Best. Decision. Ever.
As I leap off a block and plummet 6m into freezing cold pool of water in a gorge tucked up in the Swiss Alps, I can’t believe I almost chickened out on this. It’s day 2 of The North Face Mountain Festival and I’m trying out canyoning for the first time.
A festival for the outdoors
I have been getting involved more and more with The North Face over the last few months and when they asked if I would like to come along to their mountain festival at the foot of the Eiger, in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, I couldn’t say no.
The concept was simple; get 600 outdoor fanatics together and get us running, climbing, flying, leaping, cooking, photographing, and a whole load more together. From lunchtime on Friday through to lunchtime on Sunday there were tonnes of activities all led by their athlete pro team members followed by evening talks, live bands, and DJs into the wee hours.
Friday at the Mountain Festival
As I pulled up to the festival I was immediately taken back – this thing was huge! A field of tents were already set up by the eager early-arrivers with giant marquees for the dining tent, bar, stage and talks area, plus more for gear testing, information, and extra activities.
Nothing had been spared and not even the constant drizzle and poor weather forecast was dampening people’s spirits.
My first activity was off rock climbing – no surprise there – and, with the bad weather we were set to head to a steep and overhanging limestone crag to dodge the rain. Ineko and Iker Pou led the charge with another TNF pro, Hansjörg Auer.
A steep and technical crag, thankfully we managed to find a few routes more my grade and we spent the afternoon chatting, hearing their stories and getting tips from the pros before, all too suddenly, it was time to head back. Though I definitely wanted to stay we had more to come and we needed to head back to base camp.
Talks and food glorious food
Arriving back at base camp we were there just in time to listen to Fernanda Maciel tell her incredible story of racing up and back down Aconcagua in Argentina in the fastest known time. Settling into the speakers tent; it was great to hang out with friends, have a beer, and relax into the weekend. That was all before I had to get my running shoes on for a night time run.
Before this I had a little time to hear Andy Houseman talk about Link Sar West and dive into the dinner tent. Catering for 600+ people is not an easy task but the people in charge delivered and then some: soup, salad, hearty stew and rice pudding filled the whole a long drive and an afternoon rock climbing created.
A night run with the Braggs
Before I let myself get too comfortable and settle into the evening, it was time for my final activity of the day; a night run with Jez Bragg (and his wife Gemma). I had met both Gemma and Jez at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail so it was good to catch up and follow the pitch dark valley trail from the campsite up to Lauterbrunnen and back, all by head torch.
There is something very personal and private about running by head torch, much like alpine starts on the glacier where you just feel so alone, and that solitude gives you an opportunity to think and reflect. Even with 30 other head torches bobbing along, it was a perfect end to the first day, giving me a chance to unwind.
Making it back in quick time, I was most definitely pulled along on the last few kilometres a little faster than I would have run otherwise but appreciated the motivation. As we got back, we caught the last 10 minutes of Simone Moro regaling the audience of his and Tamara’s epic winter ascent of Nanga Parbat.
A beer and a few more little chats, though, and I was done. For reasons that at that moment escaped me, I had previously signed up for the sunrise run as well. In just 6 hours time, bed called and I settled into my very cosy sleeping bag and was out like a light.
A moody sunrise run
The alarm was anything but welcome at 5am. Admittedly we weren’t heading out until 6am but I wanted to get up early and get some breakfast. I could then have a second breakfast after the run and everyone loves a second breakfast.
The smell of coffee filled the dining tent and I slumped down on a bench to eat what I could at that time. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing up at that time. What was amazing, though, was all the people who were up too; fellow runners and morning hikers were gulping down coffee while all of the budding alpinists were excitedly packing and repacking their kit. The camp was almost entirely up, it seemed – no one was wasting a moment of their time.
Several cups of coffee later and a yogurt later, I headed to the meeting point to join Andy Houseman and the other early risers. Sadly it wasn’t quite as sunrise as we hoped with the thick cloud soup we were running in but the guys I was running in provided plenty of encouragement and awesome stories of races, adventures, and plans for their future. And we knocked off a tidy 550m+ of ascent, all before breakfast number 2.
Helping on the photography workshop
Ah, a second breakfast. Nothing is better than earning two meals before 10am and the second was certainly a treat. Sweaty, a bit damp, and buzzing from the run I dived back into the dining tent and warmed up with more coffee and hot chocolate. I had plans to go climbing this morning but Lukasz Warzecha, a friend who I had driven from Chamonix to the festival with, was running the photography workshop and asked if I wouldn’t mind standing in for some photos.
Never one to shy away from the camera, I tried my best to look adventurous and suitably explorer for a lovely group of budding adventure photographers, all made very fun with the jokes from Lukasz that were mostly at my expense.
1, 2, 3, CANYONING
An early start followed by an easy morning meant that come lunchtime I was ready for some more action. I’ll be honest though, at midday when we still had a little bit of time to kill, the idea of jumping in a freezing cold stream when I’m already pretty chilly did not appeal. I started to formulate excuses but nothing seemed to stick and I realised I just needed to man up.
And I am so glad that I did.
This has to be the highlight of the whole weekend for me. I am very lucky to run, climb, and get out into the mountains regularly but I have never tried canyoning. It is awesome.
After a safety briefing and getting ourselves all kitted out – in extra thick winter wetsuits, thank you guys – we headed up into the hills to find the start.
We leapt, we slid, we fell, and we scrambled. Each section progressed a little further and before we knew it we were standing at the top of a 6m drop into a plunge pool. This was what I had been waiting for and it did not disappoint. Leaping into the air the splash and crash of those jumping before me just got me more excited and when it was my turn I loved every second. I just wanted to climb back up and go again!
Talking, singing and dancing
Getting back to basecamp, buzzing from the canyoning, it was time for the party. Saturday night was set for more talks, a live band and a dj. And beer. I got back just in time to catch the second half of Caroline Ciavaldini’s inspiring first female ascent of a Chamonix rock climb before Jez Bragg took the stage to tell the story of his bonkers 3,053km run the length of New Zealand. Both incredible stories told with a humility that engaged the whole festival.
A brief dinner paved the way for the last talk of the festival; Iker and Eneko Pou teamed up with Hansjög Auer, Jacopo Larcher and Siebe Vanhee, a crazy strong climbing team who set off to explore unclimbed big walls in.. Siberia. The team clearly had a wonderful dynamic and their story had the whole tent in stitches. Once word of advice: bugspray.
The talk gave way to a brilliant live band who in turn led onto the dj; dancing, singing, and generally tomfoolery was had by all and it was a perfect end to a perfect day. A little wobbly and totally exhausted, I finally called it a night at about 2am with grand plans to get up early for the run the next morning.
Easy like Sunday morning
Well, that didn’t happen. I woke nice and early but the low clouds and the fuzzy head didn’t inspire me to get out and run. Instead, I thought I would work on some campsite skills and quickly switched over to the campsite gourmet cooking course. Food glorious food!
Learning that you don’t just need to eat Supernoodles and beans on toast if you’re camping was a revelation and I hope to put my new found culinary skills to good use soon; risotto, tagine, and even raw brownie.
By the time we wrapped up the cooking class the rest of the festival was coming back and packing down too. It felt like just a few moments ago that we all arrived yet Friday climbing felt like a lifetime ago. A sign of a great weekend.
As I packed up my bags and said my goodbyes, I really couldn’t help but smile. I really had the most wonderful of times and I cannot wait to go back next year!
Here is a great video of the weekend!