The event, in the end a 72-day odyssey, takes place a half century ago.
Nonetheless, the story and its extreme circumstances resonate still. A tale, initially at least, of disaster, desolation, and agonizing death. Matched only by subsequent triumph, jubilation, and an unquenchable zest for life.
A tale that grips the world, the events covered in extensive detail by the media. Then told, retold and told yet again. It becomes the source of both the 1993 film Alive and a 2006 novel, written by one of the survivors, appropriately titled Miracle in the Andes.
Very recently, first shown in select movie theatres and now available on web stream, comes a new and much heralded accounting.
So, look out for La Sociedad de la Nieve. Society Of the Snow, a tale that links the harsh and brutal reality of survival with a deep exploration of the human psyche.
October 1972. A Uruguayan rugby team, the Old Christians, embarks from Montevideo on a trip to Chile to play an exhibition match. In retrospect, it is a trip that never should have been taken.
Forced to touch down early in Mendoza, Argentina due to poor weather, the tour party takes off again the following afternoon. It is a Friday, ominously also the 13th day of the month, the date known for its unlucky symbolism. An inexperienced flight crew, an overloaded and badly underpowered Fairchild airplane, unpredictable headwinds and unstable cloud conditions, further hint at potential difficulties on the scheduled 90-minute flight to Santiago.
Sure enough, an hour in, looking to navigate through thick fog, the co-pilot badly misjudges the aircraft’s position. He turns north too soon and begins an ill-fated descent.
Severe turbulence shakes the plane. Ensnared by the mountain walls, engines screaming in protest. Then, a sickening, terrifying sound, as the belly of the aircraft smashes into a protruding ridge. The wings break off, the tail snaps. The fuselage careens down a steep slope at breakneck speed, finally coming to rest near the bottom of a glacier.
In effect, the crash slices the plane in half. Sixteen of the tour group die instantly. Others are gravely injured.
Eventually, some of the survivors stagger outside. All about, jagged mountains loom and white snow fields stretch endlessly. Still, an extraordinary story of survival, against increasingly insurmountable odds, begins.
As one might expect, leaders from the group emerge. Scratch and scramble for any scraps of available food. Squares of chocolate, crackers, tins of jam. Using strips of clothing, those with scanty medical backgrounds splint fractures. To counter blistering winds and temperatures that dip below -30C, help construct a makeshift wall out of crumpled metal, battered suitcases and broken seats.
Regardless, the nights are particularly brutal. Without the protection of winter coats or blankets, clothes quite literally freeze against the shivering bodies huddled together.
Dehydration also becomes a serious factor. Eating snow burns throats and cracks lips. Thirst becomes almost unbearable.
The situation soon moves from extremely bad to much worse. A plane flies overhead, but the wreckage below is invisible to the pilots. Several days later, via a rigged-up radio receiver, the survivors learn that any search for them is to be called off by the authorities.
Starvation now becomes a real possibility. And with it, a crucial moment when those remaining in the group decide to survive. Now realizing that outside help is not coming, they prepare to eat meat sliced from the bodies of the dead lying outside the plane.
This is an agonizing decision, cannibalism an inviolable taboo. However, with some choosing to imagine the consumption of human flesh a form of holy communion, the desperate desire to remain alive soon trumps any reservations. Quite simply, there are no other options available to them. No alternatives.
If the film unstintingly describes the initial plane crash and then the decision to eat human flesh, equally lurid is its depiction of a subsequent avalanche that kills another eight people. Tons of snow thunder through the gorge, pinning all those hunkered down in the fuselage. Buried, in the dark, on the verge of suffocation, those still living wait out the ensuing blizzard over four long and lonely days. In this most terrifying environment, test the limits of human endurance and the will to survive. Only when able to leave do they somehow punch a route to safety through the mangled cockpit.
The wait continues. By necessity, the group continues to acclimatize, learning to move about more efficiently in the harsh conditions, understanding to melt snow in bottles in order to drink. Yet, time drags on, no end in sight.
The calendar moves into December. The weather, by a few degrees, turns warmer. Finally, two young members of the group, Nando and Roberto, decide to trek west in hopes of reaching Chile. Showing remarkable courage and mental toughness, 61 days after the crash, they set out to seek help.
Ill equipped, facing a menacing and formidable landscape, knowing they might easily die on the way, they display the most human of qualities – namely making light of the fear of death while displaying the capacity to potentially sacrifice themselves for others.
After three exhausting days, fighting altitude sickness, the pair reach a summit of sorts. The temperature drops once again. And, with it, any happiness vanishes, as another endless series of ridges and peaks sweep to the horizon.
From this position, completely isolated nearly 5000 meters above sea level, Nando makes the massive decision to continue west. For another week, he and Roberto somehow struggle onwards. Refuse to give in. Remarkably, they cover over 60 kilometres. Life and death hang in the balance with every step.
At some point, the harsh landscape begins to ease. The pair reach a river, which they follow. Signs of life, a rusted soup can, a horseshoe, cow dung, buoy their spirits. Eventually, quite literally on their last legs, they encounter three cowboys patrolling the opposite bank. These man provide bread, then head for the nearest police station, a half day’s ride away.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Amazingly, against staggering odds, with the fate of the other fourteen survivors also riding on the success of their trek, Nando and Roberto reach civilization. They are then able to guide rescue helicopters to the site of the crashed plane. From there, the ordeal finally over, the group is airlifted to safety on December 22.
Shortly after the rescue, early in 1973, members of the Uruguayan and Chilean air forces build a simple grave at the crash site. A steel cross marks the spot where the twenty-nine who died due to the crash are buried. The weather-beaten marker remains today, a beacon nestled deep in the beauty and majesty of the Andes range.
For those who survived, indeed for all of us, may the cross forever remain a testament to raw courage and supreme strength of character. To heroism and mental fortitude, to trust and teamwork, sacrifice and resiliency. To love, to life and to leaders who do not crumble under pressure.
Food for thought as a new year, 2024, gets underway. In a world seemingly bent on its own destruction and dealing poorly with its own intense storms.