Nando Parrado: Constructing Meaning from Tragedy and Survival in the Andes
by John Rosicky, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Human Services Department
The world can be a dangerous and unforgiving place. Most of us prefer not to be reminded of this stark reality, but those who are thrust into the fire and emerge unbroken show us the existence of surprising and untapped reservoirs of courage and fortitude. Neitzsche famously said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” This idea that hardship builds character and toughness goes back at least as far as the Spartans. Kurt Hahn founded Outward Bound in part to give young seamen the mental toughness to survive harsh conditions at sea by teaching confidence, tenacity, and resilience. Yet few of us willingly seek the kinds of experiences that could act as the crucible to temper our inner metal. Certainly, Nando Parrado did not.
A routine flight turned suddenly into a life-altering trial that tested Nando Parrado’s perseverance, fortitude and will to live. On October 13, 1972, the plane carrying his Uruguayan rugby team, along with his mother and his sister, crashed into the Andes Mountains between Argentina and Chile. Of the 45 people on board, 28 survived the initial crash. The body of the plane came to rest on a remote glacier at an elevation of 11,500 feet, surrounded by towering peaks. Parrado was in a coma for two days with a fractured skull. His mother died on impact and his sister died in his arms a few days later. Ill-equipped to cope with the rigors of the barren and brutally cold mountains, he and 15 of his teammates survived for 72 agonizing days, partly by consuming the flesh of those who had died. After it became clear that rescue was unlikely and the remnants of the plane had been struck at night by an avalanche, killing several more in the party, Parrado and one of his teammates Roberto Canessa undertook a desperate journey to get help. They climbed and walked for 10 days across 14,000 foot mountains, convinced that they would not survive, but determined to literally die trying. After 72 days in the wilderness, they staggered into a small village and within days directed a search party back to the site of the crash to rescue the rest of the survivors.
It is this story of courage, teamwork, determination, and leadership that we are privileged to hear from Nando Parrado, along with his reflections on the lessons that can be learned from such an experience. His story may be familiar to many: a book and a movie, both entitled, Alive, dramatized the tragic crash and subsequent events; a popular History Channel documentary, I AM ALIVE: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash, further explored the ordeal; and Parrado wrote his own deeply personal account in the bestseller, Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home. Parrado now gives us the opportunity to hear his personal narrative first-hand.
By all accounts, Parrado was an energetic, if unremarkable, young man before his plane crashed in the Andes. However, the extreme physical rigors of the high mountains, his grief and fear, and the needs of his teammates, along with the imperative to survive, focused his attention on what was essential and brought out some of his best characteristics. Parrado astutely observes that the bonds of family and friendship can be surprisingly powerful motives in a crisis. It was his emotional connection to his father that kept him going, even when all hope appeared to have faded, and his commitment to his friends and teammates that allowed him to persevere when on his own he may have given up. Fortunately, Parrado was able to reach deep within and find the truly meaningful connections that allowed him to not only survive, but become a leader.
After the publication of Alive, and the release of the movie, Parrado began receiving requests to speak about his experience. He is a keen observer and speaks genuinely and eloquently about his own hard-won wisdom. Not surprisingly, he has found success as a businessman and television producer. He speaks five languages and travels extensively.
In a 2012 article in Psychology Today, Dr. Gaby Cora described Parrado as having five outstanding characteristics: clarity of purpose, generosity of time, humility, a sense of service, and a profound perspective for what is truly important. These are the latent strengths that he discovered, or developed, during his struggle in the Andes. They helped him to survive his odyssey, lead his teammates to safety, and succeed in his endeavors since then. His story is both profound and inspirational. We are fortunate that he is here to share it with us.
John Rosicky, Ph.D., is Professor and Chair of the Human Services Department at Stevenson University. He has run a variety of therapeutic outdoor programs and trekked in the Andes with his family.