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Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571: The Limits of Survival

Roberto Canessa would later say the first incision was what always haunted him.

A 19-year old medical student from Montevideo, Uruguay, Canessa was used to blood and broken bones. 

Thanks to the events of that October, he was also an unwilling expert at improvisation; at creating makeshift medical equipment from whatever was lying around.

Even so, his experience that day was on another level.

Using a shard of glass, Canessa carefully made small, surgical cuts in the dead man’s flesh. Gently peeled away the tiny strips, laying them out on a piece of broken metal.

At that exact moment, over 1,000 km away, the news was breaking in his home city that Roberto Canessa was dead. That he’d perished alongside 44 others in a tragic plane crash.

But Canessa had survived; as had 27 others. 28 people, now stuck in a mountain landscape in which nothing could survive – a world of ice and rock.

Yet surviving was exactly what Canessa intended to do.

The cutting done, the survivors regarded the strips of human flesh. 

Years later, Canessa would recall the vast chasm separating the decision to do it, and physically doing so. The seemingly uncrossable barrier.

But, in the end, Canessa ate the dead man’s tissue, quickly, without thinking.

The others followed; a furtive ritual playing out beneath the unforgiving sky. 

It was nine days since Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 had crashed in a desolate Andean valley while carrying Montevideo’s Old Christians Rugby Club to a match in Chile.

Nine days in which the surviving passengers had already been sorely tested. 

Yet, as Canessa would later say, that first moment of cannibalism wasn’t even the worst thing to happen on the mountainside.

By the time help finally came, he and the others would’ve been pushed to the very limits of survival.

The events surrounding Flight 571 took place in October and November of 1972. But, in many ways, the story is timeless.

Tales of survival in the face of extreme odds stretch back to the ancient world. Closer to our time, you have the tale of climber Aron Ralston – subject of 2010 film 127 Hours.

In 2003, Ralston fell during a solo descent of Bluejohn Canyon, trapping his arm beneath a boulder.

After five days of increasing thirst and delirium, he finally escaped by sawing his arm off with a pocket knife… having first been forced to snap his own bones.

This might seem a very different story to Flight 571. Ralston was alone, and never had to resort to cannibalism.

But both tales share a common theme: showing how far humans will go to stay alive.

In the case of Roberto Canessa and the other plane crash survivors, they were forced to go to places even Aron Ralston couldn’t dream of.

Trapped at 3,500m altitude with no winter gear, the team were forced to spend their first night shivering besides the bodies of friends who’d died in the crash.

Their meagre supplies ran out within a week. One man rationed out a single packet of peanuts to make it last three days.

On the eighth day, they gathered around a transistor radio and listened to the news that the search for them had been called off.

Like Ralston – trapped in his rarely-visited canyon, aware he hadn’t told anyone where he was going – it was this realization that help wasn’t coming that drove the rugby team to take extreme action.

However, Ralston’s ordeal lasted only five days; terrible as they were.

The Uruguyans would be forced to endure hardship for two whole months. 

For Canessa, the hardest day of all was when the avalanche came.

After sleeping safely in the ruined fuselage for sixteen days, on October 29, the wreckage was hit by a devastating avalanche. 

Another eight people were killed. The survivors were trapped in the snow for three days before they could dig their way back out. 

Yet the cruelest part was the mental shock that awaited them.

To their horror, the young men discovered their store of frozen bodies had been swept away on the snow.  

With no other choice, they were forced to go back, dig out the corpses of the 8 friends the avalanche had killed, and use them as a new source of food.

As Canessa later said of the mental strain:

“The night after the avalanche (…) was tougher than the torment of eating human flesh.”

By mid-December, the situation had gotten desperate.

With only 16 people left alive, Canessa and his teammate Nando Parrado decided they had no choice but to go for help.

Neither man had climbing experience. Neither had equipment, or even an idea of where they were going. 

Yet even this may not be the most-daring journey to safety ever undertaken.

That honor likely goes to the Endurance expedition of Ernest Shackleton.

Just like the survivors of Flight 571 and Aaron Ralston, Shackleton found himself trapped in a situation with zero chance of rescue – his ship trapped in pack ice off the coast of Antarctica. 

When the ice finally cracked the hull, the crew was forced to fight for survival on a shifting, frozen wasteland. 

As Shackleton later wrote:

“Huge blocks of ice, weighing many tons, were lifted into the air and tossed aside as other masses rose beneath them. We were helpless intruders in a strange world, our lives dependent upon the play of grim elementary forces that made a mock of our puny efforts.”

The crew at last reached the relative safety of Elephant Island, a godforsaken lump of rock exposed to apocalyptic winds.

It was now 1916, over a year since the Endurance had become entombed in ice. Over a year of survival against the odds. 

And the worst was still to come.

Realizing they would die on Elephant Island, Shackleton and five of his men made a desperate gamble to reach civilization: setting off in a lifeboat for South Georgia, over 1,300 km away across some of the deadliest seas known to man.

The journey would last a Hellish 16 days. 16 days of hypothermia, frostbite, seasickness and more misery then most of us can comprehend.

By contrast, the 8 day hike to safety undertaken by Roberto Canessa and Nando Parrado was eerily beautiful.

Canessa has written about visions he had, trekking across the Andes. Of a night when the moon appeared like a silver mirror close enough to touch, one inside which he could see images of his own childhood.

Of encountering his first sign of life since the crash: a lizard on a rock that he swore was a warning sent by a higher power.

But while both journeys were different in their specifics, they were both deeply spiritual.

Canessa and Parrado were devout Catholics, who believed their survival cannibalism to be a form of the Eucharist, and saw their dangerous trek as taking them closer to God.

Shackleton, meanwhile, was broadly non-religious, but believed he felt a presence guiding him.

The final stage of his journey involved a perilous hike through South Georgia’s bleak interior, a hike he did accompanied by two friends.

Shackleton later wrote:

“I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

If you’re religious, you might believe this was the hand of God, guiding two different groups of desperate men, nearly 6 decades apart.

Or it may just be a result of human minds flooded with adrenaline, on the brink of starvation, and pushed to their very limit.

For both groups, though, their ordeal would finally reach its end.

Shackleton managed to reach the South Georgia whaling station, where his first instinct was to apologize to the inhabitants for his ragged appearance.

Casenna and Parrado, meanwhile, finally stumbled across a Chilean herder, who alerted the authorities.

Across December 22 and 23, 1972, military helicopters evacuated the remaining survivors of Flight 571. 

Like Shackleton before them, and Aaron Ralston many decades later, the rugby players had been taken to the very edge of death…

…and somehow made it back alive.

 Yet the most-interesting part of these tales might not be the survival itself, but what happened next.

For many people who’ve pulled through impossible ordeals, the response can be trauma, nightmares, or even guilt about living while others died.

uruguay Flight 571 survivor
uruguay Flight 571 survivor

Certainly, those onboard Flight 571 experienced events that would scar even the strongest mind.

But, just as they found ways of coping with the horrors of life on the mountain, so too did they find ways to deal with being the ones who lived.

Roberto Canessa finished his medical training and became a pediatric cardiologist. Today, he’s frank about his motivations:

“When I see a baby in a mother’s womb, with half of its heart missing, looking through the window of the ultrasound machine is like seeing the moon through the window of the plane that night. But now I can be the shepherd who can make this child survive. 

It’s my revenge on death.”

The other crash survivors have remained a community: sending their kids to school together. Holding a defiant dinner every year to celebrate the day they were rescued.

Aaron Ralston, too, recovered in part by finding solace in other people.

In 2010, he told the Guardian “the love of others, his relationships with his family and friends (is what keeps) him alive.”

Perhaps this is the key. Perhaps the support of others is the thing that allows us to take our bodies beyond their limits… and somehow still survive.

If there’s anything to be learned in the tales of Roberto Canessa, Ernest Shackleton, Aaron Ralston, and other extreme survivors, it may simply be that there’s always a reason to keep going; a reason to carry on.

If nothing else, simply by surviving you may inspire others to survive too.

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