A few minutes with……Nando Parrado

When it became clear that I could start making a living as a journalist, there were a handful of people that were on my wish list to interview. Nando Parrado was one.

Back on 13 October 1972, a young Nando and his colleagues from the Old Christians Rugby Club were travelling on Uruguayan Air Force flight 571 on their way to Santiago to play Old Grangonian of Chile.

Bad weather and, ultimately, pilot error caused the flight to crash 3,600 metres (11,800 ft) up in the Andes mountains, and so began the most unbelievable tale of human endurance and survival ever known.

More than a quarter of the 45 passengers died in the crash and several others quickly succumbed to cold and injury. Of the 27 who were alive a few days after the accident, another eight were killed by an avalanche that swept over their shelter in the wreckage.

Nando’s mother and sister were amongst those who died.

Rescue missions were abandoned after eight days, and the survivors were eventually faced with ghastly, but very real decisions to make in order to survive.

Incredibly, despite the extreme cold and with little else to keep them warm other than the clothes on their backs and some old seating covers sewn together to make a quilt, 16 survivors made it out of the Andes alive after 72 days.

Nando, Antonio Vizintin and Roberto Canessa had originally left the crash site to get help on Monday December 12, the 61st day of their ordeal. By Thursday 15th and with food rations running low, Vizintin was sent back to the fuselage. A trek that had taken three days to that point, took Vizintin just one hour to return downhill.

On the 20 December, Day 69 after the crash, and after trekking for 10 days and some 35 miles across the peaks of the Andes, Parrado and Canessa came upon Sergio Catalan, a Chilean arriero. Divided by Portillo River, it would be a further day before Catalan could return with help, but on the 21 December Parrado and Canessa were saved.

After explaining their ordeal in depth, it was arranged for Nando to return the next day with search and rescue personnel via 2 helicopters. Such bad weather meant that only 6 of the remaining survivors could be airlifted from the crash site.

The rescue team and remaining 8 survivors were freed from their epic ordeal the following day, December 23rd 1972, some 72 days after the initial crash. For more in depth information about the crash and it’s aftermath, the official website VIVEN! can be found here.

On this, the 42nd anniversary of the end of Nando’s ordeal, I’m delighted to present to you my interview with him:

You have been an inspiration to many thousands of people throughout the world. Who was/is your biggest influence either personally or professionally and why?

If I could choose a person who helped and inspired me, with his values and professional ethics, it would be Sir Jackie Stewart, three times F1 World Champion, in an era where racing was incredibly dangerous.

Being very young, he took the time to teach me some of the secrets of driving smoothly and fast, which I applied in my own racing career.

But most important he taught me through his impeccable behaviour with family, sponsors, teams and everyday people. Something that I have applied since then and it has helped me in an incredible way in my personal and professional life.

Who was the young Nando Parrado? What were his home, school and adolescent days like, and what were his interests and ambitions at that time?

Young Nando Parrado, was an average student, good sportsman (loved all sports!), with a nice middle class life.

I went to school on my bike every day and had all the doubts and fears that adolescents have at the same stage in life.

Not particularly successful with girls, but not slouch either…had to work hard on phone calls and was quite resilient in this subject.

My interests were motorbikes, cars, rugby and girls…not very different to any other guy.

Tell me some more about your rugby prowess. Were the Old Christian’s your only team and do you have a favourite match in which you played?

I started playing rugby at the Christian Brothers School in Montevideo.

I progressed there to be on the First XV of the school and when I finished high school, I went into the University, and kept on playing rugby on the Old Christians Club First Division Team, formed by ex-students of the Christian Brothers.

I was quite good at my second row position in the team and played there for five years, before the accident. I played my debut First Division rugby game, being 16 years old!

I was a little scared, but nothing happened. I will never forget that first game against Carrasco Polo, with players that were much older and trying to bully me out on the line outs.

At a very young age you are thrust into the most unimaginable situation. Indeed, were your story not true, you can imagine it being dismissed as quite unbelievable. But it happened. How did a group of such young men find the courage and will to survive in such hostile conditions?

I was actually 21 when the ordeal happened. So many times i have asked myself, how on earth did we manage to survive?

I was very pragmatic, probably influenced by my father’s pragmatism and once I saw that we were in a complete mess and without too many chances of survival, I said to myself that I would fight against those mountains, until I stopped breathing…up to that moment, I would be alive.

I assume that all the other survivors, impregnated by the team spirit of the Old Christians, also gave their best. We were a fantastic team and we defeated the worst opponent, we could have ever faced.

There is the theory of survival and then there is reality.

Once that you are thrown into survival mode, you behave differently and your mind has access to certain parts of the brain, that are activated only on these occasions.

There was never a fight, there was never violence, which given the extraordinarily stressful situation, is really incredible. Love was present constantly.

Despite the desperate nature of your situation, there would surely have been moments of great joy and humour. Your birthday for instance. Against the backdrop of such pain and suffering, what are your memories of your good times on the mountain?

I cannot recall times of joy.

Maybe someone who tried to tell some jokes…but in the back of your mind, you know that you are condemned, so there was not space for joy and humor, at least in my case.

Did you/do you personally blame anyone for the crash of Flight 571, or was that never something you dwelled upon or thought about? Is there no resentment at all for the sad loss of your mother and sister, and your fellow team mates?

I cannot and do not blame anybody. Probably the pilots made a huge navigational mistake, but there is nothing that we cold have done to correct that. I have no resentment. Accidents happen.

I’m aware that some of the other survivors often head back to the crash site – for varying reasons. Have you, what is your purpose for doing so and can you ever escape the pain of your ordeal whilst there? 

Everybody has a different reason to go back. I only went back because of two reasons. First, my father wanted to go up there every year, to put flowers in the grave of my mother and sister. I just went with him, to take care of him, to protect him and be there in case something happened.

I never thought of any revenge or had any feelings against the mountains. I actually enjoyed the landscapes and mountain expeditions, with GPS, Radios, high tech equipment, tents, guides, etc….!

Then, a few years ago, my two daughters Veronica and Cecilia asked me to take them up there. They wanted to put flowers on the grave, and to see the place from where “they were born”. They said that if I hadn’t fought and suffered so much there, they would not be alive.

So, I took them up there and my wife Veronique joined us. It was a very moving experience for all of us, because I never thought that I would come alive out of there and being back there 36 years afterwards, with my family…is probably a key moment in my life.

I have never been back after that and do not think that I will go back.

Everyone appears to sensationalize your story for the most obvious reason. Given the gravitas of your situation at that time, does it continue to annoy you when people only appear interested in that one aspect of your survival?

I understand that it is a fascinating conversation subject, but for me and the survivors, it was just another link on the chain of survival.

It is quite interesting to theorize on behaviors and conducts, but we know..as we are the foremost experts on this field in the world…that anybody put under the same circumstances, would have done exactly the same.

Those who say NO, do not have a clue on extreme survival situations, they are probably sitting on a couch discussing theoretically and they are not worth a single second of my life.

When you had returned home and finally regained something like a normal life again, did you appreciate the simple things in life a lot more than previously? In what way did the experience change you as a person?

When I returned home…I was so incredible happy to be alive, that I never looked back. I understood that the ordeal would be a part of me forever, but I also understood that I would have to have a life.

There are people who go through traumatic experiences and require a lot of advice or PTSD help, going to hospitals, special psychiatric help, etc, etc….

Probably I am different, I never went or wanted any help.

I told myself that if I had gone through what I had went through and survived, I could very well survive normal life! I felt blessed that I had the chance to be born again and I would not destroy my life…I would have a life…and what a life I have had and I am having…I still do not know if it is a dream or a life..!

Some people live in the past and never let go of the bad things that happened. I never felt any guilt on the contrary. If you want to change the bad things of the past, you would change the good things of the present that happen because of what happened in the past.

It is a very personal philosophy, but for example, I would not have the family that I have now, if the accident hadn’t happened. So..should I compare my previous family to this one..? Never.

Mountaineers now pay homage to the deeds of Roberto Canessa and yourself by organising climbing tours etc. Isn’t that in some way disrespectful? Almost making light of your experiences?

What we achieved with Roberto, is probably the most important mountain traverse accomplishment, in the history of mountaineering.

Without any equipment, knowledge, training or idea of what we were doing, we did what many climbers dream of doing. We were pushed by extreme fear and survival…

Of course we do not complain in any way, to these tours and climbing expeditions. In a certain way, they honor us. Only three climbers, in 40 years, have done the traverse that we two accomplished.

All the tours are to the grave and accident site, climbing from Argentina, which is quite easy. We traversed the whole range of the Andes mountains…

You were an advisor for the 1993 film ‘Alive’. Were you and the rest of the survivors happy with the on-screen portrayals and depictions of the events?

Yes, I worked as Technical Advisor and nine of the survivors visited the film site. We think that it is a very correct movie, understanding that in one hour and a half, it is impossible to put everything that happened and to depict every single person exactly as he would have liked.

As a well travelled public speaker and businessman, presumably you have no fear of flying now? Was that ever an issue for you in the early days after the return home?

Of course, I was quite afraid of flying after what happened to me. But as I had to travel a lot because of my businesses and sports, there was no way around it. I just coped with it, then took some flying lessons and now I can fly single engine planes. I fly very easily now, no problems.

Here we are, 42 years later, and people worldwide (including me!) still talk about the events of 1972. It will remain the greatest human interest and survival story ever told. Doesn’t part of you wish it would just “go away”? That a certain “celebratory status” attached to the survivors is misplaced given the circumstances?

This is a story that has grown in time, a little bit like the Titanic of the Air. There is nothing that we can do about the interest of the people in this subject. How many people would like to hear or speak to a Titanic survivor?

My life is so full of other things that I have done, accomplished, mistakes, successes, that the Alive story only maybe utilizes 10% of my brain. I only go there on occasions like this one, where I am answering your interview or when I do a keynote.

I receive some 200 requests every year and I only do 10. My other life does not me allow more time for them.

I think that I do not have a “celebrity status”, as you mention. It is probably he way that people look at me. When something happens, and from being a complete anonymous being you go to being known world wide, the most important change is not inside you, it is in the people towards you.

Inside you are the same, but people look at you when before you were transparent to them.

What hopes and aspirations does the 64-year-old Nando Parrado now have?

The best is yet to come…!!!! I look up to the future through the eyes of my grandchildren.

Finally, you’ve often been quoted as saying that both Canessa and yourself “knew you were going to die” during your trek out of the Andes. Thankfully you are very much still alive but there will of course come a time when that is not so. You are tasked with writing your own epitaph. What would you like it to say?

I will give you great news..we are all going to die, so enjoy the present, as the past is already gone and the future has not arrived yet.

Really, I do not think about any epitaph…it will be erased by time anyway.

I know that I will experience the most important experience of life…which is death, because it is then that all answers will be found.

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