In his address to the general session of Guidewire Connections at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco, Nando Parrado, survivor of the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 that crashed in the Andes on Friday, Oct. 13, 1972, emphasized from his historic 72-day ordeal what one might expect of a motivational speaker at a corporate event: the critical decision making, innovative improvisation with available materials and committed team work that helped 16 young men survive. But he also stressed the indispensable factor of solitary commitment: “I firmly believe there comes a time for individuality.”
There are lessons for every kind of team in the experience of the young Uruguyans — most of them rugby players — who survived Flight 571, and certainly for technology teams at insurance carriers. Parrado noted that management experts had studied the experience and praised the quality of decision making, but he said that the real judgment was in the survival of his comrades, as he reviewed a series of decisions that were necessary for continued survival. He criticized any heroic interpretations that might romanticize the experience, and he acknowledged the brutal factor of luck.
It was a piece of spectacular bad luck that placed the Old Christians rugby team and fellow travelers on a glacier at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level in early southern hemisphere spring. The plane had taken off with 45 aboard on Friday, Oct. 13 from the western Argentine city of Mendoza after weather postponed the mountain crossing the previous day. The chartered flight originated in the Atlantic port of Montevideo, Uruguay. Having first flown about 200 miles south to a place where the mountains were lower, the Uruguayan Air Force pilot turned west. Shortly thereafter, he turned north thinking the plane had passed the Chilean town of Curicó. It was a disastrous mistake: the plane had not even crossed the mid-mountain border between Argentina and Chile and descended directly into the middle of the Andean cordillera, in Argentine territory.
What happened next was an even more unlikely event: the plane scraped the crest of a peak such that the front portion of the fuselage remained intact. There followed the truly astronomically unlikely occurrence of the fuselage sledding down an uncannily rock-free trajectory until it suddenly stopped. While that saved the lives of 33 people within the fuselage, it is hard to call it “lucky,” because the suffering that followed could be called worse than death. By the following day, after a night of temperatures 35 below zero Fahrenheit, five more people had died.
Nineteen-year-old Parrado lost his mother, his 17-year-old sister, both of whom he had invited to come along. He also his best friend in the crash. He was himself badly injured, remained in a coma for over 24 hours. His comrades left him for dead. Worse was yet to come: an avalanche some days later killed eight more passengers, and in the end only 16 of the original 45 survived.
The harrowing events of the ordeal are meticulously documented in Piers Paul Read’s sensitively written documentary Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, published in 1974. Parrado himself revisited the experience in his highly personal 2006 autobiographical account Miracle in the Andes, coauthored with Vince Rause. Parrado recounted the details of the ordeal, including the necessity of consuming the flesh of dead comrades — which Parrado likens to a transfusion or organ donation — and mission he undertook with teammate Roberto Canessa to walk out of the Andes.
Canessa’s companionship was indispensable, not least because of the survivors' own miscalculations based on the pilot’s error: the dying co-pilot, confounded by the unexpected crash, had kept repeating, “We passed Curicó!” The survivors proceeded to estimate their position on the flight crew’s maps as being about 6km from the nearest town. What they needed to do, they thought, was no mean task: summit the mountain to the west. But from there they would see the green valleys of Chile. In fact, they were about 140 miles east of the nearest town, and when they completed the wasting and extremely dangerous task of summiting the mountain, all they could see, in 360 degrees, were snowy mountain peaks to the horizon.
And yet, somehow they persevered and not by teamwork alone, Parrado insists. In the end, Parrado and Canessa traveled over 44 miles over extremely dangerous terrain, without any appropriate equipment and in a condition of advanced malnutrition and psychological stress. Disavowing any pretensions of heroism, he spoke of a stubborn will to survive, both during his presentation, and in a private conversation at Connections:
Everybody speaks about all those issues: teamwork, facing crisis, decisions under stress, creativity, innovation, etc. even on team work, I firmly believe this, there comes a time for individuality. You have to be an individual. Maybe I can say this because I felt it. We worked together, we loved each other very much; but there came a time when I had to make a decision myself. I said, “Guys, I’m leaving. There was no board meeting to decide who would be the best expedition leader. It didn’t happen that way. I decided I was going to leave. If anybody wanted to come with me, great…
Having made the decision to leave, Parrado felt it necessary to pick a specific day, subject to acceptable weather.
When I had to leave the fuselage on the final day it was my decision and it was very hard to break the umbilical cord, so to speak. When I was at 18,000 feet and alone, it was just me. Sure, it’s a tremendous story camaraderie and teamwork, but there comes a time when you have to be an individual.