Soaring in the Snowmass Balloon Festival

Sep 21, 2015

The balloon of Patrick Carter has been coming to the Balloon festival for 40 years.
Credit Patrick Fort / Aspen Public Radio

The 40th edition of the Snowmass Balloon Festival wrapped up this past weekend. Balloonists from across the country come to the Roaring Fork Valley to float above the the peaks of the Rockies. The accompanying wine festival has allowed the weekend to become one of the most popular ones of the summer.


Up in the air, things are calm. It’s like floating a boat on a placid lake. The breeze takes you where it wants, even if you land in a front yard somewhere.


But before you get to take flight over the skies, you have to deal with inclement weather. On Friday, no balloons were able to take off. Winds were swirling and too inconsistent to make for safe flight. Mike says that it’s better to be on the ground and wish you were in the air, than to be  in the air, and wish you were on the ground.


“We’ve got this front over top of us. It’s theoretically stationary, but it’s not," says Stephen Blucher, who has been flying at the festival for decades. "It’s moving back and forth very slightly. Anything could happen. These upper winds up in these clouds - they’re 50 miles per hour.”


Bad news for hot air balloons. But the event is good news for Snowmass. Dave Elkin of Snowmass Tourism helps set up the summer events for village. He says since the Balloon Festival and the Wine festival merged three years ago, hotel occupancy went up from around sixty percent to ninety.


“This weekend always did well, but now it’s doing even better," says Elkin. "It has to do with making a full day or weekend for guests to make a trip up to Snowmass for.”


Elkin thinks the Balloon festival is one of the prettiest things he gets to see. At one point, he found the festival on the cover of a Rand McNally atlas he bought at a gas station. But for someone so high on the event, you’ll never find him high in the sky.

Mike Johnson's balloon, Skytrek, is inflated.
Credit Patrick Fort / Aspen Public Radio


Ballooning is a community, and for some a family affair. The balloon of Patrick Carter proudly displays the Colorado state flag. They’ve been coming to the festival for all 40 years. Mike Johnson’s wife, Colleen, is also a balloon pilot and this year’s official balloonmeister, in charge of the logistics of setting off 34 balloons from a field in Snowmass.


When Mike lands the balloon, we find ourselves in a family’s front yard. Rather than bringing their pitchforks - which is why balloon pilots bring bottles of champagne, to calm angry folks down - they bring us juice and coffee cake. The kids who are there are interested in what they see. Mike gives them a quick tour.

Soon Mike’s crew shows up to pack up the balloon. We make sure that it doesn’t get caught on trees. He says that it’s a huge concern when you’re landing. Even tiny rips to any part of the balloon can be catastrophic.

The balloon is rolled up and put in a bag. The engine is taken off of the wicker basket that we floated in. Everything is loaded up into a trailer, and then it’s off to the next flight. Off to the next event. Or maybe above Pike’s Peak, where Mike and Colleen brought tanks of oxygen as they floated at 18,000 feet. It’s just another day up and away.