Andean Memories: Heroes Made and Lost within the Snow

Andean Memories: Heroes Made and Lost within the Snow

Andes mountains

Bribed by a glistening twenty ounces of gold, a lowly mail courier was convinced to do the impossible: cross the Andes from Mendoza to Santiago de Chile on foot in late autumn. Halfway across the pass a blizzard began. In order to brave the storm, the courier walled himself up for eighteen days in a tiny Casucha, one of the small cabins lining the pass that Charles Darwin would later describe as “caves, or rather dungeons”. Having run out of food and supplies, he decided on the nineteenth day to make a break for it and fought his way through the storm across the pass into Chile. A year or so after the experience in 1849, the courier would comment to a fellow traveller that no amount of gold could “induce him to renew the attempt,” not “after the terrible experiences he had already gained.”

This courier was not the first nor would he be the last to make the terrible trip. Decades earlier General Jose de San Martin performed one of the most epic crossings of the Andes Mountains of all time. In January of 1817, he hatched the plan to catch the Spanish troops in Chile off-guard by attacking not from the waterfront as was anticipated, but from behind. During the twenty-one day trek, the troop lost more than 1,000 soldiers and half of the horses they had with them. Despite these casualties, the meagre and exhausted army still managed to defeat the enemy, sending Spaniards fleeing from their Chilean strongholds. This heroic deed has branded San Martin’s memory into the pages of history books and onto the names of main streets throughout Argentina.

Two years later, the Spaniards still had not incorporated ‘crossing the Andes’ into their book of tactics to watch out for, and General Simon Bolivar was able to liberate Colombia by crossing in from Venezuela. Even before the conquerors however, insatiably curious scientists like Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin traversed Andean peaks and passes seeking to document new species, and to discover proof for hair-brained theories like evolution. High up in the mountains Darwin found petrified coastal trees and shell fossils, proof that the mountain had once been alongside the ocean. In the early 1900’s American outlaw Robert Leroy Parker, more commonly known as Butch Cassidy, hid out within the foothills in Patagonia and was eventually shot in Bolivia after one last desperate rush for the gold.

The legends of men are made and destroyed within Andean cliffs. There is no place where this is more clear, than on the peaks of Aconcagua where decades of the mountain’s victims lay frozen in time along the trail to the summit. One climber describes the corpse of such a victim, “the dead guy’s grave is located at 5,800 meters… The grave is just around the corner from our tent. The corpse is covered by a pile of rocks and some discarded mountaineering gear.” The bodies of these men and women remain intact as if they had died yesterday, yet the memories have long since been blown away.

One unshakable memory, however, and the subsequent making of perhaps the most epic Andean heroes of all time, is the tragic story of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. In October of 1972, a private jet carrying a Uruguayan rugby team as well as some their friends and family members (45 in total), crashed into jagged wintry cliffs at around 3,600 meters. Twelve passengers died on impact, and another six passed within the next few days. With little to no equipment to deal with the harsh Andean conditions, the survivors hid out in the broken fuselage surviving on candy bars and bottles of wine, and then eventually the bodies of their deceased friends, unkind reality that later made the movie version of the story such a success thanks to its sensational tagline “Rugby players eat their dead”. Years later, survivor Nando Parrado helped illuminate the connection between their ability to stay alive in the Andes partly thanks to the consumption of human flesh, and his vocation of Rugby player: “[Rugby is] a game that’s misunderstood by people who don’t play… They don’t understand the team spirit, the sacrifice you make of yourself for another player so he can score. We survived from that spirit. If we had been soccer players, we would have died.”

On the eighth day, the shaky reception of a transistor radio told them that the search had been called off—it had proved impossible to find a white plane amidst miles and miles of white snow. An avalanche killed eight more on the sixteenth day. Finally after waiting for the worst of the extreme winter weather to pass, three of the survivors set out to look for help. Walking westward for days, and resting under the shelter of a patchwork sleeping bag the group had fashioned at night, the three finally found signs of human life leading to the eventual rescue of the remaining sixteen passengers after two and a half months stranded in the Andes.

Like the mail courier two centuries before, sheer will power and the intense animal instinct to survive were the only things that kept the remaining passengers of Flight 571 from being swallowed up by the Andes entirely. Those who prove themselves strong enough to overcome the extremity of Andean hardship are not soon forgotten.

By Gwynne Hogan

Published in the December 2011/January 2012 edition of Wine Republic