Would you eat a hand? A human hand? What if you were really hungry?
"Staying alive was always the main task, for which it was necessary to eat well, but not from a rational decision, rather from an instinctive imperative. I always had a hand or something in my pocket, and when I could, I would begin to eat, to put something in my mouth, to feel that I was getting nourished."
These are the words of Pedro Algorta, who was stranded in the Andes mountains for 71 days following a plane crash in 1972, and ate the hands—as well as thigh meat, arms, and essentially anything that could provide nourishment—of both those who didn't survive the impact and the subsequent two months. Of the 40 passengers and five crew who took off on the fateful Uruguay flight to Chile, only 16 survived after the plane crash, an avalanche, and hypothermia. Those who did make it back to humanity—after an epic ten-day hike for help by Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa—survived for the most part on a combination of miracle-style mental toughness, group endeavor, and desperate cannibalism.
It's a little strange talking face-to-face with someone who ate a hand. When we met in an exceptionally loud café, I kept looking at Algorta's teeth, at how strong they looked, thinking, I wonder if eating hands made his teeth strong. At 65, he seems a good ten years younger, and you think, maybe all that thigh meat has imbued him with a sort of semi-eternal youth.
Algorta is blasé about the whole eating-a-hand-in-the-middle-of-a-traumatic-mountain-experience thing. In his book Into the Mountains, newly translated into English and ostensibly what we're here to talk about, he explains plainly how the surviving group's decision to eat the frozen dead was made from a place of cold, distant logic: eat the flesh of those who perished or perish along with them. Today, he's much the same—unapologetic in a way that's so far from apologetic that it transcends the notion of apology—explaining cannibalism as plainly and matter-of-fact as eating a slice of bread if you were hungry and facing death. "Well," Algorta explains, always skirting carefully around words such as 'I,' 'ate,' and 'hands.' "That was a decision that was taken not with our minds—it's not like an authority figure came and said, 'Hey guys, I know what you have to do!' It was a decision that was taken with our stomachs."
I spoke to him about hand-eating, surviving in a group without squabbling, and how often he thinks about all the people he ate after going back to real life and just trying and enjoy a nice stew.
VICE: A lot of the crash survivors have different accounts of what happened after the crash, and due to the nature of time and memory they conflict each other quite a lot—names change, roles are altered, stuff like that. Did you find your story was scrutinized at all? What made you tell it now?
Pedro Algorta: Well, we are a group of guys that, 40 years ago, had this tremendous experience, and since then each one of us has followed his route, so we are quite different, and that has allowed us to look back and see our stories from a different perspective. And for 35 years this was a story which I didn't talk about. There was a backpack in the corner of my room, and I heard my friends talk about their story, and I thought it was my story, too. So at the time when I decided to open my mouth and start to talk about it, I realized that the way I saw my story is different, because it's mine, no one experienced what I experienced and no one has seen this side. But I realized that everyone has their own story, which is absolutely true. I don't claim to be the owner of the truth or whatever; I feel that all of us have the right to tell the story by themselves. This is mine, it is how I experienced it, what I learned from it and what I brought over from the mountains into my normal life.
What's it like being in a plane crash?
Getting into a plane crash is a very near-death situation, where you don't know if you're going to survive or not and you have instances of panic and you lose control of yourself and of your surroundings. You are being thrown into the air and anything can happen, and that was what I experienced there. The plane was shaking like chaos, and bumping from one mountain into the other, and finally we got to the bottom of a valley surrounded by mountains. At that time the sounds finished and everything was silent, and it was snowing softly and there in the plane was us survivors.
In the book you spoke about the crash itself quite distantly, as though it didn't seem real when looking back on it.
Well the point is that although I have images—I know that they're mine because I have the image of my friend Felipe dead just at my side—and I cannot recall many details of what happened there, you know? Such an emotional limit, and the memory doesn't allow you to pick up all the details—so for example, I don't remember my seat number, I don't remember what I said just one minute before I crashed, because the emotion was so high and the panic was so great that I cannot recall that. For many years I wondered if I should try to remember that or to work on that and try to deconstruct the details of the crash and all that stuff, but I can't, so I left it there. It's in some part of my subconscious that's quite... it's not coming back. I don't have any nightmares at all, and I'd been aiming to lead a normal life in the 40-something years that came afterwards.
What I noticed in the book was how the feeling of you being a group—that you were in it together—actually forms a little slower than you may expect. So when the crash first happened, there were subgroups and leaders and there were people together, and instances changed, people died, and the pecking order changed, but the feeling of you as a group didn't forge immediately.
At the very beginning, we were a group of people based around a rugby team, and in that group the captain of the rugby team was the most important guy there. He knew how to command the group; he was immediately the authority figure of this delegation. He actually played a very important role in the first days we were in the mountains trying to organize what he could, and made himself respected from the authority that he had. But what he said was basically, 'Hold on, we are going to get rescued very soon.' What happened is that we weren't rescued. And when he said, 'Hold on, we are going to get rescued soon,' he was preventing the group from doing the real adaptive work that we had to do. At that time, we didn't need an authority figure. What we needed was a leader that would make the group conscious of the problem that we were thrown into, you know?
So he died in an avalanche and when he died the group was a group of youngsters without an adult figure. And that was possibly for best because from there on each one of us, with their own strengths and relative weaknesses, started to work for himself and for the group. So every activity, every thing that any one of us had to do, was important for the group to evolve.
We had a lot of tension, we had discussions, we were not all friends. People had to fight for our ideas to be heard, for our positions of authority within the group, for not being a scapegoat, for being near where the decisions were made. The dynamic that we had up there in the mountain, you will see with any other group—even in the groups that I've had to manage later on—that also happens. So the things that happened to us as a group over there in the mountain also happens in groups here in society. The dynamics are there, we were not an exception in that regard. You have fights for authority, you have emerging leaders coming in, you have scapegoats, you have experiments—you fail or you're right—and you learn. And that's the way we were able to form this group that was able to adapt and progress in such a hostile environment.
I suppose the group was responsible for the decision to start eating the survivors, then?
In different places, different people started to realize that if we want to survive we have to fill ourselves with something, and we didn't have anything to eat. So that's why without convincing ourselves with logical thoughts, we just responded to our weakness, to our desire to survive. A group of us went and picked up one of the bodies that we had and we started to make a small indentation with a piece of glass and then started eating, and that was all. It was the most normal and logical thing that we could do there in order to keep eating.
And once we did it, we didn't feel as though we'd crossed any boundaries or broken any ethical or moral issues, we just thought that we had taken a step forward, learning to survive in such a hostile environment, learning to do things that we were not used to.
So eating human flesh never felt abnormal?
No not at all. Even today when I look back, I realize that if I hadn't done it I wouldn't be here today. And the fact that we did it was just responding to our most basic instinct of survival, and that's it. That's why you don't find it hard or too strong in the book, because I take you step-by-step through the decision and when you get there, you realize that we couldn't have done anything else, and I'm absolutely convinced that anyone in our position would have done the same.
What was interesting were the religious themes some of the group cited, about the flesh being the 'body of Christ' and the idea of being your friend and helping you to survive by—well, not making a sacrifice, but almost. Was that actually a big part of the decision?
That was said, and we said that, but I'm sure no one was convinced because of that. We did it because we were hungry, we were weak. You need this type of logical compensation, but at the end it was the stomach that was driving. We didn't have time for too much rational planning—the planning and conversation, everything, was related to how we were going to survive each day in the mountains. And we didn't know, we didn't have the tools, we didn't have any mountaineering experience, we hadn't been in the snow before, we didn't know what to do to survive, we were not prepared for it. So everything came from our instinct and by trying, by making zillions of errors, and sometimes we were able to make a step forward.
I understand there was a press conference after you were rescued where you were sort of forced into admitting to the cannibalism. What were people's attitudes like?
Well, the news had already spilled it out, so it was spoken about. Except some of our parents didn't want to believe it. What we said was simply, 'Yes, we did it,' and that was all. We didn't have to say anything else. When we got the word out and there was acknowledgement that we'd done it, there was tremendous applause. And the relatives of the people that didn't come back, what they said was: 'It's OK.' For 40 years it has not been an issue. Everything was said, everybody knew, for us it is normal, we didn't expect it to be an issue because at that time, we weren't thinking about issues—we were just thinking about surviving. Since then we have been dealing with that and we don't feel different.
Now, 40 years on, how much of your day-to-day life is spent thinking about the mountain?
Well, I have to say it never comes back to me. It never comes back to me unless I'm speaking about it, like now, but it's not something that comes back to me. As I said before, it's not bringing up nightmares. We have been able to live with it and are at peace with the mountain.
Read on MUNCHIES: Purple Bread Is the Latest Weird Fad For People Who Are Scared of Carbs
Since that applause, we have been able to live a quiet and normal life. I don't pretend that it has not affected me, because it's been a trauma. A trauma starts when you don't know how to deal with it, and we know how to deal with it because we have never been accused or marginalized, we have never had a finger pointed at us, nobody has accused us of anything. I went to a good university, I've had good jobs, I have a nice family, so the mountain is in our past but it's not coming back. The point is, I think that we have been able to lead a normal life. I really think that that is the most important thing that we can say about it, because it shows how much people can recover from things that happened in the past.
I suppose you're living normal lives where people who didn't survive could have lived normal lives.
Yes, of course. The boys that didn't make it aren't with us and that's always a question—why we are here and they are not. But I don't have an answer to that. That's a religious or moral or ethical question, everyone has a different answer to that. I don't have an answer.
You can buy Pedro Algorta's book, Into the Mountains: The Extraordinary True Story of Survival in the Andes and Its Aftermath, online at Amazon.
Follow Joel Golby on Twitter.