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‘Champagne and propane’ keep spirits high at Snowmass Balloon Festival

A pilot in an orange-and-red hot air balloon soars above a circus-themed one during the Snowmass Balloon Festival.
Kaya Williams
Aspen Public Radio
A pilot flies the “Toucan Pilot” hot air balloon above the “Big Top” balloon at Snowmass Town Park during the Snowmass Balloon Festival on Friday. The 47th annual festival involved balloon racing, a "Night Glow" and morning launches. The event brought dozens of balloons to Snowmass Village for three days of festivities.

In the unpredictable world of hot air ballooning, you have to stay sharp to stay afloat.

Skip Howes, a hot air balloon pilot from Colorado Springs, says that’s part of the allure.

He has been flying for more than 25 years and was in Snowmass Village on Friday with his balloon, “Wildfire,” for the annual Snowmass Balloon Festival.

“It's quiet, it's relaxing, but challenging at the same time when you fly,” he says. “You have to be on your game and all of that, but it's a different kind of stress or a different kind of adrenaline rush, maybe. I don't know — it's just a ball.”

Two people stand in the wicker basket of a hot air balloon flying toward cloudy skies.
Kaya Williams
Aspen Public Radio
A hot air balloon pilot and passenger fly over Snowmass Town Park during the Snowmass Balloon Festival on Friday. The festival included a downvalley race, morning balloon launches and other events over three days.

Then again, you might need to be a little foolish to get into a wicker basket to begin with.

Some cheery self-deprecation might be a prerequisite for hot air balloonists. Pilots with decades of experience like to joke about how little they knew when they started.

Mark Whiting, a pilot based in Denver, was hovering over the softball field Friday morning in a circus-themed balloon called “Big Top.”

He got hooked on hot air in the late 1970s.

He was working for Re/Max, an international real estate company known for its hot air balloon logo, when the first real-life Re/Max balloon arrived.

“They came in and they were probably going, ‘The balloon's here, the balloon's here,’” Whiting recalled. “And I went, ‘Far out! What's a balloon?’”

He decided to go help out with the crew — in an off-white three-piece suit and expensive shoes, no less.

“We're out in a little field that's muddier than all mud, … and I've got mud up to here,” Whiting said, gesturing to his upper thigh. There were splashes on his vest, too. The jacket was spared because he took it off before he got to work.

“The pilot looked at me when we're all said and done, and he said, ‘You know, you're just stupid enough to be a pilot.’” Whiting said. “So, sure enough, here I am."

People gather around the wicker basket of a circus-themed hot air balloon.
Kaya Williams
Aspen Public Radio
The crew for a hot air balloon called “Big Top” chats with pilot Mark Whiting at Snowmass Town Park during the Snowmass Balloon Festival on Friday. Whiting believes you could go anywhere on Earth and find friendship with fellow hot air balloon enthusiasts because the "magic" of the activity appeals to everyone's inner child.

Doug Lenberg was hanging out with Howes, Whiting and the rest of the chatty “Big Top” crew Friday morning. He said tequila got him into the game in 1986.

“I was partying with a good friend of mine, and I got a little bit too much tequila in me, and he said, ‘You want to help me put up a flying pink pig?’” Lenberg recalled. “And I said, ‘What? OK, I'll do it.’”

So, he helped put up a balloon shaped like a piggy bank for United New Mexico Bank.

He moved from special shapes to regular balloons after that and piloted for years before turning to event organizing and serving as a “balloon meister” at festivals.

A hot air balloon with a rainbow of colors floats toward a partly cloudy blue sky.
Kaya Williams
Aspen Public Radio
The “Inflatio” hot air balloon flies over Snowmass Town Park during the Snowmass Balloon Festival on Friday. Dozens of balloons populated the skies over Snowmass Village during the 47th annual festival.

Long after the tequila wore off, the allure of hot air ballooning stayed fresh.

Lenberg has stayed in the field now for more than three decades — through a midflight heart attack in 2014 and through the recent sudden death of his wife, Sylvia.

He stays on the ground these days, but he hasn’t strayed from the people he says probably make up the friendliest community in the world.

“You come out and you come around the basket, talk to the pilots, talk to the crews and you will be welcomed,” Lenberg says. “We don't have strangers in our community, and we take care of each other.

“They've all been there for me after my wife recently passed, suddenly, the entire community has been there for me, all over the country.”

A rainbow colored balloon floats toward the blue sky.
Kaya Williams
Aspen Public Radio
“Finish Line” floats above Snowmass Town Park during the Snowmass Balloon Festival on Friday. Balloons were filled with hot air each morning of the three-day festival, but they did not fly high Saturday because of inclement weather.

Whiting believes you could go anywhere on Earth and find friendship with fellow hot air balloon enthusiasts.

“I think it's because of the magic bringing the smiles out of the kids, and there's kids in all of us,” he said. “I don't care how old you are. There's a kid in there somewhere.”

Some Champagne might help too.

It’s customary for hot air balloonists to carry two bottles of bubbly on board: one for the pilot and crew, and one for the owner of the land where the vessel sets down.

Whiting said the beverage and the fuel that keeps the balloon aloft make for a winning combination.

Breakfast of champions, champagne and propane,” he said, laughing.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.