Book of the Week: Alive – The Andes Flight Disaster

Alive - The Andes Plane Crash
An inspiring account of overcoming adversity.

The Andes plane crash (officially known as the 1972 Andes flight disaster) is a story a lot of people know about, but usually only with a vague appreciation and some understanding of it involving cannibalism. Reading into it in greater detail, you’ll find it’s a remarkable account of human bravery in the face of monumental adversity.

There were 16 survivors who were rescued in December 1972 following heroic efforts from Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa to walk out of the mountain range, but they found some of the world’s media acted with outrage upon learning how they’d survived. This 1974 account of the events by Piers Paul Read set out to dispell the false claims and media hysteria following the disaster, and so stands as the only detailed insight from the time.

Alive

On October 13th 1972, Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which was carrying 45 people to an amateur rugby event, descended into the mountain range of the Andes following a navigation mistake by the pilots. After an extremely violent crash, 27 survivors found themselves stranded in the middle of the Andes mountain range in subzero temperatures.

Their subsequent efforts to survive have become legendary and notorious in equal measure, and have been much discussed in books, films, and documentaries ever since. After a week being stranded in the wilderness, they learned the search for them had been abandoned after they picked up the news on a makeshift radio.

Devastated, with the bodies of their dead friends frozen in the snow and the plane’s remaining fuselage as their home, they soon realised their only chance was to consume the bodies and try and hike out of the mountain range. They were, of course, terribly ill-equipped to do the latter and had no experience climbing enormous mountains.

Human ingenuity stepped in. The young men (most of whom were university students around the ages of 19 and 20 – Nando Parrado, whose mother and sister died in the crash, even celebrated his 21st birthday in the Andes) used their brains to their advantage. This eventually led to a really quite astonishing physical and mental effort from two brave souls to reach safety.

Piers Paul Read had access to the 16 survivors in the early 1970s, and the result is this famous book. It’s a good bit of writing which, for us, is spoiled somewhat by the Christian agenda the writer sets out to promote. Being appalling, soulless atheists, we think it would have been better to tell this amazing story from a neutral perspective, but there you go.

It’s incredibly inspirational nonetheless and remains a testament to the human spirit and the resolve of the 16 men involved, 15 of whom are alive to this day. If you want to read something in turns harrowing but ultimately uplifting this autumn, this is the book to turn to in order to help you through difficult times or to allow you to appreciate your existence.

Stranded

We can also refer you to the excellent documentary Stranded: I’ve come from a plane that crashed on the mountains for further insights, which we believe you can find on YouTube for free. Released in 2008, it’s an impressive film which relies on minimalism to tell its story, with detailed insights provided by all 16 survivors.

Nando Parrado (one of the two who spent 10 days walking out of the mountain range) would later write about his experiences in the excellent Miracle in the Andes (2006), and Canessa (Parrado’s trekking partner) also released a book earlier this year called I Had to Survive, which we’ll be reading later this year.

6 comments

  1. I read this book many years ago, it was quite disturbing, but it certainly proves that man’s will to survive is the strongest instinct that we have.

    • Yes, it’s disturbing but ultimately uplifting I believe and the survivors have since become great motivational speakers. So I think this story has ended up helping millions of people through difficult times, so it’s wonderful they’ve been able to use their experiences to help others.

      • I haven’t seen or heard of the survivors since the book came out. I am sure we would all do what we can to survive. For me the most moving part of the book was the trek across the mountains in search of help. It was really an overwhelming challenge that they rose to conquer.

        • From what I read, they just got on with their lives and kept quiet about it for decades. In the 2006, Parrado wrote an excellent book, and there was the documentary Stranded (2008) which is rather brilliant – very moving. So they’ve been open about it in older age. It’s quite the remarkable story!

    • Parrado’s Miracle in the Andes does just that, which is why I recommend that one over Alive.

      The film adaptation actually has the most terrifying recreation of a plane crash I’ve ever seen. Bloody hell, is it scary. Unfortunately, the rest of it isn’t quite up to those standards. It’s also weird as John Malovich provides a voice-over at the start (as Ethan Hawkes’ character – Parrado), but then isn’t in the film.

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