Mountaintop Catastrophe as Teacher
Barely surviving an Andes plane crash and avalanche, Pedro Algorta discovered the value of teamwork
By Theresa Johnston
When Pedro Algorta was applying to the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1979, he submitted the usual package of transcripts, test scores, and essays. Then, almost as an afterthought, under the heading of Additional Information, he added a short note."It wasn't very specific," recalls Algorta, MBA '82."I just mentioned that I had gone through a very extreme experience in the Andes Mountains."
In fact, Algorta was a survivor of one of the most well-known plane crashes of all time: the 1972 downing of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 in the frozen Andes, about a hundred miles southeast of Santiago. The impact instantly killed 12 of the 45 people onboard; 5 the next day; 1 on the 8th day; 8 suffocated in a subsequent avalanche; and 3 more died of frostbite and other injuries. For 72 days, Algorta and the remaining passengers huddled in the plane's wrecked fuselage with little to eat but chocolate, some wine, and eventually the flesh of their dead companions. The highly publicized ordeal was related in a bestselling book, Alive, and a 1993 movie of the same name.
No one from the Business School admissions office ever asked Algorta about the cryptic note on his application. Even after he enrolled at Stanford, few of his classmates were aware of what the soft-spoken young man had been through. Now though, after a successful career in the Argentine brewing and wine industry, the former CEO is rethinking his long public silence on the subject. Last year, at the urging of his family, the 56-year-old father of three agreed to be interviewed for an anniversary book and documentary on the crash. More recently he shared his harrowing story with a rapt audience of GSB alumni.
Algorta was just 21 years old—an idealistic, left-leaning economics student at the University of Uruguay in Montevideo—when the ill-fated Fairchild FH-227 crashed on Oct. 13, 1972. The flight had been chartered by a team of rugby players, alumni from his Catholic high school in Montevideo, who wanted to play a match in Chile. Algorta, eager to visit a Chilean girlfriend, happily signed on for one of the bargain surplus seats.
Algorta recalls a festive atmosphere on-board the twin-engine turboprop as it set out on the journey from Montevideo to Santiago, Chile. When the pilot began to pick his way through the rugged Andes Cordillera, though, the plane hit frightening turbulence. Outside the windows, the jagged peaks of the mountains seemed perilously close.
"Suddenly the joy stopped and fear took over," Algorta recalled in his Dec. 4 talk, co-sponsored by the GSB's Lifelong Learning program and the Center for Leadership Development and Research."I remember the engines of the plane were put on full potential as the pilots tried to recover altitude, but it was too late." One of the wings clipped a slope and was ripped off. The rest of the plane skidded to a stop on the soft snow of a glacier at about 12,000 feet elevation.
Overcoming their initial shock, the survivors organized for what they were sure would be a swift rescue. Directed by the rugby team captain (four of the five crew members were dead), Algorta and his companions tended to the wounded, removed bodies from the wreckage, and devised makeshift sleeping quarters. Through a small transistor radio, they heard that rescuers were scouring the mountains for them. What they didn't realize was that the white fuselage of the downed plane was nearly invisible to searchers from above.
As days wore into weeks without rescue, the group fell into a useful, if monotonous, routine: cleaning the plane's interior, melting snow for drinking water, smoking, praying the Rosary, dreaming and talking incessantly about food."We were all going to launch successful businesses related to food," Algorta said wryly."We also talked about silly things: how we were going to get back home—we were not going by plane—and what we were going to tell our parents."
Then one day, about 10 days into their ordeal, the young passengers turned on the radio to hear devastating news: The search was being called off, at least until the summer thaw. Desperate by now for something to eat, they seriously began to consider what previously had been unthinkable.
"We started talking about it," Algorta told his hushed audience,"and one day we just went out to one of the frozen bodies, made a small cut with broken glass, took some of the flesh, and put it on top of the fuselage to dry. Then, one by one, we ate." There was some rationalization. Some of the passengers compared the act to Holy Communion, suggesting that these friends, like Jesus Christ, might have died in order for them to be saved. Another suggested that if he died, he would be more than willing for the rest to take and eat his body. But the truth required no apology."We all ate because we were weak and hungry," Algorta said simply."And we wanted to live."
As their extreme hunger faded, the survivors began concentrating on a new objective: to send a small expeditionary force down the mountain to find and bring back help. The fittest of the group began taking short, exhausting forays from the plane, trying to figure out the best way to go. The route was by no means obvious. Some favored going east, where the terrain seemed less daunting. Others lobbied for a more direct, if treacherous route west toward Chile.
"We were just getting ready to choose the expeditionaries," Algorta recalled, when suddenly one night the passengers heard an ominous blast in the distance. Within seconds, an avalanche engulfed the plane, spilling tons of snow into the open end of the fuselage and killing eight who were sleeping on the floor, including the rugby team captain. Algorta, too, was buried.
"In the beginning," he explained,"you can continue breathing [in an avalanche] because the air flows through the snow. But then the snow freezes and the oxygen is cut off. … After many attempts to get out, I just felt very tired and started to stay still. I realized I was dying and felt enormous quiet and peace. And then when I was almost gone, one of my friends removed the snow over my face, and air came into my lungs. Suddenly all the will and strength to continue fighting for life came back."
It took several days for Algorta and his companions to dig themselves out of the cold darkness, during which time three more perished. By then their resolve to get off the mountain by their own devices was stronger than ever. On Dec. 12, three of the strongest passengers set out over the thawing summer ice while Algorta and the others stayed with the plane, clutching their precious radio and listening for bulletins. Ten days later—72 days after they had taken off from Montevideo—came the news they had been longing to hear: Their friends had arrived in Chile, and a search-and-rescue helicopter was on its way.
Like most of the 16 survivors, Algorta spoke freely with the press during the frenzy that immediately followed the rescue. Then he tucked the ordeal into a sort of mental backpack and started a new life in Argentina. Within 18 months after the accident he was married and working toward a bachelor's degree in economics at the University of Buenos Aires. Later, after completing his Stanford MBA, he served as chief executive officer at Cervecería Quilmes, a South American brewery group, and Peñaflor, a large wine group. Today he serves on the board of Cepas Argentinas, a beverage group associated with Bacardi. He also runs a cattle breeding ranch in Uruguay.
Interestingly, Algorta said, his leadership style in the business world was a reflection of how he behaved on the mountain. Unlike the heroic young men who walked down the mountain for help, he explained,"I stayed with the group. And that is the kind of leader I've been in my life: building teams, being with people, making groups work."
Why did Algorta decide to open his mental backpack and talk about his story again after all these years? Partly it was about reaching middle age and having more time for reflection."All my life I didn't have time for my mountain," he explained."I was too busy working, studying, being a father. … For me it is just part of my normal life. I never dreamt about it. I never had nightmares." Then, too, he wondered if anyone really cared."Why would people be willing to hear me speak when so many things happen to other people in life?" he reasoned."People go to war. People get transferred and have personal ordeals and disgraces. Why would people want to hear about something that happened to me 35 years ago?"
The answer, fittingly enough, came about two years ago while Algorta and his wife, Noelle, were traveling in Chile not far from where the crash occurred."Our tour guide was a woman in her 40s who'd had a tough life," he recalled."Her only child had committed suicide, and she said the only reason she was still alive was because our story had inspired hope in her. … I thought, well, maybe my story has something that really means something to other people."
Algorta blogs [survivorwalk.blogspot.com] and would like to write a book about his personal experience in the Andes. He's also building a series of corporate workshops around the leadership lessons he learned: truths about the value of teamwork, leadership styles, and having a group objective. Above all, he wants to send a message of hope—that the human instinct for survival is strong, and if he and his friends could overcome the Andes, you can overcome the mountains in your life, too. As he explained,"We were just a group of ordinary guys who went through an extreme situation. And ordinary guys can accomplish extraordinary things."