SNOWMASS VILLAGE - Faces old and new will look down on the Roaring Fork Valley as the 37th Snowmass Balloon Festival kicks off Sept. 14. The oldest balloon festival in Colorado has featured a revolving cast of characters, who over time have introduced ballooning to younger folks and kept the tradition going in Snowmass Village. Balloonists first got together in Aspen/Snowmass in the mid '70s, when Chauncey Dunn got three balloons together that launched from downtown Aspen. Then longtime Aspen resident and pilot, Betty Pfister got involved after a flight with Dunn in Albuquerque, and she thought Snowmass was more suited because of its openness. Dunn invited 30 pilots to that first Snowmass event in 1976, and 17 showed up. "From there on it was off and running," Dunn said. The first day was windy, and the balloonists could not fly, but unbeknownst to the pilots Pfister had promised the festival's sponsors a ride. Dunn and the other pilots took them out the next day. In those days there was an event in the winter and one in the summer. Dunn said in winter pilots took skiers up and would navigate to the top of a cross-country course, and the athletes would jump out and race while the balloonists floated around and waited for their passengers to finish. Dunn calls Snowmass Village heaven for ballooning. Pilots can catch different winds just by changing altitudes. "That is phenomenal," he said. "That is a treat of treats for a balloonist. ... The scenery is just spectacular, lots of game. That was my favorite part of it."Jim Carter was one of the balloonists Dunn invited to that first meet in Snowmass. Mary Jo Carter said she and her husband knew about Dunn because he was one of the premier balloonists in Colorado at the time, as was Jim. She never piloted but was a chaser, following her husband in the car and trying to meet the balloon where it landed. "Now it isn't nearly the challenge that it used to be because we didn't have radio," she said. "Of course, we were young then."Flying in the winter can be nerve-racking because you have to land on a road, said Randy Woods, who organized the festival for 10 years beginning in the early '80s. "If you don't ... you can't get your balloon out," he said. "We had some challenging balloon retrievals."Pfister organized air rescue for balloons for a time, Woods said. "There are many, many stories of people who would land in high places," he said. Dunn said the festival became a summer-only event mainly because the organizers could get enough rooms then for the pilots and their crews.
Woods learned how to fly a hot air balloon in 1980 while Pfister was still running the festival. Woods took over shortly after that. The Snowmass Resort Association was the primary sponsor then. "It was quite a big affair," Woods said. "It was in June. It was a great flying time of year. ... All our parties were coat and tie and quite upscale. We really had a ball."Woods estimated about 25 or 30 balloons flew in the event in those days. This year, 26 pilots, most from Colorado or New Mexico, have signed up to fly. Most balloon races last two days, but the Snowmass event added a day during that time because participants wanted to have a downvalley race. "In the first early days of that event we launched on the runway," Woods said. "People went as far as they could. We had some really extraordinary great flights. In the early days there were so many people that would come to those balloon races. Early in the morning there would be nonstop traffic from Aspen to Snowmass."The downvalley race is still a highlight of the festival. This year the balloons will take off from the Snowmass Village softball field about 7 a.m. on Sept. 14 and float on downvalley winds through the Highway 82 corridor. Some other events that were added in recent years - such as the Dawn Quixote, in which pilots took flight with ski poles and tried to pop the most helium balloons - have been cut from the schedule because the FAA changed some of its regulations, according to town public relations manager Patsy Popejoy. Pilots will still light the flames in their baskets on Sept. 15 for the Balloon Night Glow."In the old days we did not have balloon glows in the evening," Woods said. "I don't know why but nobody did balloon glows then."
Woods is still ballooning, although he says flying in St. Louis, where he now resides, is much more challenging because it's a big city, which means more obstacles. He last attended the Snowmass Balloon Festival two years ago. As for Dunn, he flew balloons most of his life but stopped after turning 80. "I never had a problem, and I didn't want to have one," he said. Dunn is an example of a trend Woods has noticed in ballooning. "What has changed is there are not many young pilots getting involved in ballooning anymore," Woods said. "Pilot age is getting older and older." The modern hot air balloon came into its own in the '60s, Woods said, so until recently it was still a new, developing sport.Woods also owned Unicorn Ballooning Company, which distributed to dealers all over Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas and ran commercial rides in Aspen/Snowmass and Scottsdale, Ariz. During that time, the company carried 10,000 people, mostly in Aspen, and did weddings, funerals and promotional events on the slopes with Aspen Skiing Co."Flying in Snowmass, Colorado, is one of the most beautiful places you can fly a balloon," Woods said.
Although the Carters have always lived in Pueblo, Mary Jo Carter says they consider the Snowmass Balloon Festival their hometown race, and they almost always have relatives join them there. For the Carters, ballooning has always been a family affair: Their son, Pat, still flies a balloon with the same Colorado state flag design that his father flew under since the early '70s, and contrary to the trend Woods has noticed, Mary Jo says some of her grandchildren think they want to start."Colorado High" has been registered at every Snowmass festival, although it didn't fly in every one. Last year, it didn't pass Federal Aviation Administration inspection, and Pat Carter is working to get a new one approved in time for this year's event. Jim Carter passed away two years ago, shortly before the 35th Snowmass festival, and Mary Jo says replacing the balloon is a bittersweet time for the family. "It definitely was him," she said. She says it's meant a lot that her family keeps ballooning. "We all had kind of a family meeting, and we agreed that we couldn't give it up," she said, referring to her tribe as a "5 a.m. family." "That was such a very strong part of our lives." Purchasing a new "Colorado High" is important to keeping the family tradition going, according to Pat Carter. He has a backup balloon he could fly, but he's hoping "Colorado High" will be ready. It would be fitting, after all, since its predecessor took its first flight in Snowmass as well. "Snowmass is the inaugural place for this balloon," he firstname.lastname@example.org