Hot air ballooning may be the most pleasant of spectator sports, and the mountainscapes of Snowmass Village may be its most spectacular stadium of play.
This weekend the town hosts the 38th annual Snowmass Balloon Festival, with 30-plus pilots soaring over the Elk Mountains in three days of flying and friendly competition. Friday through Sunday feature ascensions from the softball field across from Snowmass Town Park, and a night-time event on Fanny Hill.
The three-day festival, kicking off Friday, Sept. 13, includes live music, food and kids activities, along with the flights. The ballooning events are free and open to the public for viewing, with pilots from across the nation participating by invitation only.
Colleen Johnson is the new “balloonmeister” organizing the events all weekend.
Based in Albuquerque, N.M., Johnson runs two balloon festivals there, each with more than 100 balloons and pilots featured. She has flown in the Snowmass Balloon Festival six times in her aircraft, named “Mary Alice in Wonderland" for her two grandmothers.
The schoolteacher and weekend ballooning warrior caught the piloting bug after volunteering as a crew member at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta — the massive annual New Mexico gathering. Johnson encourages locals to help out this weekend in Snowmass, and learn more about the art of balloon flight. Anyone interested in volunteering on a balloon crew this weekend is welcome to show up Saturday morning and ask to help, Johnson says, or to sign up to volunteer on the festival website. Pilots always need extra hands to get their balloons up.
“If people want to get hands-on, just show up and ask around,” she says.
Like most of the pilots coming to Snowmass, she’ll be driving to town with her balloon in a trailer and her crew in tow. As with many balloon crews, flying is a family passion for the Johnsons.
“People are often traveling from far away, with their crew, and their crew is often their family,” she says. It’s often a father and son or daughter.”
Johnson recalls shopping around for balloons after she got her balloon pilot's license, and her grandfather buying it for her. He flew with her until he was 93 years old. Her husband took up flying as well, and soon found success in competition.
“My husband wasn't into it, but when I got my commercial license I taught him how to fly,” she said. “And he qualified for nationals this year. ... I like to say that’s because I’m such a good teacher.”
On Friday morning, 25 select pilots will race to see who can fly the farthest downvalley in a three-hour window in The Carter Memorial Colorado Rat Race. The name pays tribute to the most prominent family in Colorado ballooning. The Carter family balloon, emblazoned with the state flag and titled “Colorado High,” has flown in nearly every Snowmass Balloon Festival since 1975. Jim Carter flew it for decades until his death in 2010, and his son, Patrick, took over last year.
Patrick’s crew included his mother, three siblings and their children — 20 Carters in all.
“it’s definitely a family affair,” Patrick said at last year’s Balloon Fest.
Like many of the balloon-crazed clans descending on Snowmass, for the Carters the sport was a way of life and not a novelty.
“I just knew no other life,” Patrick explained. “We were flying every weekend.”
While the Carter Rat Race is an honored tradition in Snowmass, Johnson has shaken up the events schedule for the Balloon Festival's 38th year, with a new competition and nighttime venue change.
Saturday features “X Marks the Spot,” in which pilots will attempt to maneuver as close as possible to two different ground targets situated by judges based on the winds the morning of competition. Competitors will drop weighted baggies, hoping to get closest to the middle of both targets. That will be followed by the traditional ascension, as balloons float over the valley and some attempt a “splash-n-dash” maneuver in the ponds at the Snowmass Club. That’s the crowd-pleasing move where a pilot descends, touches the bottom of his balloon basket to the water, then fires up the balloon and rises back to the sky.
After sundown, the balloons move to Fanny Hill for the “Night Glow,” with 15 balloons lighting up the night sky, and a concert by Denver-based rock band Places.
In between the morning events and the “Night Glow,” Snowmass plays host to the Snowmass Wine Festival (see related story, p. 3), making for a full day of action in the village on Saturday.
Sunday morning brings a new “Balloon Dance” to the festival. The competition will have balloons launch in pairs, taking off with each pilot holding one end of flagging tape. The pair that stays in the air the longest with tape intact wins.
“That will be really fun to watch,” Johnson says.
Friday, September 13
7 - 10 a.m. Carter Memorial Colorado Rat Race
Saturday, September 14
7 - 10 a.m. The SnowMASS Ascension & X-Marks the Spot
6 - 8 p.m. Night Glow and Concert on Fanny Hill
Sunday, September 15
7 - 10 a.m. The SnowMASS Ascension & Balloon Dance