Up, up and away: Snowmass Balloon Festival returns to town

Kimberly Nicoletti
Special to the Aspen Times
Balloons prepare to rise during the Snowmass Balloon Festival on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Snowmass Village.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Editor’s note: A version of this story also appears in this year’s edition of the Summer in Aspen/Snowmass magazine.

Flying in the mountain towns like Snowmass can be dangerous: Get a little too trigger happy with the burner as heat escapes the balloon’s thin fabric, and you soar way, way too far “up, up and away.”

Colleen Johnson has been the Snowmass Balloon Festival’s balloon Meister for 15 years, and she ensures that the top-notch pilots who visit Snowmass have plenty of experience flying in the mountains.

“Mountain flying can be difficult — altitude and air density play a factor,” he said. “You don’t need to burn as much, so you could go screaming up to the atmosphere if you’re not careful.”

Her dream to fly reached new heights at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in the mid-2000s when her grandfather asked if she ever though about becoming a pilot; before that, she had worked as a crew member. When she said yes, he bought her a multicolored balloon, one she named Mary Alice in Wonderland after her two grannies. She still flies it today, partially in honor of her grandad, who has since passed.

“The allure for me, and most pilots, is it’s so peaceful. The only sound is the burners when you fire them. When you’re going with the wind, it doesn’t seem like you’re moving at all. First-time fliers always say it’s so peaceful and calm. There’s just nothing like it,” she said. “And the scenery is just amazing, no matter where you go. You see a ton of wildlife.”

Though most balloons in Snowmass only move at a speed of 1 mph due to the area’s bowl effect, soaring is not without its challenges. Weather and power lines threaten serene mornings. If winds pick up with balloons in mid-flight, a “controlled crash” — a friendly term for going bumpety, bump, bump, bump as the basket bounces a time or two (or three) along the ground before halting (often by tipping on its side) — becomes a distinct possibility. But typically, balloons land so gently that riders barely feel it touch down.

“The winds in this valley tend to swirl, (which) means it’s somewhat unpredictable,” said pilot Davic Eichhorn from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“The excitement of it is you never know (exactly) where you’re going to land, no matter how much you plan,” he said. “No two flights are ever the same.”

A balloon hovers in front of Mt. Daly during the Snowmass Balloon Festival on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Snowmass Village.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

This weekend, 30 balloons will gracefully drift through Snowmass, imbuing the blue mountain sky with floating pops of color — complementing the brilliant yellows of leaves beginning to change.

“Pictures don’t do it justice,” Eichhorn said. “A two-dimensional picture tends to bring in the background, and it’s far more interesting to see everything kind of swirl around. It’s just so three-dimensional — four-dimensional with the time and the up and down and left and right maneuvers.”

For those who want to watch the festival, Snowmass Tourism recommends going to the launch field at Snowmass Town Park for an up-close view as pilots prepare and launch their balloons. The soaring sensations can also be watched from areas like Rim Trail and Sky Mountain Park.

This year, the Friday Night Glow will not take place due to past variable fall weather, which has prevented even tethered flight.

What to know before you go…

What: Snowmass Balloon Festival
When: 7-9 a.m., Sept. 22-24

Friday: About half the pilots compete in the Carter Memorial Colorado Rat Race to fly the farthest down valley in two hours or until they burn all but 20% of their fuel; sometimes, they make it to Carbondale. The other half of the ballons remain above the Snowmass Town Park’s field.
Saturday: X-Marks the Spot challenge, approximately 7-9 a.m., creates picturesque opportunities above the Snowmass Golf Course, as balloons float up and down at different altitudes. Food trucks offer breakfast and coffee each morning.
Getting there: The Snowmass Village Shuttle and RFTA offer free transportation. Parking will be limited in the paved parking of Town Park, and there is no parking in the dirt area/rodeo grounds. When Town Park fills, people will be directed to the Brush Creek Park and Ride. Festival goers should plan to take the bus to Town Park.


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