Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 26, 2013

There’s Something About Mountains

Far from menacing monsters, mountains can be your best friends

The Pan-American Highway threads its way steeply uphill out of Santiago, Chile, climbing into the rarified air of South America's high Andes. The road rises with the terrain, slowly ascending through switchbacks and turnabouts until someone noticed that a conventional highway was becoming impractical, so they built a tunnel.

Unfortunately, airplanes can't use tunnels. As I look straight east at the solid rock ridge that seems taller than I could possibly fly in a poor, defenseless, Cessna 207, I marvel at the sheer poetry of the mountains.

In fact, poetry prevails in the Andes, from Caracas at the top of the continent to Tierra del Fuego at the bottom. Here in the middle, I can see the high foothills of Cerro Aconcagua as it reaches for the flight levels. Struggling through 11,000 feet, I'm not even half as tall. Aconcagua is the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, piercing the clouds to an elevation of nearly 23,000 feet. And I thought McKinley was big.

There's little relief on the south side of the pass. Cerro Tepungato, the Andes' second highest mountain at 21,555 feet, guards the southern approach, jealous of my artificial altitude and determined to be bigger than I am. It wins.

Somewhere to the south of Tepungato back in 1972, a twin turboprop carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the high mountains, and 16 survivors overcame incredible odds to live 72 days in the high, cold air before being rescued.

This is the portal through the High Andes between Chile and Argentina, a hard rock, unforgiving "V" of granite, grudgingly allowing only some of those who dare to pass unmolested. There's no malevolent or mysterious accident triangle here, no devils or dragons reside, but it's a region of thin air and sometimes violent weather, often terribly unforgiving of any mistake.

The mountains taper down to a series of high hills 300 miles south, but no, I have to do it the hard way. I struggle to surmount the lowest point of the ridge, wave soaring with condors for more altitude. The walls of the pass, I'm told, feature occasional reflections from aluminum airplane parts, once attached to living, breathing Cessnas, Pipers, Fairchilds and de Havillands, memorials to others who weren't so fortunate as I hope to be.


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