Julia Ben-Asher: Ballooning through fears, lakes and foliage

From left, Steamboat Pilot & Today videographer Christina Grant, balloon pilot Mark Whiting and arts and entertainment reporter Julia Ben-Asher take off in “Big Top,” a hand-painted hot air balloon, during the Steamboat Springs Hot Air Balloon Festival at Bald Eagle Lake on Friday, July 12. Also in the basket is photographer John F. Russell.
Logan Molen

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — I’ve never been stellar with heights. 

Growing up, I was the kid who would shimmy lickety split to the tip top of the climbing wall, only to accidentally glance downwards and immediately spend the next 20 minutes frozen solid, with multiple gym employees coaching, coaxing and commanding me to repel back to the floor. If I pumped too hard and swung too high on the elementary school playground swings, terrible and bloody images of my potential near future would play through my head like a steamroller.

Even now, as an adult who’s been driving Colorado’s cliff-lined roads for half a decade, I still sometimes get pulled over for driving too far under the speed limit.

But with this year’s Steamboat Springs Hot Air Balloon Festival on its way back to town, I knew turning down the chance to float through the Yampa Valley would be preposterous and a gigantic, lifelong regret.

So at 5:30 a.m. Friday, I found myself on the way to the balloon launch site, Bald Eagle Lake, along with Steamboat Pilot & Today photographer John F. Russell and videographer Christina Grant. As dawn’s clouds turned from pink to white, my coffee kicked in, picking up the speed of my brain’s realization that I’d soon be hundreds of feet in the air. 

The balloon we were assigned to was “Big Top,” piloted by Mark Whiting. It’s an FAA-certified Aerostar S60A, and it’s one of 12 operational, hand-painted hot air balloons in the world, with a ringmaster, lions, tigers, bears, elephants and monkeys dancing around the balloon’s fabric. The other hand-painted balloon at the balloon festival was set to launch right next to us. 

Before we flew, we needed to inflate. 

Helping a hot air balloon swallow the necessary amount of air was a more physical process than I’d expected. I was charged with holding open one side of the balloon’s “throat,” which weighed the exact amount my arms could just barely handle, as a huge fan sent a strong and thunderously loud stream of cold air into the balloon.

The artwork that graces the envelope of “Big Top” took more than 1,000 hours to complete, and can be seen at this years Steamboat Springs Hot Air Balloon Festival. The artwork is hand-painted and was inspired by the Ringling Bros Circus. The figures in the artwork, including the ringmaster, lions, tigers and bears, stand nearly 40 feet tall. Big Top will be one of many balloons featured at this years 38th annual Balloon Festival, which will take place from 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday at Bald Eagle Lake, and from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. for the Night Glow on Saturday evening at Howelsen Hill.
John F. Russell

Meanwhile, my feet were assigned to stand on the ropes connecting the throat and the basket on the ground, keeping them from rising into the air. But the more the balloon inflated, the more the ropes strained to ascend. I kept finding myself wobbling a few inches above the ground, a poorly trained tightrope walker. 

I peered through the tunnel of the balloon’s throat and blinked. Painted on the interior of the very top of the balloon was a clown, grinning maniacally at me with his eyebrows raised in a way that seemed to say that he knew all my secrets. Besides heights, clowns are probably my second least favorite thing. An omen? 

Christina, John and I climbed into the balloon basket to join Mark, snug as four bugs in a rug.

“Now, if I have a heart attack or something happens where I’m not able to pilot, you guys need to be able to land the balloon,” Mark said. “It’s not going to happen, but here’s what you need to know if it does.” 

He showed us that the rope in this corner turned the balloon, and the rope in that corner let air out of the very top. The thick red strap there would land the whole thing fast.

We were ready to launch. I made myself take deep breaths.

“Hold on to the handles or the sides,” Mark said. And he warned, “Make sure you’re not touching anything red.”

I aimed my camera at the burners to capture the moment of the flames firing up. I squinted and adjusted the lighting. I glanced over and realized we were already 30 feet up, gliding along as smooth as could be. Excellent.

We sailed along toward the lake, gently downwards until we settled right on the surface of the water. 

“This is called canoeing,” Mark said. A bit of water crept into the floor of the basket, but everyone’s feet stayed dry. Mark casually added that he’d like to hot air balloon canoe down the Yampa River, if we had more time. We watched a swimmer stroke through the water as a second balloon landed in their wake, and two stand-up paddleboarders pulled over to greet to us.

Then we were off again, climbing to 250, then 500 feet above the ground. I kept expecting to be gripped in anxiety, but it didn’t happen. The sky was perfectly still and blue, and the balloon felt sturdy.

The Yampa Valley rolled toward the horizon beneath us, green as green can be, the air smelling like summer, the river winking sunlight, the shadow of our balloon trailing along under us, and Mark running the whole operation comfortably and totally in his element. It was amazingly peaceful. 

Then, we were heading toward the ground, and it seemed like we were heading there with a lot of speed. 

We bent our knees to absorb the shock of the landing and bounced back up into the air. I’m not sure if I shut my eyes or entirely blacked out for a second, but the next thing I knew, we were surrounded by leaves in every direction and were sinking lower into the clump of trees. 

We looked around bewildered at being suspended in a tree. We peered over the edge, into the marshy ground 8 feet below us. Mark fired up the burners, and we rose up and out of the foliage, continuing on our way. Mark relayed our new landing plan via walkie-talkie to our chase crew: just off the highway where he’d landed during last year’s festival. 

We bumped down into a field of purple flowers and daisies and walked the balloon to a flat spot to meet the chase crew. Putting the whole thing away required everyone — nine or 10 of us total — and involved a colossal amount of folding, rolling, and four adults all sitting on the rolled-up balloon together to squish out remnant air pockets.

With the balloon tucked into giant bags and the basket folded into the trailer, Mark gathered his three flyers around him, and we all knelt on the ground. It was time, he announced, for the hot air balloon post-flight ceremony.

Mark told us about the origin of hot air ballooning, and the two French pilots who first cooked up this whole concept. They made the world’s first untethered, manned hot air balloon flight in 1783 and inspired a slew of hot air balloon traditions, including one involving Champagne being poured on people’s heads. 

Mark glowed in his storytelling, and his joy at being a balloonist was clear. He piloted through the history and then shared a poem with us. It was beautiful, but I won’t reprint it here — though if you go on a hot air balloon flight, you’ll hopefully get to hear it from your pilot, too. 

At the very end of our ceremony, Mark presented us each with a special-ordered “Big Top” balloon pin and a flight crew pin, since we’d helped with the set-up and take-down. Some pilots trade pins, Mark said, but he doesn’t, he keeps them sacred for those who’ve been on a “Big Top” float. 

I looked at my pins and felt that somehow, we’d packed years’ worth of views and stories and maybe even overcoming semi-phobias into a single morning, all before 9 a.m.

That, I decided, was the spirit of ballooning.

Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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