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Lessons learned from people getting lost in wilderness areas

Posted by John Reed on

I have been watching the Smithsonian channel series called Air Crashes. It is documentaries about actual air crashes or near crashes and the ensuing investigation as to the cause and prevention of a recurrence.
One case I became aware of intrigued me. I also came up with a number of things I am going to start doing to prevent my family being hurt by being lost in an unpopulated area on a long road or air trip.

1972 Andes rugby team plane crash

The case I just finished reading a book about is about the October 13, 1972 crash of a chartered Uruguayan Air Force plane carrying a rugby team from that country to play in Chile. The Fairchild FH-227D  twin-engined turboprop passenger aircraft with 45 passengers and crew crashed 11,710 feet up in the snow-covered Andes Mountains. The crash itself killed 11.

Long story short, Third World efforts to find the crash were unsuccessful. 72 days later, two survivors walked out of the mountains and got authorities to chopper up and rescue the remaining 14 survivors still at the fuselage.

Some resemblance to US Army Ranger School

The story reminded me in part of US Army Ranger school which I attended and graduated from in August-October 1968. The salient features of that were sleep and food deprivation and having to walk 10 km (6.2 miles) per night with a heavy pack in woods, mountains, and swamp while on patrols. The Andes crash and survival was worse, but similar in many ways.
I may not have done any better had I been one of them, but I will make some hindsight, retrospective comments about how they could have handled it better.
Would 43 US Army rangers in the plane have done better than the rugby team and its supporters? Yes if they just showed up and infinitely better if they not only showed up but prepared as well.

Most flights go over remote unpopulated areas

If you fly over almost anywhere other than the Bos-Wash corridor, you are over remote areas where few people live at times. Planes almost always land at airports, but not always. In the event of a crash, first responders often or usually find the crash scene within hours. But sometimes days or weeks go by. 
If you are in such a crash, you probably will survive it. 

Airplane accidents have a 95.7% survivability rate, according to the US National Transportation Safety Board. 

Sat phones and personal locator beacons

But in almost all crashes, there are serious injuries. So job one is to let first responders know exactly where you are. That requires a sat phone or a personal locator beacon (PLB). I have both. I have never taken them on a plane in case of emergency. I plan to start.
If the Andes rugby team had a sat phone or personal locator beacon, there would not have been a book (Alive), a documentary video (Alive 20 years later, Stranded, Trapped Alive in the Andes, I am Alive), and feature films 
(Survive!, Alive) about their ordeal. They would have been rescued within 24 hours and all or most of the 18 who died after the crash would have lived.
There is also a series called Could You Survive? on Netflix. I saw a number of episodes on the Weather Channel. Basically, it is actual true stories of people getting lost in sparsely populated areas and surviving through days of desperate efforts. The host Creek Stewart tells how they could have done better. Much of his advice is McGiver tricks. Mostly outdoorsman stuff.

Again, if they had a sat phone or personal locator beacon, there would be no such TV show. They would all have been rescued in hours.

Sat phones were not available to consumers until around 1990. I talked on one in 1969 to the aircraft carrier Hornet captain when it was in the Pacific waiting for the Apollo 11 astronauts to go to the moon and return. The occasion was I was in the U.S. Army’s first Satellite Communications course at Fort Monmouth, NJ.

The locator beacons were first used in the 1950s by the U.S. military, and were mandated for use on many types of commercial and general-aviation aircraft beginning in the early 1970s. I do not know when personal versions became available. In 1972, some types of 2-way radios were available that the rugby team could have carried personally. They had none.

The plane they were in had one two-radio that was destroyed in the crash. It may have been fixable, but none of the survivors knew how. They found the manual for it, but the key chapter in the manual had gotten wet and those pages blown away by the wind.

I will not get into the technical details here, but both the sat phone (two-way) and PLBs (transmitter only) send your name and other info about you and your precise latitude, longitude, and altitude to an international or national sort of 911 dispatcher. They, in turn, contact the first responders nearest your location and give details in the case of sat phones, and just the news that your are in dire trouble in the case of the PLBs.

In fact, “The plane fuselage came to rest on a glacier at 34°45′54″S 70°17′11″W at an elevation of 3,570 meters (11,710 ft) in the Malargüe DepartmentMendoza Province.” But the survivors did not know where they were and had no way of communicating with authorities.

First Aid

Upon crashing, the Andes survivors needed to be their own first responders stopping bleeding if any and that sort of thing.

Shelter from freezing

Then, they need to build shelter such as they could using the remnants of the fuselage, airline seats, luggage, snow. They had an immediate freeze to death danger.

Call for help

Next they needed to contact authorities to get rescued. As I said, they have no working transmitter. They had a broken radio and two big back-up batteries. They should have been working to try to send out an SOS daily. They only spent a day or two  on it.

The radio needed 115 volts AC. The batteries were 24 volt direct current. I am not sure, but an electrician might have been able to create an inverter and transformer. 

They were above the timber line so they had nothing to burn for a signal fire (or for warmth). They never mention in the book the fuel in the plane’s fuel tanks. They are usually the wings. The wings and tail were ripped off in the crash. They found the tail. But no mention was made of finding the wings. Had they found them and they contained some fuel, they might have created a signal fire on a number of nights to help searchers. Possibly, some fuel would have leaked out, but maybe not all. I do not believe they ever looked for the wings.

In the event, the Andes survivors assumed they would quickly be found by rescuers. Bad idea. They should have assumed that the searchers would have great difficulty and tried hard to help them. The fuselage in which they were taking shelter was white, as was the snow there and everywhere around them.

Any markings were on other parts of the plane, not the ones where the survivors were. Rescuers never found it until one survivor who walked out of the mountains led them back to the plane in a chopper.

Medical supplies

They needed medical supplies like antiseptics to prevent and cure infections. They had none and some of the dead died of the lack.

As a West Point grad, I was told by older grads what to buy before ranger school. One item was antibiotic spray. I got it and often used it. The non-West Pointers in our ranger class almost constantly had swollen hands and other areas from getting scratched by vegetation.


There was little food on the plane—in-flight snacks, more snacks to eat in Chile. Given that and the 72-day delay in being rescued, obvious solution. They ate the dead passengers and crew. They would be dead if they had not. They were emaciated when rescued as it was.

Note that the Andes plane crash occurred on October 13th, the 22nd day of Spring. The Andes are in the southern hemisphere. Their first day of summer is December 21st and so on. So they had freezing temperatures and snow that preserved the dead bodies for food. But with each passing day there was more sun, the earth got closer to the sun and the sun rose higher in the sky warming everything. So this created a food-storage problem as the weeks went by. In any cannibalism-mandatory situation, you need refrigeration and you are not likely to have it in most cases.

Can you take some food on the plane for this purpose? Probably not much.

Field sanitation

“In most eras of military history, it was a reliable truism that an army could lose more men to disease than to the lethal efforts of its enemies.” I think WW I or WW II was the first war when the casualties from disease were fewer than those from enemy fire.

It sounds like the Andes survivors did a lousy job on this. They needed to urinate and defecate some distance down hill from the fuselage where they lived. They could have use burning the feces (if they found some plane fuel) to create black smoke that would have possibly attracted the attention of the searchers. There is not a lot of black smoke at 11,000 feet in the Andes.

More importantly, urinating and defecating in and around where you live, eat, and sleep can sicken or kill you. True, many of them were in great pain and commuting to a distant latrine might have been too much. If so, they needed bad pans or some facsimile. But you cannot urinate and defecate where you live, eat, and sleep.


The fuselage was lying on a downward sloping glacier. Mountains around them were thousands of feet higher. They slept in the remnants of the fuselage. Predictably, one night, an avalanche that was small enough to be silent but big enough to kill them, hit the plane. It killed eight of them.

I am not sure if they could have found shelter in a better place, but they sort of had to. Eight dead. Sounds like they needed to move their “home” to a higher up the side of the glacier wall of rock so that any avalanche go by below them or be stopped  by the rock wall. 

Not my area of expertise, but I know there are avalanches downhill from lots of snow being up above.

Stay put or go looking for help?

Generally, the best practice if authorities know your plight and general location is to stay put and wait for rescue. That was not the case in the Andes. Also, they had many disabled by the crash and subsequent injuries and illnesses. Only a few were fit enough to walk out. 

Moving at night

The survivors were reluctant to use night time to walk out. However, there was one advantage: At that time of year at 11,000 feet in the Andes, the snow was frozen and you could walk on top of it. During the day, when the crust on top was not frozen, they would sink up to their hips. So there was thought about walking out of the Andes when the snow was frozen and sleeping when it was soft.

I think that was a great idea. But they were afraid of falling off a cliff.
In Army Ranger school, where we were almost only allowed to move at night, because we were supposedly behind enemy lines trying to avoid detection. We got a ton of experience doing that. There are two kinds of night: pitch dark and moonlit. The moon rises and sets at certain times each day repeating a 29.5-day cycle every month. When it is between the earth and the moon, it provides no light. That is called a “new moon.” But other than those couple of days, the moon provides various light levels. When the moon is full or almost full, you can almost see like daylight.

The other issue is whether the sky is clear. If you cannot see the moon, it will be pitch dark regardless of the phase of the moon. So they needed to walk when the snow was frozen and there was moonlight, and sleep when the snow was not frozen and when they could not see enough to move safely.

When you can see where you are going—often true when you have moonlight and clear skies—it is quite safe to walk at night.

The Andes guys seemed to take a very long time to send out the walkers—until December 12th—two months. Cold weather was a part of that. They ingeniously made a sleeping bag out of plane insulation and airplane seat fabric I think for three for sleeping each day during the hike. One guy went back to the fuselage and only two used the bag which worked well.

They really had no clue which direction to go, east or west. They did not know which was the shortest route to human help. I never really learned which would have been best. There was help in both directions, but time was of the essence.

It occurred to me that going down would be easy if they had a sled. They did. A seat cushion. First they had to climb up to get out of a sort of bowl—4,500  more feet. There, they spotted a valley they thought looked promising. It worked, but may not have been the shortest if they had maps and knew their location. 

At one point, one of the two waling survivors was flying down the mountain at about 60 mph on the cushion, He assumed he could slow down by dragging a foot or a pole he was carrying. He was wrong. He only stopped when he hit a wall made entirely out of snow. As he approached it, he hoped it was not rock with a thin covering of snow. No injuries from the snow wall.

But the ability to slide down hill made that long walk go much faster.


They should have had topo maps of the Andes they were going to fly over. A US Army Ranger probably could have used those to figure out where they were. The first officer said they passed the Chilean village of Curicó. The survivors had air chart maps, but they always assumed they had passed that Chilean village. They had not. They could neither read maps, nor had ground maps nor could they figure out where they were on maps if they had them. (A ranger or any other competent topo map reader would triangulate the various peaks he could see with those on the map and locate his position.)

Dead reckoning could also work. If they were flying a straight line route from Montevideo to Santiago, and knew their departure time arrival time and crash time or their departure time, speed and crash time. They could figure out where they were on the straight line route. For long flights, remember you are flying a great circle route, a straight line on a globe but not a straight line on a flat map.

The Andes survivors walked 38 miles in ten days to find help. I do not know if there was any help closer than that by another route. They just kept going west based on the false info that they had passed Curicó.

I gave my 9-year old granddaughter some general instruction on what to do when lost in the mountains. “Generally, there are far more people to help you in the downhill direction.” The Andes survivors found a river and followed it.


In day time, you can figure out general compass directions from the sun and the time elapsed since day break. At night, you need a compass. Most have a glow-in-the-dark pointer.

If you can see the stars. The front edge of the Big Dipper points up at the North Star. Today’s cell phones can serve as compasses. With an app you can even see the stars on a cloudy night. In the southern hemisphere, there is no Big Dipper or North Star. You have to find the Southern Cross.


Before ranger school, a West Point grad of 1965 sent us a letter listing preparation we should do before we went there. One recommendation was, even if you do not need them, wear glasses and have one of those bands around the back of your head to hold them on. This was to protect your eyes in thick brush in pitch dark. 

I needed glasses to see. I bought one of the elastic bands that slipped over the ends of the two pieces that go back over your ears. I never lost my glasses. Many who got the letter decided to ignore it. I expect they wore no glasses at all or lost them early on.

My letter back to West Point if I wrote one would say glasses my ass. Get prescription sports goggles and tie them securely to your body with a cord in addition to the strap around the back of your head. If you do not need a prescription get plano sports goggles to protect your eyes.

The two survivors who walked out and got help included one guy with good eyesight who saw a road down below, They later learned it would have taken them to help quicker. But the leader of the walk had worse eyes and insisted on taking what turned out to be a longer route. I guess he lost his glasses. If you need glasses, you cannot afford to lose them. I now have a pair of prescription sports goggles which I regard as part of my travel through or over remote areas.

Gotta be able to see and gotta protect your eyes from injury. This is especially true in thick vegetation.


It is also recommended that you have a whistle to make loud noises including the SOS Morse code signal (••• - - - •••). When the walkers finally say humans, they were on the other side of a loud river. They could not hear each other. That probably added a day to the wait. Also, loud noise can help rescuers find you especially in dark.


There are some things in life that require a different mindset than normal. Base running in baseball is an example. It requires a state of extreme alertness and hair trigger readiness to explode either back toward the base you are on or to the next base. Playing defense also—maniac shark in a feeding frenzy who needs to hit the ball carrier ferociously in the next second. I also told them that they must behave as if they were on fire and the ball carrier was a waterfall. I played some football and coached it and wrote eight books about it.

West Point is an extreme ordeal. Those of us who graduated figured out that contemplating the whole four years that were lying before us on the first days was impossible. You had to just try to make it until the next reasonably pleasant activity: meals, bed time, a lecture in an air-conditioned auditorium on sitting down in the shade.
Then there was ranger school which was a whole other level of misery. The mindset you need to get through Ranger school was to simply put one foot in front of the other. I think the Andes rugby club survivors needed something like that.

Breaking point

Then there is the question of breaking point. People who have been through extreme situations like prolonged combat or being a prisoner of war say that everyone has a breaking point—different for different people. 1,000 guys entered West Point with me on July 1, 1964. 706 graduated with me on June 5, 1968. Some of those who left hit their breaking point. Others just decided it was not what they wanted to do or flunked out or violated the honor code.

But when my class arrived at ranger school, we thought the low breaking point guys left while we were New Cadets or freshmen. Quite wrong. A bunch of members of our class broke in ranger in spite of not having broken in four years of West Point.

Some faked injury or illness to escape to the hospital. One respected member of the class who was a friend of mine flew into a rage one pitch black night in the mountain ranger phase. He was convinced we were walking in a stream bed (full of smooth round stones that keep making you fall down) and was trying to get us all to mutiny and refuse to take another step.
I had to grab him like some cliche war movie scene and say sternly, “First name, that way is north. Several hundred miles up that way is a place called the Pentagon. If and when the brass there learns that you were trying to organize a mutiny in ranger school, they will court martial your ass and all your four years at West Point will go up in smoke. Shut the hell up! Ranger sucks. We know. You screaming about how it suck tells no one anything we don’t already. Your job is to follow the guy in front of you. Do your Goddamned job and shut up.” Which he did and had a very successful Army officer career.

Others refused to carry the radio or the M-60 machine gun (about an extra 10 pounds additional weight) when it was their turn. No reason. Just no.

I never hit my breaking point at West Point or ranger school  or in Vietnam. That was also true of the majority of my West Point classmates. But I do not believe I or anyone else is exempt from the fact that everyone has a breaking point.

I do not remember for sure, but the young man who captained the walk out—NANDO PERRADO—never seemed to break. After they were rescued, they were all in a hospital. Nando tried to enter and was stopped by the nursers because only the survivors were supposed to be there. “I’m one of them,” he told them. His relatively healthy appearance and demeanor made them assume he was not one of them. He had spent the first three days after the crash in a coma. His mom and sister died early on.

I read the book Alive by Piers Paul Read which is an extremely overdetailed account of the ordeal in the Andes. It told of almost everyone breaking during their time in the mountains.

Two thoughts:
1. It is not a normal situation and that requires that you get out of your normal mindset and into a radical new one appropriate to the unavoidable aspects of your survival situation. 
2. The breaking point is a cumulative problem. So there is a premium on ending it ASAP before various survivors reach their breaking point. Breaking can kill the person who breaks and/or other survivors who have not broken.

I do not know if it was possible, but I think the survivors should have sent out their walkers as soon as they heard that the search for them had ended on the eighth day. They had a radio receiver which told them that. More of them died between then and when the walkers found help—which the guys back at the fuselage also heard about on their radio.

The survivors were young—college kids. Older people may have bene better able to handle the psychological aspect better from greater experience. Although if one’s entire life were soft, older people might be less able to handle it psychologically. Also, these were rugby players. That is a rugged sport.

Religious faith

The survivors were all Uruguyans from a Jesuit Catholic College and their relatives. Most were very religious. But I must say there seemed to be a battle between the comfort many took from their faith and their overreliance on religious “solutions” and rules like pray for help and do not engage in cannibalism because it is surely a sin. Had that latter rule prevailed, they would have all dies. God helps those who help themselves was the religious notion that saved them.

The book Alive

I thought the book Alive told too much. Very repetitive and TMI. However, I normally go to bed at 10 or 11PM. But when I was in the final chapters, I could not put it down. I did not get to bed until 1:15 AM.

It is a great story as you can tell by all the movies made about it. But it is also a cautionary tale. I hope that no one reading this gets into such trouble. An ounce or prevention is worth a ton of cannibalism, etc. If you do get into a survival situation, I suspect and hope this article helps you and the others with you to survive.

Here is a link to suggestions for the contents of a survival kit.

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