THE NEXT DAY, Peña, a group of Argentine hikers, and Mario Perez, a local horseman, departed. The Andean topography was magnificent, Peña says; they rode between snowy peaks and camped beneath the moonlit silhouettes of 15,000-foot summits. After two days, they reached the site.
Trying to reconcile the heroic landscape he’d imagined as a youth with what lay before him, Peña found the view beautiful but intimidating. “It’s a huge valley surrounded on three sides by massive walls,” he says. And though the Argentine side is somewhat open, “it isn’t obvious that it would make a good escape route.” (The survivors’ decision to head west, the more treacherous direction, was largely inspired by the copilot’s dying claim that they’d already flown into Chile. It turned out they were nearly 50 craggy miles from the border.)
Once the survivors were rescued, much of the debris was burned; what’s left of the fuselage is now marked with a cross. A second crucifix sits at a burial site for those who died. While the other hikers paid their respects, Peña and Perez climbed toward the initial impact point several thousand feet above.
Peña’s background as a mountaineer helped lead him to his first discovery. He knew from the contours above the site that avalanches would have been frequent, and that any crash debris carried down by falling snow would settle in flat spots below. When the pair reached the first such level area, Peña paused to hunt for artifacts. A quick search turned up several metallic fragments. He and Perez continued upward until they reached a junction of two chutes. A large, smooth gully rose directly above them, while a smaller one broke off to the right.