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Reaching the Summit (an excerpt from Nando Parrado’s "Miracle in the Andes")

June 24, 2010
Here is an excerpt from Nando Parrado’s book, Miracle in the Andes, a first-person account of true human desperation, elation, survival, grief, and love.  Written thirty years after the 1972 plane crash of his Uruguayan rugby team and the 72-day tragic aftermath amongst the highest peaks of Argentina, Nando describes the moment he reaches the first summit, which took four days to climb:

It was an agonizing process, inching up the mountain that way, and the hours passed slowly.  Sometime in late morning I spotted blue sky above a ridgeline and worked my way toward it.  After so many false summits, I had learned to keep my hopes in check, but this time, as I climbed over the ridge’s edge, the slope fell away flat and I found myself standing on a gloomy hump of rock and wind-scoured snow. It dawned on me slowly that there was no more mountain above me. I had reached the top.

I don’t remember if I felt any joy or sense of achievement in that moment. If I did, it vanished as soon as I glanced around. The summit gave me an unobstructed 360-degree view of creation. From here I could see the horizon circling the world like the rim of a colossal bowl, and in every direction off into the fading blue distance, the bowl was crowded with legions of snow-covered mountains, each as steep and forbidden as the one I had just climbed. I understood immediately that the Fairchild’s copilot had been badly mistaken. We had not passed Curicó, We were nowhere near the western limits of the Andes. Our plane had fallen somewhere in the middle of the vast cordillera.

I don’t know how long I stood there, staring. A minute. Maybe two. I stood motionless until I felt a burning pressure in my lungs, and I realized I had forgotten to breathe. I sucked air. My legs went rubbery and I fell to the ground. I cursed God and raged at the mountains. The truth was before me: for all my striving, all my hopes, all my promises to myself and my father, it would end like this. We would all die in these mountains. We would sink beneath the snow, the ancient silence would fall over us, and our loved ones would never know how hard we had struggled to return to them.

In that moment all my dreams, assumptions, and expectations of life evaporated into the thin Andean air. I had always thought that life was the actual thing, the natural thing, and that death was simply the end of living. Now, in this lifeless place, I saw with a terrible clarity that death was the constant, death was the base, and life was only a short, fragile dream. I was dead already. I had been born dead, and what I thought was my life was just a game death let me play as it waited to take me. In my despair, I felt a sharp and sudden longing for the softness of my mother and my sister, and the warm, strong embrace of my father.  My love for my father swelled in my heart, and I realized that, despite the hopelessness of my situation, the memory of him filled me with joy. It staggered me: The mountains, for all their power, were not stronger than my attachment to my father. They could not crush my ability to love. I felt a moment of calmness and clarity, and in that clarity of mind I discovered a simple, astounding secret: Death has an opposite, but the opposite is not mere living. It is not courage or faith or human will. The opposite of death is love. How had I missed that? How does anyone miss that? Love is our only weapon. Only love can turn mere life into a miracle, and draw precious meaning from suffering and fear. For a brief, magical moment, all my fears lifted, and I knew that I would not let death control me. I would walk through the god-forsaken country that separated me from my home with love and hope in my heart. I would walk until I had walked all the life out of me, and when I fell I would die that much closer to my father. These thoughts strengthened me, and with renewed hope I began to search for pathways through the mountains. Soon I heard Tintin’s voice calling to me from the slope below.

“Do you see any green, Nando?” he cried. “Do you see any green?”

“Everything will be fine,” I called down to him. “Tell Roberto to come up and see for himself.” While I waited for Roberto to climb, I pulled a plastic bag and the lipstick from my backpack. Using the lipstick as a crayon, I wrote the words MT. SELER on the bag and stuffed it under a rock. This mountain was my enemy, I thought, and now I give it to my father. Whatever happens, at least I have this as my revenge.

It took three hours for Roberto to climb the steps. He looked around for a few moments, shaking his head. “Well, we are finished,” he said flatly.

“There must be a way through the mountains,” I said.” Do you see there, in the distance, two smaller peaks with no snow on them? Maybe the mountains end there. I think we should head that way.”

Roberto shook his head. “It must be fifty miles,” he said. “And who knows how much farther after we reach them? In our condition, how can we make such a trek?”

“Look down,” I said. “There is a valley at the base of this mountain. Do you see it?”

Roberto nodded. The valley wound through the mountains for miles, in the general direction of the two smaller peaks. As it neared the small mountains, it split into two forks. We lost sight of the forks as they wound behind larger mountains, but I was confident the valley would take us where we needed to go.

“One of those forks must lead toward the small mountains,” I said. “Chile is there, it’s just farther than we thought.”

Roberto frowned. “It’s too far,” he said. “We’ll never make it. We don’t have enough food.”

“We could send Tintin back,” I said. “With his food and what’s left of ours, we could easily last twenty days.”

Roberto turned away and looked off to the east. I knew he was thinking about the road. I looked west again, and my heart sank at the thought of trekking through that wilderness alone.

We were back at camp by late that afternoon. As we ate together, Roberto spoke to Tintin. “Tomorrow morning we are going to send you back,” he said. “The trip will be longer than we thought, and we’re going to need your food. Anyway, two can move faster than three.” Tintin nodded in acceptance.

In the morning Roberto told me he had decided to stay with me. We embraced Tintin and sent him down the mountain.

“Remember,” I said as he left us, “we will always be headed west. If rescuers come, send them to find us!”

We rested all that day in preparation for the trek that lay ahead. In the late afternoon we ate some meat and crawled into the sleeping back. That evening, as the sun slipped behind the ridge above us, the Andes blazed with the most spectacular sunset I had ever seen. The sun turned the mountains to gleaming gold, and the sky above them was lit with swirls of scarlet and lavender. It occurred to me that Roberto and I were probably the first human beings to have such a vantage point on this majestic display. I felt an involuntary sense of privilege and gratitude, as humans often do when treated to one of nature’s wonders, but it lasted only a moment. After my education on the mountain, I understood that all this beauty was not for me. The Andes had staged this spectacle for millions of years, long before humans even walked the earth, and it would continue to do so after all of us were gone. My life or death would not make a bit of difference. The sun would set, the snow would fall…

“Roberto,” I said, “can you imagine how beautiful this would be if we were not dead men?” I felt his hand wrap around mine. He was the only person who understood the magnitude of what we had done and of what we still had to do. I knew he was as frightened as I was, but I drew strength from our closeness. We were bonded now like brothers. We made each other better men.

In the morning we climbed the steps to the summit. Roberto stood beside me. I saw the fear in his eyes, but I also saw the courage, and I instantly forgave him all the weeks of arrogance and bull-headedness. “We may be walking to our deaths,” I said, “but I would rather walk to meet my death than wait for it to come to me.”

Roberto nodded. “You and I are friends, Nando,” he said. “We have been through so much. Now let’s go die together.”

We walked to the western lip of the summit, eased ourselves over the edge, and began to make our way down.

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