From the archive: surviving the Andes plane crash, 1974

Piers Paul Read’s extraordinary and vivid account of the Andes plane crash survivors in 1972 is one that has since been retold countlessly in books and on film. It is an almost unimaginable record of the limits of human suffering and endurance (‘Alive! How we survived the Andes plane crash’, 27 January 1974).

The cover picture is of Gustavo Zerbino, a young medical student, wearing the cap of a dead crew member and sunglasses fashioned from the sun visors from the pilot’s cabin, wire and a bra strap, to protect him from snow blindness. It tells you all you need to know about the ingenuity and almost deranged willpower required to survive 72 days in such a remote location.

Survivors made a pact that if any more of them were to die, their bodies were to be used as food
Thirteen of those on board died in the crash and a further 16 died afterwards. The only food they had were eight bars of chocolate, five bars of nougat, some caramels, dates and dried plums, salted crackers, two cans of mussels, a tin of salted almonds and a small jar each of peach, apple and blackberry jam.

After 10 days several of them realised that if they were to survive they would have to eat the bodies of those who had died in the crash. They made a pact that if any more of them were to die, their bodies were to be used as food. And thus on top of a fatal avalanche and blizzards they had to resort to cannibalism, too.

When they found a small radio and heard a broadcast from Chile mentioning that the search to find them had been cancelled, Gustavo Nicolich turned it round in the ultimate act of glass-half-full thinking. ‘Hey boys, there’s some good news! They’ve called off the search.’

‘Why the hell is that good news?’ came the reply.

‘Because it means that we’re going to get out of here on our own.’ And – unbelievably – they did get out of there when they came across their saviour, Sergio Catalán, who fetched help.