Thursday, November 10, 2011

Miracle in the Andes, by Nando Parrado

Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home, by Nando Parrado (with Vince Rause).  Three Rivers Press, 2006.  291 pp.  978-1-4000-9769-2.

... in which Nando and 15 other survivors struggle to survive a plane crash in the remote Andes.

This is the true story of the 1972 Andes plane crash.  Nando Parrado was a young man traveling with his rugby team from Uruguay to Chile in 1972.  Also on the charter flight were Nando's mother and younger sister, and several other friends and relatives of teammates, for a total of 44 passengers.  When the flight encountered bad weather high in the Andes, the plane crashed into the side of the mountain.  Many passengers died immediately, and the remaining survivors had to survive for several months on the bitterly cold, desolate mountainside (Parrado himself spent the first few days after the crash in a coma).  When it became clear that a rescue party was not coming for them, Nando had to lead a small group of people through the Andes on a desperate search for help.

This is a remarkable story.  By all rights, none of the 44 passengers should have survived the plane crash.  When the plane hit the mountain, the wings and tail fell off and the fuselage of the plane careened violently down the slope of the mountain, so it's enough of a miracle that anyone was left alive after the crash itself.  To survive on a glacier in the Andes for over two months is even more remarkable, especially considering that the survivors had no food, no cold weather clothing, and no survival training. 

Parrado does an admirable job of recounting the story, especially when parts of it must be extremely painful to recall.  The narrative moves along at a good pace, giving the reader plenty of background on the team and plenty of details covering their ordeal.  A great deal of the material is somewhat sensitive, and Parrado manages to handle those sections with as much tact and dignity as possible.  For instance, the most infamous aspect of the whole ordeal is how the survivors managed to live with no plant or animal life around them, and no food on the plane.  The survivors only managed to live because they eventually turned to the bodies of their dead friends.  Because the deceased had been buried in the snow, they were later able to dig them back up and use their bodies as a source of sustenance.  This is obviously a really sensitive topic that could easily become sensational, but Parrado manages to convey that they did not come to this decision lightly.  He doesn't dwell unnecessarily on the grisly details, but he also doesn't apologize for it.  He rightly recognizes that without this decision, no one would have made it off the mountain. 

The book as a whole is written in a very tactful, delicate fashion.  Parrado is obviously keenly aware of the fact that everyone made mistakes during the ordeal, and he makes a point of not singling out any particular person as being a problem.  If he's discussing certain members of the group as being less inclined to help with the day-to-day survival tasks, he makes sure to not mention any names.  If he is discussing weaker moments of particular individuals, he is careful to point out that these were extraordinary circumstances, and if someone fell into despair, they should not be judged harshly for it.  In some points I was not sure if Parrado was exercising some artistic license to avoid offending any friends (all of the 16 survivors of the crash are still alive and they're all still friends).  It did seem that he was sometimes being overly diplomatic, but I don't feel like that seriously detracts from the book as a whole. 

Personal rant:  This book has been likened to works by Jon Krakauer, particularly his book Into Thin Air.  I would disagree.  I have found that much of Krakauer's work has some element of self-serving interest to it, especially his account of his ordeal on Everest (and, to a lesser extent, Into the Wild), and I didn't get that feeling from this book at all.  Also, the circumstances are only superficially similar.  Krakauer's ordeal on Everest, described in Into Thin Air, was the result of a group of people choosing to challenge one of the mightiest elements of nature, and being forced to face the consequences of their own egotistical decision to attempt to conquer the highest mountain on Earth.  Parrado's ordeal was not by choice, and he faced many of the same mountaineering challenges that Krakauer did, but Parrado did it with no special equipment, no preparation, and virtually no strength after two months on the mountain.  Parrado also recognized that the reason survival was so difficult was because ultimately, this wasn't a place where humans were supposed to be, and that this was a situation where humans had to bow to a greater power, rather than try to conquer it.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in wilderness survival, or to anyone with an interest in memoirs with real meaning and importance.

5/5 stars.

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