Finally, in December, two chosen expeditionaries, Fernando “Nando” Parrado and Roberto Canessa, began climbing the peak looming to their west. Dressed in rugby shoes, three layers of jeans, and outerwear scavenged from the dead, the pair walked for 10 days, crossing steep, rubble-strewn slopes and icefields, eating scraps of putrid flesh, and huddling in a sleeping bag sewn out of seat covers. On December 21, they stumbled into several peasant farmers on a remote ranching outpost. Rescue helicopters arrived the next day, spiriting Parrado, Canessa, and the other survivors to safety. Piers Paul Read’s Alive remains one of the best-selling adventure books of all time, with more than 5 million copies sold. But after 32 years, the story of human will, faith, and terror was receding from memory; other than anniversaries, there was little new in the drama.
RICARDO PEÑA RECALLS reading the book as a boy. He even remembers thinking about it as his father led him up 17,877-foot Popocatépetl, a volcano near Mexico City, where he grew up. Later, living in Colorado, Peña’s thoughts would drift toward the survivors when he reached their elevation on winter climbs. He ultimately found work as a mountain guide, and began leading trips in the Andes–wondering all the while if he could visit the crash site, and what might be found there. Finally, last winter, after guiding an Aconcagua climb, Peña decided to spend a few extra days in Argentina.
One of most infamous spots in the Cordillera remains inaccessible and largely untouched. In February, Peña took a bumpy 6-hour bus ride to El Sosneado, the village nearest to the accident site. There, he met Edgardo Barrios, a hostel owner and local crash expert. For years, Barrios has offered visits to the site, but the trip is arduous–several hours of off-road driving, followed by two days on horseback. Most visitors, if they make it to El Sosneado, are content to pore over Barrios’s collection of crash memorabilia and artifacts, some gathered on site visits with the survivors, with whom Barrios has occasionally communicated.
Peña simply wanted to pay homage to his childhood heroes and see for himself the challenges they’d faced. “I hoped to reach the spot where the plane hit the mountain,” he says, “and maybe examine Parrado and Canessa’s route.”
Peña never expected he’d add a chapter to the story himself.