Sam Cullen is stoned. The British Snowboard Team junior is standing next to his mum under a baking Alpine sun, the hazy mountains reflected in the deep black wells of his dilated pupils. Yesterday when he bounced on landing in the Big Air competition, the DJ saluted with the triumphal march from Star Wars as the paramedics airlifted him off the hill. Today the morphine is still circulating through his body, and his painkillers are humming along nicely.
Sam broke his 12th vertebra. Yes, that's his back. But Sam is a trooper, and those pills, combined with a Swiss hospital standard-issue back brace, mean he can float up here at 2,228m (7,300ft) for the last day of the Orange Brits, though he won't be on a board again for quite some time.
It's been a good week here in Laax. The Brits is the annual away-from-home gathering of our nation's snowboarders and young freestyle skiers; open to all, it's a successful blend of serious athletic competition, friendly rivalry, holidaymaking and carnage. All ages are in attendance, with categories stretching from the Under-10s to the Masters (30-plus) in the disciplines of Halfpipe, Boarder/Skiercross, Slopestyle and Big Air. Proud parents slap on sunscreen and snap photos from the sidelines, while those just along for the camaraderie and clubbing divide their on-mountain time between spectating and cruising the 100-odd square kilometres of terrain.
Though the event has been a qualifying FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski) event in the past, and is now part of the highly respected TTR World Snowboard Tour, competing riders are divided by age, not ability. The Brits' supportive have-a-go spirit means that the barely competent line up alongside sponsored professionals competing - and winning - at the world championship level. So it is that the Slopestyle course has jumps and rails of all sizes, and that the Big Air kicker is split into a Goldilocks trinity: great wedge of snow as big as a house, next to one that's merely intimidating, which in turn looms over a baby mound not much bigger than a molehill.
It's testament to the spirit of the event that young Jamie Nicholls, now rapidly gaining recognition as one of our great snow white hopes, made it through to the grand final a couple of years back at the tender age of 11, though only using the aforementioned molehill for his textbook-perfect jumps. He may have been pipped to the post by his older and taller peers - including Olympian Dan Wakeham - but the crowd and judges recognised that Nicholls was a valid contender, if a scaled-down one. It's hard to imagine the equivalent occurring at any other major British sporting championship.
But then it's hard to imagine any other British contest breaking for an impromptu snowball fight, either: the inevitable conclusion of having a chairlift that passes low over the competition area. Spectators, photographers, competitors waiting for their heats, industry lurkers, parents and holidaymakers lounge in the sun; a couple of the younger kids, too hyped to watch the entire event, start testing their aim.
Tim Warwood, British rider, Freesports on 4 presenter and compere, is never one to overlook an amusing diversion. "Right. I think we've just discovered a new game. Everybody make a snowball. No, NO, wait... WAIT... shhhhhh."
As quietly as is possible for a man with a microphone, he choreographs the hordes into a tightly-wound, snowball-throwing machine. "On my count... wait for it..." Warwood scans down the line of the lift for a satisfactory target. In the distance is a solitary skier: canary-yellow suit, handlebar Euro-moustache. Poor man; he has no chance. "One," whispers Warwood. "Two." The chair draws close; pale British faces turn upwards towards Agincourt. "Three!"
The skier takes it very well. It's boiling hot, the crowd are beaming and he graciously involves himself in the high spirits, despite wearing a mantle of white. But down the line of chairs, plastic awnings swing frantically forward, and the game is declared over in the name of international relations. Though there is a sneaking suspicion that the pinched faces peering out disapprovingly from behind plastic are not Swiss: Laax and its residents have welcomed the Brits, as befits an area known for its longstanding relationship with snowboarders.
Indeed, the choice of the Flims/Laax Alpenarena has been so successful that the massive Swiss resort will play host to the Brits in 2007 for the third consecutive year. Only a small fraction of the resort's 100 square kilometres is dedicated to the competition, with plenty of pistes and terrain parks open to non-competitors. Modern Laax Murschetg is home to the design hotel-cum-hostel, the Rider's Palace, which, with its own club, makes the ideal base camp for the week. Flims has traditional, gemütlich, Alpine village houses, and numerous bars and restaurants that ooze with effortless style, both contemporary and supremely laid-back.
And the scheduling of the event in the spring almost guarantees warm weather, perfect for both popping around on the soft piste en masse or just sitting in the sun at the café above the terrain park, shaking off last night's hangover with a strong coffee. While athletes at international events are usually cloistered away from the public, the same riders at the Brits are as intent on hanging out and having a laugh as on a placing on the podium.
As my airport bus heads off into the golden afternoon at the end of the event, we pass the reservoir on the edge of town. Heads turn at the sight of 20-odd snowboarders, still in on-mountain gear, getting to grips with a dance routine along the water. Warwood and best mate, filmer and pro rider Adam Gendle, are filming the final scene for the annual Brits music video, a lip-synching institution created for no other reason than that it leaves everyone involved in hysterics. Olympic contenders and dry-slope weekenders sway along the dock in the Alpenglow, just about holding it together, grins on every face. And the music? Dirty Dancing's "(I've Had) The Time of My Life". As always, it's spot-on.
Swiss has a special deal for those heading to the Brits. Fly from London Heathrow or City to Zurich for £100 return; from Manchester to Zurich for £136. Flights must be booked online at www.aimseries.com by 4 March.
Zurich is served from the UK by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com). Carbon offsets can be purchased from Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.co.uk) and Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk).
The 2007 Orange Brits will be held in Laax, 10-17 March. Packages start at SFr450 (£189) and include seven nights' accommodation, six-day lift pass, goody bag, and an event wristband giving access to gigs and parties - a big saving (a six-day lift passes alone cost more than £125). Booking line: 00 41 81 927 70 61.
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