by William H. Benson
November 1, 2007
On Thursday, October 12, 1972 forty passengers boarded a Fairchild F-227, a prop-powered aircraft owned by the Uruguayan air force. A rugby team from Montevideo had chartered it to take the team’s members to Santiago for a match against Chile’s team. With a crew of five, the aircraft headed west toward the Andes.
That afternoon, due to bad weather reported high in the mountains, the pilot landed at Mendoza, Argentina, at the base of the mountains, and the crew decided to spend the night there. The next day the pilot was still unsure about the tricky wind conditions above the Andes, but the rugby team begged him to go, and so he agreed.
They crashed that afternoon, Friday, the thirteenth. An air pocket had dropped the aircraft several hundred feet, and it was unable then to climb. The right wing hit first; it whipped around, and cut off the tail. Then, the left wing was severed, and the fuselage, instead of slamming into the side of the mountain, fortunately skidded along like a toboggan on the snow field.
Of the forty-five on board, thirty-two survived the crash. Amazingly only a handful of them had severe wounds. Nando Parrado, then only twenty-two, hit his head and was unconscious for three days. When he awoke, he was told that his cranium had broken.
The stronger team members did what they could to survive the cold at 12,000 feet elevation. On three sides of their position, stood towering peaks. With debris from the crash, they fashioned a wall at the broken-off end of the fuselage, and thus spent their nights inside shivering due to the brutal cold, but surviving. They expected help immediately, but then they heard on a transistor radio that the search had been called off.
Two weeks later, on the night of October 27, an avalanche buried the Fairchild and dumped three feet of snow into the interior of the fuselage, suffocating eight people who slept on the floor. Someone dug down and found Nando’s face, and thus he lived.
They had little protective clothing, only light jackets, no sleeping bags, no gloves, no sunglasses, and no food. To survive they resorted to cannibalism, eating the bodies of those who had died, despite feelings of revulsion, sin, shame, and guilt.
A group formed among them, which they called the Expeditioners, to climb their way to help. Three of them walked to the west toward the closest peak, but came back that same day utterly exhausted, claiming that even though it looked close, it would take days to climb it. Another foray to the east located the tail of the aircraft, and within it, they found insulation, which they sewed with copper wires into a sleeping bag for three.
On his own, Nando Parrado decided that he could scale that western peak. No one supported his belief. He took the sleeping bag, two other men—Roberto Canessa and Antonio Vizintin—and a ten day supply of food. Nando reasoned that to stay at the Fairchild was death, for it was all around them. The mountain wanted to consume them. Human life in the Andes was an anomaly, and the mountain would defeat them all.
It required three days of exhausting work for the three boys to scale that western peak. The incline was often vertical, with little to hold or grab. At that altitude, over 17,000 feet high, they found that the mind shuts down, and the body is so easily tired. At the summit Nando and Canessa sent Vizintin back to the Fairchild, and the two boys rested one more night. Six days later, after walking down the Chilean side of that mountain, they saw a man on a horse, signaled him for help, and he called the authorities. The news electrified the world: some of Uruguay’s rugby team were alive after seventy days.
Nando directed the daring helicopter rides—on December 22 and 23, which safely delivered the other survivors, reduced to fourteen, from the Fairchild to civilization.
Human physical power is one thing; human mental will power is another. Of all those boys stranded on that mountain, only Nando Parrado had the will and strength in sufficient combination to conquer that mountain. Daily he had visualized his climb up and out, and he believed that he could hear his father coaching him each step.