I was at the top of the Stash snowpark, just clicking into my ski boots, when my phone beeped. "Jamaica, 1.30pm, near the snowpark in Les Crosets, accessible from the Crosets II chairlift!" read the text.
I looked at my phone again. Surely that couldn't be right? It was already 1pm, and I was in France, in the Lindaret Valley, on the wrong side of the Franco-Swiss border. By my calculations I would have to ski three runs, take two lifts, and cross the border to make it to the Jamaica gig. For any skier below gold-medal standard, that sounded pretty much impossible; but hey, this was the sort of challenge that had attracted me to the Portes du Soleil in the first place. I would have to give it a shot.
Within 50 minutes, after skiing as fast as we possibly could, my friends and I arrived at Les Crosets (lescrosets.ch), a venue halfway up the mountain, where – thanks to the start time being put back – Jamaica, the French electro-pop-rock duo, were only just starting their set.
We collapsed, exhausted, on a patch of snow in the sunshine, surrounded by a backdrop of immense, jagged peaks. More skiers arrived, peeled off layers of clothing, and flopped on the snow. Snowboarders wearing neon sat on boards in a semi-circle and cracked open beers (there's no bar, so it's Bring Your Own).
I'd never heard of Jamaica (who produced their debut album with Peter Franco, known for creating much of Daft Punk's sound), but they played crowd-pleasers with catchy lyrics to a small but wildly enthusiastic crowd. Soon, everyone was up and dancing in their ski boots.
The text-message invitation that had tipped me off was one of a barrage I would receive during the course of a week's holiday last season, at the new Rock the Pistes festival. (The festival was actually called the Go Wild Outdoor Music Festival, or Le Festival des Concerts Sauvages, last year, but has changed its name for 2012.)
There are numerous music festivals taking place in the Alps each winter, but this one comes with a twist – you're not told where the gigs are taking place until a day beforehand, when you're sent a text. As the concerts could be anywhere in the vast 650km of the ski area, you might need to undertake a ski marathon across the mountains to find the party.
Moreover, the festival is free to anyone with a lift pass for the Portes du Soleil, one of the world's biggest linked ski areas, which includes 12 resorts – Abondance, Avoriaz, Châtel, La Chapelle d'Abondance, Les Gets, Montriond, Morzine-Avoriaz and St-Jean d'Aulps in France, and Champery, Morgins, Torgon and Val d'Illiez–Les Crosets-Champoussin over the border in Switzerland. It's complex to navigate your way around, but that only adds to the challenge.
On the day of the Jamaica gig, we'd already skied miles from our apartments in Avoriaz to Les Lindarets (a valley venue on the French side), to see French singer Joyce Jonathan play an 11am concert. The hour was too early for a buzzing atmosphere, but her softly sung performance drew a large crowd.
After those first gigs, venues kept magically popping up in valleys, on snowy ledges, and halfway up mountains over the week. It must have been a logistical nightmare for the organisers, but it was great fun for us.
The bands were mostly French or Swiss, and encompassed a spectrum of sounds, from Keziah Jones – the Nigerian blues and funk singer who is hugely popular in France, and who was helicoptered in to play before a massive crowd – to high-energy Swiss-French rock group Tafta, BB Brunes, a French rock group everyone was talking about on the lifts.
There were also 10 après-ski concerts after the pistes closed in the Portes du Soleil resorts. The bands and solo acts playing here were part of the Festival Fringe, competing for a chance to play in the main festival this year, and next.
We spent the time between parties zipping around the pistes, though this was April, so the snow was horrendously slushy – hopefully, moving the date to March for 2012 will mean better snow.
At night, we alternated between cooking dinner in the apartment, at Pierre & Vacances' Residence Les Balcons du Soleil, and seeking out the next party off the slopes. One evening we took the gondola down to Morzine for dinner (though the return trip in the dark was somewhat eerie). Festival fever had certainly hit Avoriaz, where we danced into the early hours.
Organising an outdoor festival with a variable such as mountain weather is a brave thing to do, but when all the elements came together and the sun was out, it was magical.
If bad weather struck, however, the festival would be pretty much a washout. There was one day when conditions were so terrible (snowing wet snow) that I abandoned the slopes after a miserable morning to seek refuge and homemade spaghetti bolognese back in the apartment.
That afternoon, I had the perfect excuse to try out the spa in town. As snow floated down outside, my muscles finally got a rest after all that charging around, chasing gigs.
As I stepped into the sauna, my ears pricked up – I could hear something outside. Perhaps it's sleigh bells, I thought (in Avoriaz, horses and carts carry the tourists about, as if it's Christmas all year round). Then I realised it was a text message – beep beep – for which I was now on constant alert. Just five more minutes of relaxation, I thought, before getting back to chasing the next gig.