Hot air balloons light up Snowmass Village
September 17, 2005
The sun had just reached the softball fields in Snowmass Village to light up long swaths of brightly colored fabric lying on the ground when the whirring sound of large fans began.One by one the hot air balloons took shape, inflating into large globes that would drift in the air above the Brush Creek Valley. This weekend is the 30th time balloon pilots and their crews have flocked to the Snowmass Balloon Festival, towing trailers that carry baskets, propane tanks and burners, and yards of fabric that carry them up into the air.Hot air ballooning isn’t the most pedestrian of hobbies, and so I set out early Saturday morning to learn how the pilots first discovered their love of floating in midair. It turns out balloon pilots love to talk about their passion and are a friendly, quirky group of people.Dan Helmboldt, a pilot from Greeley, flies in a balloon shaped like Tweety Bird that he designed and sewed – no joke – himself with four miles of thread. It’s hard to imagine Helmboldt sitting down in front of hundreds of yards of materials with a sewing machine, but he says with a straight face that’s exactly what he did.He sold his sailboat to get into ballooning and has come to Snowmass nine times for the festival.”I come for the uniqueness of the flying here – because we’re in a bowl of the mountains, protected from the wind, you get light, variable breezes,” he said. “If you get above the ridgeline you can really take off.”It seems like an expensive hobby, I said to Debbi Waltman, who was about to inflate her pink, blue and green balloon named “No Worries!”
“It’s no different than owning an extra car,” she said. “You can spend a lot on it, or be very practical, which is what I am.”Waltman is from Arvada but grew up in Baltimore with a mother who decorated the house with a hot air balloon theme. They watched the movie “Around the world in 80 days” about 12 times, Waltman said.When Waltman moved to Colorado and a balloon landed near her house, she knew it was time to become a licensed pilot. “My mother made me do it” is the excuse for her hobby, she said. This fall is her 10th year piloting at the Snowmass Balloon Festival.”The scenery is gorgeous – the ponds, the mountain valleys. A lot of people come here to get in the calendars,” she said, motioning to a bevy of photographers taking scenic shots.Not far away I run into Ric and Jodie Simon from Montrose, who are standing with their crew around their balloon, “Simonsez.” Two questions into my interview, Ric asked me if I’d like to take a ride.Was he kidding? Of course I would.Ric’s personal ballooning story also began with his mother – he agreed to help organize a festival in Montrose in order to get her a ride in a hot air balloon. Not long after, he studied for his own pilot’s license, and this is his second year flying at the Snowmass Balloon Festival.
While inflating their pink, blue and yellow balloon that Ric bought this year for $25,000, he said he loves flying in the mountains.”The winds go everywhere, and they change every few minutes,” he said. “It’s different than anywhere else. The different layers of wind currents take you in different directions. And of course, this is just a pretty place to fly.”Inflating Simonsez takes less time than you’d think – crew members steady the fabric while a large, gas-powered fan that sounds like a lawnmower cranks air into the balloon. At the right moment, Ric presses a thumb against a level on the propane heater, and the balloon becomes increasingly buoyant until it gently lifts off the ground, coming to rest in the air above a small basket made for four passengers and the pilot.After climbing into the basket and being warned that as passengers we can stand anywhere but where Ric is standing, takeoff was barely noticeable and marked only by the ground falling slowly away. Our shadow on the softball field was getting smaller and smaller, and the loud rush of hot air from the propane burner kept our heads and necks warm.Come to think of it, we weren’t feeling cold at all. When you’re up in a balloon, Ric explained, traveling with the breeze means you don’t feel the wind. Occasionally when a breeze touches you it’s called a sheer, he said, and means that the wind is changing direction.It’s quiet in the sky, except for the propane burner blasts. There’s a five-second delay between when Ric fires up the burner and when the balloon gets a lift from the hot air, so as a pilot he has to anticipate obstacles. His passengers act as his eyes – if any of us sees something he might not, we were to tell him, and pronto.Balloons coming up from the ground have the right of way, he said. The direction we were traveling was hard to tell unless you pick a spot on the ground and follow it with your eyes, but looking down was somewhat unsettling.
An instrument in the basket that measures our vertical speed told Ric we were about 600 feet from the ground when a wind current started pushing us in the direction of the village at a brisk pace. High above Snowmass, we admired the mountain views and watched the motion of about 20 balloons around us. The Snowmass Club Golf Course was a ribbon of bright green below.We drifted toward the village until Ric let the balloon cool off and thus gently drop to within a foot of the Snowmass golf course driving range.At a low altitude we started slowly floating back toward the softball fields, only rising far enough up at one point to pass within a foot of the top of the golf course’s clubhouse.The festival provides lodging and free propane for the balloonists – Larry Ambold, who works for Cross Propane in Glenwood Springs, is supplying the propane for the event and was also a passenger in Ric’s balloon. They don’t sell much propane during the balloon festival weekend, but it’s a fun place to help out, he said.The balloon’s crew is back at the softball fields, waiting for Simonsez to land. It’s the rare curmudgeon who doesn’t welcome a balloon landing in their back yard, Ric said. Sometimes homeowners offer to cook the pilot and crew breakfast.We were back on the softball field in no time, where I hopped out and Ric and crew plotted another peaceful takeoff.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org