Friday, February 22, 2008

London Thoughts

The Stanford University people invited me to London to participate in an Alumni meeting. It was a great meeting, extraordinary well organized by Laura Moore and her team. I spent a great week in London.

In the meeting, Prof. Charles O’Reilly presented Stanford’s new curricula and talked about leadership, presenting several vignettes of leaders taking tough decisions. Beforehand, I had made my presentation, which went very well.

As it always is, the best part came with the Q&A and later in the cocktail.

The lessons of the ordeal.

Someone asked me what my accident had meant to me. What I took from it in my day to day life. My easy answer was that I didn’t really know, that I couldn’t tell to what extent our ordeal had affected my life. But that is not really an honest or profound answer. Although it is true that I cannot trace the traits of my personality to what happened in the mountain, it is true that I have learned something from it. And it is about hope, it is about trust, it is about not having all the answers, it is about not having the last word. And up there, we knew that. We knew that even after doing all what we did, after doing all what was humanly possible, we didn’t have the last word. And that is something that I learned. Later in life I fought hard to attain my objectives but once I have fought hard, the result will eventually come if they have to come. We are not the owners of the end results; we only know how hard we can work, because in this life we don’t have everything under control.

Up there in the mountains, we were not sure that we were going to survive; we only knew that we had a chance to survive, and we fought hard for it. God was with us but we didn´t have all the answers. When now I face a crucible, I fight hard, I do what I can, but I know in advance that I can’t control everything. That is hope, it is trust and it gives me an enormous peace of mind.


In the cocktail after the presentation, one alumnus asked me if after going through such an ordeal, which required all that adrenaline, I didn´t feel bored with ordinary life. I was shocked with the question; I never tried to imply that an ordinary and balanced life is a boring life. I have been misunderstood. What I mean is that we need to find motivation and meanings in our day to day life, not necessarily in far reaching objectives.

The truth is that after those mountains in the 70´s, I had others to climb, and they all came with their additional doses of adrenaline and challenge. And mountains do come, even as if we don’t look for them. Mountains do appear in life, climbing mountains is what life is all about.

I wonder what type of mountain this guy was aiming to climb. Maybe he was told at school that he should climb the highest of all the mountains. But not all of them are going to get that high, and even those who get to the top, I ´m sure that they see ahead higher steps which we don’t see. But they see them. And the truth is that everyone has to know that the ladder does not always go up, sometimes it is just flat, and it can come down.

Sometimes, people just don’t get me when I say that I am proud to have lived an ordinary life out of an extraordinary episode. We all need to have a meaningful life, contributing from the actual situation of our life, from there we are demanded to live a fruitful and meaningful life. In some cases, just taking care of yourself is what you have to do, it is what some of us did in the mountain.

Giving up.

We were having dinner at a nice Italian Restaurant in London. One of the guys who was with us told me that he heard me saying that people don’t give up, but he himself, having served in the military forces for many years and actually been in the Vietnam war, he saw people giving up.

Yes, it is true, and I know that people commit suicide, and that is really giving up. But what I saw in the mountains, is that as long we thought we had a chance to survive we fought hard to survive and we didn´t give up.

I asked him why people that come from war don’t talk about it as we do about our ordeal. We love talking about it, sometimes we have a compelling need to talk. And the answer was that people coming back from WWII did talk, but people from Vietnam are stigmatized and their experience is not socially welcomed. He said that they talked among themselves.

Thinking twice, I believe war has other ingredients. It is a limit experience and maybe heroic as well, but people are driven into such extreme and unique situations which are difficult to understand by those who were not there.

Monday, February 11, 2008


I have met my friend Piers Paul Read (Jay) each time I have been to London. He is the author of the book “Alive”. I have been always welcomed to his beautiful house where he and his wife Emily live. I´m very fond of them.

As we always do, we talked about “Alive”. I asked him how he got to write the book, how difficult it was, what the process of writting such a book had been.

He told me that he was approached by Ed Burlingame from Lippincot, at that time a large publishing house, who had read in the media the news of our ordeal. Some of our parents and friends had organized a competitive bid to choose a writer that would guarantee the truth of the story, that would guarantee that the friendship and faith that inspired us in the mountain would emerge from the book, that would respect the memories of the dead, would also avoid scandal and at the same time offer a reasonable check to the survivors. When they came to Uruguay their offer was clearly the best, although not financially. But Piers Paul Reed, a British catholic writer was the winning card.

His first trip to Uruguay was made on February 1973; he met the survivors and friends at a nice welcome party at Carlos Paez´s Casa Pueblo in Punta del Este. He was impressed by the nice welcome in a beautiful mild evening watching the sunset from Casa Pueblo. Then he started to work. I remember we told everything to Piers in very long individual and group interviews. He says that we were very fragile and had a compulsive need to talk. When asked why we were so open to him he wonders if it was because he was not our father, not a priest, not a therapist, just someone that wanted to listen to us. And he indeed was a good listener. I had just heard the tapes of his interviews to me made 35 years ago. I said then nothing different from what I say now about the odyssey. In those tapes, he continuously asked me about my political views and about my understanding of the dynamics of our group.

He went back to London with 80 hours of tapes. And he worked on a big matrix, on one entry he listed all the survivors, and on the other entry he listed the events, and then he started knitting a tremendous patchwork. By the end of that year, he finished his draft and came back to Montevideo to show his manuscript. He says that it was a terrible week; most of us were disappointed with his presentation of our story. According to him, some of us thought that their role in the mountain was not accurately depicted; others said that the spiritual dimension of the ordeal was not there, others said that people in Uruguay were going to be scandalized by all the details that were given on what we fed on. Some even said that the Uruguayan society would stigmatize us and we would have to leave the country. Others even feared the reaction of the relatives of our friends who did not come back. Well, it was very difficult for all of us to be happy with the book at the onset; it is really very difficult to write in just a few pages what the 16 of us went through during our ordeal. But on the overall, I feel he did a great job, I feel that the book conveys a good idea of what happened to us up there.

He told me that the book was published without any changes from the manuscript we read. Just a small caveat was added in the acknowledges of the book:

“………some (of us) felt that the faith and friendship which inspired (us) in the cordillera do not emerge from the book………perhaps, it was beyond the skill of any writer to express our own appreciation of what (we) lived through……………”

And as we all know, his book (and ours too) has been a tremendous world wide success. It has been translated to more than 50 languages, although Piers himself does not recall how many copies of it have been sold.

Piers is very proud of his book, but curiously, one of the few negative critics came from William Golding, the author of the Lord of the Flies, who reviewed Alive for a London magazine some time ago. In the Lord of the Flies, William Golding writes about an hypothetic case in which a group of English schoolboys get stranded in a desert island. The survivors fail to organize themselves and finally turn into savagery. But we did not turn into savagery, we organized ourselves to survive and we made it, and we were always human beings. Maybe Golding didn´t like Piers book because it went against his main hypothesis. Ok, we didn´t degenerate into savagery, is it because we were not pushed that far? Piers says we didn´t and we wouldn’t have turn into savagery, and he is the one person who understands best what happened up there. I have to admit I have not read Golding’s book. I have just added it to my reading list.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Restriction to Suffering?

I just spent a few days in the south of Argentina. Nice weather, beautiful lakes, great mountains and some fishing expeditions, but overall a nice environment and a lot of friends.

One of them was my dearest friend Marcelo Serantes, who has always encouraged me to talk openly about my ordeal. One evening I found myself surrounded by his friends and their children talking about my mountain experience.

In these conversations, many issues arose. One was about the “restriction to sufferings”. I cannot say that being expose to 40° below zero, is 10 or 40 times worse than being expose to just zero. I cannot say that we felt much more hunger, pain or loneliness than any one exposed to an extreme situation in our ordinary lives. I am convinced that we have a limit to sufferings and there is only so much pain a human being can bear. I just can’t remember the sufferings in the mountain, I blocked them away, and time and life have also done their job. In fact, the worst sensation of cold I remember is the cold I felt on a skiing trip with my children. I don’t remember the 40° below zero we had in the mountains 35 years ago! You can’t go on with your memories and open wounds; they necessarily must be healed and forgotten.

The other side of that coin, is probably that we also have a limit to happiness. If there is only so much pain we can bear, there must be also so much happiness that we can enjoy. Is it then that happiness and sorrow are only relative measures?

How I started to talk/ Como empezé a hablar

The Documentary (again)

For many years, I kept the story of my odyssey just to myself and my family. Only some very close friends heard me talk about it. But not because I had any particular problem to talk about it, I was just very busy working, living through my corporate career and raising my family. I also watched with a hint of disgust my survivor fellows talk about it. At that time I even thought that our story didn´t have too many particular insights.

But things started to change. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but little by little, I found myself talking to small groups of teenagers that would gather around my story. Then, Gonzalo Arijón showed up with his project of a new documentary on the Andes issue. I turned him down, but as he insisted, I went to my brothers and my children to ask them what they thought about me participating in a new documentary. They came back with a surprise to me, they wanted to hear me, they wanted to know what I had to say about the mountain.

I enjoyed participating in Arijón´s project and later in a book by Pablo Vierci, which has not been published yet, in which all 16 survivors give our own view of what happened in the Andes and how we managed through life.

But the fact is that my mountain is coming back to me with incredible strength. When I relate to my mountain I feel enormous energy and vitality, it is when I feel I´m 100% alive. And maybe my message of hope also touches the heart of some people. That is why I talk now.

The Urdimbre

Marcelo Serantes has always shown a keen interest in our experience, and he has always encouraged me to talk about it. He thinks the message is very strong and fits in very well with his strong Christian beliefs. He is very fond of me and I will always cherish his friendship. He introduced me to the Urdimbre people. These are incredible guys. The Urdimbre is an organization that takes care of teenagers coming from very poor social environments that have gonne through a drug recuperation program. These people provide the teenagers with contention and guidance to help them start a new life in society. A titanic job.In December 2005, I was invited to share my story with a small group of these youngsters. They heard my story with rapt attention, but what they also valued is that I dedicated part of my time to spend with them one entire evening. They realized that ordeals happen to everyone, even to those who seem to have a happy and successful life. Their stories were also awesome; one of them had lost one of his ears to the bite of a pork when he was a toddler. They all had incredible tough personal experiences, but they were very glad to realize that theirs were not the only ones, and that it is possible to come back.

The Woman in the Mountains

But then the episode of the woman in the mountains happened. I was in a business trip with my wife Noelle, we were in the area close to where we had crashed in the mountains. One of our guides was a woman in her 40s. She came to me and told us that her only child had committed suicide, and the only reason why she was alive, was because our history had inspired her hope. If we overcame our mountain, she would overcome hers. I was confused and almost told her that I wasn’t any role model and that I didn´t have anything to do with her personal disgrace. But I let her go with our story, if our story would inspire her so much hope and meant the difference between life and death, it wasn’t the one to take her back to brutal reality. I started to realize again that our story is quite a strong one and that it can inspire others beyond our personal life!!

Cartagena, Colombia

A few weeks later, my friend Claudio, who heads one of the top leading Head Hunters firms, called me to ask me for a reference on Fernando Parrado as a speaker. He was intending to hire him as a key notes speaker for the senior partners meeting of his firm to be held in Athens later that year. During the conversation, at some point I thought Claudio would be interested in having me as a speaker in such an important meeting. But Claudio was clear, Parrado had his talks very well organized and he couldn’t take the chance of hiring someone who hadn’t started talking yet. Going to Athens to speak to the partners of such a prestigious firm was a nice challenge. Parrado got the job and he did a great presentation. But I started to think about it. So, when two months later I received a call from someone in Colombia asking for a reference for someone willing to go to Cartagena and address a group of Traumatologists, I said I would go.

And that is how I showed up in Colombia, talking openly to complete strangers for the first time in my life. It was a nice experience and I enjoyed it very much. I learned a lot from my Colombian experience, nevertheless I just don’t want to present my experience in the Andes as an isolated life experience. I did a lot of other things in my life and I think I can add a unique value to the leanings of my ordeal.

Bogotá, Colombia

When I went to Cartagena, Colombia, to address the Traumatologists, I made a stop over in Bogotá where my brother Santiago lives. His daughter Alejandra, a beautiful 15 year-old girl, had invited me to speak to her school class mates. The 15 year old girls waited for me with their homework done, they all had read the book Alive in their English class and they had very profound and serious questions. They even confronted me to what I said in the book!!! After my presentation, they discussed among themselves the meanings of my message. I was really very impressed. It was a marvelous event and I really enjoyed talking to this group

El Documental (De nuevo)

Por muchos años, guardé la historia de nuestra odisea para mí y mi familia. Solo unos pocos amigos muy cercanos me habían escuchado hablar sobre ella. Pero no porque tuviera algún problema en particular para hablar, sino porque estaba muy ocupado trabajando, haciendo mi carrera corporativa, criando mi familia y observando con algo de disgusto a mis compañeros sobrevivientes hablar sobre ella. Encima, pensaba además que nuestra historia no tenía demasiadas aristas particulares.

Pero las cosas empezaron a cambiar. No recuerdo exactamente como pasó, pero paso a paso, me encontré hablando a pequeños grupos de adolescentes que se juntaban alrededor de mi historia. Después, Gonzalo Arijón se presentó con su proyecto de un nuevo documental sobre el tema de los Andes. Le dije que no, pero como insistió mucho, le pregunté a mis hermanos y a mis hijos qué pensarían si yo participaba de este nuevo documental. Y para mi sorpresa, encontré que querían oírme, que querían saber qué tenia yo que decir sobre la montaña.

La verdad es que disfruté participando del documental de Arijón y más tarde del libro de Pablo Vierci que no ha sido publicado aún, en el que cada uno de los 16 sobrevivientes da su versión de lo que vivimos allí arriba y cómo nos hemos arreglado después en la vida.

Pero la verdad es que la montaña aparece con una fuerza increíble. Cuando hablo de ella siento una enorme energía y vitalidad. Me siento 100% vivo. Cuando hablo, siento que mi mensaje de esperanza toca a mucha gente. Por eso hablo ahora.

La Urdimbre

Marcelo Serantes siempre ha mostrado un verdadero interés en nuestra experiencia y siempre me ha alentado a hablar sobre ella. El piensa que el mensaje es muy fuerte y muy en línea con los ideales Cristianos. El me presentó a la gente de la Urdimbre. Son muchachos increíbles. La Urdimbre es una organización que se ocupa de adolescentes de origen muy humilde que han terminado un programa de recuperación de su adicción a las drogas. Esta gente les ofrece a estos adolescentes contención y guía de cómo empezar de nuevo en la sociedad. Un trabajo bien difícil.

En Diciembre del 2005, me invitaron a compartir mi historia con un pequeño grupo de estos chicos. Escucharon mi historia con increíble atención y creo que también valoraron que me haya tomado el tiempo de compartir con ellos una tarde completa. Se dieron cuenta que tragedias le ocurren a cualquiera, aún a aquellos que parecieran tener una vida exitosa. Sus historias eran impresionantes, uno de ellos había perdido una de sus orejas mordido por un cerdo cuando era pequeño. Todos tenía tremendas historias personales, pero estaban contentos de saber de que las de ellos no eran las únicas, y que además se puede volver a empezar.

La Mujer en la Montaña

Después pasó el episodio de la mujer en la montaña. Estaba en un viaje de trabajo con Noelle en el área cercana al lugar en el que habíamos caído en la montaña. Una de nuestras guías era una mujer de unos 40 años. Vino hacia nosotros y nos contó que su único hijo se había suicidado y que la única razón por la que ella seguía viva era porque nuestra historia le inspiraba esperanza. Si nosotros pudimos sobrellevar nuestra montaña, ella podría sobrellevar la de ella. Quedé confundido, y casi le digo que yo no tenía nada que ver con su desgracia personal y que tampoco era un modelo de vida. Pero la dejé ir con nuestra historia. Si nuestra historia le inspiraba a ella tanta esperanza y es la diferencia entre la vida y la muerte, no era yo quien le quitara esa esperanza y la colocara frente de su dura realidad. Empecé nuevamente a reflexionar que nuestra historia es realmente muy fuerte y que puede inspirar a otros más allá de nuestra vida personal.

Cartagena, Colombia

Unas semanas más tarde, mi amigo Claudio que lidera una de las compañías de Búsquedas de Personal más importantes, me llamó para pedirme referencias de Fernando Parrado como conferencista. Pretendía llevarlo como presentador principal a la reunión de socios de su empresa que se iba a desarrollar en Atenas más tarde ese año. Durante la conversación, en algún momento pensé que Claudio me quería llevar a mí como conferencista a esa reunión tan importante. Pero Claudio fue claro, Parrado tiene sus charlas muy organizadas y él no podría correr el riesgo de contratar a alguien que no ha comenzado a hablar todavía. Parrado realizó ese trabajó y tuvo un gran éxito. Pero yo comencé a pensar sobre ello. Así que dos meses después recibí una llamada de alguien en Colombia pidiendo una referencia de alguno que quisiera ir a dar una charla a Cartagena a hablar a un grupo de Traumatólogos. Y contesté que yo iría.

Y así fue como aparecí en Colombia, hablando abiertamente a desconocidos por primera vez en mi vida. Fue una buena experiencia y la disfruté mucho. Aprendí mucho de mi experiencia Colombiana, aunque no quiero presentar mi vivencia en los Andes como algo aislado o fuera de contexto. He hecho muchas otras cosas en mi vida y creo que puedo aportar un valor especial a las lecciones de nuestra odisea.

Bogotá, Colombia

Cuando fui a Cartagena, Colombia, ha hablar ante los Traumatólogos, nos quedamos unos días en Bogotá donde vive mi hermano Santiago. Su hija Alejandra, una lindísima chica de 15 años, me había invitado a hablar a su clase del colegio. Las chicas de 15 años me esperaban con sus deberes hechos, todas habían leído el libro “Viven” en su clase de inglés y tenían preparadas varias preguntas muy serias y profundas. Incluso me confrontaron con lo que yo había dicho en el libro!!!!!! Después de mi presentación, discutieron entre ellas el significado de mi mensaje. Quedé muy impresionado. Fue un evento maravilloso y disfruté mucho conversar con ese grupo de adolescentes.