The North Face Mountain Festival 2017From The Field
Written by Tom Hill // Photography: The North Face
It’s Saturday night, or more accurately Sunday morning. In a large tent, in an alpine meadow just above Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland and under strobing lights and throbbing beats, one of the world’s best ultrarunners appears to be engaging in a dance off with an internationally renowned alpinist. I pause for a moment, caught out by the surreal normality of the sight – a clash between the neat little boxes we are prone to placing superstars in. These are folk that belong on mountain faces or a race course, not swigging beer and performing questionable moves to questionable music.
This is The North Face Mountain Festival. Now in its second year, the event has a simple premise – to bring together those who love being outdoors. Over the course of four days, the festival provides the opportunity for attendees to share their passions, learn new skills and meet some of The North Face’s finest athletes. The result is a crazed mash-up of music festival, outward bound centre and training camp.
We arrived on the Thursday. Our airport transfer wound its way along twisting mountain roads, rain bouncing from the windscreen, any mountain views hidden behind impenetrable cloud. The Lauterbrunnen Valley is a foreboding place in bad weather. The vertical valley walls spewed water down dizzying cliff faces. The base level of cloud once again obscured what was above, but thinner wisps clung to trees and rocky outcrops. Despite only being mid-afternoon it felt like evening, with little sunlight penetrating the greyness. I felt pinned down, the oppressive weather reflected in my tired mood after a couple of hectic weeks of travelling.
Within a few minutes of arrival, the odd ray of watery sunshine pierced through the murk. An ethereal glow illuminated the clouds to lift the spirits and a hot chocolate sipped under clearing skies did the rest. I sat, watching others arrive, pitching tents, saying hello to their new short-term neighbours as if it were the first day at a new school.
With the format of the coming days already structured (I had chosen my preferred activities weeks ago) I was reminded that I would be running, climbing, paragliding and hopefully learning some camp cooking skills while I was here. A mixture of the old, new and distantly remembered. An opportunity to do what I do well in a new landscape, take a step away from the training treadmill, and throw myself into new experiences that don’t present themselves on a daily basis.
Friday morning. After a social breakfast, huddled over huevos rancheros and a coffee, shorts and trainers are pulled on. I’m keen to loosen my body after too many days sat in seats where the moving was done for me not by me. I start with the familiar and line up for a steady 10km trail run, led by Lizzy Hawker – one of TNF’s sponsored athletes, with numerous ultramarathon victories and other achievements to her name, and now the Race Director of Ultra Trail Monte Rosa.
There is a mixed group of maybe 25 of us from across Europe and beyond, including one American runner who has crossed the Atlantic for the first time, keen to explore alpine trails. We set off along the valley, the only clue to a gradual height gain being the river flowing in the opposite direction next to us. The threatening skies of Thursday have been replaced with alpine blue, bringing with it a bitter, crisp start to the morning. The sun is yet to swing around to our valley, peeking through the tight letterbox of sky that is defined by its geology. Stiff bodies wrapped up in jackets and hats, we run towards what appears to be a dead end. Mountain walls and cliffs surround us. A narrow track does not appear to offer an escape, but we trust it, climbing up through the woodland. Our group singles out, pace gradually easing from relaxed run to upwards shuffle to walk. Layers are finally removed, stowed, and conversation begins to halter as runners concentrate on more important tasks, like breathing.
Steep may not be comfortable, but it is at least efficient. We quickly clear the treeline and are treated to high alpine meadows with snow-capped peaks beyond. Chocolate box perfection. Cowbells echo and we give way to a flock of sheep being herded down the hill. The seasons are changing and over the course of the weekend the snowline slowly creeps down the mountainsides above us. Completing a lap of the high meadows, I run alongside Lizzy, her footsteps short, deliberate and efficient. Each stride appears utterly effortless and more natural to her than engaging tens of strangers in conversation. One-to-one, she speaks openly and as precisely as her footsteps. Few unnecessary words, but each with warmth and meaning. I become aware that in comparison I am probably babbling and stop my flow of words, choosing to enjoy the conversations around us.
New friendships are being made over the course of a couple of hours. Too soon, we drop back the way we climbed, skipping along the smooth trail back to camp, but the conversations carry on into lunch around campfires, running tops steaming in the still, cool air. It is a pattern that is repeated through the entire weekend – small groups forming into larger ones, excited chatter and easy laughter; introductions and ‘isn’t it a small world?’ moments.
Three hours, and my feet are no longer touching the ground. I am looking at it from over 1,000m in the air, spiralling above the valley floor, as easy as a bird, if not a tad bigger than the average. I can see the campsite far below me, but individual tents are too small to differentiate. From the ground the paragliders looked to move so slowly across the sky, gently floating above. Now as I hang below the glider wing (a huge Swiss flag, of course) the speed is palpable. I can feel the air move swiftly past my face and we rapidly move from one side of the valley to the next, seeking thermals to carry us back towards the heavens. I am surprised to feel no fear; just exhilaration and awe at my position. In our fleeting lofty aspect we can see above the valley walls that cradle our temporary home and across to the pristine white of the Eiger summit. We corkscrew upwards and I am snatched back from daydreams of alpine heroism into the real and present danger of losing my lunch as the g-forces do strange things to my gut. Deep breaths and enjoy the ride.
It’s evening, and I’m not sure if my feet have touched the ground yet. My head is still floating as I listen to tales of derring-do, presentations and films by more TNF athletes. Each brings the unthinkable down to the level of just barely achievable by the vast majority of the gathered crowds. Borderline impossible for many, maybe, but still entertaining and inspiring, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of the audience members ends up standing on that stage in years to come.
Every night is rounded off with a live band and a disco. Maybe it’s fuelled by the increased levels of friendship as each day goes by, but each night the party seems to be more raucous. And we return to Sunday night. The crowd rolls and bounces, as others will be doing in clubs the world over. The dress code is a little looser here, mind. Forget smart/casual (no jeans). Down jackets are gradually cast off as the dancing gets more energetic, mountaineering boots mixing it with trainers on the grass dance floor.
Stepping out for some of that sharp, fresh, black air that can only be found in the very early hours of a mountain morning, I am greeted by those limestone cliff faces, faintly lit by the campsite below them. It is an otherworldly experience. The light is nebulous in the most literal sense. The cold air catches me unawares and a wave of tiredness threatens to pull me towards the cosiness of a sleeping bag. As if caught on those thermals, though, I find myself drifting back towards the glow of the party tent. Another beer is thrust into my hand with a grin and mouthed ‘cheers!’, inaudible above the tunes, and I watch the dance battle continue in front of me.
And now I stare out across a grey Yorkshire day. My hangover has faded, but the memories of the event have not. Connections, friendships and inspiration endure through the trail hopping, cliff-top gliding, and dance floor stomping weekender. The shared enthusiasm for simply being outdoors was simply intoxicating.