12 Sep 2011

Nando Parrado: the art, the luck and the will to survive

I was recently priviledged to meet a man called Nando Parrado. You may remember the story of a Uruguayan rugby team during the 1970's whose plane crashed in the Andes while carrying them to a match in Chili. And from that ordeal 19 (I think) of the passengers finally survived, long after search for the wreckeage had been abandoned and despite extreme conditions. One needs to bear in mind that the crash took place at 5000 metres, they did not know where they were, this was long before mobile phones, and they had never seen snow before! 

Here is a picture of Nando playing for his team.

Clearly a second or third row forward in a lineout. I also think that the lucky clover leaf symbol of his team has some significance when you hear his story. I will not tell it in detail as it has been well documented in articles, books and a film. It is one of exceptional resilience and determination in circumstances so extreme that they are hard to imagine.

What I want to talk about are the qualities and breaks (yes, luck always plays its share) required to survive what seems to be a hopeless situation. Nando talks about this regularly now, giving lectures around the world. I was fortunate to be at one of these, during an event that also combined rugby and wine, and it made a considerable impression on me, both deeply moving and posing questions to which I hope I will never find answers, since until you have been to such places, you simply can never know.

The combination of what helped Nando and some of his team-mates to survive could be described thus : courage, intelligence, determination, making decisions, the drive that fear provides, solidarity, discipline, intiative, ingenuity and luck. What put them in that situation in the first place also involves bad luck and bad decision making, as the crash was due to a pilot's error.

Seeing Nando telling this story for what must be the hundredth time for him was deeply moving. He is a man usually at ease with the world. He is affable and successful in the life he has earned and made for himself since surviving. Yet when he talks about this catastrophe and the experience he and his colleagues had, he suddenly seems so vulnerable, filled with the emotions that rise up and which he had to control in order to survive. One should remember that he lost his mother and his sister in the crash, not to mention many friends.

Nando Parrado behind a Chilean policeman after rescue. He had lost 45 kilos prior to rescue  

Nando and a colleague were the ones who walked and climbed their way from what was left of the plane, weeks after the crash, in a desperate attempt to get to help. And they miraculously made it, despite having no climbing equipent or any other stuff that mountaneers take for granted. How they made it remains partially a mystery to many, and is to me a tribute to the capacity of some to overcome seemingly impossible adversity.
Nando says that it is also due to rugby. If they had not been a team and acted like one (one for all and all for one), used to dealing with tough opposition in a way that combines grit, instinct, decision making and skills, he thinks they would never have made it. I believe he is right, but there are also the individual qualities that each one has, and the combination of these with making the right decisions at the right time, and getting the necessary breaks. A rugby ball can bounce in several directions, but you also need to pass it and kick it right and play as a team.

Nando Parrado today