National Geographic Expedition I

NG Expedition I

December 2005

Ricardo Peña and NG writer James Vlahos secured a grant from National Geographic to do two expeditions. This page describes the first expedition. James and Ricardo traveled to Montevideo to meet with the survivors. Nando and Roberto provided more info on their expedition. In Argentina, Mario Perez (invited by Ricardo) joined James and Ricardo to cross the Andes. This was, and still is, the only expedition to have ever repeated Nando and Roberto’s escape route from the Andes. There have been many attempts. These are the only photos published of the route.

*All photos by Ricardo Peña unless otherwise stated*

The local authorities had not communicated regarding the official permission we had arranged previously and they found it very suspicious that 2 Americans and an Argentinean crossed the Andes on foot and showed up in their town. We were not a pretty sight! 12 days without showering, sunburned, bearded and exhausted! We were stuck in San Fernando until December 21st when our flight was leaving for the US.

With the help of the US Embassy, Eduardo Strauch in Uruguay and Edgardo Barrios in Argentina, we were able to communicate to these bureaucrats that we were indeed a National Geographic Expedition and that the Chilean Government had given us permission to cross the Andes into their country through an otherwise “unauthorized pass”.

Happily we reached Santiago in time for our flights and touched on American soil on December 22, 2005. I wanted to kiss the immigration officer when he said to me: “Welcome to the United States!” Our expedition showed the survivors climbed from 12,020 ft up to a pass 14,774′ high. From there they descended to 4,676′ walking a total of 33.5 miles…very tough miles! (nothing to do with trail running or hiking!).

We carried a lot more weight obviously, our trek was more than 20 miles longer, and we obviously had to climb up to the 12,020′ location from 7200′ in Argentina. In spite of that we had incredible advantages over them. We were experienced mountaineers, we were trained and healthy, we had plenty of food and great gear (perhaps a bit too much, but we didn’t know what to expect since noone had repeated it before).

Overall we felt that what Nando and Roberto accomplished in ’72 was incredible!…a miracle? Not in my personal opinion, but one of the finest moments in human history when two young men, against all odds, and showing incredible bravery, defied the cruel environment and challenges of the mountains and accomplished an unbelievable feat and with that, saved their own lives as well as the lives of their 14 mates stuck in the plane.

This escape and the troubles and challenges faced and overcome by the 16 Andes Survivors always has, and always will continue to inspire me; and will always speak volumes of that incredible thing called…the human spirit.

Photo by James Vlahos


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