Andes Survivor Expedition: Resilience, Dignity, Strength

is not the ability to recover. It is the ability to go through hell, to endure
the indescribable, and not to break.
—Pedro Algorta, survivor
It was a story
heard around the world in 1972—the “Miracle of the Andes,” some called it. It’s
a story that tore at hearts, shocked others, made new believers of God, and
made some turn away from faith forever. It’s a story you couldn’t make up, that
plumbed the depths of the human heart and soul. How does one survive the
impossible, and still retain dignity, humor, compassion, teamwork?
I have yet to
meet anyone in my life who has not heard of the Andes plane crash survivors. To
me, the story encompasses everything about life you might need to know. It is the
story itself of life. And the survivors, including the ones who survived impact
but perished before rescue, are heroes of mythical proportions. That is, until you
meet one of them. I was privileged to meet Eduardo Strauch last week, on an
expedition into the Andes, where we would have the chance to go to the crash
site. We spent the entire week together, along with ten other guests from
Argentina, Spain, the US and the UK. And our two guides, Ricardo Peña of Alpine Expeditions, and geologist Ulyana Horodyskyj.
Eduardo walked in
to the hotel lobby in Mendoza, Argentina, to meet our group, and seemed like a nobly aging warrior off the pages of a graphic novel. I have read three books on the
subject, the classic book Alive by
Piers Paul Read (three times), Miracles
of the Andes
, by survivor Nando Parredo (two times) and I Had to Survive by Roberto Canessa (two
times). I’m currently reading Pedro Algorta’s book Into the Mountains. Nando and Roberto were the two survivors who literally climbed out of
the Andes, after 60 days on the mountain, to seek help. (To this day, it seems
utterly superhuman and impossible.) I have watched the movie Alive countless times.
To meet Eduardo
was to meet someone legendary. Nowhere in history is there a story quite like that of the Andes survivors. Eduardo is at once dignified and friendly; a man with
an incredible history, and story to tell, who lives in the moment; famous, but
makes you feel as though you are the
important one. We instantly liked him, and our frozen awe began to thaw to a
warm friendship feeling. He is truly a wonderful person to know.
We spent a week together
traveling to the foothills of the Andes far outside of Mendoza. A four-hour car
ride, then we arrived at a farm of sorts, where we each got a horse, and loaded
our things for the week onto mules. At 70, Eduardo is handsome, fit and at ease
on a horse. With me was Angela Forsyth, a physical therapist from New Jersey, who works for
Diplomat and who I’ve known for probably 20 years. Our first day then was this
four-hour car ride followed by a four-hour horseback ride across an incredibly windy
flatland that threatened to permanently remove my cowboy hat, then up winding dirt paths into the mountains. We crossed several rushing
rivers that swept the accompanying, yelping dogs downstream and soaked our hiking boots. We
made camp that evening in a beautiful little valley, where the majestic Andes towered all
about us. We also had a small team with us to cook, handle the horses, and help
out with packing.
The next day,
Wednesday, we took a seven-hour roundtrip horseback ride up treacherously
tricky slopes, covered with nothing but rocks—the poor horses!—often at 45°
angles. It seemed we should have rode mountain goats instead of horses, but the
steeds handled it well, though they often looked quite wary. Our reward was a beautiful
mountain lagoon, left over from a glacial runoff.
The next day only
about half our group went to the crash site, another seven-hour roundtrip
horseback ride. The rest of us, me included, came down with either bronchial
issues from the tremendous dust kicked up by the horses as we rode, or a virus that
hitched a ride from Spain with Clara, one of the guests. Was I disappointed not
to get to the crash site, which was the whole point of the expedition? Not
really. First, Clara, the lady from Spain, is the niece of one of the young men
who died on impact from the crash. It was more important that she go to the
site with Eduardo. She had been sick the day before, but she rallied, and they went.
Second, I felt privileged to meet
Eduardo, a survivor of this terrible yet timeless event, and that was enough for me. He sat with us in the
evening after dinner in the mess tent, and answered our many questions about his experience. Our questions
were candid but sensitive. We asked him about leadership: how and when did he
and his two cousins become the de facto leaders of the group? About the role of
women: how did the boys treat one another after Liliana, the “mother” of the
group, died in the avalanche? (Without her feminine presence, the boys became a
bit more aggressive with one another) About faith: did this experience deepen
his faith in God? (The Read book made much of the issue of faith. Answer: no) About survivor’s guilt: did he suffer from it? (No) The
worst part of the experience? (The avalanche)
Laurie Kelley with Eduardo Strauch
We were enthralled.
We were like students listening to a sensei. And yet, the more Eduardo shared,
the more he seemed like a regular person, not a mythical hero, which I know he
does not want to be seen as. I saw how odd it is to put him, or anyone, on a
pedestal. He is relatable, real, though his experience was surreal. We ate
dinners together as a group, shared stories, teased one another, laughed, chatted
about normal things. We shared a laugh when Ricardo wanted to put Angie and me
in one very small tent. We are not ones to complain but… Ricardo looked over at
Eduardo’s larger tent and said, “Well, maybe I could ask Eduardo…” But I said,
no, whatever Eduardo wants, Eduardo gets. But after looking again at the small
tent… I said to go ahead and please ask Eduardo. I apologized later for kicking my hero out of his
tent! He laughed and graciously accepted the swap.
If you are
interested in leadership, teamwork, faith and survival under the harshest of
conditions, read the books I mentioned. At the very least, watch the movie
Alive. When you ask people about the greatest survival story ever, most people
will mention Shackleton and the failed Antarctic expedition. But he has nothing
on this story. To me, the Andes plane crash story is the greatest story of
survival, and I have read so many. It’s a story of deepest humanity, of people at
their best.
I asked Eduardo
on our last day, as we stopped at a tienda for cold drinks en route home, if he
could tell my readers one or two things he took away from his experience, what
he would tell us?**  “First, the power of
love,” he replied. When you lose everything, and can rely only on one another,
you learn the true meaning of love. “Love is everything. We loved one another
and cared for one another up there. And our love for our families back home
kept us going.” The second thing?
Carpe diem!
While Nando and
Roberto disappeared into the Andes for 10 days, Eduardo was left with the 13
others to wait, never knowing whether a rescue would come, whether the two had
fallen into a crevasse, or were killed in an avalanche or simply starved to death.
Their epic climb out got all the headlines, but it took incredible strength to
simply wait in the fuselage and not give up hope.
“You have more
strength in you than you will ever know,” he said to me assuredly, knowingly.

Roughly quoted, as I did not have my notebook with me. Apologies to Eduardo for
any misquotation.
To learn more about
the Andes Survivor Expedition: www.AlpineExpeditions.com

Eduardo Strauch
has written his own account of his ordeal, Desde
el silencio
, which is currently in Spanish only, and is available on Amazon.com
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