When it comes to inspirational books, it’s hard to beat Alive, Piers Paul Read’s 1974 account of the survival and eventual rescue of 16 survivors of a plane crash in the Andes. Roberto Canessa, one of two men who hiked out of the mountains and then led authorities to the survivors’ location, wisely doesn’t try to beat it in I Had to Survive, choosing instead to write (with Pablo Vierci) a complementary account of the ordeal and its effect on the subsequent four decades of his life.
It’s been quite a life, with Canessa forging a career as a pediatric cardiologist in his native Uruguay. The book is his way of expressing how, as Vierci puts it, “his ordeal on the mountain had shaped his life.”
For the record, Canessa wastes no time addressing what, for many, was the most salient feature of Alive: how the survivors had to consume “the only nourishment that was keeping us alive, the lifeless bodies of our friends.” But he has a larger purpose than explaining that decision. Rather than consigning his ordeal to the past, he’s made it an indelible part of his life.
So while the first part of the book recounts the crash and its aftermath, the second part is where Canessa truly bares his soul. From his words and those of his family and the families of his patients, it’s clear that while some people might think the Andes cast a shadow over his life, his view is totally different: “It’s the light from the mountain that continues to illuminate my path, in life and in death.”