Highs on a hill – inside the fitness festivals of 2022
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Those visiting Chamonix last month might have been surprised to hear a reverberating pulse echoing from Planpraz – a picturesque plateau just beneath a mountain summit that can be accessed via cable car. Under normal circumstances, such sound waves at 2,000m of elevation might come with an avalanche warning. But this time, the buzz was electric, not tectonic – the echoes of a live stage line-up hosted by the Canadian outdoor brand Arc’teryx.
The energy came from a 1,500-strong crowd of mountain enthusiasts who had spent the previous week at the Arc’teryx Alpine Academy – a week-long mountain extravaganza that’s bringing the hedonistic air of the music festival into the wellness arena. As the sun sets, festival-goers – sunkissed, sweaty and ready to party – ascended to the summit to let loose to hip hop and R&B from a roster of international artists. “They had tired muscles, big smiles and beer thirst,” according to Stéphane Tenailleau, a marketing director at Arc’teryx and the brains behind the festival. “DJs are on the decks until 2am. Every night there’s the chance to burn off your last calories on the dancefloor… We’re taking [the experience] to new heights.”
Fitness holidays are undergoing a rebrand and in 2022 endorphins are the headline act. Forget the traditional yoga retreat – there’s no snoozy Eat, Pray, Love mood or matcha mornings here. This summer, those seeking a collective high can head to the wilds of the Faroes (Átjan Wild Islands Festival), the coasts of Devon (Above Below) or the trails of Tring (Salomon) for a gorpcore-meets-Glastonbury experience.
Arc’teryx, meanwhile, has rolled out its concept this year to include climbing academies in Vancouver and backcountry ski festivals in Wyoming – punctuated by film screenings, photography workshops and gigs. Other labels are offering smaller iterations: Rapha’s Pennine Rally is a 500km point-to-point cycle from Edinburgh down the Pennines to Manchester, which culminates with beers and food, while Japanese outdoor brand Snow Peak and the Outdoors Store have teamed up with The Good Life Society for a weekend of fly fishing, egg-and-spork racing and firepit cooking.
“It’s about challenging stereotypes as to what fitness and wellness can be,” says Theo Larn-Jones, founder of Love Trails, a four-day running festival held in Wales that offers everything from paddleboarding and surfing to banquet dinners – he’s launching it in Madeira later this year.
And outdoorsy activities “have seen a huge boom of late”, says Will Watt, co-founder of Above Below, a three-day swimathon in Devon that sees attendees pack their possessions into a raft and breaststroke along estuaries and coastal bays before camping each night. “People are starting to understand that challenging your body and your brain gives you a natural high… instead of other pursuits that leave you feeling less than good afterwards.”
Healthy hedonism is a real draw. Organisers are careful to feed the more conscious lifestyle: many on-site bars are now stocked with zero per cent abv beers and plant-based foods. Norway even plays host to Morning Beat, a booze-free yoga festival headlined by trance DJs. “It’s not all-or-nothing,” says Henry Knock, a 42-year-old London-based freelance photographer who has shot campaigns for Adidas, Barbour and Manchester United. A self-professed “party boy”, he has spent decades dancing in fields. But this year, he has bought a ticket for Love Trails – his first fitness festival. “I can let my hair down but still indulge in my new passion for running,” he says. “As I approached my 40s, I became much more conscious of my health.”
Knock, who usually runs in the city, is keen to try trail running for the first time. And many festivals offer a refreshing change of pace from the status quo: 10km road-runners are encouraged to try sprinting up a mountain; urban boulderers can get to grips with craggy rock faces; and lido swimmers can plunge into coastal waves.
Under the supervision of expert guides, festivals can provide experiences that one is unlikely to attempt alone. “They give you the confidence to try something new,” says Larn-Jones, who offers “add-on” adventure days where happy campers can run 20km routes before coasteering or abseiling along the Gower Peninsula. In Chamonix, meanwhile, Arc’teryx attendees could book into more than 40 “clinics” from an overnight bivouac in the Mont Blanc massif with Slovenian climbing champion Luka Lindic to rescue training – including how to haul your partner out of a crevasse. “It’s ‘money-can’t-buy’ events that can’t easily be found on the market,” says Tenailleau, who has enlisted the expertise of more than 30 world-class athletes and sponsored guides to host sessions.
Regular music festivals don’t offer such experiences. According to research by the Harris Poll, 78 per cent of millennials would rather spend on an event than a possession. Arc’teryx says younger clientele are attending – 30 per cent this year are under 30, an increase on 2019 – while Love Trails says about 60 per cent of its campers are young women. The festival environment offers them relative safety in the outdoors, and the chance to make new friends.
“People can come and find their tribe,” says Larn-Jones, who notes that many campers turn up alone. In a similar vein to running or swimming clubs, which have surged in popularity, fitness festivals give access to a sense of community.
The epicly Instagrammable settings of these events are another USP. Átjan Wild Islands’ trail-running playground in the Faroes boasts scenes that look straight out of a Tolkien novel, where wild mountain paths meet verdant valleys. The islands aren’t easily accessible, yet this year, 90 per cent of the festival’s attendees are set to make the pilgrimage from overseas.
“The scenery is neck-twisting,” says Tenailleau of the Chamonix mountainscape that adds to the Arc’teryx Academy’s appeal. Its Alpine village is flanked by jagged peaks. “We could have just rented a hall… but any first-timer is blown away by the Bossons Glacier, which looks like a river of lava flowing towards the valley, and the radiant dome of Mont Blanc.”
Envisage that scene on Planpraz when the sun sets. Body pulsing from the bass; newfound friends letting loose; Mont Blanc twinkling in the distance. Up there in the crisp air, flanked by the shadowy mountains, you feel insignificant. But spiritually, you belong. Moments flicker by. You lose yourself in the ethereal experience. Just as mother nature – and the DJ – intended.