30 years ago the Andes Mountains were the scene of one of the greatest ever survival stories when the Old Christians Rugby Club from Montevideo headed to Chile for a team trip but never made it. Their plane crashed into the mountains in bad weather and they had to survive the best they could for 70 days and then save themselves when searchers could not find them. This is the true story Alive, A best selling book and Hollywood film.
From my base in Buenos Aires I travel to the Andes Mountains and to the crash site. I want to experience the force and beauty of the Andes and reflect on the wonderful human strength and spirit that saw 16 young men triumph in the most hostile of conditions.
The International Rugby board awarded the Old Christians Club the "Rugby
Spirit Award" in its 2003 awards ceremony this month.
High up in the Andes Mountains I stand on a rocky outcrop and inhale a 360-degree vision of breathtaking beauty. I see massive walls of snow and rock reaching skyward, luminescent glaciers resplendent in the midday sun, frozen oceans of wind carved snow shapes, and also a cross rising out of a pile of rocks and twisted metal.
It was 30 years ago in October 1972 when the Montevideo Old Christians Rugby Club from Uruguay decided to travel to Chile for an end of season game as well as sightseeing and shopping. They hired a plane from the Uruguayan Air Force and sold the excess seats to friends and family to keep costs down. They never made it to Chile however as in poor visibility the plane clipped a rocky peak and crashed into the snow, rock, and ice of the Andes.
Of the original 45 passengers and crew on the flight only 16 made it out of the mountains. The survivors lived for 72 days in freezing conditions without adequate clothing and had only the wrecked hull of the plane for shelter. They melted snow for water and when food ran out they were forced to eat the bodies of their dead friends and teammates. In December when the snows started to melt Fernando Parrado and Roberto Canessa, the strongest of the survivors, climbed the high peaks into Chile and walked for 10 days to get help, they vowed to walk until they died if they had to. A Chilean rancher found Parrado and Canessa and alerted the Police who sent helicopters to the crash site to rescue the other survivors. This triumph over severe adversity made headline news around the world and the survivors were acclaimed for their amazing strength, courage, and determination.
Thisis the true story portrayed in Piers Paul Read's famous book Alive and in a later Hollywood film of the same name. The cross here in the Andes marks the resting place of those who did not come down from the mountain.
I have been inspired for some time by this story of human strength and from my current base in Buenos Aires base I am thrilled to have the chance to visit the site where it took place.
After waiting for the winter snows to melt I travel 1,000kms west from Buenos Aires to San Rafael in the Mendoza wine region. The road amazingly is dead straight and completely flat the whole way, only grazing cattle, fields of crops, and flooded plains distract my attention as I cross the Pampas and some of Argentina's most fertile and valuable soils.
San Rafael comes and goes and the Andes should be coming into view soon but all I can see are swirling black clouds and rain. Thunder booms out and warns me that despite the positive forecast I might not be going up the mountain tomorrow after all.
an hour later I arrive in the tiny farming settlement of El Sosneado
some 150km North West of San Rafael. For years the locals here have
tended their flocks of goats and cattle in this arid and beautiful valley
but now they supplement their farming income by working as mountain
guides. For the next three days these Gauchos will accompany me, my
Argentine friends Adolfo, Hugo, Marcelo and Lucas, and a few others
interested in the Alive story up the mountain to the crash site.
reach an old Police post near the Atuel River and after a traditional
Milanesa meat lunch are introduced to our horses. My horse is called
Zorro and the Gauchos tell me he is smart and stubborn, I find out what
they mean later after he runs away when I stop for a photo!
We walk on the edge of steep slopes and send small rocks to their death. As we climb the rocks change colour and shape, red boulders, green slate, yellow earth, gray skree. Traces of colour find their way to the surface as beautiful mountain flowers cling to a rocky foothold and occasionally we see moss surrounded lagoons with ducks and other birds.
5 hours after starting we reach a small open steppe surrounded by high cliff walls where we will camp the night. Our guides prepare us a seafood Paella some 1,200kms from Argentina's coast and we sit and watch as the full moon peers out and over the distant mountains.
The next morning is again fine and we quickly move on up the valley, now all traces of life have disappeared into the arid surroundings. We pass an unbelievable emerald green lagoon and ford raging mountain streams. We cross snowdrifts and climb up and down steep gorges.
The ultraviolet skies seem darker as we arrive at the highest peaks and here the wind has carved the snow into fantastic bridges and beautiful curves and arches. The blue sky, white snow and dark rock combine in a fantastic collage. Out of the wind the silence deafens.
We leave the horses and wade into a frozen sea of sculptured white snow waves, my feet sink with each step and I struggle to keep my balance as I climb towards the crash site. It's down a steep slope then across more snow and rock before I climb up onto a thin ridge of exposed rock and see the cross marking the grave of those who died.
My breath is taken away and tears come to my eyes, I look around and try to see where the plane once lay. Images from the book come to my head and I see the boys sitting outside the wrecked plane melting snow. I see the struggle, the pain, the cold, and the hunger. I feel the belief and desire that kept them alive.
Surrounded by this most amazing beauty I try to imagine what the survivors felt when they first looked out at their silent valley. I imagine a strange combination of fear and wonder running through their veins. A most terrifying beauty before their eyes.
The grave is marked by plaques remembering those who lived and those who died, and rocks and debris from the wrecked plane are piled up around the cross. It feels like the most beautiful and peaceful resting place one could imagine.
I sit around and stare at the mountains and snow, I look down the valley, and up at the peaks. In this magnificent setting I feel inspired by man and nature. I feel quiet and calm.
I delay as long as possible my departure from the site so as to savor a few quiet moments of reflection, I'm glowing inside when I finally make my way down. I turn around for a last glance back up the mountain and as I see the sun reflecting on the snow I hear in my head the words of the survivors Parrado and Canessa:
"You have to go through something like that in order to learn the difference between what's important and what's not" - Fernando Parrado.
"You don't value what you have until you lose it. With just a place to sleep and eat you are really very well off" - Roberto Canessa.