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FOUR SEASONS: COMEDY SKIING

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 3 December 2011

MANY moons ago I was invited to the Austrian ski Mecca of Ischgl to write about its bacchanalian start-of-season festivities. At an elevation of 1,377m, and with runs up to almost 3,000m, the chi chi Tyrolean town is one of the highest resorts in Austria, which means the locals get to start their season a few weeks earlier than most of their neighbours, usually towards the end of November. Perhaps way back in ye olden dayes, the first whirring of the lifts at the start of a new season might have been marked by nothing more decadent than a few rounds of schnapps and some hearty Teutonic back-slapping, but even as long ago as 2004, when I was there, those days were long gone.

By night, the town seemed like one big club – a sort of Ibiza-on-snow – and the festivities started early, too: the main ski run back into the resort led directly to the bar of the Hotel Elisabeth, where sweaty hoardes fresh from the pistes stomped around in their ski boots to thumping Eurotechno and were encouraged to down shots of Jagermeister at worryingly regular intervals by a squadron of whistle-blowing, dirndled-up barmaids. The centrepiece of the party was a huge open-air concert, performed by The Corrs – an odd choice of band to play at the official opening of a ski resort, perhaps, but they seemed to go down well enough with the 15,000-strong crowd packed into the town square.

To put it mildly, then, I found the whole Ishgl affair to be something of an eye opener. Up to that point, my only experiences of skiing and snowboarding had been in cheap ’n’ cheerful places where the focus was on spending as much time on the snow as possible. Après-ski, as I understood it, meant fondue and red wine in France, sausage and beer in Austria, and a long, cold, soggy drive home in Scotland. The idea that a ski trip could be about more than skiing came as a bit of a shock.

Now, of course, the ski-holiday-cum-music-festival is considered old hat. In Austria, events such as Snowbombing in Mayrhofen and Rave on Snow in Saalbach are well established, while in Switzerland, the Brits in Laax offers “a full-bore week of snow, music, dressing up and general debauchery”. All of which sounds a bit too much like hard work to me. Maybe I’m getting old, but after a full day on the hill I don’t want to dance or debauch – I don’t even want to have to get up out of my comfy chair by the fire and walk anywhere (unless there’s food on offer, in which case I might just be tempted). It’s not that I’ve got anything against these events – far from it – I’ve often complained that some ski resorts can feel like cultural vacuums: soulless, functional places where armies of zombie-like punters slide down the same wide, featureless pistes by day and then drink in the same plastic, identikit bars by night. So no – I have nothing whatsoever against energetic young things dancing to decent music as opposed to dodgy Eurotechno, but there’s definitely a market for people like me too: tired, fundamentally lazy people, that is, who are more than happy to be entertained after a day on the slopes as long as said entertainment doesn’t require much in the way of physical exertion. And it’s precisely this niche that comedians Andrew Maxwell and Marcus Brigstocke have been exploiting for the last four seasons at their Altitude Festival, now based in Mayrhofen.

“It’s a pretty straightforward premise really,” Maxwell says of the event. “You indulge your enjoyment of winter sports during the day and then you get to come and see comedians at night. Basically there’s an enormous Venn diagram of people who want to ski and also people who want to laugh. The kind of people who like flying down a mountain on skis or on a snowboard tend to be the same kind of people who like laughter, irreverence, that sort of carry on.”

Headliners at the 2012 event, which runs from 26-31 March, include Jimmy Carr, Al Murray, Frankie Boyle and Tim Minchin. The big names will play a newly constructed 1,000-seat theatre, but there will be shows in smaller venues all over town. Prices start at £259 for five nights’ accommodation and an Altitude Festival wristband. Oh, and Christmas is coming, apparently. I can’t think of a better gift for that lazy ski bum in your life.

www.altitudefestival.com

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