An "Alive" Andes Hero Gives Thanks, and Thoughts

[Author's note: Roberto's words are translated from Spanish.]

The silence of the deep Andes must be limitless and oppressive at the same time. And the presence of God must have seemed so present yet mocking to the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed there, at 12,025 feet, as chronicled with such clarity by Piers Paul Read in his book "Alive," which was made into a major motion picture in 1993 starring Ethan Hawke, among others.

Leading into the Thanksgiving season, something in the bareness of the trees and drop in temperature made me think of my cousin, Roberto Canessa, one of the two "Alive" survivors that climbed a 14,774-foot headwall to save himself, his friends and, he explained on the phone, his mother waiting in Uruguay.

We talked in the slight pause that he takes in the evening, in between seeing his in utero, newly born and young patients and making his follow-up phone calls to their parents. His words seemed all the more meaningful in this season of thanks, commemorating that moment when European settlers--arrived on a continent unmarred and disconnected from the torrent of the rest of the world's activity--broke bread with the native people who made their survival possible.

Americans are celebrating the events that gave impetus to the rise of the United States in many respects but also, on pared level, a moment of tolerance, reciprocity and natural human curiosity.

In an e-mail to Roberto prior to our talk, I told him that I knew it was a lot to ask to return mentally to a time of such extreme duress. But he was there in an instant. "What gave you the strength to persist when you were climbing that mountain?" I asked him. Roberto's answers are elliptical.

"Well, what moves people isn't how to do a project, but rather why. That force that moves you is why. My mom had told me once when she had gone to a friend's burial that if she had a child die on her she couldn't go on living. So I felt that if I died, she would also die. So it's why you do things, more than how. Well I learned that myself and then I corroborated with other people and I saw it belongs to human nature. The force that moves you to do for others--like a good mother for a son--is stronger. And if [the effort exerted] were instead for yourself, you might not do it."

Roberto, a pediatric cardiologist, is much what you'd expected an Andes hero to be. He possess an energy that he draws from some philosophical, spiritual source that he seems always tuned into, and for him seems obvious. His immaculate and quick prioritizing of the most important things--and his ability to allow the others to slip into unconcern--give him a lithe mobility. That energy he channels into helping others in many ways. Whether he is bringing dated but still highly valuable medical equipment into Uruguay--thanks to U.S. donors--or spending time with his family, he always has a purpose. He can also be impatient, irascible and honest to a point that others find shocking. And he is like this always.

Much of what Roberto told me over the phone we have talked about before. But we hadn't spoken about his concern about his mother, and how that lent him the strength to scale the Andes. And we hadn't talked about the why, over the how. That didn't seem overly surprising, given how deeply philosophical Roberto is. But there was a last thing that Roberto told me. And it is an observation that belongs to this Roberto, one that has had 42 years to think about what happened. He said:

"I think this experience is like some macabre experiment on human behavior--as if a damn hand had decided to put several human beings that had never seen the snow in 30 degrees below zero on the mountain. Let's put them there young to see if they last longer. Let's put rugby players there, who say they are so tough. Let's put those with religion there to see if God remembers their souls. Also, university students to see if their culture persists. And the comportment on the mountain rose from all these characteristics. I think that what interests people is the human behavior in a crisis situation, and how we managed to come together."

Knowing the story of the survivors, it is difficult to see everyday objects--a glass of water, a plate of food--in the same way. Even the sight of a sock can transport you to the privations that the boys and their fellow travelers faced. A sock is what Roberto and Nando Parrado used to carry the flesh of their fallen friends on their heroic ascent through the Andes. It sustained them, in caloric terms, through the climb. Surely, the fact that the boys were left with no other means of survival made the experience all the more wretched. But to echo Roberto's point, even as they broke with this taboo, the group upheld the principles of their civilization. The damn hand that put the group in the scarcest of conditions failed to turn the boys against each other.

Despite the incredible feats that Roberto and his climbing partner were able to achieve, in the end they depended on the kindness of a stranger. The Chilean shepherd they found left his work and his charges to help two ragged men he had never laid eyes on. Under his roof, the men enjoyed some simple food that for them amounted to a cornucopia.

Roberto noted on the phone that we all have our mountains to climb. Indeed, it is the climb that gives us purpose and meaning. When I gather with my family and friends on Thursday, I will be thankful for the climb. And I will think about what Roberto said about the pleasure of helping others. And always, from now on, I will think about the why much more than the how.