HOW COULD THE DEBRIS HAVE SAT IN Peña’s gully, undiscovered, for so long? Peña says that the gully is so steep and narrow that it makes for a spectacularly difficult, unappealing climb; he may have been the first, in fact, to ascend it. But there’s another explanation: Over the past three decades, glaciers have been receding worldwide; the World Wildlife Fund estimates that some Andean glaciers have lost 50 percent of their mass. At the memorial site, melting snow has revealed items that had been buried for decades. It’s possible that some of what Peña found in the smaller gully migrated from above in moving ice, but the absence of similar objects in the main gully is at least one argument against that theory. What’s certain is that these mountains still hold secrets. Sections of the plane–and several bodies–have never been recovered.
When Peña returned to El Sosneado, his discoveries astonished Edgardo Barrios. “It was like finding a piece of the Titanic,” says Barrios, who immediately called Eduardo Strauch, now 57 and living in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo.
“I have some of your money,” Barrios blurted to a surprised, then delighted, Strauch, to whom Barrios sent the wallet and other artifacts.
The news spread quickly in Uruguay. The crash survivors were all deeply religious, and have always credited their faith with helping them survive. After much deliberation, they came to see the bodies of their friends as proof that God wanted them to live; consuming their flesh, they believed, was a sort of desperate communion. Strauch told the Uruguayan daily El Pais that finding the wallet was symbolic of the disturbing beauty that has made the ordeal so universally fascinating. “It was incredible to see my younger self, to see the passport with the text and seals and my name intact,” Strauch said.