Altitude 2012: 30th March

On Friday I got up late. Had breakfast and Tina joined me. Then I went up the mountain. It was grey and chilly down in the town, which it hadn’t been all week. The ride up was fun – I was hanging in a small yellow box in a cloud. I could see nothing. Not even the gondola in front of me and when I got to the top, nothing. No view. Couldn’t even see across the runway. It was an absolute whiteout. Still there are skiers and snowboarders out. I think they’re mad. Helen had four days’ lessons as did we but she started a day later, so she had her fourth on Friday. I’m very glad I could only be bothered with four because I don’t think learning to snowboard in a whiteout would be much fun.

I spent the afternoon not doing much because I was almost dead from tiredness after a long week.

In the evening, it was the Closing Gala. According to the programme, it began at 7pm. Doors traditionally have opened an hour before and I wanted to drop off my lift pass and get some chocolate on the way. Unfortunately, I forgot to pick up the pass and buying two bars of noisette Milka didn’t take long. I was hanging around for over an hour before we were allowed in.

I grabbed a table right up the front and sat in the third seat, along with Danz and Lauren and Tina and a handful of other they’d met and befriended. We whiled away the time eating chocolate and playing cards and finally, at 8.30, it began.

It was a great gala. Maxwell MCd, in a pair of too-big lederhosen over his last clean shirt. In my experience, lederhosen are supposed to be quite tight around the legs and finish at the knee. Maxwell’s were a bit baggy, the straps were too loose and they finished around his ankles.

First up was Matt Reed, who I’d seen at one of the late shows. I like him. Next, Andi Osho. I like her too. Craig Campbell. Rufus Hound came back, and in a first for “episodic comedy”, carried on where he left off the night before, complete with “Previously at the Altitude Festival…”. Phill Jupitus, who is delightfully solemn and don’t careish. Then Michael Winslow, maker of noises, was due on. Chaz, the techie, who had become a star in his own right by the end of the week, came out with various bits and pieces, furniture appeared and disappeared and Ed Byrne and Rufus Hound both began prancing around on the stage, pretending to be professional stage hands, carrying chairs and stools and moving the flowers around. Michael Winslow started off ok, with some new stuff. He’s learnt a new noise in the last week – the noise of the Ahorn cablecar. But then he just went into the stuff he did on Monday. He obviously enjoyed himself hugely but I think some of the audience were disappointed.

Then it was time for the third and final part of the Closing Gala, with the headline acts. Milton Jones. Milton apparently has a talent and thirst for mocking the other comedians. He started off with “I’m Milton Jones and I make noises” before making a noise – I forget what noise. He did some jokes, then delighted the audience by going back to the Terry Alderton Gollum/Smeagol routine from the other night. He is brilliant. I love Milton, everyone loves Milton, he was Cherry’s favourite and judging by the cackling up in the balcony, someone up there loves him too.

Ed was next. He did the snowboarding routine at last and talked about having fallen over skiing today. Did I mention it was a whiteout? Well, apparently it was such a whiteout it was disorienting and he genuinely couldn’t tell whether or not he was moving. He came down the slope, stopped, didn’t know he’d stopped, tried to brake and toppled over. He talked about sleep and snoring and shopping.

Frankie Boyle next. I liked him more than I had the first time. Maxwell had explained that it was all the same people and he’d realised he’d have to find some different jokes. He specifically said jokes. And yes, he tried to be offensive at times, but on the whole he spent more time actually being funny this time than trying to live up to his own hype and I found myself warming to him more than I’d expected to.

Last up was Abandoman. Cherry and Simon hadn’t been at the previous show and hadn’t seen them before. They did What’s In Your Pocket and then they did their usual ballad of two strangers and they deliberately picked Lauren, who had broken her hand falling off the draglift on the practice slope. They pulled her on stage and one of our boys as well, Sid, and they pretended they didn’t know each other.

And it finished up with Chaz giving a speech, much to the delight of his newly-acquired fans and Abandoman improvising a rap featuring all the comedians, some of whom appeared on stage to dance around at mention of their names.

Then it was time for the final late show. It was anarchy. Absolute anarchy. We were in the downstairs room, the conference room. Maxwell had threatened to MC it topless under his lederhosen and when he turned up in a t-shirt, he got chanted at until he removed it. That set the tone for the night. First people in the audience demonstrated various skills – a man who’d initially claimed to sell storage shelves for IBM was outed as an airshow commentator and got pulled out to demonstrate. The man who’d done the bluebottle joke and then when taken on stage to be apologised to did a cuckoo clock dance with Maxwell, which I’d forgotten about, got hauled up again. The fifteen-year-old who’d danced with Terry Alderton got pointed out. Various faces they’d met over the week got pointed out, it was like all these people were friends. Apparently there were 500 people there – Maxwell kept saying it was like a new challenge TV show – “18 comedians entertain 500 people three times a day for five days!” (although I’ve counted 29 comedians, so who knows how accurate the 500 is) and he also said it was like the world’s first landlocked cruise – but the hardcore who turned up to every late show couldn’t have been more than fifty and some were becoming celebrities in their own right.

It was communal comedy. Maxwell started the bottle song, we all joined in, we all yelled “What do you do with blue bottles?” at the end and we all yelled the punchline, which is of course “You swat them!!!”

Finally, we had the first “sacrificial victim” at this impromptu Fullmooners show, in which we howled at things we liked. There was a little door at the back of the stage, leading to the dressing room and every act started with “Who’s in the clown hole?” yelled by the entire audience, followed by “Is the clown clad?!” Tiernan Douieb was first, shirtless. Matt Reed, with a broken rib, was next. He was more reluctant to remove his shirt and spent a lot of time trying to drape it over his shoulder, from where it invariable slid off within three seconds. Craig Campbell was next. Not topless but trouserless. Then Benny Boot, in nothing but his pants. And finally, Abandoman. One with an open shirt on, the other topless and both decorated with ducktape. They did What’s In Your Pocket again and then a song I hadn’t heard before, Revolution. We thought it was the end. It wasn’t the end.

They brought a special unexpected guest onto the stage to play Brendon Burns’ game – the one where a comedian does a short routine and they rap about it. The special unexpected guest was Ed Byrne. And in the spirit of nakedness, Ed came out wearing nothing but a short coat which only just covered enough. He was quite happy to turn around and raise his arms to demonstrate that he really wasn’t wearing anything under the coat and to deliberately drop the mic, turn his back on us and bend to pick it up but despite the audience’s yells, he refused to actually open or take off the coat.

He did the mum-mum-mum routine, then stepped back to let Abandoman go at it. He wanted to go backstage but they got him into one of the armchairs (which Maxwell had brought on stage “to make it look more like daytime TV”, with no real idea what he intended to do with them) standing carefully in front of him and then providing coats, papers and various covering things to hold onto while he sat there.

Abandoman did the routine, the show ended. We didn’t leave. We all had a big group hug with Benny Boot, security started suggesting we should go outside, went around waking the unconscious people. I grabbed Benny’s arm as he passed and asked if he knew if Ed was still inside. I was expecting something along the lines of “I think so, he’ll probably be out in a minute”. Instead I got towed backstage and Benny hunted him down for me. I don’t think he knew quite how to explain who I was or why I was there but Ed just said “It’s ok, we already know each other” and he wandered off. We chatted for a couple of minutes and then we left because he was getting picked up for his flight in three hours. In my mind, Ed is a tiny little thing and his height takes me by surprise every single time I see him.

The girls were still waiting outside. I never did get quite who they were waiting for but whoever it was seemed to be waiting for Paul Byrne who was waiting for the rest of the comedians so we could all go to the Arena together. I was quite happy to hover. I walked up to the Strass with Ed and Andi Osho and half of Abandoman and the other girls fell behind with Benny Boot. When we got to the Arena, Tina was waiting and when she saw that the other girls weren’t with me, she panicked. I suggested we walk back down and meet up with them but in her panic, she sprinted. The others were fine. They were with Benny, who greeted me by my surname, much to the girls’ confusion, because of course, they haven’t been using it and hadn’t never even heard it. (He had been introduced to me by my full name by one of the organisers. I don’t know how she knew my name – she had checked me in on Sunday but she must have met hundreds of us)

We went back to the Strass. I didn’t desperately want to go in to the Arena but the girls were going, I still didn’t want to walk back alone so I followed meekly. I soon changed my mind. It was noisy and hot and it was very smoky and they were playing music I’ve only ever heard at slacklining. I said goodbye to the girls, thanked them for adopting me for the week and walked back on my own. No problem.

The only problem was getting back at 4 in the morning and being unable to switch the light on. It seemed there was a power cut. Having been using the Europahaus’s free wifi during the intervals, my phone was desperately low on battery and I couldn’t charge it. I had to get ready for bed by the light of a headtorch which I’d been carrying around all week, which saved me the effort of digging it out of a suitcase. Then, after the night I’d had, I couldn’t sleep so I sat with my netbook, which has a brilliant battery life, writing up the entire week until 5.30 in the morning when I finally couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.

Altitude 2012: 29th March

I spent the first half-hour of snowboarding in a mood. The snow was too cold to lie in comfortably, unlike the other days. I’d been expecting it to be just as painfully hot so I’d left my hat behind and now my head was cold. Why did I have to do these exercises, why don’t you understand that if I’m concentrating on swinging my arm around, I can’t concentrate on my feet and I will crash. But then we were allowed to pretty much just go, swooping and turning all the way down to the lift and I brightened up because I was really getting this and it was looking smooth and I was aware that I was light-years ahead of Helen, quite a bit ahead of Sam and even a little beyond Cherry, who has a habit of leaning too far into the mountain on her toe edge and falling. Suddenly I was enjoying it. At one point, I was sitting in the snow, with Sam above me, the instructor working with the other two a little below us and a skier swooped past and waved frantically. It may have been Sam’s boyfriend. But he was a familiar shape and size and I felt like the wave had been aimed at me rather than her and I’m convinced that it was Ed Byrne, recognising my plaits, because there’s no other way to recognise me under goggles and ski jacket and big pink trousers. Indeed, Helen, on Wednesday night, after spending two days with me, had turned to me just before the gala and asked uncertainly if I was having snowboarding lessons because she had an idea that I might be in her group. I also don’t know anyone else who skis, so that narrows the suspects down a bit.

And then as we were about to get the chairlift back to the very top to finish with the red run, I spotted someone I definitely recognised. Of course, without a mad shirt and hair that looks like it’s been electrocuted, in a normal blue ski jacket, Milton Jones doesn’t look at all like he does on stage but it was definitely him, standing with who I presumed were his wife and daughter, all three of them apparently watching for someone else to come down the slope and join them. Just looking unbelievably normal.

We finished off on the red run. I had the giggles. Cherry and I stopped just above a steep bit to wait for Helen and the instructor to join us, messing around and I got her to take some photos of me, attempting to look like I was actually snowboarding rather than just standing on a ledge giggling. I lost control of the board and it wandered off tail first. Great photos. Good run down. And then I ran out of steam on the runway because it’s quite flat and you need to keep up momentum so Helen who’d taken off her board, towed me the last little bit

I took my board back, came home, got changed and ate and then went to take my boots back and settle in for the Early Edition. Helen was there, so I sat with her and dozed in a nice leather sofa while I waited for it to begin. It was hosted by Marcus Brigstocke and Andre Vincent and featured Ed Byrne (with ferocious sunburn) and Phill Jupitus as guests.

They talked about the news. It was fun. Marcus had come straight from the mountain and was still in his snowboarding kit. Andre was in a pinstriped suit jacket. Phill was in his usual scruffy stuff. Ed was in his skiing stuff but had taken his boots off and wandered on stage in his socks.

The gala was MCd be Craig Campbell with Rufus Hound, who couldn’t be bothered to do two different lots of material Thursday and Friday, ran out of time and decided to end it with “To be continued tomorrow”, since we’d established it was exactly the same people coming to all the shows. Phill Jupitus who hadn’t been planning on being on the big stage. Andrew Maxwell, who repeated the story about the naked sauna for the hundredth time (basically, there’s a law in Austria that in a mixed sauna, men must be naked. There is a man called Gunther at the Strass sauna whose job it is to make sure the men are naked. Maxwell tells this story at every show he does here.). Marcus Brigstocke, always good and Tim Minchin who got two standing ovations. He comes to the late show every night without fail and he’s remarkably calm about letting fans talk to him and have photos and I’ve pretty much ceased to notice him, I’m getting so used to him being around.

The late show was MCd by Andre Vincent. Tiernan Douieb was on, then Terry Alderton. I couldn’t see exactly what was going on because of a pillar in the way but at one point, everyone gathered in close in a huddle in the middle of the audience and then chairs started getting hurled on the stage. I don’t get him and I don’t like him. Why are people cheering? Why are they standing up yelling “More!” What is he doing that’s any funnier than a drunk orangutan? Cherry, who likes him, has tried to explain but I just Don’t Get It. The second half was Andi Osho, who is great and a poppet, and Benny Boot who tried to do different material to the other night and was just as fumbling and chaotic and lost and funny. I managed to grab Andi, Tiernan and Rufus Hound, who was in the audience, and got them all to sign my t-shirt before we went home.

Altitude 2012: 28th March

More snowboarding. Sam had taken the day off with injuries. We started with some exercises. Falling leaf with hands on hips or behind backs. Nose-down and brake with a snowball balanced on the back of each hand. When we got to the flatter bit, Cherry and I worked on our turns and I began to feel comfortable with them. I was starting to link them, starting to build up speed and starting to enjoy the snowboarding. This left the instructor free to help out Helen who was struggling with the Lesson One stuff.

We finished on the red run down to the runway. On the flatter bits, we did our turns. On the steep bit, we heel-edged it. I learnt that although I’m still right-footed, when it comes to heel-edging down a steep bit and occasionally letting the nose out a bit, my left foot takes control and I become regular-footed just for that bit. No idea why.

Wednesday afternoon I went to the Improv show again, this time with Andre Vincent – younger brother of Brett Vincent, agent & festival Big Cheese – in place of Rufus Hound as special guest. It was good fun but you realise that one Improv show is very similar to another. Not identical, obviously, but it’s the same framework and similar suggestions of household objects, film and theatre styles.

That night, there was a combined gala and late show, which was in the downstairs room at the Europahaus, from 10pm until 2.30am, in three parts, with three MCs – Tiernan Douieb, Matt Reed and Andrew Maxwell. The first part was Tiff Stevenson and Benny Boot. Tiff is good fun, if not at all how I expected her to be. Benny Boot was chaotic and confused and fumbling and yet brilliant. Carl Donnelly, Ben Norris and Phil Nichol were in the second part. Carl and Phil did the same stuff they’d done at the previous late show, Ben made an effort to do different material, ran out of stuff and got laughed at by the various comedians sitting around the room. And by the third part, we were falling asleep. Half the audience had left. It had been a running joke all the way through about kicking bottles. People were stocking up on six or nine bottles of beer at a time, to last throughout the show but in this room, there were no tables to put them on, so they went under chairs. They got kicked over a lot. And then Maxwell remarked that it was amazing how none of them had smashed. And in an attempt to liven us up, he decided to smash one deliberately, to see if it would. The Powers That Be were not delighted, especially when he tried doing it again so see how high they had to be dropped from. They tried not to let him do it and finished up giving in, going “Well, if you have to, then do it quickly” so he threw it across the room (into an empty bit, obviously. Not at the audience. That would be wrong.) This upset the Austrian bar staff who like to recycle. Apparently they’re very keen on recycling and they sing as they do it. “Green bottle, green bottle, green bottle, green bottle. Brown bottle, brown bottle, brown bottle, brown bottle.” And we joined in, because the words were easy enough. “But what do they do with the blue bottles?” Maxwell asks, quite drunk after a day drinking champagne from cans on a mountain. “You swat them!” someone in the audience shouted. “How have I not seen you yet, Incredibly Posh Man?” Maxwell says. And he teased him about swatting bottles and why would you do that and the audience yelled “Bluebottles! Bluebottles!” at him until someone got fed up and bellowed “A fly!”

You could see the light go on as he suddenly got it. He looked mortified and he vanished out of the “shame door” at the back of the stage. I say stage. I mean wooden blocks at the front of the room. He brought the man who’d originally made the bluebottle joke onto the stage and formally apologised for not getting the brilliant pun, still mortified, and they did a cuckoo clock dance.

Craig Campbell was great. He had those Vibram Five Finger shoes on – thin shoes with thin soles and five separate toes. I like Craig Cambell a lot. Kevin Bridges did his thing and did it well. And then Terry Alderton. By this point, I knew for certain that I didn’t like him. And it was very late and I’d seen a lot and I was very tired and I couldn’t stand him. He did at one point do a shoulder stand so the audience could see his sequinned shoes and he could ask what they thought. A man at the back yelled “A bit gay!” and that provoked the only good stuff I’ve ever seen from him. Still upside down, feet in the air, he adlibbed foot puppetry. Had these two feet with actual personalities, chatting to each other, to the sound man, looking down at him, arguing, splitting up… I liked the feet puppets. But then he got up and disappeared and no one was sure if it was over. All uncertain, Maxwell peeped backstage and announced that it probably was; Terry was out there in his pants. This went on forever. “…Terry? Is…. is there anything else? … Is it over? Terry?” And then he abducted a fifteen year old boy with long blonde ringlets, got him backstage and came out topless and so Maxwell stripped as well and the three of them danced and that apparently became the iconic image of Altitude 2012.

Altitude 2012: 27th March

I was such a zombie on Tuesday. I didn’t bother with breakfast. We went up the Penkenbahn again, we were taken to the blue run again and we did some more exercises, designed to get us used to controlling the board. I was beginning to get comfortable with the thing, beginning to gain confidence and starting to turn a little bit. The instructor tried getting us to touch our legs as we turned but the moment I tried thinking about hands and knees instead of concentrating on feet, I crashed. I was exempted from this exercise, much to my delight, on the basis that I didn’t need to do it because I was already getting the hang of the turns. We were joined by a new girl, Helen. She was having four days as well but had only arrived the day before. I never did get to the bottom of exactly what had happened but I gathered she’d been delayed somehow on her journey over to Austria by Ed Byrne, who had apparently missed his flight. It was still hot on the slope. I’d come in just a t-shirt under my jacket, which I was only wearing because I wanted the pockets and the feeling of protection – I imagine falling down a hill with bare skin is painful.

After the lesson, I came home, didn’t bother going to the Early Edition – a kind of live panel show featuring the day’s newspapers – and slept instead before heading out to the Gala, where the eight of us joined up again. Tuesday’s gala was MCd by Rufus Hound and featured Marcus Brigstocke, Terry Alderton, Milton Jones, Kevin Bridges and Tim Minchin. Marcus was great – he talked a lot about snowboarding and me and Cherry killed ourselves laughing because we very much understood what he meant about snowboarders disappearing over the side of the mountain – not in search of fresh snow but because they’re on their toe edge, they can’t turn or stop and they have no choice but to follow that trajectory. I know it doesn’t sound funny. As they say, you have to be there. I didn’t like Terry Alderton. He danced on stage in a stupid way, he didn’t seem to tell jokes, he didn’t seem to know what he was doing and when he didn’t know what else to do, he turned his back on the audience and talked to himself ala Gollum and Smeagol. He threw imaginary darts at an imaginary board to guess how old the woman was in the front row, he chased a member of the audience out, he mandhandled others… I didn’t know what was going on, I couldn’t see much that was funny and I decided instantly this wasn’t for me.

After the interval, Milton came on. Immediately removed the imaginary darts from the imaginery board with the solemn and reproving remark “Those darts could be dangerous.” He did his usual crazy-mad one-liners, mocked Alderton’s Gollum/Smeagol thing and nearly killed the audience. I liked Kevin Bridges as well. And then it was Minchin. He was the headliner, a lot of people had come just for him, he’s hugely hyped – and I liked him! He’s very clever, he talks on stage just as he does in real life – sort of quiet and mumbled and a bit confused but he’s very good at the music!

Off we went to the late show again. Carl Donnelly MCing, with Pete Johansson, Ben Norris, Ian Stone and Abandoman. Minchin was in the audience again and a couple of comedians turned up in the interval to watch and giggle.

I was pleased to see Ben Norris, because I’ve never seen him as a comedian before. I’d already seen and liked Carl Donnelly, Pete Johansson and Ian Stone. Abandoman are very clever but I’m not a huge fan, largely because at Altitude 2010, I saw them at every show I went to for the first three days and there’s a certain similarity in their various songs. Brendon Burns interrupted them to play a game with them – he does a three minute routine, they make up a rap about it, and any other comedians in the room who think this game looks fun, come and join in. That was good fun. Brendon’s very into wrestling so he got them rapping about Edwardian Heckling at Wrestling. Phill Jupitus, who was also lurking, came and joined in. All very good. But another late night.

Altitude 2012: 26th March

On Monday I had breakfast of semmel and apple juice, got dressed, smeared on some suncream and ran for the Strass. I handed over my voucher and apparently I was the one they were waiting for, because we immediately set off back up the Penkenbahn.

Once up at the middle station, we had a long wait. An instructor gave out name tags, which had our lesson dates on. I had been supposed to start the day before but they’d kept hold of my tag and they just amended the dates, so that was no problem. We had to gather instructors, get sorted according to ability, those of us who’d done it before had to be “graded” and when three of us either couldn’t or refused to try turning, we were kind of made to feel like we were in the naughty corner. We were a step above absolute beginners but we were nowhere near intermediate and no one really knew what to do with us. One of the other girls – Cherry – was the girl from the shop and it transpired all three of us were staying in the same place. At last we were given an instructor and taken up to the top station again.

On a baby slope up there, we ran through the basics. None of us could stand up on our heel edges, not on real snow, so he hauled us one by one to our feet and we heel-edged down the slope before coming back up and toe-edging down. We did a bit of falling leaf and that was all good. Next challenge was getting on a chairlift. I’ve been on chairlifts, in summer, without a snowboard. I also know from Altitude 2010 how difficult it is to get on a chairlift with a snowboard strapped to your feet. Fortunately, all we were required to do at this stage was carry the thing without dropping it.

We went down into another valley off to the side. At the bottom of the chairs, we had to strap in our front foot, practice skating around and get on the next lift with the board on. Getting on was ok but getting off… I can’t remember if I succeeded the first time. Certainly most times I used that lift I ended up on the floor, tangled up with Cherry and Sam and trying not to get decapitated by the chairs.

The top was busy. We didn’t go down the main run, we went down the side to practice using our edges while the instructor made us do various exercises. Go down three metres and stop for three seconds. Or drift to the left, then to the right, then to the left etc. Put pressure on your front foot so the board starts to turn before braking. Then he decided it was time to throw the turns at us. We’d got to a flatter bit and we got up one by one, letting the front of the board go. He held our hands and we used him as a pivot to turn. It felt far too soon for such a thing. I hadn’t even mastered the art of sitting down. I could stop but getting myself to the ground in a controlled manner was impossible. The best I could do was a kind of drop which jolted up my spine and use my arms as shock absorbers. This led to a painful neck – presumably whiplash – and by mostly luck, aching muscles in the forearms rather than the potential broken wrists.

We finished off with a bit of heel edge down a red run, onto the runway to the end of the lesson. This is where it went to pieces a bit. Of the four of us, three pupils and one instructor, I was the only right-footed person. In order to do what they were doing, in the same direction as them, I had to be on the opposite edge. For them, heel edge is easiest. That meant I had to do it toe edge. And toe edge hurts your toes, the top of your feet, your ankles and your calves. It is agony. I prefer it on the dry slope because if you fall over you just toppled forward onto your knees. On a real mountain, effectively you’re going backwards and blind and it becomes a different matter. My feet were completely dead pretty quickly from doing every toe edge. I tried heel edge for a bit, falling-leafing a bit to make sure I was keeping up with the others but the trouble was that when I fell over, I had to get up toe edge because it’s not possible for us beginners to stand up the other way. I could just about do the turn to get me onto my heel edge but for some reason, every single time I did, I caught my toe edge once I was round and got dumped onto hands and knees again. Snowboarding, as they say, is like being beaten up by a mountain.

When the lesson was done, I thought I’d better practice those turns. Sadly, getting on the drag lift was impossible. I stood and watched some snowboarders and tried to do what they did. But when I grabbed the bar, the thing stretched and I found myself sprawled on the ground. The man operating the lift, who’d been busy raking it, rescued me, got me on it and up I went, clinging to the bar, pleading with my board to stay pointing up the hill and begging the lift to please be over. I do not get on with drag lifts. I came down the baby hill but it was very clear that this practice thing was not for me.

In the afternoon, having changed and showered, I went into town to see the Improv show at the Piste Takers Inn, under the Strass. It featured Phill Jupitus, Andy Smart and Steve Frost – and I can never remember which is which – and special guest, Rufus Hound. I like the Improv but it did lose a little by me being off to the side and thus unable to see the Physical Positions game properly. It was all good fun and I meandered back happy.

Next was the Opening Gala. I’d turned up with twenty minutes to spare only to find the place almost full. I settled down at the back only to be rescued by Cherry. She and her boyfriend Simon (also from the snowboard shop) had made friends with a pack from the same guesthouse – two English girls, Danz and Lauren, one German girl, Tina, who’d attached herself to them and two boys, Carl and Sid. They were sitting right up the front and had a spare seat. The place wasn’t laid out as I’d expected – rows and rows of seats. Instead there were long tables perpendicular to the stage. It’s not my favourite layout.

It was quite a big show. It was compered, of course, by Andrew Maxwell who runs the whole festival, with his band of helpers and in particular Brett Vincent and Paul Byrne. There was Brendon Burns, who I’m a bit of a fan of. Then Michael Winslow, who is apparently “the guy who makes all the noises from Police Academy”. He made noises. He did all the sound effects from a scene from Star Wars, with the video up on big projectors on each side. Then it was the interval and then time for the big names. First up, Mr Frankie Boyle. I’m not a big fan. Frankie goes out of his way to be offensive. I think, that to a certain extent, he tries too hard with it. I also loathe the way people worship him for it. I don’t think there’s a lot in his act that’s hugely comedic and to hear bellows of laughter is irritating. But I get that comedy is subjective and I accept that maybe Frankie – and especially his hype – is just not for me.

Next up was Ed Byrne, who happily and cheerfully went through four or five routines, including airlines and kids in age-inappropriate clothing. He missed out his snowboarding bit, which I was a bit disappointed about.

Last was Jimmy Carr. Jimmy also went for the offensive jokes but there’s something about him that makes me wonder why he does it, because he obviously doesn’t mean it, because he just comes across as being nicer than he wants you to think.

The eight of us hung around afterwards. I wasn’t sure about going to the late show. Cherry and Simon wanted to go home so I decided to stick with the others and go to the late show after all. Tim Minchin came out with Ian Stone and Tiff Stevenson and it turned out the other girls were big Minchin fans. We followed him down the street and caught up with his group. He was busy chatting to Tiff Stevenson about Frankie Boyle so the rest of us attached ourselves to Ian Stone, who’d been on the airport coach with the other girls. They chatted to him all the way and he finally pushed them at Tim because they wanted to talk to him and were too shy.

At the Arena, which is a bar in a cellar under the Strass, we sat at the bar, me on the outside of the group and Tim bought a round of drinks which made the other girls’ years.

The girls wanted to sit right at the front. I wasn’t hugely keen but I went along with it. Ian was MCing and we had Carl Donnelly, Phil Nicol, Pete Johansson and Brendon Burns again. Most of them I liked but Phil could do with a little less random noise making.

We all walked home together afterwards, got in about 3am and I couldn’t sleep.

Altitude 2012: 25th March

In the morning I did indeed have a slow start and was down at the Europahaus again by about ten. They were open but the office wasn’t because the person who had the key hadn’t turned up. The nice Irishman behind the counter told me to come back in half an hour so I went to the station, with the intention of booking a ticket for the steam train on Friday. The steam train doesn’t run until May. I went back. I was presented with a packet of vouchers and I had a white and blue wristband fastened on me. And I do mean fastened. It looks like a ribbon and it’s held on by a big silver bead. It felt a bit loose and a bit insecure, so I pushed the bead up to tighten it, only to find it’s got something inside it that means it won’t slide down. Fortunately, it wasn’t cutting-off-hand tight but I do wish I’d left it alone.

I decided to make the most of my Sunday. I’d go up the mountain. I exchanged a voucher for a lift pass and up I went. I’ve been up it once before, in high summer, several years ago. I remember that the gondolas go very high over the road. What I wasn’t expecting was to get over the mountain top and find a second, even deeper valley behind it. Up we went, towards a pretty sheer cliff face, over the top of that and finally the landscape opened up, into this vast, gently sloping winter wonderland. I hopped out and slithered out into the snow. This is the Penken.

At the top of the Penkenbahn is a vast open area of snow I came to call the runway. It’s at the bottom of a couple of red runs coming from the very top and it’s smooth and flat and skiers come straight off the run and whizz across it either to the cafes and bars or back to the lift. I wandered, taking in the view, trying not to get in the way of fast-moving people on skis and snowboards. Then I spotted a cabin. Tandem paraglide flights. And they had a sign saying “Book here now!” I stopped and stared at it. It was something I’d been planning to do; it was something I’d been looking forward to doing. Booking right there at the cabin on the mountain seemed easier than hunting down the tourist information and trying to book through them. I hovered and then approached to ask how much it was. I nodded, said I’d be back later and wandered off. Then I looked at the sky. It was a beautiful clear day, blue sky, hot, amazing. It occurred to me that by Tuesday, which was when I planned to do it, it might have clouded over and I might hugely regret not doing this right away. I went back.

Somehow, despite those thoughts, I hadn’t actually been expecting to jump off a mountain right away but two minutes later, I found myself with a parachute on my back, getting on a gondola to the top station. Ten minutes later, I was attached to a harness, with a German strapped to me, tied by a few bits of string to a big hanky.

“Ready?” he asked. I looked at the edge of the mountain about ten feet in front of me.


He peered round at me, surprised. “No? Yes, I think you are.”

On the count of three, we ran. Or he ran. I waddled because I’m not very good at running, especially when I’ve got a harness flapping around my knees. And then we were in the air.

I’d been looking forward to this for weeks but once I found myself in the air, I remembered that I’m not a huge fan of heights. Being a couple of thousand feet up in the air, with my life completely in a stranger’s hands and nothing between me and certain death but a bit of string and a parachute, I was suddenly petrified. I sat there in total silence, quivering, trying to relax and enjoy it. We swooped down over the middle station, over the runway and headed straight for the gondola lines. I braced myself for entanglement and death. We circled away from there, now heading for the sheer cliff edges. Gradually I realsed that we were circling upwards, higher and higher, using the wind and the thermals to soar like birds. Gradually I began to relax and enjoy the flight. I also realised that I hadn’t brought enough warm clothes to be flying like this. I’d come up in a long-sleeved t-shirt and a thin fleece. Paragliders look so serene but the wind howls when you’re actually up there. I hugely regretted turning down the pilot’s offer of gloves. Fortunately, he realised my hands were freezing and he gave them to me in mid-air, keeping hold of them until they were safely on my hands and not dropped into the valley so far below. Now, he said, I could concentrate on enjoying the flight and not on getting frostbite. We soared, we circled, we were right up above where we’d started. The pilot took photos of us flying and then said “Screaming is allowed, you know.” I was confused. I’d been scared for the last twenty minutes but I hadn’t felt the need to scream and I couldn’t see why I would suddenly want to. Until he pulled his lines and we went into a really tight corkscrew downwards, the sort that flips a paraglider out horizontally. I shrieked and begged him to stop and he laughed and kept going.

I know I sound like I spent most of that in mortal terror but I actually really enjoyed it and was disappointed when he finally said we had to land. He’d already offered to stop if I was too scared but I’d been determed – no, keep flying for as long as we can. We landed in a roped off bit of field near the runway. I had to keep my feet up so the pilot could land us and then promptly landed in knee-deep snow from which my poor pilot had to haul me, giggling and full of adrenaline and delighted. Of course, the problem came when it came to paying. He hadn’t taken any money off me before we went up and afterwards, it transpired that although they could take cards, they would prefer cash. I didn’t have enough cash. That’s ok, he said. You can pay tomorrow when you come to collect your photos. I descended, fetched warm clothes, found a cashpoint and went back up. My pilot was no longer at his cabin so I paid his colleagues and then took myself back to the top station. Up there I felt even more in the way of the skiers than I had earlier and concluded that the mountaintop really isn’t a place for a pedestrian.

My next trip was to the top of the Ahorn, via the huge modern cablecar that runs from the very top of the high street, over the bridge. They’d kept a single ski run open right from the top to the valley station, a narrow tongue of snow only about twenty feet wide by the time it reached the village.

The top was agonisingly bright. The view was amazing but even with my polarised sunglasses on, my retinas were getting burnt out and it was far too hot. I took some photos, descended and went to get my snowboard, since it seemed easier than having to get up extra early on Monday.

There were a few other people in there, also with Altitude vouchers and by method of knowing my shoe size in European, I managed to get out first, even though I was brought two boots in different sizes, one a US 5.5, the other a US8. I didn’t realise at first – I thought it was just that my feet aren’t quite the same size. But the left one was definitely painfully too small so I took them both off and explained that one didn’t fit. It was then noticed that they were different, I got two matching ones which fitted nicely, then a board which was set up for a goofy-footer and despite being third in the queue, I got out first by quite a long way.

I took my board and boots, with the boots strapped to the board and the whole contraption weighing a ton, back to my guesthouse, put them away in my boot room and headed back out again. I can’t remember exactly where I went but I know that I spotted the two from the shop walking down the road towards me. I think I went to the Spar. I do remember being surprised that the one food shop in the entire town was open Sunday evening but not Sunday afternoon.

Sunday night I discovered just how hot and sunny mountains are. I’d got my face a bit pink. Not too much but enough to feel hot and need to put cold water on it.

Altitude 2012: 24th March

I arrived on Saturday after a miserable easyJet flight. Having paid for Speedy Boarding, which got me through check-in in fifteen minutes rather than eight hours and then into my seat of choice – right at the back by a window, while everyone else on the plane fought over the front rows as usual, I got kicked out of my precious extra-price seat half an hour in because “a gentleman is very unwell” and the stewardess wanted him to lie down for a couple of minutes. Apparently instead of moving the two people who were next to him next to me, they kicked me out and moved him. And then he was “so unwell” that he had to stay lying down. I would like to add that by the time we were even thinking about coming in to land, he had perked up and was enjoying my view while I was stuck in an aisle seat. I hate him.

I landed in Innsbruck expecting to join thirty-odd other Altituders on a coach to Mayrhofen and was astonished to find instead a man standing there at Arrivals holding up a card with my name on it. Yes, I was going in a minibus. But I was the only passenger. He dropped me outside my guesthouse, which is right out at the far end of Mayrhofen and saved me the effort of searching the town with a 19.6kg suitcase following me. I left my stuff in my room, gathered my bits of paper and hurried to the Europahaus, which is a monstrosity of a big white conference centre, to check in. I say “hurried”. The Europahaus is a good twenty minutes walk from my guesthouse and because I’d only arrived ten minutes earlier, I didn’t really know where it was. I walked, spotting things I recognised from having been here briefly over various summers and walked and walked until I was convinced I must have passed it.

I hadn’t. But I was too late. It had closed for the evening.

That didn’t matter too much. I had to collect various bits – a programme and the wristband that lets you into the shows – they didn’t start until Monday so I wasn’t worried. The transfer ticket for getting back to the airport, that I didn’t need for another week. But I had an idea that I was supposed to be starting snowboarding lessons at 9.15am and that I had to collect boots and board and lift pass before then. I didn’t know a lot about the lessons. No one had mentioned whether it was for complete beginners or whether there would be some people who just needed a helping hand and so on. I didn’t know where to go, what would happen if I wasn’t there, whether I was even expected first thing Sunday morning.

Getting home in the dark was harder than I’d expecting. I had to navigate to part of town I’d seen briefly half an hour ago, in daylight. In the process, I learned that my guesthouse is so far out of town, just as you’re convinced you’ve gone too far, you’re nearly there.