IT WAS A STRANGE PLACE TO FIND A WALLET. Ricardo Peña was high in the Andes, halfway up a glacier, when it literally dropped into his hands. Climbing slowly in the thin air, he’d noticed a piece of tattered blue velour half-frozen into the ice. A jacket. He pulled it free; it felt heavy. He turned it over and something tumbled out of the pocket. What the Boulder, CO mountain guide caught was a piece of one of the most legendary adventure stories in modern history. By discovering a wallet belonging to a Uruguayan named Eduardo Strauch, the 36-year-old Peña suddenly changed from being one of millions of adventure enthusiasts thrilled and inspired by the tale to being part of it–and part of a new mystery.
If you’re reading this magazine, you probably know the story of the group of Uruguayan rugby players, family members, and fans whose chartered plane crashed into an unnamed 15,000-foot peak on October 13, 1972. The Fairchild turboprop was grounded in the middle of the Cordillera Occidental, a poorly mapped range almost 100 miles wide and home to Aconcagua, at 22,834 feet the highest mountain in the Southern Hemisphere. Dropping suddenly through clouds and turbulence, the plane clipped a peak; the fuselage spiraled downward. A wing ripped off, then the tail; two crewmembers and three of the 40 passengers were sucked out the back. Amazingly, the main cabin remained largely intact. It landed in a snowfield and tobogganed thousands of feet before crashing to a halt. Somehow, 32 passengers survived the initial crash.
Mostly young men in their teens and 20s, the survivors stepped from the wreckage into a vast, desolate bowl surrounded by sheer mountain walls. Certain that they would be rescued within hours or days, they made quick work of the wine and candy bars they rummaged from the cabin. But rescuers were searching elsewhere, and some severely injured passengers began to die. On the 17th day, eight more perished in an avalanche. Galvanized, those remaining decided their survival hinged on eating the bodies of their dead comrades. For the next 56 days, the men struggled against subzero cold, infected wounds, and their natural revulsion to eating human flesh. They eventually came to believe that their only hope was to send a party toward Chile when the weather turned warmer.