- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 3, 2006

Miracle in the Andes:

72 Days on the Mountain and My Journey Home

By Nando Parrado

with Vince Rause

Crown, $25, 291 pages

It made headlines around the world. On Oct. 13, 1972, a very unlucky Friday, a plane carrying one of Uruguay’s best rugby teams crashed in the Andes Mountains. The club, Old Christians, was flying to Santiago to play against a top Chilean team.

As the days passed, rescue teams failed to find the crash site. With funds and hope running out, the search was called off. Eight days had passed. The only reasonable conclusion was that there were no survivors.

A nation mourned, unaware that more than half of the flight’s four crew members and 41 passengers — some of them family members and fans of the team — were still alive. For 72 days, facing temperatures that plummeted to 30 degrees below zero, with only half of the plane’s broken fuselage as shelter, and with no radio they could use to call for help, the survivors plotted to make it off the mountain.

Most were between 19 and 21 years old. Some had never before seen snow. Suddenly they were stranded on a glacier 12,000 feet above sea level, with meager rations of food and no medical supplies to treat broken bones or ward off infection. As their numbers dwindled and the haze of death settled around them, the survivors had no choice but to eat the bodies of the dead.

In the end, 16 men were rescued. Piers Paul Read recounted their ordeal in “Alive,” his 1973 bestselling book. In 1993, the story was turned into a movie starring Ethan Hawke. And now the survivor whom Mr. Hawke played, Nando Parrado, has teamed up with Vince Rause to write “Miracle in the Andes.”

Mr. Rause, a writer and author whose work has appeared in the New York Times magazine, wondered at first if another book should be written about the Andes disaster. Then he met Mr. Parrado, and that concern vanished. It became clear that Mr. Parrado could tell the story anew, Mr. Rause writes, from “the inside out.” That is, he could shed light on his inner turmoil — the existential questions that the experience on the mountain stirred within him, and the way he persevered in the face of such inhumane conditions.

That Mr. Parrado survived may indeed be a miracle, as the book’s title suggests. When the plane crashed, his skull was fractured and he lapsed into a coma. But the cold mountain air helped reduce the swelling, he regained consciousness after three days, and his body began to mend itself. Mr. Parrado’s mother and sister were not so fortunate. His mother died in the crash; his sister passed away in his arms.

One morning about two weeks after the crash, an avalanche came hurtling down the mountain. Snow engulfed most of the survivors sleeping inside the plane’s fuselage. Eight of them suffocated, including those sleeping on either side of Mr. Parrado.

“What tortured me was the capriciousness of the deaths,” Mr. Parrado writes. “Why them and not me? … their fate was decided by a simple stroke of bad luck — they chose their spots to sleep that night, and that decision killed them.”

Even as Mr. Parrado grows increasingly introspective, his tale loses none of its momentum. That’s because the two authors have achieved the proper tone for their narrative. Straightforward and not overly sentimental, their prose is as unyielding as the mountain on which the survivors are stranded.

“Everything about us was wrong here — the violence and racket of our arrival, our garish suffering, the noise and mess of our lurid struggle to survive. None of it fit here. Life did not fit here. It was all a violation of the perfect serenity that had reigned here for millions of years … Something wanted all that perfect silence back again; something in the mountain wanted us to be still.”

The survivors soon ran out of food. Mr. Parrado describes how he ate his last ration — a chocolate-covered peanut. Day one: Suck off the chocolate. Day two: Eat half the peanut. Day three: Eat the second half.

When Mr. Parrado gazed at one survivor’s leg wound, he was horrified by the thought that entered his mind. “I had looked at human flesh and instinctively recognized it as food. Once that door had been opened, it couldn’t be closed.”

The survivors held a meeting and reached a delicate consensus: They needed to eat the dead, or else they would perish. Some considered it to be a kind of communion, that drawing physical strength from their dead colleagues was like drawing spiritual strength from the body of Christ. (After their ordeal was over, the survivors faced ill-founded rumors that they were cannibals who killed the living and devoured them.)

All along, Mr. Parrado plotted an escape. By climbing the summit that looms over the plane’s fuselage to the west, he concluded that he could reach the Chilean foothills and find help. He recruited three of his teammates to join him.

Real mountain climbers would have taken with them steel pitons, ice screws, safety lines, ice axes and weatherproof tents. (Only later did Mr. Parrado discover that the summit he plans to broach is nearly 17,000 feet high.) Aside from their ragged rugby boots, all that he and his companions had was a makeshift sleeping bag that some of the survivors had knitted together using the cloth-like insulation that covered pipes in the plane’s mechanical system.

As much as this is a tale about survival, it is a tale about Mr. Parrado’s love for his father, Seler. As Mr. Parrado began the climb, he thought often of his father, who at that time still believed his only son had perished.

The son of a poor peddler, Seler had established a thriving business in hardware. He owned a handful of stores and imported merchandise that he sold to other outlets in South America. Seler had taught his son the difference between, say, an anchor bolt and a carriage bolt, subtly imparting life lessons: “Pay attention to the details, to the nuts-and-bolts realities of things.” It was advice Mr. Parrado heeded on the mountain.

The book does not end with the rescue of the 16 survivors: Mr. Parrado recounts his life since the Andes disaster. He met Jackie Stewart, the racecar driver and his childhood idol, and joined the racing circuit himself. He married, settled down, helped his father with his hardware business and eventually started a career in television.

In 1991, Mr. Parrado gave a motivational talk at a conference for young business owners in Mexico City. That appearance launched his speaking career, and indeed there are a few moments in the book when he lapses into what sounds like a well-rehearsed script.

It is a minor flaw. Readers know that Mr. Parrado will survive the ordeal, but he manages to sustain the suspense as he climbs the mountain. As he ponders life’s ultimate meaning from the oxygen-depleted slope, our breath grows short with his.

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