Flying S’mass skies for 4-plus decades

For 44 years, hot air balloons of all sizes and colors have decorated the sky above Town Park for a few days every summer during the Snowmass Balloon Festival.

And every single year, one of those balloons has belonged to the Carter family.

At this year’s festival, Patrick was the Carter flying the family “Colorado Rocky Mountain High” balloon, but it started with Carter’s dad, Jim, who was the most passionate about hot air ballooning and shared his love of the sport with his four children.

When Jim passed away about eight years ago, Carter said he sat down with his immediate family and called up his siblings to discuss whether they wanted to carry on the ballooning tradition Jim had started.

“It was a unanimous decision,” Carter said of continuing the tradition, namely by investing in a new balloon to replace the worn out one. “We all wanted to do it and it was a commitment we all made because it’s what our family is about.”

Since this decision, Patrick, who lives in Colorado Springs and works as a doctor of osteopathic medicine for UCHealth, has taken the lead as the family’s main hot air balloonist and has secured its the newest “Colorado Rocky Mountain High” balloon, which he refers to as “CH3.”

The balloon is the third iteration of his dad’s original design rendering, which John Denver allegedly signed after Jim bumped into him on a plane back to Colorado from L.A. Patrick said Denver had recently released his “Rocky Mountain High” hit song, and told Jim he thought the family’s balloon design and accompanying title was “far out.”

On Sept. 8, Patrick took the CH3 up three times to ensure most all of his family and friends got a chance to fly beneath the inflated state flag. Patrick said he’s working to teach some of the younger family members, including his two adult sons, how to pilot the family hot air balloon.

“Our kids were born into it. It’s just a family thing,” Carter said, observing his relatives pack up the CH3 balloon after the final flight Sept. 8. “This is definitely not a sport you can do by yourself. … Everywhere you look you see family.”

Patrick said he was 10-years-old when his dad got into hot air ballooning, which he was immediately drawn to. He earned his pilot’s license in the early 1980s but served as his dad’s co-pilot until he died.

According to Patrick, hot air ballooning now is much different than when his dad started flying in the early 1970s.

While hovering over Snowmass Town Park in the CH3, Patrick talked about how his dad earned his private, commercial and instructor’s license after just 10 hours of flying; broke multiple ribs during his first solo flight near Pueblo because he had no way of accurately forecasting the weather and got caught in a nasty storm; and had to follow little rules or regulations to be a balloonist.

“You know the movie ‘Talladega Nights?’ We think Will Ferrell needs to make a movie like that about early hot air ballooning,” Carter said, laughing and citing several of the old time pilots who current comedians like Ferrell could play.

The Snowmass Balloon Festival was one of the first Jim flew in as a pilot, and a festival he always came back to. During the early ballooning days, Patrick said it was well-known as a “premier event” and is now one of the oldest and longest running hot air balloon sporting events in Colorado.

Today, the downvalley race is named the “Carter Memorial Colorado Rat Race,” after Jim, Patrick said.

But although the Carter family has a long history at the Snowmass Balloon Festival, Betty Pfister, the renowned pilot and local aviation pioneer, started the festival with help from two of her close friends and hot air balloonists, Chauncey and Marie Dunn, in Snowmass Town Park in 1976.

Well, sort of. They technically first launched hot air balloons with a few other pilots from the heart of downtown Aspen the year before the first Snowmass invitational, according to Pfister’s oldest daughter, Suzanne. Pfister moved the event to Snowmass the next year because she felt it was a safer place to hold the hot air balloon festival, Suzanne said.

Pfister organized the Snowmass Balloon Festival and oversaw its safety operations for several years. Suzanne said she remembers going as a young woman and riding with her mom in balloons in Snowmass and all over the world, but emphasized how much her mom loved participating in the local festival and downvalley race.

“She never met anything that flew in the air she did not like,” Pfister said, laughing. “I think she wanted to do everything she could to give back to the community, and felt the balloon festival was a good addition to the valley.”

Patrick said he remembers attending the Snowmass Balloon Festival when he was growing up, too, describing it as a “kids fest” since most of the pilots had young children at the time.

Hundreds and hundreds of area locals and their cars filled Town Park every year, Patrick said, and he remembers money being raised for search and rescue teams, along with other local causes.

But Patrick said he feels the annual festival isn’t as community-driven as it used to be. He thinks many Aspen-Snowmass locals may be demystified with hot air balloons after so many decades of the festival and with the rise of commercial balloon flights, and feels that the event now caters more to tourists.

“I’d love to see it become more of a community event for a purpose,” Patrick said, noting it’d be great if local charities or active groups could get involved again to engage more residents.

Regardless, the Carter family has made the trip to Snowmass every year since the annual balloon festival started and considers it an integral part of his life and his family.

“It’s all about family for us,” Patrick said. “Everything in life is special. … My wife and I see how short life is as family practitioners, we see the inevitable on a daily basis. So we might as well enjoy life as much as we can.”


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