A Foucauldian moment in the mountains.
Bivvy /(‘bıvı)/ Verb 1. Informal for bivouac. 2. To stay outside in a small tent or temporary shelter.
Arriving in Wellington off the ferry late one drizzly night with no money to spare for accommodation, I wandered the city looking for somewhere to sleep. It was the 1980s, and I was what you’d call a dirtbag climber, someone who through choice lived in a house-truck with no power or reliable running water. In a misguided budgeting exercise, I even swiped toilet paper from public toilets. All my possessions, mostly climbing gear, fitted into a single pack.
I was in my early twenties, and searching for more meaning than making a living as a painter and decorator was giving me. At the time, I considered painting a lowly trade that didn’t require much skill. Painters had a reputation for ripping off little old ladies and being stoned at work. A friend of mine summed it up after a big day of sanding and filling: he said, “I’ve lost my rhythm.” He didn’t turn up for work the next day.
For me, mountaineering and rock climbing replenished what was getting ground down. They gave me back my rhythm.
Finding a place to bivvy in a city isn’t easy. A city is always glowing, with street and security lights, neon and traffic noise. Weirdly, one of the most unnerving sounds comes from the incessant tweets of birds. Sparrows, I think. They make me think of Hitchcock. Park benches, alleyways, concrete entranceways. All these locations had a feeling of insecurity, which reminded me of trying to hunker down in the middle of a glacier. Shelter in the middle of a glacier is the hardest shelter to find. You think the weather is okay, then a storm rolls in. You realise you have to pack up in the middle of the night, but the dark is dangerous, and scary. Sometimes you’re forced to stay where you are until it gets light. It’s easy to be brave for a few minutes on a short crux on a climb, but dealing with fear that lasts for hours or days is hard.
Desperate to get out of the Wellington drizzle, and for sleep, I wandered into the Bolton Street Cemetery, a sanctuary of sorts with grass and trees. The rumble of the motorway above and the diffused urban lights reminded me it wasn’t wilderness, but at least there were fewer people. In the old section of the cemetery, I found what I was looking for, a grave that had a low concrete wall surrounding it and a macrocarpa hedge growing over it. I poked my head through the hedge and saw in the light of my headtorch that it was relatively dry and flat. The writing on the headstone was all but erased by time and weather.
I climbed in and excused myself to anyone who might be upset by my presence, pulled out my sleeping mat and sleeping bag and settled in. Inside the wall, I felt like I was safe from anyone who might want to hassle me. Finding a secure bivvy site, be it in a graveyard or a glacier, gives me a sense of power. I can look after myself.
In the morning, I packed up and coddiwompled into the city, weaving along rush hour streets through hundreds of office workers headed the opposite way.
While on my OE in 1988, I visited the London Science Museum. In the entrance, hanging from the ceiling, there was an enormous pendulum. It swung on a lazy arc over a brass plaque that had degrees marked on it. When I went into the museum, it was swinging along the centre; a few hours later, it was scribing along a different line.
I stood there struck dumb, reading the interpretation panel. On February 3, 1851, I read, a 32-year-old Frenchman, Leon Foucault, proved the Earth spins. He invited a group of scientists to the Meridian Room of the Paris Observatory, where he’d hung a pendulum, shaped like a plumb-bob. As it swung, the pointed end etched lines in the sand, and, over time, these lines changed. His audience were watching the rotation of the Earth.
Mostly, people who head for the hills are fascinated by the act of climbing. The stuff of do or die. But it’s in a bivvy where you can most experience the intensity of the mountains. You feel the slightest puff of breeze, notice with dread the sound of rain plopping onto your bivvy bag, see the dew forming. If it’s starting to freeze, the end of your nose will go numb. It is one of the greatest joys to lie down in the tussock on a summer’s evening with a dome of stars above.
I can recall every bivvy I’ve ever had.
In the summer of 1995, on the slopes of
Rob Roy in the Matukituki Valley, I had one of the most profound moments of my life. Three of us had set up below the snow line during an ascent of Rob Roy. We snuggled into our sleeping bags. The stars were brilliant, popping, points of light. There was the Southern Cross, and there was Scorpius, first pointed out to me by a girl I once loved. It was like one of those digitally enhanced photos you see of the night sky, where the colours resemble a tin full of Smarties. Except the Milky Way didn’t need to be enhanced. The stars seemed so close, it was as if I could reach up and wash my hand through them like phosphorous in the sea, changing the shape of constellations forever.
“So, what do you reckon, are we all alone, or is there someone/thing out there?” “Don’t know, but what do you think that noise is in your ears, almost a ringing, even though we’re in the mountains and it’s deathly quiet?” “That’s the sound of the Universe expanding, or maybe it’s the sound the earth makes as it spins, or …” We drifted off to sleep.
Over the course of the night, I woke up at intervals, and each time the Milky Way had shifted, a great line rotating away towards the horizon. Foucault’s pendulum was visual evidence the earth was spinning. Seeing the stars shift over a period of hours, I felt it.
WORDS: ALLAN UREN PHOTOS: ROSS MACKAY