It takes a village: Volunteer crews ‘vital’ to Snowmass Balloon Festival

Erica Robbie
Snowmass Sun
Danielle Shewmake and Jack Bobzien, of Centennial, help set up the 'Laughy Taffy' hot air balloon early Friday morning at the 42nd annual Snowmass Balloon Festival.
Anna Stonehouse/Snowmass Sun |

What motivates one to get out of bed before the sun rises and brace the chilly morning air to transform a massive wicker basket and a bundle of more than 90,000 cubic feet of colorful, rip-stop nylon into an object that’s safe to fly people in the air?

For some Snowmass Balloon Festival volunteers, simply admiring the fruits of their labor — a sea of colors soaring, painting a bright blue sky against the Rocky Mountains — is all the reward they need.

“It was fascinating to me to watch how it all happened,” balloon festival volunteer Tammy Ness of Denver said early Friday morning. “We just love the balloons.”

For others, the slight chance — no matter how small it may be — that they, too, will get to fly at some point during a balloon festival is worth the gamble.

“It’s kind of like heaven,” festival volunteer Vicki Petersen said of flying. “It’s just so quiet and very peaceful.”

Ness, who started her career as a part-time volunteer at last year’s festival in Snowmass Village, said, “Every now and then I do get to fly, and that’s the best.”

She and her husband, Todd, met balloon pilot Mark Whiting while watching the 2016 festival.

One of Whiting’s volunteers stopped the couple as they walked by and asked if they would be willing to help, as pilots and crewmembers often do at balloon festivals.

“Someone said, ‘Here, can you hold this for one second?’” Ness recalled. “And that was it.”

In the past year, the Denver residents have traveled with Whiting to six balloon festivals throughout the west — in Carbondale, El Jebel, Steamboat Springs, Scotts Bluff, Canyon City and Snowmass Village — to help volunteer.

Whiting, a pilot of 40 years, said volunteers are “absolutely vital” to any balloon festival.

“I couldn’t do it without them. That’s a sincere comment. This just doesn’t happen without them,” Whiting said. “You have to have (crew members). And if you don’t have somebody experienced, you can really have an issue.”

Aside from the many hands needed to help hold, unpack, set up, take off, fly, land and pack up, having an extra sets of eyes on watch throughout the process also is critical, Whiting said.

On day one of this year’s festival in Snowmass, for instance, an 8-inch tear punctured the top of Whiting’s balloon, “Big Top.”

The tear, which a crewmember noticed and pointed out, prevented the hot air balloon from flying that morning.

“It wasn’t safe because that’s where most of the air pressure goes through the balloon,” Whiting explained. “Our (volunteers) are trained to watch for odd things like the cables twisted or a tear or a pinprick.”

Balloon pilot Stephen Scheer said in his 15 years of flying, he finds that “almost all (volunteers) catch on real quick.”

“And they’re very eager,” he added.

For many balloon enthusiasts, that first taste of flight is infectious.

“As long as we’re available, we’ll go wherever (Mark) is going,” Ness said of she and her husband.

For Petersen, it’s “the people and the camaraderie” within the balloon community.

“It’s a special group, people (who) fly balloons,” Petersen said. “You’re part of family. It’s like a family affair.”