So you want to travel to the Lancastrian?’ From a mid-winter Bristol suburb, my call has rung through to the Refugio Plaza military base, high in the mountains southwest of the Malbec-growing hills of Mendoza, Argentina. Sergeant Casado of the 11th Mountain Regiment listens to my request.
On 2 August 1947, a Trans Andean passenger plane – an Avro 691 Lancastrian, based on the famous Second World War bomber – crashed into the southeast face of the 6,570m Cerro Tupungato. At least, that’s what we now understand to have happened.
In the post war years, domestic air travel was a comparatively risky and expensive business. Each of the six passengers had paid the equivalent of £14,000 in today’s money for a return trip with the now defunct British South American Airways (BSAA); hopping a series of short-haul stop-overs: London–Lisbon–Dakar–Natal–Rio de Janeiro–Montevideo–Buenos Aires and finally Santiago. A fleet of the reconfigured Lancaster bombers ran the five-day shuttle service.
Andean weather was poor when, at 13:46, the plane named Star Dust took off from Buenos Aires. At 17:41, pilot Reginald Cook and his two officers radioed Los Cerrillos airport in Santiago with a routine Morse code message saying it would land in four minutes. The message also contained a baffling series of letters which have never been explained. And then, radio silence. No one knew what happened to the plane, the six passengers and five crew for more than 50 years.
Among those on board the flight was a British ‘silver greyhound’ messenger sent by King George VI carrying secret communications destined for the Santiago embassy. There was also a German émigré to Chile, who had been trapped for seven years during a visit to her home country during WWII, and who was now returning with her husband’s ashes. And, there was a Palestinian man, travelling, legend had it, with a large diamond sown into his suit.
The first clues about Star Dust’s fate was not unearthed until two Argentinian climbers in 1998 stumbled across bits of a Rolls Royce engine on the Tupungato glacier. A botched expedition by the competing Argentinian army and air force two years later resulted in the recovery of body parts and some crash-site evidence, documented by a subsequent BBC Horizon documentary, The Plane That Disappeared, and in a book, Star Dust Falling, by journalist and food critic Jay Rayner.
Along with British mountaineers Jimmy Hyland and Joe Davies, I planned to trek to the site of the crash which had not been visited since the flurry of excitement nearly 20 years ago, hoping for new discoveries and fresh perspectives on the disaster. Almost all Andean glaciers are melting due to climate change and it was highly likely the retreating Tupungato glacier had divulged more of Star Dust’s secrets. The recovery of the missing diamond – perhaps now twinkling on the remotest terminal moraine – had not been reported back in 2000. I assured Sergeant Casado, however, we had no intention of removing anything from the site. ‘Since 2000,’ he told me, ‘I have no information about anyone going back.’
The single-skinned Rab Latok Mountain 3 tent is light, extremely strong and very warm (if a little cosy) for three men stuck in a snow storm at 4,350m. Perfect for extreme sleeps. With just two poles to erect and one sheet of eVent fabric overhead, we were quickly able to get down to the business of eating, rest and recovery.
A CHANGE OF PLAN
It’s dusk in the small mountain hamlet of Manzano Histórico. One month after my call with Sergeant Casado, we are driving a slow lap of the plaza looking for a cowboy called Manuel. On arrival in Argentina, the military had denied our request to access the crash site via its strategic Refugio Plaza base at the entrance to the Santa Clara Valley. So instead, Jimmy, Joe and I have continued south from Mendoza, searching for an arriero mule guide willing to load our two-weeks’-worth of food onto his animals and begin a dangerous journey to a remote glacier on just eight hours’ notice. The plan is to cross into the southerly Tunuyán Valley via a 4,000m pass, then break north, up and over into the Tupungato via a giant ice-field.
The hamlet is famous as the site where, 196 years ago, Argentinian national hero José de San Martín returned after successfully leading an army of men, mules, horses and cannons to liberate Peru and Chile from Spanish rule. Here we find Manuel, who agrees to be our guide. He maps out the high point where he can cache our equipment by drawing with a stick in the dust. The horses quickly stamp it out. An older cowboy hears of our mission, stating how the arrieros knew about StarDust well before 2000. None of them, he implies, saw fit to report it to the authorities. Stories reverberate through these high mountains, quickly dispersing into intangible threads. A plane could have crashed yesterday, but Manuel wouldn’t tell you unless you asked him directly.
• Team size: 3
• Distance travelled: 150km
• Time taken: 11 days
• Transportation: Hiking
• Starting point: La Ventana pass
• End point: Manzano Histórico
• Highest point reached: 4,950m
WHIPPED BY THE JET STREAM
It’s 5am at 4,360 metres. Fighting our way out of sleeping bags, frozen breath crystals fall from the roof of our tent, catching in the beams of headlamps. Space is limited. Four days ago, Manuel’s mule was rolled in a torrent. We lost our main shelter and our food got soaked. We are still more than 26km from the crash site. Hopes of reaching Star Dust are dimming.
Outside, ice axes, crampons and all other bad bedfellow hardware are buried under overnight snow. To our east is an unnamed summit from which we hope we will be able to access a route avoiding the military. Northwest is our abandoned Tunuyán Valley approach. In the same direction is a glacier with crevices hidden under a thin covering of earth. A few paces to the south from our overnight bivvy is a vertical drop to the valley floor a mile or so below, guarded by colossal wind-formed stalactites.
The powerful winds which helped form the stalactites no doubt played a part in the crash of StarDust. The high altitude Andes are swept by the jet stream – winds of up to 160km an hour which extend right up to the stratosphere. The Horizon documentary concludes that Star Dust’s crew probably tried to fly over the bad weather, failed, miscalculated their position, and then blindly descended straight into the glacier.
Rayner’s analysis is more nuanced. Ex-pilot Jeff Rees describes in the book how, on an aborted BSAA flight, he had been on a full power climb over the Andes yet was losing altitude at 150m per minute. Whether StarDust crashed with the pilot blithely descending, or desperately fighting the controls, we will never know. Either way the relentless winds almost certainly played a crucial part in sealing its fate.
Today, incoming flights to Santiago still pass safely to the north of Mendoza on the standard route, the modern jets flying high over the peaks. But in 1947, squeezing between 6,000m summits on more direct southerly routes would barely have raised the pulses of ex-RAF men used to dodging flak over Europe. Nonetheless, the high Andes proved to be more than a match for their converted bombers.
WHISPERS ON THE RIVERS
Joe finds a baby guanaco carcass near our camp. A puma got it. It’s our ninth night in the mountains and for the last hour we’ve been tracing the predator’s claw marks through the blue light of evening. Sure enough they lead to the kill-site back at our food cache. Guanaco tastes far better than our soaked supplies.
Any hope of reaching the StarDust has gone. Altitude, ice, rock and wind are the Andean hazards you’d expect would scupper an expedition. We came as best prepared for these as possible. Yet, the uncontrollable human factors were where we had really come unstuck. Rivers are dramatically changing in the Andes due to man-made climate change. Rain is falling higher on the mountains and glaciers are haemorrhaging ice. Two days ago we had crossed the Tunuyán river by first light – any later and the first sun rays on snowpack turn it into a boulder-trundling torrent. Entering the numbing flow, we had released our rucksack straps in case of being dragged under, and, with our hiking poles quivering in the current, waded deeper into the white water.
That night we decide to delay the inevitable return river crossing until morning, when conditions should be safer. In the last squint of light there’s a twitch of movement down by the river. It’s an odd shape for a puma but there always seem to be alert eyes out here. The strange form disappears into the night and Joe pulls his ice axe near as he makes his bivvy among the boulders.
An old arriero with a long, white beard had told me about another plane that had crashed in the Tunuyán range just recently carrying a freight of horses. Strange things seem to happen in these mountains. And while they may not have been written down or fully resolved, there are witnesses who pass on the spoken record.
After picking up our arriero Manuel in Manzano Histórico, he directed us through the dark streets to his father’s house. Here, in front of raging barbecue flames, a topless sexagenarian Argentinean wielded a colossal barbecue-fork better suited to digging over a flower bed. His name was Ruben ‘Yagua’ Rodríguez. The next day we crashed our way up a terrible dirt mountain road to La Ventana pass, riding to 4,150m in the back of Yagua’s 4x4 as he told legends about disappearing planes, misadventures of mountaineers and his role as founding president of the Piedra Libre Foundation that secured access to the Los Arenales world-class granite rock climbing venue.
A SOLDIER’S LIFE
The soldiers stationed at Refugio Lemos army barracks are eating crispy barbecued chicken beneath the weeping willows. It’s our last day in the Andes and we’ve descended into the foothills. The soldiers generously let us use their kitchen, but it’s still easy to feel resentful of the gorging men in camouflage as we stomach a final round of sodden pasta.
When the military denied us access at the outset of the expedition, our already ambitious plan to reach the crash site had in effect become an impossible task. A bureaucrat in Mendoza had slipped us a verbose letter from the Colonel Major in Mendoza, citing an obscure law which ‘restricts by force’ any possible access to Tupungato through the Refugio Plaza base.
However, local mountain guides told us that permission is not normally outright denied even if it can take a few years to come through. Military presence in the Argentinian Andes is to protect the border with Chile; but we were going to have a look at an old plane-crash site, not start a war. It felt as though something else was afoot.
When international media flocked to witness the resurrection of StarDust back in 2000, some observers believed the Argentinian military wanted to use it as an opportunity to re-establish a relationship with the UK, some 18 years after the Falklands War. It didn’t quite end up like that. Artefacts, including a severed hand and the painted fingernails of air stewardess Iris Evans, were brought down from their military expedition. The scarred propellers were recovered in a bent-back position, indicating they had still been spinning on impact, providing evidence of a controlled flight into terrain rather than engine failure. A still-inflated wheel was also discovered, suggesting the landing gear was stowed away at the moment of impact.
Yet two mysteries remained unresolved. First: the enigmatic Morse code message which spelt out S.T.E.N.D.E.C. – sent repeatedly from StarDust’s telegraph machine moments before it disappeared. For unfathomable reasons, conspiracy theorists say this indicates UFO involvement. More rationally it could have been a garbled version of the word DESCENT. Maybe it was an acronym used during the war: ‘Severe Turbulence Encountered, Now Descending Emergency Crash-landing’. However, that explanation sits at odds with the rest of the repeated message giving an estimated arrival time in Chile. Another more plausible theory is that the dots and dashes were taken down with the wrong gaps and it simply spelt out SCTI AR, a common airport code for ‘over’. STENDEC uses exactly the same dot/dash sequence as SCTI AR but with different spacing. Despite the plethora of interpretations, some more fanciful than others, no satisfactory explanation has yet been agreed.
The second mystery most probably has living witnesses who could help resolve it: who was it that actually first discovered the Star Dust crash site?
The army’s public relations exercise with Star Dust was thrown into disarray when the Argentinian air force overtook the advancing ground troops and landed a helicopter at the crash site. Rayner’s book describes contemporary newsreel images of Major Estrella as he leafed through a disintegrating empty wallet. ‘Someone, he concludes, ‘has been here before us.’ In 1985, a military operation had been launched to rescue two perished climbers from very near the crash site.
Arrieros, equally, have worked the surrounding mountains for centuries. Very few independent mountaineers – perhaps just four – have made it anywhere near the plane on Tupungato’s southwest face. Only two came back alive. Access today to Star Dust seems to be carefully controlled. Up there, on the melting glacier, eventual identification of a once diamond-containing jacket would provide as much insight into not only what is still is to be discovered, but what is potentially missing.
This was published in the June 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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