Surviving in one of the most inhospitable places in the world is no mean feat. For sixteen people in Netflix’s ‘Society of the Snow,’ the task of survival becomes challenging as they face one setback after another, with no hope of rescue in sight. They put all of their knowledge, experience, and innovation into finding ways to keep themselves alive, no matter what it takes. Gustavo Zerbino was one of those 16 people who made it out alive. Apart from hunger, thirst, and cold, Zerbino also faced the challenge of turning blind in the midst of it all. What happened to him, and did he get better?
Gustavo Zerbino was a Victim of Snow-Blindness
When Flight 571 crashed, it left the passengers stranded at a height of around 12,000 ft, with no means of protecting them from the many challenges put up by their surroundings. Apart from the cold (and several other deadly difficulties), the survivors faced the problem of snow blindness. It is caused by the UV rays reflected from the snow, where the thin air doesn’t provide enough protection from the UV rays, affecting the cornea and rendering a person temporarily blind. The situation is worsened in colder situations, and Zerbino felt the brunt of it when he tried to find a way out of the valley where he and his friends were stranded.
When all their hopes for a rescue were dashed, the survivors decided to mount an expedition to find a way out of the valley. Zerbino accompanied two of his friends to scale the peak about 14,000ft over the course of two days. They’d hoped to get the lay of the land and find a way out of their predicament but discovered nothing but snow-covered peaks. The trio embarked on this expedition with no prior experience of hiking in the snow and without any proper gear to support them, not even sunglasses. Zerbino’s corneas were burned by the sun, and he was left half-blind.
Zerbino later revealed that the blindness threw him into a pit of depression. The expedition was a ray of hope for them, to go to the rescue when it wouldn’t come to them. Instead, they saw “100 miles of snow.” The blindness made Zerbino feel “a great impotence” because he couldn’t do anything for himself anymore, and now that he’d seen how hopelessly trapped they were, he felt even worse.
Luckily, Zerbino’s blindness was temporary. His eyes were bandaged by a shirt, and he spent a week like that, allowing himself to recover. His vision eventually returned, though he was convinced at the time that he’d lost it permanently. He and the other survivors fashioned sunglasses out of the sun visors from the pilot’s cabin (Fito Strauch being the first to do so) and shared them amongst themselves to prevent themselves from snow blindness. Years after the tragedy and the eventual rescue, Zerbino’s eyes are completely fine, and he has done quite well for himself.
Zerbino was a medical student when the plane crashed, leaving him and his friends to fend for themselves in the uninhabitable environs of the Andes. Recalling the crash, he talked about feeling a “strong impact” that he didn’t think he or any other passenger would survive. Even when they did survive the crash, he thought the cold would kill them, saying how they hoped they would be rescued soon and how difficult it was to adapt to that environment, to tell themselves they were on their own. He also talked about eating their fellow deceased passengers and how, once they broke the mental taboo, they got used to eating human flesh because there was no other option.
Gustavo Zerbino, though only 19 at the time, was instrumental in ensuring the survival of his friends. Being medical students, he and Roberto Canessa used their knowledge to help the injured and later helped stitch the sleeping bag that was used by Nando Parrado and Canessa on their 10-day trek to find rescue. He has since dedicated himself to helping others while also living his life to the fullest.