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Valley of Tears Argentina-site of the 1972 Andes plane crash

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Valley of Tears Argentina-site of the 1972 Andes plane crash

Postby SharonH » Tue Aug 24, 2010 3:16 pm

On October 13, 1972 a Uruguayan Air Force airplane chartered by a group of rugby players enroute to match in Chile, crashed in the Andes cordillera with 40 passengers and five crew members aboard. 72 days later, 16 young men emerged with a compelling saga of survival. The story has been told in various media, most notably the books Alive, the Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read and Miracle in the Andes by Fernando Parrado. I am old enough to remember this story when it happened, and have read the books, watched the movies, and more recently, perused the websites of the survivors. I never imagined that I would actually visit the crash site, taking in personally the utter solitude of the high glacier valley, miles from human habitation and the sights and sounds of civilization. Yet, in January 2010, I joined a group of Americans, Argentineans, and Uruguayans for a trek to the “Vallee de las Lagrimas,” the aptly named Valley of Tears. Our guides were Ricardo Peña, owner of the Boulder-based Alpine Expeditions and Eduardo Strauch, one of the 16 survivors. Two groups of filmmakers were on the trek as well.
I flew into Mendoza Argentina several days early; the chance for a few days of summer vacation (austral summer) in the middle of the Colorado winter was too much to pass up. Mendoza is known for its wine, Malbec, so I made sure to add a tour of several vineyards to my itinerary.
After leaving Mendoza, we traveled south to San Rafael then headed west towards the Andes cordillera, spending the night at a ski resort, Las Leñas, to allow the group to acclimate. While at Las Leñas, Eduardo gave a presentation relating some of his experiences while in the Andes, a simple and moving testament to the power of the human spirit. In Spanish and English, we saw video clips and still pictures of the survivors on the mountain, their rescue, Eduardo’s reunion with his family, and scenes of the life this remarkable man has led for the past 37 years: an accomplished architect, a long marriage with five children, a lecturer who shares his story of leadership and courage.
The next day, we started on our journey proper: a 50 kilometer drive over a rough dirt road, ending at a small shepherd’s encampment, where we would meet up with the horses and mules which would carry us up the valley. The camp was on the edge of the Rio Atuel, a lovely river draining the various glaciers surrounding the valley; to the east lay the 17,000 foot Cerro Sosneado. Though relatively shallow and braided with numerous sand bars, the Atuel was at places over a mile wide. We watched as one the horseman set out across the river, gauging the depths and determining the safest route for us to travel.
Our horses at the ready, we soon joined him, crossing the river and slowly ascending the dusty hillside above the river valley. My horse, Lucerito, seemed well aware of my rookie rider status, and was quite the gentleman. His only bad habit was balking at entering the numerous stream and river crossings. (Many of the horses seemed to have gas issues, so I tried to be toward the front of the group). Each turn of the trail brought new jaw –dropping views of the high Andes. Except for the scrubby bushes, there was little vegetation; the Andes block the majority of the precipitation coming from the west.
The first day we rode four hours to our “base camp” at around 8000 feet, a beautiful area of lush grasses and rocky outcroppings, situated at the bend of a milky glacier river. That night, we sipped wine and watched the stars come out while dinner cooked.
The next day another four hour horse back ride brought us to the Valley of Tears, heavily glaciated and surrounded by peaks well over 14,000 feet. As the valley slowly came into view, numerous thoughts ran through my head. Here was a place of incredible beauty and serenity, but also a place of immense suffering; twenty nine people died either in the plane crash or during an avalanche two weeks after the crash. A rocky grave with a simple iron cross placed on a moraine next to the crash site marks the final resting place of those twenty nine. The grave, various airplane parts, and small memorials placed to honor the dead were the only signs that this place was different from the surrounding valleys. All around there was only the snow, the rocks, the mountains, and the incredible blue sky. The silence was overwhelming, punctuated only by the wind. An occasional bird flying overhead, a butterfly on the breeze, were the only signs of life.
The group spent several hours at the grave site, each of us assimilating in our minds why we were there, mindful of respecting those who had not returned home. Next to the grave was a rock-lined area where previous visitors had left artifacts found at the site: the rugby shirts and shoes a reminder of young lives cut short. A few meters away, a black stone memorial seemed out of place. Inscribed on one side with the names of the dead, on another side the names of the survivors; I could see the reflections of the surrounding mountains on its shiny surface.
I sat with Eduardo, who had suffered horribly here, losing his best friend and a cousin in the crash. He now finds peace at the site. He places a bouquet of wildflowers next to a plaque bearing the name of his cousin; he wears a tee-shirt from Georgetown Colorado inscribed with a John Muir quote: “The Mountains are Calling and I must Go”. I am in awe of this incredible man.
Eight of us decided to camp overnight at the crash site, and the others slowly ride their horses back down the steep valley to base camp. It was a lonely feeling watching them leave as we settled into carving out snow platforms for the tents, collecting water from a small spring trickling out from under the snow and boiling water for dinner. The eight of us shared our freeze-dried dinners, passing around the containers and joking at the irony of our rejecting the “sweet and sour chicken” meal.
Later, clad in multiple layers of clothing, I crawled into the mountaineering tent with a thick sleeping pad and my 15 degree sleeping bag. Still, I was cold in the high mountain air and slept fitfully. Awakened by the sounds of bird song (and an upset stomach), I exit the tent to see beautiful sunrise over Cerro Sosneado.
After breakfast, we slowly climbed the rocky moraine alongside the glacier and then dropped down onto the glacier itself; at an elevation of 12,000 feet, it was a hard climb for the majority of the group. Aside from Ricardo and me, the other members of the group lived at sea level; one of the photographers told me that she has never been on snow before. I was reminded of the survivors of the plane crash, many who had never before seen snow, suddenly thrust into this harsh alien environment. They had no idea where they were and many of them were severely injured. Dressed for spring weather, none had the proper clothing or footwear to keep warm. The plane’s fuselage was torn in half and provided poor protection from the cold and wind. In stark contrast, we were there willingly-- well-equipped and clothed, in the middle of summer, with an experienced mountain guide to ensure our well-being.
To our left was the steep slope where the plane’s fuselage slid after impact at the top of an unnamed 15,000 foot mountain. In front of us was the 3000 foot “headwall” which two of the survivors climbed in a desperate bid to rescue themselves; the official search for the missing plane had long since been called off. Starving and with no mountaineering knowledge or equipment, they climbed to over 15,000 feet before descending into Chile (the top of the headwall lies on the international border between Argentina and Chile). Before us was a huge expanse of white snow devoid of any hint of the tragedy which took place here; the plane’s fuselage has long since disappeared into a crevasse. Penitentes stood like silent sentinels all around us.
I took in the 360 degree view; the surrounding mountains and rock formations strangely familiar from pictures in the books Alive and Miracle in the Andes. Yet the pictures I had seen belie the immensity of this place; looking back the gravesite is now only a tiny dot. It is a mile and a half to the foot of the headwall but I feel I could reach out and touch it. The filmmakers set up their cameras: Eduardo and Ricardo are interviewed and videotaped; Eduardo’s nineteen year old son Pedro serves as an actor for several “dramatic re-enactment” shots.
We had our pictures taken with Eduardo, a distinctive rock formation in the background. Another familiar scene: thirty seven years ago, Eduardo poses in the same place with two of his fellow survivors, smiling for the camera in the face of despair. In that picture, he wears a thin cotton shirt and jacket, scraps of a tee shirt cover his head and nose to protect his skin from the blistering sun; his sunglasses are pieces of tinted plastic taken from the plane’s windshield and tied together with elastic from a bra strap. Today Eduardo looks like any of us climbing a fourteener in the spring: snow pants, a fleece jacket, polarized sunglasses, a hat from his alma mater, his skin slathered in SPF 30 sunscreen.
Later, our horses appear, ready to take us back to a world we will now see a little differently. We ride to base camp, and the next day back to the waiting vans and civilization. The survivors were rescued after 72 days on the mountain, taken by helicopters to hospitals in Chile, and later by plane back to Montevideo, Uruguay. On the plane ride home, they flew over the cordillera which had been their prison; today many call the site “the Sanctuary.”

For more information:

The Andes Survivors website: http://www.viven.com.uy/571/eng/

Alive, the Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read

Miracle in the Andes by Fernando Parrado

The documentary Stranded available on DVD

I am Alive, a new documentary from the Dallas-based AMS Pictures will be released this fall; parts of the documentary were filmed during our 2010 trek to the Andes. http://iamalivethefilm.com

If you are interested in experiencing this trip for yourself, contact Ricardo Peña at www.alpineexpeditions.net. Ricardo and Eduardo will be leading another trek to the site in January 2011.
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Valley of Tears, site of the 1972 Andes plane crash
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The grave on the mountain with El Sosneado in the background
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Filming for the new documentary
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Re: Valley of Tears Argentina-site of the 1972 Andes plane crash

Postby SharonH » Tue Aug 24, 2010 3:43 pm

A few more pictures from the mountain
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The grave on the mountain
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Wreckage from the plane crash
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Memorial to those who died
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Re: Valley of Tears Argentina-site of the 1972 Andes plane crash

Postby tmathews » Tue Aug 24, 2010 3:44 pm

Sharon,

Thank you for your story. It sounds like it was a very poignant journey. I'd be interested in seeing more photos from this trip if you have them available online.

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Re: Valley of Tears Argentina-site of the 1972 Andes plane crash

Postby SharonH » Thu Aug 26, 2010 8:49 pm

It was an amazing trip. I have about 500 pictures and hopefully will get them posted on my Facebook one of these days. I will let you know...
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Our camp on the mountain
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Re: Valley of Tears Argentina-site of the 1972 Andes plane crash

Postby PKelley » Thu Aug 26, 2010 11:18 pm

I read Alive many years ago, and ironically, I just finished Miracle in the Andes last week. Definitely a riveting survival story. Thanks for posting the photos. Can you post a larger photo of the headwall that they climbed to get rescued? I am curious to see what it looks like.

Thanks,

PK
The Dalai Lama when asked what surprised him most about humanity:
“Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

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Re: Valley of Tears Argentina-site of the 1972 Andes plane crash

Postby SharonH » Fri Aug 27, 2010 9:58 am

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The headwall Parrado & Cannesa climbed into Chile
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This is as close as we got to the headwall due to the glacier. From where I took this picture, which is where the fuselage came to rest, it is about 1 1/2 miles across the glacier to the bottom of the headwall. The fuselage was at about 12,000 feet, the top of the headwall almost 15,000 feet. You can really appreciate the enormous undertaking it was for two starving inexperienced climbers to accomplish what they did!

The documentary being filmed while we were in Argentina, "I am Alive" is Fernando Parrado's story; it should be out this fall on TV. www.iamalivethefilm.com

Our guide, Ricardo Pena from Boulder, recreated the climb over the headwall and into Chile for National Geographic in 2006. Check out his story and pix on his website: www.alpineexpeditions.net

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Re: Valley of Tears Argentina-site of the 1972 Andes plane crash

Postby wooderson » Fri Aug 27, 2010 10:17 am

Sharon, thanks for sharing this story. Sounds like an incredible experience. I read P.P. Read's book several months ago and found it completely absorbing; I will have to read the Parrado book as well. The "Stranded" documentary is exceptional, too, as is the original early-90s movie with Ethan Hawke. It must have been fascinating to meet one of the survivors.

And you're right, it's almost incomprehensible to imagine how those young men managed to climb that headwall in their condition, and with zero equipment or experience. Definitely one of the greatest survival stories out there, right up there with Joe Simpson's ordeal in the Andes.

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