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Feature

Snowbombing

The hippest festival on snow hits the Austrian alps late March so get your salopettes on and prepare to party.

Snowbombing

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SNOWBOARDS, BEER, DJS ACTION!

As Snowbombing celebrates its 10th birthday, Matt Barr finds that the incredible music festival on the slopes gives the big summer events more than a run for their money. Get yourself out there!

Towards the end of the Snowbombing event of 2002 at Villars, Switzerland, a few festival-goers decided they didn’t want the party to end. It had been a particularly banging night, literally – as Fabio and Grooverider’s set had come to a close, everyone in the club spontaneously got down on their knees to bang out a “one more tune” salvo on the wooden floor in the hope of persuading the DJs to carry on playing. The duo fled into the night, but the crowd weren’t to be deterred. It is at this point that legend and fact become blurred. The unconfirmed rumours have it that a splinter group led by various saucer-eyed luminaries of the UK snowboarding scene joined forces with Bez from Happy Mondays, liberated a set of decks and put on an impromptu dawn rave in the local school hall. When this was busted, the group shifted en masse to the reception area of a local hotel and carried on partying, this time with hotel staff joining in. The last reveller left only when the other guests came down for breakfast.

It’s tales like this that have contributed to the growth of the Snowbombing festival, happening this year on 29 March–4 April in the Austrian resort of Mayrhofen. The event itself rarely disappoints first-timers.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Tom Robbins, author of White Weekends and a Snowbombing virgin until last April’s event. “It was carnage. It is sort of like the atmosphere at the Krazy Kanguruh in St Anton writ large across an entire resort.”

Guardian journalist and veteran of four festivals, Gemma Bowes, agrees. “Snowbombing is probably the only ski holiday where your snowboarding skills actually get worse as the week goes on – in inverse relation to the amount of partying you do,” she says.

Over the past 10 years, Snowbombing has subjected the weary denizens of each designated host town to many a spectacle. Take the 2008 event in Mayrhofen, the festival’s home since 2006 and the biggest and best yet. The 3,600 Snowbombers in attendance could choose between 15 different venues – variously open from midday to 7am – and from the cream of the UK’s bands, DJs and club nights.

“There’s only five hours out of each day where there isn’t something going on,” says a still-tired sounding Tom.

Best bits? How about the fancy-dress street party on Mayrhofen’s main drag? Or the gig in a forest clearing at which 3,000 revellers relived their childhood as Madness played? Then there was the Arctic Disco held in an igloo up on the mountain, with Krafty Kuts DJing. “That was definitely my highlight”, says Tom. “They open the cable car late, and at the top there’s a path carved out of the snow lit by torchlight, with a rave in a giant igloo. Even the DJ booth was carved out of ice. I ended up dancing with a Prince Charles lookalike at one point.”

Such high jinks are par for the course at Snowbombing, and it’s testament to the genius of the concept that, rather than be run out of town by the locals at the sharp end of a pitchfork, they’re invited to return each year. The idea is simplicity itself – ship a load of clubbers out to the Alps, give them a mountain to play on and a week of mental nights in which to ruin themselves. Light touchpaper, stand well back and wait for the messiness to begin.

It all started a decade ago when organiser Gareth Cooper and some friends decided to create a ski holiday with a difference. “We wanted to start ski holidays and had no money, so we thought we’d come up with a gimmick and get free press,” says Gareth. “Also, we knew that music in the Alps was generally pretty s***, so we thought we’d convince club promoters and DJs to come and play for a free holiday. That was how the original Snowbombing was created. Basically, we wanted to recreate Saturday night out in the Alps.”

The first event was held in the littleknown French resort of Risoul and was attended by just 250 people, with only three music nights. But it worked, and by the following year’s festival, again in Risoul, it had expanded to include a snowboarding contest and had attracted the interest of BBC Radio 1 and the mainstream media. This was the first time I had attended the festival, and I found organised chaos reigned supreme. There were not enough beds for punters, and the entire event was staffed by friends-of-friends as intent on partying as the paying customers.

“Oh yeah, we’ve had plenty of balls-ups on the way,” says Gareth with a wry grin. “But we were making it up as we went along.”

Still, the event’s reputation for good times meant that by the following year’s event, in Villars, Radio 1 shipped out some of their top DJs to broadcast throughout the week. The incongruous sight of Tim Westwood wandering around in over-sized skiwear and Oakley sunglasses is something the locals won’t have forgotten in a hurry, while at one particularly surreal juncture, having been up for the past 30 hours, I found myself giving sledging lessons to members of forgotten early noughties girl band Mis-Teeq. It was that kind of week. Gemma Bowes was also there, and met the ubiquitous Happy Mondays dancer I’d been raving with at an indeterminate point sometime during the festival.

She says: “You’ll often end up hanging out with the musicians and seeing them around on the slopes in the day. We ended up sharing roll-ups with Bez, and my mate got stepped over by a high-profile Radio 1 DJ while she was vomiting in the bogs.” Ah, the glamour.

A year later, the whole shebang had moved back across the Alps to France and the resort of Les Arcs. It was another rip-roaring success (my personal highlight was snowboarding a deserted, powder-filled resort with a couple of friends, after yet another 30 hours without sleep), but Gareth was sensing the need to find a permanent home for the event.

“Les Arcs was the last one we held in France. Switzerland and France just weren’t that hospitable. The French were the worst, while the Swiss were too expensive. In Mayrhofen, they understand the business financially, are supportive and get it, basically. It is the perfect resort – there’s great snow, great atmosphere and great accommodation. It’s very cheap, too.”

To get around complaints from regular holidaymakers that sometimes blighted the early days, today’s Snowbombing simply takes over the whole place. “It means the average age of each visitor for the festival is 26, which the local businesses and tourist board love,” says Gareth.

The move to Mayrhofen also coincided with the decision to broaden the musical scope and invite trendy bands like Madness, Dirty Pretty Things and Foals, as well as the usual club nights and top DJs like Calvin Harris. The 2009 line-up harks back to the roots of the festival, with Fatboy Slim pencilled in to headline, and Grandmaster Flash and Dizzee Rascal also appearing.

“It’ll be hard to beat 2008 though,” says Gareth. “Madness in the forest, 3,000 people dancing to a band you loved as a kid playing Baggy Trousers, everyone going mad, the Alps on either side. It was just surreal.” So what have you got to lose, apart from your snowboarding skills and quite a lot of sleep?

Sloping off to Austria

Party, party, party!

The UK and European economy may be heading downhill, and the pound weakening by the day, but you can still pull off a wicked winter holiday at bargain prices. Week-long packages for Snowbombing 2009 start at just €296 (B&B or self-catering, plus entrance to the festival), and the line-up looks set to cause an avalanche. Live acts include Dizzee Rascal, Reverend and the Makers, Beardyman and The Cuban Brothers. DJs include Fatboy Slim, Grandmaster Flash, Scratch Perverts, Fabio and Grooverider, Krafty Kuts, Benga and more!

10 February 09