“I did what I’d seen in the movies and stuck my hands in the air …”
About a week after lockdown started, I promised to share some of the lessons that solo adventures have taught me. My thoughts and opinions are changing so fast these days and a few weeks ago I think I’d of seen this one differently, but as we continue to live with restrictions to our personal freedom I can now appreciate the real lesson.
The story is from my time living in Chile – I lived there not long after Pinochet’s military dictatorship and he still controlled the army; I frequently felt uneasy and the police presence often felt menacing – something I struggled with, having grown up in the UK. I was working as a climbing and mountaineering instructor, so I was living mainly in the mountains, but one weekend I found myself with free time in Santiago; some locals had told me that climbing Cerro Provincia, really close to the city, was a great outing and straightforward, so on the Saturday I set off.
I didn’t have a map but it was a beautiful day – I was looking forward to getting a view, perhaps even a glimpse of the Pacific coast. But as I gained height the vegetation became increasingly dense; cacti loomed like crazed-triffids and the lower vegetation had ripped long gashes across my legs. It became increasingly difficult to continue so I looked around for an alternative. Going back was not an option, but down to my right there appeared to be a bit of a clearing. I saw there was some barbed-wire to cross but without thought or hesitation I carefully crossed the wires and headed easily downhill – a little disappointed to miss the summit but relieved to have found a way out. Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere I was confronted by three men, each pointing a gun at me. I did what I’d seen in the movies and stuck my hands in the air. Fierce, loud interrogation rained down on me and all I could repeat was “Caminando, caminando, per favor caminando”. Slowly they put their guns down and moved closer – my mind raced as I feared what would come next. But I was hand-cuffed and then marched downhill. Beyond the clearing I could now see a military base – I had unwittingly trespassed into a military zone.
I was taken to a small white building where they began interrogating me. They’d confiscated my rucksack and started going through the contents. Suddenly they stopped as the pulled out my Swiss army knife; “what is this for?” they demanded, triumphant that they’d found a real reason to detain me. “Mira, esta es para mi manzana!” I replied, nodding towards the apple that I’d never had a chance to eat. At this point, one officer left the room, whilst the other 2 examined my first-aid kit for more incriminating evidence. Minutes later a seemingly more senior officer arrived and I decided to tell him my story. Looking him directly in the eye, I told him that I loved mountains, I’d come to work in Chile from Scotland and that I’d wanted to climb Cerro Provincia to get a view of the city. Even though my heart was pounding I spoke clearly and loudly, I remember my voice sounding confident; I was confident that my honest intent would be understood.
And so finally I was believed. Escorted by the same 3 officers I was driven to the edge of the base and given a warning – told it is very dangerous to go alone, without a man, into the mountains. Wow, I was free. I’d been wild at school and was really into breaking rules; my personal philosophy was that rules are made to be broken! I’d never been a captive (except for a few detentions), and truly before that day I had no idea what it was like to have my freedom taken away from me. So the powerful lesson from this experience was to appreciate freedom.