Recently I have been focusing on building more Resilience. I have found myself drawn to the topic, possibly because of my own close encounter with death and the gruelling suffering I had to endure to survive. Resilience is an important quality to possess, it is the tendency to keep going when we want to quit. We all have a measure of it, some more than others. In today’s story, we will discover resilience at a whole other level. This resilience comes from a deep desire to survive unthinkable odds even if it means having the courage to do the unthinkable. Fair warning, some of the contents may be disturbing! Yet if you read on, I ask that you think about what you could accomplish if you had the same determination and will to succeed as the people in this story had to survive. My hope is that it will inspire and encourage you to push on when you want to give up.
In another article, I described what I learned about resilience from Ross Edgley¹, the first man ever to swim around Great Britain. Edgley completed a sports endeavour like no one before him. He showed incredible resilience battling the many challenges he faced during his 157 days at sea. Yet Edgley chose his adventure, planned and trained for it. But what if you are unprepared for a challenge. What if suddenly without warning you are thrown into a situation that is almost certain to put you through the greatest trial and suffering of your life? Would you have the resilience to survive, to bounce back from a constant stream of events designed to kill you?
In this article, I want to travel back in time to Friday the 13th of October 1972². We will board Flight 571 with Nando Parrado, his mother Euginia, and sister Susy. We will also be joined by Nando’s rugby team and a few other supporters en route to Santiago Chile for an exhibition rugby match. Unfortunately, that match would never get played. Somewhere over the Andes mountains things suddenly went badly wrong when the plane suddenly lost altitude. Nando was sitting next to his mother and sister looking out the window and wondering why the rocks were so close to the wings. A moment later they heard the bone-chilling sound of metal grinding on rock, then without warning the plane broke apart. Both wings and the tail section broke off the fuselage. The fuselage plowed down an embankment and smashed at speed into a snow wall instantly killing several of the passengers and pilots. The plane fragment came to rest 3,570 meters (11,710 ft) above sea level in a remote part of the Andes mountains.
Nando woke up 3 days later. Many were dead. The survivors had stacked up suitcases, seats, and whatever they could cobble together for a makeshift wall in the fuselage to shelter them from the extreme weather raging outside. Sadly, Nando’s mother was dead, but his sister Susy was still alive but badly injured. And so began the harrowing account of Nando and the other survivors who were about to face the worst challenge of their lives.
High up in the Andes mountains where their plane fragment had come to rest was one of the harshest places on earth. It was a lifeless, arid environment. In this zone, nothing grew and nothing survived. Temperatures could plummet to -40 degrees Celcius. The air was thin, basic food and water were in short supply — and disappearing fast. Yes, there was snow, but they couldn’t drink it as after a few attempts the freezing snow would shred the skin off their lips and mouth. Fortunately, someone found a way of melting the snow on a piece of aluminium metal in the sun. After a few days, all food was gone. Eight days after the crash, Nando’s sister sadly died in his arms. She had sustained many internal injuries and had already succumbed to frostbite on her feet. Nando now had lost half his family.
The survivors began to wonder if they would ever be rescued. Someone found a small transistor radio and managed to pick up a station. Their hopes were shattered when they heard the rescue efforts had been called off as it was now too dangerous to continue looking. They realized that to survive, would come down to themselves. But looking at the foreboding cliffs above them, climbing out looked impossible. The sheer rock face rose like impregnable walls. They had to crick back their necks to peer upwards. It looked like certain suicide to attempt a climb — which is why no one dared, at least not at that moment — but soon desperation would sink in and when that happens the impossible looks different.
The situation was bleak and getting bleaker as starvation and freezing conditions slowly chiselled away their dwindling resolve. At that altitude, and in those icy conditions, your body burns through calories much quicker. You need more food to sustain yourself. They had none! That’s when they thought of doing the unthinkable. They were starving, yet there was a rich source of food at their disposal. The flesh of the dead could sustain them with life-giving protein and possibly stay off starvation until they were found. Sometimes been resilient requires extreme action; unthinkable action that you never dreamed you would ever take. The pilots were the first to go. Using shards of glass they started stripping off the flesh piece by piece. Nando took a piece and placed it in his mouth. It was hard and tasteless. He tried chewing it. Eventually, he just swallowed it. Gradually as the days went by, they striped more and more flesh from the bodies until there was nothing left. As human supplies began to dwindle they started eating the offal; kidneys, liver, lungs, and hearts. They even cracked open skulls and ate out the brains. The bones piled up around the plane, an awful reminder of the horror that had become their existence. They made a pact that if they died, the others were to eat their flesh to survive. Nando’s mother and sister were left till last out of respect, but eventually, if it came to it, they would also be eaten.
It was two months before Nando realized that no one was coming. Their fates were sealed unless someone dared to take action and try to climb out and find help. Nando and two others volunteered to attempt the likely suicide mission and climb up the dangerous cliffs. They took a bit of human meat, put it into an old sock, put on whatever clothes they could find to provide warmth, and some very basic implements to aid in their climb. They had sewn together a sleeping bag specifically to help them last out the freezing nights. They had no specialized climbing gear; no crampons, ice picks, safety ropes, or steel anchors. They set off up the cliffs — cold, malnourished, injured, and fatigued.
Miraculously, days later, they made it up to the summit, calving out steps in the snow and ice to scale the icy cliffs and crags. On the summit, they peered out into the distance and all they could see were more mountains, snowy peaks in all directions. What a heart-wrenching moment; no salvation in any direction. They were in the middle of nowhere, and the situation looked truly hopeless. Yet, true resilience fights on and this is exactly what they did.
Nando spotted two smaller peaks in the distance with no snow on the caps. He figured they might be the outer reaches of the range, but must have been at least 50 miles away — a distance which seemed impossible to traverse. They were already broken and beaten by the monumental climb. How could they go any further? Yet at that moment they found a will to live, a drive to survive. They decided then and there that they would try and reach their target or die trying — at least it would be a better fate than dying in the valley they had come from. They sent one of their party back, to conserve rations — as the distance was far and they already were running low on food. They headed towards the valley which appeared to snake its way to the two peaks. Days later their miracle arrived; they found people. A day later helicopters were dispatched to rescue the rest of the survivors. Sixteen people survived, out of the 43 that started. Without Nando and his companions who made the climb, it is unlikely that anyone would have made it out alive.
The US marines have a rule about fatigue they call the 40% Rule. It says that when you think you are done, the point when you believe you have no more left to give, you are only then 40% of the way. I think the survivors in this story are an excellent example of this. They survived the unthinkable. The body and mind can get pushed to breaking point, and then get pushed some more. In truth, we are only done when we are dead and buried — and that point is probably a lot further than any of us can imagine. Looking back at the survivors of Flight 571, undoubtedly they faced a challenge not many of us will ever have to endure. Yet, if we went about our lives with their level of determination, what more could we achieve with our lives; I imagine significantly more than we ever believed possible