Full of hot air

In a downvalley hot air balloon race, Snowmass Festival competitors go whichever way the wind blows

Kenny Bradley pilots the "Calico Rose" hot air balloon in a downvalley flight during the Snowmass Balloon Festival on Friday, September 10, 2021.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

There are two ways a hot air balloon pilot can steer their vessel: floating up or floating down to catch a gust of wind.

Beyond that, it’s up to the wind to decide where the vessels go. Which, sometimes, means going nowhere really at all.

That’s all well and good for a leisurely cruise, less so in a dash for distance when the other balloons are heading downvalley at a steady clip during a race that kicked off the 46th annual Snowmass Balloon Festival on Friday morning. (The 46th annual event concluded Sunday after three days of morning launches and several other festivities.)

“We’re going three miles an hour. How do you win a race at three miles an hour?” pilot Kenny Bradley wondered from the helm of the “Calico Rose,” his near-new pink, purple, yellow and blue balloon.

It was Bradley’s first time competing in the downvalley race component of the festival, in which pilots must depart from Town Park after the official sunrise and compete to see how far they can make it downvalley before a cutoff time of 9 a.m. (It was hardly Bradley’s first time piloting such a vessel, though he teased as much several times; he’s been flying since 2009 and acquired his commercial license last year.)

Fellow balloonist Pat Newlin and this reporter joined him in the wicker basket for the journey.

When fully inflated, the balloon holds 135,000 gallons of hot air — about the equivalent of just as many fully inflated basketballs, according to Carla Kelley, who worked on Bradley’s crew Friday and who also served as crew chief for Newlin’s balloon.

But no matter how much fuel Bradley added to the fire, there was a stretch of time just after 7 a.m. when the Calico Rose wouldn’t budge much from an area several hundred feet above the Horse Ranch and Rodeo Place neighborhoods.

“I could say the first one back wins,” Bradley joked after the balloon started moving in the opposite direction of downvalley, back toward the launch point in the field outside The Black Saddle.

Hey, when the rules don’t work, you make your own.

“That’s about 90% of ballooning — we make the rules up as we go,” he said.

It isn’t all bad news when the gusts are few and far between up there; Bradley and Newlin fielded several breakfast offers from onlookers in the neighborhood teasing the idea of chucking up a burrito or a cup of coffee.

Then, a twist of fate: the winds giveth just as they taketh away. The Calico Rose picked up some speed (in the right direction, too), with a whoop of excitement from Bradley when the balloon started moving at four miles an hour, then five, in a draft ushering the vessel along Brush Creek Road toward Highway 82.

Bradley would have liked to see a draft nudge the balloon down the hillside a bit, away from the mountainous (and difficult to access in the event of a landing) territory that composes Cougar Canyon and Cozy Point Ridge.

It didn’t seem like a likely event, given the Calico Rose’s penchant for cresting ridges rather than coasting through the valley Friday morning.

“Why should it (be)? Everything else has been caddywhompus today,” Newlin observed.

“The gods want us to stay on this side of the valley,” Bradley said.

It hardly put a damper on the good spirits among those on the Calico Rose, which picked up speed as it headed toward Old Snowmass and began overtaking a few other competitors.

Besides, Newlin and Bradley are part of a friendly, joking bunch who can appreciate a good quip over the radio between the ground crew chasing the vessel and those aboard the wicker basket.

That crew, with eight members (one as young as 10 years old) and a dog piled into two chase vehicles, was at the ready as Bradley prepared to land on Watson Divide Road near Old Snowmass.

With around 10% of fuel remaining after an 8-mile, nearly two-hour trip, Bradley used a drop line — the balloon equivalent of dropping an anchor — to guide the vessel to a turnout.

Race rules require a minimum of 20% fuel remaining (a caveat implemented for safety reasons to prevent balloonists from cutting it too close as they try to get ahead), so Bradley was disqualified from the rankings of finishers.

Even so, it was still a successful trip in Bradley and Newlin’s eyes. The prime landing spot on accessible space close to the road was worth a bit of gratitude, as was another peaceful journey in the books.

“Kenny used what he had to to get in a safe spot. … He found an awesome spot, really,” Newlin said.

And hey, sometimes that’s just the way the wind blows.