Interview with Fernando Parrado

April 2003



It's a beautiful and cold autumn morning as I head from my apartment in the Palermo residential district of Buenos Aires to the downtown ferry terminal. Today I will cross the River Plate to Montevideo and meet Andes survivor Fernando Parrado. Parrado played a key role in the modern survival epic Alive when he crossed the Andes on foot with Roberto Canessa to get help. I'm excited and very much looking forward to meeting him.

As I arrive at the ferry terminal the sun is just starting to come up and the clouds are streaked with orange. A jazz band plays soothing music to try and relax the passengers ahead of what might be a bumpy crossing on this windy morning.

As expected the 3-hour trip is a little rough, but really not too bad for an experienced Cook Straight traveler. The skies in Montevideo are grey and the wind strong as I take a 20-minute taxi ride along the pretty waterfront lined with smart apartment blocks to the Buceo zone where Fernando has his office.

Fernando and his secretary greet me warmly and welcome me into the modern and stylish offices from which Fernando manages his television productions and other commercial interests. On the walls are photos of Fernando from his time as a racing driver as well as photos from his travels and of his family. There is nothing here to suggest that this is the office of a man who was once trapped on a glacier high in the Andes.

We talk about rugby and life and I get the feeling that these next hours with Fernando will be ones that will be etched deeply in my mind for years to come.

Rugby has been a major influence in your life, can you tell me about when you first started playing rugby?

I think rugby was a key factor in our survival. Many people look for deeper or different reasons but I think that rugby was very important.

I started playing rugby at school when I was about 10 years old and played right through until I left high school. I then played in the first division of the national league with the Old Christians Club and I played there for 11 years.

I think that the character building nature of rugby and the friendship that you get in rugby helped us through our ordeal because we were a team before we crashed. I had been playing with some of the guys for 5 or 6 years before the crash and I had played with some of them in high school for 5 or 6 years before that so we knew each other very well.

I used to play in the second row as a lock and sometimes at Number 8. When you play in the scrum you fight a lot and you suffer a lot so that the wing or center can score. They are the stars of the team, they are the fast guys, the handsome guys, the nice guys, and you fight for them.
It's a great game!

Did you return to the rugby field after your experience in the Andes?

Yes I played for another 3 or 4 years. A year after the crash I was playing in the first division again. It took me a year to get back my strength and get fit again.

Did any of the other survivors play again?

5 of the 16 survivors were from the rugby team and we all played again, we all came back and played in the same team.

It must have been something amazing the first time you played a game together.

Yes, there were 5 of us who played again, we wished that there could have been more of us who returned (Fernando pauses here and I feel so strongly his desire that the whole team could have played together again). The first time the 5 of us played together it was a very nice moment because we never thought that we would ever play rugby again or even survive. To be back on the field and again wearing that blue shirt with the shamrock was a fantastic feeling, it was great.

I understand that in 1971 there was a first trip to Chile with the Old Christians, did you go on that trip?

Yes I went there. We had so much fun and had such a great trip that we always wanted to do another one. The atmosphere was great and it was very cheap for us at that time. Chile was going though a difficult time economically and you could do a lot of things with just 10 dollars.

We were young and could go for a full weekend to Chile with $50 and be the Kings of the city and so it was very nice. We were very excited about getting to Chile, the girls are very beautiful!

In the accident itself you were knocked unconscious, do you remember anything about the flight or the accident?

I remember everything up until the moment of impact, I remember everything perfectly but then I was unconscious for 2½ days. I remember the previous seconds and moments before the crash, nobody tells you that you are going to crash but I sensed that there was something wrong, maybe 8 or 10 seconds before the impact. Looking through the window, I could see rocks about 25 or 30 yards from the wingtip, black walls of rock with patches of white rushing by at full speed. Your mind doesn't react that fast, you think "what's that?", your mind takes 2 or 3 seconds to react. Then there was the sound of the engine, then the moment of impact, so it's very fast.

You heard a bang?

Yes, a big awesome metallic sound. And then a millisecond later I was dead. I can't remember anything else I just died, I remember the sound of the impact and that's all.

Were you near the front of the plane?

I was right in the middle, under the wings. I think the plane hit the mountain right in the middle of the plane like this. (And he shows me with a pen and his hand) The second half of the fuselage disintegrated, behind my seats there were no more rows of seats, my row was the last one that was still attached to the plane. Behind me there was a big hole.

You woke up 2½ days later?

2½ days later I woke up as if from a very deep sleep, like waking up after an operation. It takes you maybe 4 or 5 hours to get really into the rhythm of things of what's going on. I was covered with blood and I thought "Why am I covered with blood?" Its not like how you wake up in your bed every morning, it takes a lot of time, I must have had a very bad concussion.

You then slowly realized the terrible situation.

Yes, it took me hours to understand what the guys were trying to tell me. I was looking at their faces and then suddenly I realized that the plane had crashed.

It must have been a devastating moment, because a short time later you learned that your mother had died and that your sister was very badly injured in the crash.

Yes, that's when a short time later I asked about my mother and my sister, and….….. (Here Fernando's voice tails off, I cannot imagine what it was like for him up there) The thing is that you are in such a terrible situation and just trying to survive that those things as important as they are affect you differently. You are trying to survive, your mind does not relate to them as it would relate on a normal day in the city. Your body changes, your mind changes.

One of the things that I remember strongly from the book was your determination to leave and to get out and to get back?

Immediately I knew that we were dead, I was very practical, I wasn't a dreamer, I knew that we were dead, that there was no way out. We heard on the radio that they weren't looking for us, we didn't have food, we didn't have clothes, we didn't have water, we didn't have anything, and we didn't know where we were. So if you add all those things together what is the result? There is no way, we are dead! Maybe that realization gave me the conviction to say "I don't want to die here, Im going to die but I'll die fighting!".

Its impossible for me to imagine what it was like.

You are condemned to die, there is no way, you are lost on a glacier 4,500 meters up, temperatures down to minus 25, no clothes, no food, no nothing and you hear on a small transistor radio that the search has been abandoned and there are no survivors! You are Dead!

Then there was the avalanche, you were already in a desperate situation but it got a whole lot worse very quickly, what happened to you in the avalanche, what do you remember?

I remember thinking that when you think that nothing can get worse, it can get 100 times worse! We were stranded on a glacier with no food, no water, and no one is looking for us and then we are trapped under an avalanche. I was trapped under the avalanche and I knew that I was going to die. You cannot move under an avalanche, not even one finger. It's like having concrete poured on you. It was at night so you can't see anything either. And then after 1½ - 2 minutes somebody scratched my face and I could breathe.

That's why I always say "breathe once more, breathe once more" that's the theme of my life. If I'm breathing I'm alive. And I thought "What the fuck are we going to do now!" We are trapped under 10 meters of snow, on a glacier, no one is looking for us, in complete darkness, in cold and 50% of the fuselage has been occupied by snow from the avalanche. So we were trapped against the roof of the fuselage but we were still breathing so I said "I'm not dead!" So we made a tunnel, we broke the window on the right hand side of the cockpit and we made a tunnel all the way out.

I thought "I'm breathing, so I will fight" The moment I stop breathing that's when I'll understand that I'm dead. There was no hope, nothing, but if I can breathe I can breathe once more. If I'm breathing I'm alive. My mind could not elaborate a thought any stronger or deeper than that. There was no future and no tomorrow.

Then what happened?

We took the snow out, it took us like a week to take the snow out from inside the fuselage. Nothing happens up there, you cant do anything. What do you do when you are trapped in a fuselage? Nothing! You cannot go for a walk, you cannot explore the surroundings, you cannot go shopping, you just stay there inside and spend your time doing nothing. So many days, one after another, and nothing happens.

What did you think about in that time?

What I was thinking about? I was thinking about what was the best way to die, I thought I wouldn't want to die in the fuselage looking into the eyes of the other guys. So I said "I'm going to go to the West because the West is Chile, I'm going to climb these mountains and if anyone wants to come with me then good but if not I will go alone". I chose Roberto(Canessa) and Antonio(Vizintin) to come with me because they were the guys who were in the best physical shape, I told them "I'm leaving as soon as the weather clears, as soon as the weather is milder I'm leaving, I'm going to the West"

It was not easy to leave the secure feeling of the fuselage because we had to go on a mission which wouldn't have a happy ending. I could have died on that trek, and you wouldn't be here and nobody would have ever found us, we would be frozen on a glacier in the Andes.

So it was not easy to leave but I wanted to leave before I was too weak to attempt the escape. It was a very strange equation, "I have to leave, I don't want to leave, I'm afraid, but I have to leave, but I have to leave before I'm too weak to attempt it, so when should I leave?" I just chose a date - December 12th just to have something to tell me when I have to leave. Because if I didn't choose a date when should it be? I didn't know that we were going to cross the Andes.

When you were all stuck on the glacier how did being part of a rugby team help you guys?

We had been through so many games together that we knew very well the way we thought and the way we could help each other. We were very close friends. That friendship from the rugby field and rugby training, and the rugby atmosphere was there. We were a team there, we were playing a different kind of game up there on the glacier but we were supporting each other a lot. I think that in New Zealand or Australia people will understand how important rugby was for us.

On the field you have several captains during a game, the captain is not always the guy who is leading the team, other guys by their actions on the field can also become leaders. Up there in the Andes everybody was a leader at some time or another by their actions.

I think about my teams when I was 18 or 19 and I can't possibly imagine that we were in your situation, its impossible to imagine what it must have been like.

I don't know, but I might be tempted to believe that a soccer team wouldn't have survived, that's a very personal feeling. That's my feeling.

You chose Roberto and Antonio to accompany you because they were strong, what do you remember about them as teammates?

Roberto was a wing, a very fast and strong wing. Antonio was a prop. Antonio was more silent and very strong and I thought he could be useful to carry weight and things like that but after the first days we had to send him back to the fuselage because we realized that we were very far away from help and that we would need his food.

Roberto was very outspoken, a guy with a lot of energy, I thought that we could compliment each other very well. I was very calm and with good commonsense. Roberto was very extroverted, very strong, always doing crazy things on the rugby field, but he scored a lot of tries. We made a great team.

How did you and Roberto keep each other's spirits up and encourage each other on the journey?

There isn't a lot of dialog because you don't walk side by side, it's a trek and there is no path, sometimes you are separated by 10 minutes or half an hour. It's not like walking on the street.
I was like a steam engine and thought that every step I take I'm nearer to some place so I never stopped, I never stopped. You don't have a lot of time to talk but you feel the presence, you are very tired. When we stopped then we talked but sometimes during the trek we didn't know exactly where the other was. He was there though, maybe 100 meters behind or something.

Like on the field, sometimes you don't need to be able to see your teammates, you know they are there, was that what it felt like on the trek?

He knew I was there and I knew that he was there, even if I couldn't see him. That is the great thing about this trek, there wasn't a lot of dialog but there was a lot of support. I think we both understood that we couldn't spend a lot of energy on talking. We were on the brink of dying, we had lost all our fat and all our muscles, we were dying. He was starting to lose his vocal cords and that is when you are really at the end of your strength.

One key part of the trip was when you climbed the first mountain and you were hoping to see something better.

Yes, we were hoping to see something Green but all I saw were mountains and snow. When I reached the top Roberto was shouting to me "Do you see anything green?, do you see anything green?"

What we saw was absolutely terrifying, and that was my confirmation that we were finally at the end of the road. But we still had 7 more days to go!

I then made the biggest decision of my life in 30 seconds. I decided the way I was going to die, I looked at the mountains to the West and I was sure there was no way we could get through all that, snow covered peaks 360 degrees around. I then decided in 30 seconds "I'm going to die walking through these mountains so that when my face crashes against the ice I'll be so exhausted that I wont feel anything". And then we started towards the West.

And so every other decision compared to that one in my life is very small. I have the ability to compare, I wish I didn't have. Not many people decide the way they want to die. I decided that and every other decision in life or work has been quite easy compared to that one.

How was the journey?

We went down and up, across glaciers, rivers and rapids, over boulders and whatever else you can imagine that exists. Whatever you can see in the Himalayas we went through or over, and in rugby boots! I'm glad that we only walked for 10 days because if we had to walk any further my boots would have been destroyed and I would have had to walk barefoot. It's difficult to walk on the mountains where there are no paths, its just rocks, in barefoot I think I would have died.

Did you have a sensation that you were getting closer?

We were getting closer but we never got anywhere because the distances are so big. You walk and walk. Finally on the sixth day the snow ended, we kept going down and down but we never reached tree level. We were still very high up.

We saw a little path as if made by cattle and also saw a small rusted can. We wondered where the can came from, we didn't know if it had been there for 1 year or for 10 years. But there were now signs that we getting close to safety.

How was it that you saw this person, the Chilean farmer Sergio Catalan?

It was on the evening of the tenth day that we saw on the other side of the valley a man on horseback, he was going down the mountain. The sun was setting and the night was coming fast. We saw him and we started shouting and shouting. That was the beginning of the end. Even then it was not over because it took him a lot of time to get help and come back and for the helicopters to get to us. From the moment we saw him until we rescued the other guys took almost 48 hours.

Did you feel that when you saw him that you were alive again?

Yes, as soon as I had contact with him and we could communicate. We communicated across the river with written notes and he threw us some cheese and bread. That was when I knew, I knew that he was not going to leave us there. We could not have walked one day more, we would have died. We were at the extreme limit, I lost almost 90 pounds. We were at the extreme limit.

It must have been amazing to now think that you were going to get out, but you still had to help the other guys?

Yes, I was saved but there were still 12 more guys back in the fuselage, 2 or 3 of them were very weak when we left and I was very worried that they might have died in the 2 weeks after we left. My immediate thoughts were about how to get them out of there. They showed me maps and I tried to pinpoint the place where I thought they were. The rescue team said "No that's impossible, that's so far away that's in Argentina". They said to me "You have to come with us in the helicopter and show us where they are"

So you had to go back up in the helicopter.?

I had to go back, I didn't want to go back and that was the second biggest decision of my life. Because once you are saved and you are in the grass, you have doctors, you have food, you have everything. And then they tell you that you have to fly again over the mountains in bad weather to rescue the others. Its just one of those things and I had to go. I found myself strapped into the helicopter and flying over the mountains again. But even with me pinpointing the landmarks and the route they thought I was lost, they couldn't believe that we had traveled so far on foot. Finally we reached the site and started to ferry the guys out.

What was it like when you came down and you saw the guys and they saw you?

This was a very high altitude rescue so there wasn't much air for the blades of the helicopter, the pilot told me "We are very heavy, I don't know if we will be able to touch down with both skis, I will just touch down with one and let the rescue guys jump out." As we were circling over the fuselage I was trying to count the guys that were running around the fuselage to see how many there were. It was a very emotional moment with mixed emotions, I was very afraid of flying up there again but I was very happy that I was being a key part in the rescue. Because otherwise they wouldn't have found them. They didn't know where they were.

It was a time of amazing different emotions, incredibly strong. So some of the guys got on and some had to stay there another night?

There was not enough space in the helicopter, only 3 guys jumped into my helicopter and the rest had to wait until the weather was better. It was very windy and the helicopters were heavy. The next day they came with less fuel so that they could get the others out. Looking back it was a very interesting experience the rescue. Very brave guys those in the helicopters.

You as well!

I didn't have a choice, I was there strapped in my seat!

The pilot asked the crew halfway to the site if they should go ahead as the flying conditions were quite bad. Everybody said yes "lets go, lets go this is a rescue mission we must go on" They love that, they are trained to do that. I think that they train all their lives for a rescue mission and once they have one they want to complete it and they are very brave.

I think that they were probably inspired by your story, you and Roberto, you guys had made a huge effort and I'm sure that they felt that and wanted to collaborate and help get the guys out of there.

And then you guys were all back down on the ground

They took us to the hospital in the town of San Fernando which was about a half hour flight from the rescue camp. In helicopter again, they took us straight to the hospital and I stayed there for 2 days.

Physically how did you feel at that time?

I was very weak, very skinny. I hadn't taken my clothes off in 2½ months, I had just put on layers and layers of clothes whenever I had an opportunity to get something else. When they cut my clothes off and I looked at myself in the mirror it was an awful site. I was very skinny, I had no legs, just bones!

What was it like to have your first foods after all that time?

I can't recall there being a feast or anything like that. I think we got to eat quite normally, its not like you are hungry and you must eat in one day everything that you haven't eaten. You eat normally, you have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But maybe enjoying every bit a little bit more. It tasted great, anything would taste great. We were craving for sweet things, sugar was our biggest craving.

You stayed in the hospital and then your sister and your father came over?

Yes, my sister and my father came over from Montevideo to Santiago and I met them at the hospital.

How was that?

It's such a long story. While I was rescuing the other guys in the helicopter my father and sister were flying to Chile in a commercial flight. When they rescued us the previous night they sent our names to the radios stations of Uruguay so they knew I was alive with Roberto and also that there were more 14 survivors up in the mountain.

But nobody knew who the other 14 were because I didn't want to tell the names in case someone else had died, it would have been like killing them twice. I said there might be 14. So when my father and sister were flying to Chile they didn't know about my mother and sister. When my father got to the hospital that's when he asked me if my mother and sister were alive. They were very difficult, very emotional moments.

So many emotional moments, you said that for your father you knew it would be hard for him and that's an important reason why you were determined to get out.

Yes, I knew how he would be feeling knowing that all his family had been killed in 1 second. I felt his presence as I had my whole life and that gave me a lot of strength to get back to him. That was the main ingredient in my strength and I think that none of the other survivors had that. It was very different for me compared to the others. I went there, I went through what they went through, plus I lost my mother, plus I lost my sister, plus I lost my 2 best friends, plus I crossed the Andes on foot, plus I got into the helicopter and went back to get them.

They went on the worst picnic of their lives but they returned to their houses and to their families. So it's very different. They got back and everything was the same. My universe was destroyed. In my house my clothes were not there, my room was not there, and my mother and my sister and my friends were not there.

In the years immediately after your return what was your attitude to life, what did you do in that time?

I realized how fragile life is, how beautiful life is and how much I fought for it, I wanted to enjoy my life a lot. I think you only live once and having touched death so many times and being able to live again it's a joy, it's a present for me to be able to work to have a family.

That was when you started with motor racing?

Yes I started racing and it's a very personal decision and nobody can see it the way I see it. People say I had so much courage, but its actually the other way around. I had always loved racing cars and since I was very small my father took me to the races, he was very much involved so it's kind of a genetic thing. Before the crash I didn't dare to be a race driver, I just went to watch, but I loved races.

When I got back I thought "I almost died and I have not done what I really wanted to do in my life" So I started racing because that was what I loved to do. I think it's a shame to spend your life without doing what you love.

What else did learn or you incorporate into your life as a result of what you lived?

A lot of things that we learnt up there I have used in my business and commercial life without even knowing it. Now I look back and I realize I have done so. The quick decision making, the teamwork, not being afraid to face changes, all those things applied with this confidence that I had. It didn't matter if I was successful or not I just wanted to do it. I had lost everything, my life, my friends, my money, I had lost everything and now that I had the opportunity to do it all over again I just wanted to do things.

I do what I feel I have to do, if you start to think a lot and analyze the pros and cons its a very conservative way of seeing things. I think you must make things happen, it's like writing the script to your own life. If you just wait to see what happens in your life then nothing happens.

I prepare things, I do things, I want to create things, I'm always on the go, I want to enjoy things with my family. I think also that you must be a successful family man and not only a successful businessman. I've been successful, I own 5 companies so you can have fun, work hard, and be successful.

In modern society it's hard to say when a boy becomes a man as opposed to the rituals of a traditional society. Do you think that in some way that the experience that you had on the mountain defined the moment when a group of boys became men?

Yes I think it allowed us, or took us, or it threw us into a world where we had to decide, feel, suffer and see things that very few grown men get to do, and we had to do it when we were 18 or 19. So I think that we had a very early education at the University of Life. Of what happens when things go wrong. I think we learned a lot, without even thinking about it we learned. I never think about what I learned, its something that grows with you and you have it inside and it makes you sometimes see things that other people don't see.

What qualities in people do you value most?

I value commonsense, I think it's a very important attitude and value. I think its important to be sincere and I also value humbleness. I don't like superstars who believe that they are God. I've met fantastic people who are at the top of their world and are very humble. That's something I value a lot.

You have a wife and 2 daughters, what do you like to do together?

We like to travel a lot, we have traveled a lot together. I think it's a great family thing. I also like them to be their own bosses as I don't want to clip their wings, they are very free but they love to work with me sometimes. I do a lot of documentary films in the world and they have traveled with me helping me and they love that They know what's good and what's not. I think that if you see the kids you see the parents, for me that's a rule. I think that if you record the cassette well then what comes out is good music. If they have a good base and do the correct things they will be great kids.

Tell me a little about the films that you make?

I produce films for one of my TV programs called Camera in Action. We film different geopolitical, travel, and geographic documentaries. I'm also doing a series with the best cars in the world where I drive Lamborghini's, Ferraris, Porches, and Aston Martins. I do a 1 hour documentary with them and I link them some of the most beautiful places in the world. We have just returned from Tuscany where we did a documentary.

I also produce 6 one hour television shows each week here in Uruguay. So it's a lot of work, but nice work. Nothing compared to the Andes, nothing will ever be hard for me compared to that!

Are you still involved with rugby in any way?

I'm very close to the Old Christians club, I go to most of the games. If they need some help I'm always there.

Do you meet with Roberto and the other survivors?

Yes we meet very often, we get together 5 or 6 of us each week, we live in the same neighborhood so we see each other quite a lot.

You and Roberto made the trip across the Andes together do you see each other a lot?

We are very close and intimate friends, we know each other so well that we cannot fool each other, he knows what I think and I know what he thinks. Even without talking I look at him and I know what he's thinking. So we get along fine although he's more extroverted, like an exploding bomb, I'm quieter but we always get to the same place.

He's a great doctor now and both his sons are playing rugby for the Old Christians club, it's like passing the torch.

You have had many travels and adventures, what things would you like to do next, any place that you would like to travel to?

I'm always thinking about doing things, I don't know if I call them adventures or if its just feeling that you are alive and enjoying life. Now I'm going to the States for the 100-year anniversary of Harley Davidson with 6 friends. We are doing a 2-week trip and going to Sturgis, Dakota where there will be 500,000 other motorcycles there. So that's my next adventure.

You haven't been to New Zealand yet?

No, I've read a lot about New Zealand and I know a lot about Bruce Mclaren and Denny Hulme. Everybody I know that has been there tells me that it's a beautiful place. I think it fits well with the way I like to live, I like to do a lot of trekking and sports and I think New Zealand is a good place for that.

Thank you very much for sharing your experiences and wisdom with me, its been an amazing experience to be here talking and listening to you.

Its an amazing story, I think I cannot grasp the whole significance of it because I have lived it. I don't think Tiger Woods thinks about how good he is playing because he is just playing. When you live things you don't really know how big or important they are, they just happen.

It just happened to me and I wish it hadn't happened. I think that all human beings are the same, some go through some things some go through other things, some are born in New Zealand, some in Uruguay, and some in Africa. I never look back, bad things happen, we must cope with them.

One last question, Who do you think is going to win the rugby world Cup?

I guess it's going to be between England and the All Blacks. Uruguay has a good chance! Uruguay's group is very hard, but Uruguay has a lot of courage and did very well in the last world Cup. Can you imagine Uruguay against the All Blacks?

I would love to meet Jonah Lomu, I saw him play against the Pumas in 2001 and also in the sevens when he came to Punta del Este. When the All Blacks or Springboks come to play the Pumas in Buenos Aires I usually go to watch.

I stop my tape and thank Fernando for sharing so much with me. It's been a very special experience for me and I hope that my tape recorder worked OK. I present Fernando with a copy of NZ rugby book "The full 80 minutes" and he eagerly flicks through it and absorbs a little of the soul of the New Zealand game. I take a couple of photos, take a last look at the photos of his life and adventures on the walls of his offices, trying to take in as much as I can and delay my departure for a few minutes more.

Fernando and his Secretary bid me a very warm goodbye and I head out into the windy Montevideo autumn, I feel the cold wind but inside I feel life's fire urning brightly fueled by the openness and wisdom that Fernando hared with me. I feel honored and privileged for having had this experience.

The 1972 Old Christians Club 1st XV. Fernando Parrado stands third from the right.
Visit the official Alive site to learn more about this amazing history and its participants