“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.