Arts and Culture

How a Brain Tumor Triggered One of Colorado's Premier Music Festivals

Alexander George
Rüfüs du Sol plays Vail's Powabunga festival, December 9th - 12th.
Vail's popular electronic music festival Powabunga would never have existed had it not been for the near-death experience that forever shifted the perspective of a man who was going to a prestigious school to chase a white-collar future.

In the mid-2000s, Texas-born Powabunga founder Austin Gavlak was attending the University of Oxford and studying finance. He planned on living a life of luxury in Dubai, financed by the skills and networks that he built at one of the most esteemed universities in the Western Hemisphere.

Then the unlikely happened: In 2008, Gavlak developed a brain tumor. “It was the size of a golf ball and basically in my head right in between my eyes. I did graduate with a degree in finance but moved straight to Vail instead of my original plan to move to Dubai. Basically, my scoreboard changed. Up until that moment, I thought that the size of your bank account was how you kept score with how well you were doing in life,” he says.

The experience gave Gavlak a fresh perspective that can only come after confronting the void. Instead of crunching spreadsheets, he reinvented his life as someone who works to live rather than lives to work. He joined the Vail service industry, where he was able to work and ski hard for the winter season and then travel once the snow melted with summer.

During the 2010 off-season, he and a friend decided to buy motorcycles and backpack across India. They were a couple of months into their journey when he heard that a new music festival had been announced in Vail called Snowball, featuring acts such as Pretty Lights and Diplo.

Being an ambitious and avid music fan, he had long fantasized about throwing a festival in Vail. And now someone else was doing it. “When I heard about this, I was like, ‘Wait, someone is doing a music festival in Vail, and I’m not involved?’" Gavlak says. "So I sold my motorcycle and, literally, the next day was on a plane back to Colorado.”

Upon arriving back in Vail, Gavlak tracked down the festival’s founder, Chad Donnelly, “and basically demanded a job." He was hired as the festival’s volunteer coordinator.

“Being a volunteer coordinator isn’t a lot of fun, because volunteers sometimes don’t show up, but the work they were supposed to do still needs to be done. This led to me being a glorified garbage man," Gavlak says. "All of my friends were at the festival, and I was there picking up trash. However, [Donnelly and I] really hit it off, and he took me under his wing.” This relationship promoted Gavlak to after-party coordinator, where he learned the ropes of booking talent.

He left Vail to found a festival technology company in Los Angeles. After it was acquired, he moved back to Vail, where he was informed that there was a Vail special-events committee that provides grants to promote tourism in the town. Snowball was defunct by that time, and he realized there was a gaping hole in the millennial tourism market that a festival could fill. The committee agreed, and granted Gavlak and his business partner, Alex Ballesteros, a modest $50,000 grant for the first Powabunga in 2019. While it was not a lot of money, the support from the town of Vail was enough to attract investors.

The inaugural Powabunga did well, attracting about 5,000 people to see ZHU, Justin Jay and Boombox. “Vail has a ton of experience in festivals. They were instrumental in getting some of our crazy ideas off the ground, and it’s always been a smooth process with them," Gavlak says. “We were nervous about booking electronic music, because it’s Vail, and electronic music has a certain reputation. However, we made sure to book inclusive, respectful artists, and because of this, year after year, they have increased support.”

The pandemic hit the festival hard, however, and it had to be canceled just a month in advance, which unleashed a flurry of customer-service nightmares. “People think when they are sending these really awful emails that they are sending it to a big team. But in reality, it's always just been festival owners running ops until the festival kicked off.”

The festival is now back in full force — and with more funding — returning to Vail on Thursday, December 9 through Sunday, December 12. Gavlak serendipitously met Jon George of indie-dance sensation Rüfüs du Sol on the slopes, which built a relationship that made the group the 2021 festival's headliner. This year's lineup also includes sentimental deep house duo Bob Moses and the sultry Los Angeles house sensation
Channel Tres.

“Skiing and snowboarding are a passion of mine, and to marry music in the mountains is important to me," Gavlak says. "Living in the mountains, you go to bed happy and wake up happy because it’s fun and simple. ... After you look death in the eyes at a young age, you realize that time on Earth is not a guarantee, and that you should do your best to make the best of it while you are healthy."

Powabunga takes place Thursday, December 9, through Sunday, December 12, at Ford Park, 530 South Frontage Road East in Vail. Tickets range from $129 to $499.