nando encountered resistance from the one person he counted on most to accompany him on the journey: Roberto. Roberto was still adamant that help was on its way, thanks to a radio report he had heard earlier, and wanted to give his rescuers a chance. Nando was unconvinced; he was set on leaving on December 12, and would go alone if need be. The wait was not without tragedy: Numa died on December 11.
Nando and his fellow expeditionaries needed no further sign. Slowly and inexorably, they were all dying. To wait for rescue was to wait for death. If anything, the crash site spoke to the now-barbaric nature of their existence: the once-pristine snow was soaked in blood, urine, and feces, was littered with bits of human bodies, and reeked of death.
On December 12, Nando, Tintin, and Roberto finally set out. Either they would find rescue or die doing so, but they would not come back. Nando already considered himself a dead man, so he saw no risk in trying to scale the mountain. Before leaving, Nando turned to Carlitos and told him, in a soft voice, to use his mother and Susy as food, if need be.
The climb up the mountain, which rose to a height of some fifteen thousand feet, was incredibly difficult. The expeditionaries had no idea of the technical challenges of mountain climbing, the negative effect that altitude was about have on their bodies, and were wearing little more than jeans and sneakers. Before the crash, few of them had ever seen snow before. I think this was one of those situations where ignorance was truly bliss. Had they really known what they were in for, they might not have set out at all.
The sun shone down mercilessly, softening the snow to the point that, with each step, the hikers sunk in to their hips. The air grew thinner, and Nando and his friends gasped for air. Still, fueled by the knowledge that they were the only hope for their friends who clung to life in the fuselage below, they forged on. After they had climbed some 2,500 feet, Nando was dismayed to find that they seemed no closer to the summit above. On the verge of desperation, he was once again calmed by the voice in his head, which told him to stop considering the mountain as a whole and instead cut the task into small, attainable pieces. He looked slightly ahead and chose one reachable landmark after another. This was a brilliant strategy, and can be used in any number of situations. When the task at hand seems too much—whether it’s making a fire, building a shelter, or gathering food—break it down into its component parts. You’ll not only be empowered by your successes, you’ll find the job goes by much more quickly. As author Rick Canfield puts it, “You can drive across the country in the dark, and yet you can only see the first two hundred feet in front of you with your car headlights. So, it’s all the way—two hundred feet at a time.”
The trio settled in for their first night on the mountain in their makeshift sleeping bag. Although their collective warmth kept them from freezing to death at what was likely fourteen thousand feet of altitude, they suffered terribly through the night. When dawn finally arrived, they slid their stiff feet into their frozen shoes and set out once again. Although hard to imagine, the second day on that precipitous slope was even more difficult than the first. Nando’s existence was reduced to a single purpose: put one foot in front of the other and climb. Guided by the voice, he narrowed his focus so that nothing else mattered. Roberto seemed ready to give up on several occasions—he thought he could see a road far to the east—but Nando refused to give in.
The third morning of their climb found them at the base of a near-vertical wall encased in snow and ice. With no choice but to climb, Nando used a stick from his pack to carve steps in the wall. Step by excruciating step, they inched their way up. Many hours later, they attained the summit. It was certainly not what any of them would have expected. The view that met their eyes was one of the most depressing things Nando could imagine. In every direction, there were nothing but snow-covered mountains as far as the eye could see. They had been wrong all along. The plane had not crashed on the western edge of the Andes. They were right in the middle of them.
For a moment, despair got the better of Nando. He fell to the ground and cursed his fate before recovering his senses. Once again, with death knocking at his door, Nando chose to control his own destiny. Then and there, he and Roberto reaffirmed their pledge to one another: if they were going to die, they were going to do so on their feet, walking toward the sun to the west, not on their backs in the fuselage. They scanned the horizon for any sign of civilization, to no avail. Then Nando noticed two smaller peaks on the western horizon that were not capped with snow. A valley wound its way from the base of the mountain they now stood atop, in the general direction of the two peaks. It would take days, even weeks, to make it such a great distance, and by then their food would surely have run out. With no other choice, they decided that two would have a better chance of making it than three. Tintin would have to go back to the plane.
They rested for what remained of the afternoon in anticipation of the arduous trek that lay ahead. The next morning, Nando and Roberto bade farewell to Tintin. He headed down the mountain to the east, they to the west. Roberto was sure they were walking to their death. If the climb up the mountain had almost killed them, the descent was even worse. Though they didn’t have to deal with the same kind of physical exertion, the footing was unsteady, and each step came with the risk of falling to their deaths. At one point, Nando lost his senses, sat on one of his seat-cushion snowshoes, and began to slide down the mountain, narrowly escaping serious injury. They made it down the mountain at around noon the next day, and looked down the valley they hoped would lead them to salvation.
For days, they trudged along the glaciated valley floor, picking their way across and around ice blocks, the rough edges of the windblown snow gnawing slowly at their feet. On the seventh day of their journey, December 18, the snow slowly began to yield and patches of loose rubble appeared at their feet. Later that day, Nando was roused from his almost-maniacal focus by the sound of water ahead. He rushed forward to see a jet of water shooting from an ice wall and down into the valley below, where it formed a fast-flowing stream. Nando and Roberto knew this was the birth of a river and wisely decided to follow it.
Soon, the snow released its grip completely on the ground underfoot, though the hiking was no less difficult. The weakening pair picked their way slowly around the boulders and rocks strewn across their path. The days wound into nights, and yet Roberto and Nando soldiered on. They grew weaker with each passing hour, and their shoes were beginning to come apart at the seams, but they were fueled by a fierce sense of purpose. The force of good luck was on their side, and their eighth day away from the fuselage dawned bright, sunny, and warm.
Later that afternoon, Roberto found the remains of a rusted soup can on the ground, their first sign of so-called civilization in more than two months. More followed: cow and horse dung, a tree stump that still bore ax marks. Later that afternoon, they spotted a small herd of cows a few hundred yards away. They camped that evening with hope rising in their hearts. As the ninth day of their journey dawned, Roberto found it increasingly difficult to move. With the prospect of rescue so tangible, however, they continued in the face of their weakening condition. With every bend in the well-worn path they now walked, Roberto expected to come across a peasant’s hut. It never materialized. But as they reached the top of a broad plateau later in the day, they saw the stone walls of what they assumed to be a farmer’s corral in a meadow. The only thing stopping them from reaching it was the river, which now raged with a fury before them.
The afternoon skies were darkening toward evening, when Nando heard Roberto shout from across the meadow. He had seen a man on horseback! Nando, whose eyes were not as good as Roberto’s, could see nothing, but he let Roberto guide him to a spot on the slope where the dim outline of the rider became clear. They shouted and waved frantically. The man looked up and waved back! Though the river drowned out most of what he said, one word rang clear across the river: mañana—tomorrow. They were saved.
Nando woke before dawn the next day, their tenth since leaving the Fairchild, and saw the dim glow of a fire across the river, around which three men sat. Nando screamed and gestured, then saw one of the men scribble on a piece of paper, tie it to a stone, and throw it across the river. The note said a man was coming later and asked Nando and Roberto what they wanted. Nando’s return note described who he was, where he came from, and the desperate situation of his comrades who were still perched on the mountain. The peasant read the note, nodded, and made a hand gesture that told Nando and Roberto to wait. A few hours later, a man on horseback, Armando Serda, rode up on a mule. They were saved.
The hours and days that followed were a blur for Nando and Roberto. They were first taken to the peasants’ huts, where they ate the prodigious amounts of food put in front of them, then slept the afternoon away like dead men. The police arrived the next morning, as did a horde of reporters. When the helicopters arrived, Nando pinpointed the exact location of the Fairchild on their flight chart. The officers were skeptical. There was no way these two near-skeletons could have walked more than seventy miles through the High Andes with little more than the clothes on their backs. Nando persisted. A short while later, the choppers were in the air, with Nando in tow. The helicopters pitched and bounced as they struggled to climb over the massive walls of Mount Seler. The engines whined dangerously as they pushed the chopper over the peak, only to have a massive updraft throw the helicopter backward. With no other choice, the pilot sought another route to the crash site.
The light was bad and the winds heavy, but the pilot and other crew members decided they would make one final push to the plane. They circled around Mount Seler (as Nando later named it, to honor his father), where Nando regained his perspective and guided them to the crash site. The chopper couldn’t land because of the angle of the slope, but the rescue team hopped out. Daniel Fernandez and Alvaro Mangino jumped into one helicopter; Carlitos Paez, Pedro Algorta, Eduardo Strauch, and Roy Harley got into the other. Tintin and the rest would have to wait for the second trip, but by the afternoon all the survivors were together again, in a small town called Los Maitenes.
They were later flown to a military base near the town of San Fernando, where waiting ambulances took them to a nearby hospital. Each person was led to a small, clean room, where they peeled off their dirty clothes, showered, ate, and rested. Nando’s reverie was disturbed by a commotion outside his room. He opened the door to see his sister Graciela and her husband making their way down the hallway. He held his sister and brother-in-law for a few beautiful minutes, then saw the bowed figure of his father, Seler, at the end of the hall. Nando gently broke the news of his mother and sister’s death to his father, and felt him sag in his arms. Later, they sat together in Nando’s room, sharing what Nando called “the simple miracle of being together again.”
To this day, mountain climbers have hailed the ten-day journey of Nando and Roberto as one of the greatest mountaineering feats of all time. In total, sixteen of the forty-five passengers who boarded the Fairchild lived to tell their tale.
ELEMENTS OF SURVIVAL
Will to Live 70%
Talk about having the deck stacked against you. Nando had absolutely no survival knowledge whatsoever, and the wrecked plane offered little true survival gear, other than what he and his teammates could scrounge from the wreckage. What makes Nando legendary in the world of survival, however, is his unbending will to live. Like Yossi Ghinsberg, Nando refused to yield, refused to accept death as an option, and refused to acquiesce in the face of truly horrific circumstances