I’m kneeling on the icy ground with the long, cold barrel of a gun pointing menacingly towards my mouth. A crowd has gathered around me and they’re chanting. Thankfully, despite appearances, this isn’t some ISIS-style execution. The gun in question is made of glass and filled with nothing more dangerous than schnapps. Far from calling for my blood, the crowd are shouting “chug, chug, chug" and laughing. Once I’ve finished gulping down the fiery liquid (inevitably spilling some down myself) one of them hands me a huge stein of beer.
This scene will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever experienced Mayrhofen’s legendary apres scene. Except there’s one crucial difference. We’re not in Mayrhofen, we’re in Morzine. This isn’t Austria, it’s France.
"I’m kneeling on the icy ground with the long, cold barrel of a gun pointing menacingly towards my mouth..."
The debate as to which of these two countries is better for skiing and snowboarding is one that has raged for years among Brits, as their resorts attempt to outdo each other in wooing the lucrative UK market. Opinions on either side are strongly-held and impassioned, as Whitelines Snowboarding Magazine revealed when they hosted a debate on the subject recently.
As the preferred option for posh British skiers throughout the 20th Century and the home of Europe’s first snowboarder, Regis Rolland (star of the ludicrous Apocalypse Snow films), France started with an early advantage. But in the first two decades of the 21st Century, it has felt like ‘les frogs’ have let their lead slip somewhat.
According to the most recent research by Crystal, one of the UK’s biggest tour operators, 33 per cent of Brits still opt for French resorts versus the 28 per cent who head for Austria, but that gap has been closing.
“France has always been and continues to be a popular destination for the British ski holiday maker," says Beth Briggs of the Ski Club of Great Britain, a leading industry body, “but in recent years alternative destinations have been become attractive. The likes of Austria and Italy offer not only fantastic skiing but lively après and good food and wine."
"33% of Brits still got to French resorts versus 28% to Austria, but that gap has been closing."
Après has long been among Austria’s biggest attractions. With the possible exception of Val d’Isere’s Folie Douce, there’s nothing in France that compares to the schnapps-swilling, table-dancing, oompah-trance madness that’s ubiquitous in every Austrian resort. It’s not only mental, it’s also cheap - slopeside beers are roughly 25 per cent cheaper on average in Austria.
Add to this the fact that Austrian resorts often have better freestyle facilities (companies like Graz’s Q-Parks lead the way in European snowpark design) and it’s no surprise that among the younger generation of British winter sports enthusiasts, Austria has become an increasingly popular choice.
For much of the past decade, the most popular Austrian resort for Brits - and for British seasonnaires especially - has been Mayrhofen. It’s acted as a base for successive generations of British snowboard pros, starting with the crew who made the seminal Hungerpain movies in the mid-2000s.
Not only does it have all the things that make Austria great (cheap beer, amazing après-ski, a world-famous park designed by Q-Parks) it also has a secret weapon - Snowbombing. With heavy line-ups year after year that attract thousands of festival-goers it is quite simply the biggest and best snow-based party in the world.
"Austria had a secret weapon that France couldn't match for a long time – Snowbombing."
But if Mayrhofen has been at the heart of the snowboarding and freestyle skiing scene for a few years, then the pendulum is now starting to swing back the other way. And the pretender to the throne is none other than the French resort of Morzine.
Calling a well-known resort like Morzine a ‘pretender’ might seem strange to some people. With its sister station de ski Avoriaz, the town has been on most Brits’ maps for years. It’s always attracted a healthy number of holidaymakers and has a large British seasonnaire population.
With an already decent après scene, not one but two of the best parks in France and a halfpipe it has all the ingredients needed to attract pros. Recent years have seen increasing numbers of British pros visiting or even, like Olympian Dom Harington did last season, moving out there full time. But this season a few extra additions have tipped Morzine over the edge, especially as far as holiday makers are concerned.
The first is the bar serving steins - and forcing rifles full of schnapps on unsuspecting partygoers - at the bottom of the Prodains lift. Opened at the start of this season, the Kinkerne is a self-conscious attempt to steal some of what makes Austrian après ski so legendary and transpose it to France.
“Austrian après has always had this reputation," explains Chris Lavender of Adventure Base, the company behind the new bar. “So we thought we’d try and take the best bits of that and bring them to France."
“As well as the steins, we’re getting DJs to play tunes out onto the slopes during happy hour when people are just coming down." And the location couldn’t be more perfect. The slopeside bar is a late-season sun trap, located right at the bottom of the Prodains lift where hundreds of Morzine-based skiers finish up at the end of each day.
Chris and the Adventure Base team have also taken over the Paradis nightclub in Morzine town itself. Tucked away down a set of stairs underneath a newly acquired lodge, it’s one of only two venues with a late license in the town and enjoyed a semi-mythical reputation among long-term Morzine residents in its previous incarnation. Having been closed for several seasons its re-opening was a big event.
These two new venues are definitely pushing the après scene in a more Austrian direction this season, but Adventure Base aren’t the only people bringing the party in a big way this year. At the very beginning of the 2015-16 season Morzine-Avoriaz played host to the newest festival in the alps, launched by none other than the crew behind Snowbombing.
Billed as that event’s “first ever sister festival" Transition promised “the same sense of mischief, awesome music programming skiing, snowboarding and dedication to quality," and from what Mpora saw of it, it didn’t disappoint.
Nearly four years ago, we stood in an Austrian forest surrounded by ravers in fancy dress going off their nut for Dizzee Rascal, who was headlining Snowbombing 2012. Watching the same artist get an entire crowd of ski-jacket clad ravers screaming “some people think I’m bonkers…" halfway up the mountain above Morzine, it would’ve been easy to think we were right back there.
Amazing après, world-beating parks, increasing numbers of pros and its very own Snowbombing? Oh yes, Morzine’s got everything Mayrhofen has. And then some.