It’s been 50 years since the Andes Plane Crash. As harrowing as the story is, its inspirational qualities have helped millions across the world deal with adversity.
It’s a story that’s become renowned for cannibalism.
But Dr. Roberto Canessa was pivotal in the survival of 16 people, with the type of heroic actions you’d normally expect in wartime. And it’s important to focus on what was achieved on the Andes mountain range half a century ago.
I Had to Survive: How a Plane Crash in the Andes Inspired My Calling to Save Lives
There are survival stories, then there’s the Andes Plane Crash. This is an entirely different type of story—the comparisons we can think of are WWII, the holocaust, Chernobyl, etc.
This particular incident wasn’t an international event on a tangible scale, but on a psychological, primal level it’s impossible to ignore.
Dr. Canessa features heavily in the above documentary, 2008’s Stranded: I’ve come from a plane that crashed on the mountains. That’s the ultimate account of this story. At least in documentary form—all 16 survivors provided their take.
But Dr. Canessa’s 2016 book is a brilliant addition to this legendary survival story.
50 years later, it’s easy to simplify everything. But at this point right now, back in 1972, everything seemed doomed for those who’d survived a violent plane crash into the middle of the Andes mountain range.
But what followed became known as Miracle in the Andes. Or now, primarily, as the Andes Plane Crash.
On 13th October 1972, a plane was carrying 45 passengers (a big bunch being young amateur rugby players on their way to a game in Chile). The pilots made an error, given the headstrong wind above the mountain range.
When they descended, they thought they’d easily cleared the Andes. Instead, there was time for a panicked mayday signal before the accident.
The plane crash was horrific. Yet for the survivors, the the two-month ordeal ahead was much worse. Roberto Canessa was amongst them, a hot-headed 19 year old medical student from Uruguay. He notes in his book this.
“In the hospitals where I’ve worked, some of my colleagues have criticised me, behind my back and to my face, for being domineering, impetuous, for flouting the rules or going beyond what’s considered proper conduct—something my companions on the mountains accused me of at times as well. But patients don’t care about the social mores of a medical corporation; they come to a hospital and then go home, no longer subject to its rules. My ways are the ways of the mountains. Hard, implacable, steeled over the anvil of an unrelenting wilderness in which one thing matters: the fight to stay alive.”
Based off that, it’s no surprise this book is brilliant—as brilliant as Dr. Canessa’s career. There’s no denying how accomplished the guy is. He’s a pre-eminent doctor in Uruguay and with good reason.
But aged just 19 in late 1972, this was the type of test he was forced into that’s quite inconceivable for most people. If you know the story, the survivors of the plane crash ate the flesh of those killed in the crash. They were frozen in the Andes mountain range.
That was a desperate attempt to stay alive. As he notes.
“Our story became world famous because of how we survived: by eating those who had died. It was, by far, our most eccentric idea, one that was simultaneously simple and audacious, and perhaps inconceivable. But we had felt the sensation of our bodies consuming themselves just to remain alive, the feeling of total and complete starvation, where merely standing up was enough to make us dizzy and pass out from hunger. We experienced that primitive instinct of true hunger—and perhaps what wild animals feel. It’s something innate, irrational. It was a young man with his mouth stained blue after trying to eat the synthetic leather of luggage that, in modern times, is no longer made from actual hides. Hunger demands, above all else, to be satisfied.”
From his early medical training, Dr. Canessa was aware eating the flesh, in that basic form of protein, would keep the survivors alive.
And with his strong character, he was able to spearhead many expeditions in the attempt to escape the mountain.
Ultimately, survival came down to one final, desperate mission. Along with Nando Parrado (see Miracle in the Andes), Dr. Canessa walked out of the Andes mountain range in December 1972 as a last ditch survival attempt with almost certain death behind it in its desperation.
It’s an achievement almost unbelievable in its bravery. His account of this effort in I Had to Survive is terrifying. As is the vivid depiction in the Stranded documentary.
Dr. Canessa’s book deals with the brutality of this story across its first 150 pages. And its aftermath, with the launch of his career and drive to save lives.
In Parrado’s work, amongst others, Dr. Canessa has been described as hard-headed and obstinate. And he was a difficult child, teenager, and young adult. But there’s no denying he’s an incredibly decent human being out to do good.
Along with his career, there’s no further proof than how Dr. Canessa and Parrado walked out of the Andes mountain range in an emaciated and weakened state.
It’s the staggering achievement of this story.
Most of the focus of the Andes Plane Crash is on the cannibalism—but the real focus should be on what Canessa and Parrado managed in December 1972. The achievement is phenomenal.
As a physical accomplishment, given their heavily emaciated condition, it’s an act of unrivalled bravery.
Both later admitted they were convinced they’d die in the escape attempt.
By sheer luck, after 11 days they stumbled across mountain range shepherd Sergio Catalán and his son. Catalán, a shy and retiring man, rode on horseback for 10 hours to alert authorities.
The survivors spent the next 40+ years very thankful of that, even funding a hip replacement for him.
Sergio Catalán died in February 2020 at the age of 91.
The survivors had to deal with a rabid, sensationalist press trying to stir crap up about that. The survivors all handled that incredibly well, in mature fashion with explanations that maybe even the tabloids could comprehend.
To combat the negative press, the survivors met with British writer Piers Paul Read and launched Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors (1974). That was later adapted into the 1993 Hollywood film Alive.
That account is most recent and vivid. But Parrado’s brilliant and moving for his focus on family and the loss of his sister and mother in the crash.
Dr. Canessa’s work is a contemplation on everything—in clinical, clear fashion. Often difficult to stomach, but the reality of things.
The ordeal on the Andes is 50 years ago. But if you want to experience it, you’ll come out of the other side with appreciative powers that’ll make you a better person.
And we think that’s why, after several decades, Dr. Canessa (now 69) finally decided to pen his version of the story. This is his gift to the world—for future generations.
About Dr. Roberto Canessa
It’s worth noting there’s much more to Dr. Canessa than the Andes incident he’s famous for. The book makes it all clear! But he married Laura Surraco (delayed due to the Andes tragedy) in the early 1970s and the pair are still together.
Dr. Canessa is also an MD, doctor of medicine. He works as a paediatric cardiologist and, since the early ’00s, as a motivational speaker.
In 1994, he was also a candidate in the presidential elections for Uruguay.
His forceful disposition may not sit well for some, at times, but it’s clearly always come from a position of deep empathy.
And his compassionate portrayal of the Andes tragedy, and the obvious impact it’s had on his life, is moving to see.
As with many of the Andes Plane Crash survivors, he waited many decades before fully recounting this story. Perhaps because of due diligence—respect for survivors. His concerns over offending family members. His own concept of the situation. And his business with his job!
But in later life it’s all become apparent. And this book cements his legacy in place. We’re glad he took the time to do it, as this is an excellent book. It tells the type of story few can even imagine living through.
Stranded: The Andes Plane Crash Documentary In Full
We consider Stranded a life-changing documentary. It’s all above on YouTube—highly recommended as one of the more obscure documentaries of our time.
Whilst harrowing, and very moving, it does provide a remarkable ending.
The Andes Plane Crash is, ultimately, uplifting amongst its harrowing tragedies. And it helps people overcome horrendous issues they come across.
But you’ll also just revel in the plucky, fighting spirit of the young people who took on the mountains in late 1972.