Château d'Oex 2002,
The Amazing Flight

Between Part II and Part IV

January 25, 2002

Friday, January 25, 2002

While others seem to be doing a fine job of sleeping in the morning, I keep getting up too early. Again today, it was a challenge to stay in bed until 6:00. Ermitage BreakfastAt that point I arose and did various computer chores, got myself more or less put together, and headed downstairs.

I was the first person in the breakfast room. Indeed, half an hour later, I was still the only person there. Perhaps I should have gone out with Sian last night, despite feeling dead tired. She does have the power to energize, and if I had been forced to stay up for another couple of hours, my schedule might have become synchronized with the rest of the Chateau d'Oex world.

I took advantage of the emptiness to conduct a little "photo shoot" of the breakfast area and its tasty offerings. Many of you have seen these scenes before, in prior years' journals. For some people, though, these are fresh images: For instance, for our own Pauline (who absolutely does not have a problem lingering in bed in the morning), this will be her first look at a Chateau d'Oex breakfast setup!

The morning began in a very foggy fashion. Foggy MorningLast night's rain did not turn to snow. In short, things looked bad. By 08:30, however, the clouds were dissipating and huge chunks of blue space were appearing over the mountains out the southern windows of the Ermitage. Perhaps this would be a good flight day? I don't know. I can never tell. Hermann has an uncanny knack for figuring out flight possibilities, even the night before and even when his prediction is totally at odds with the official expectations. I completely lack this gift. I must await Mike's return from the 09:00 pilots' meeting before I have any idea of the day's possibilities.

This being Friday, we are now entering the final weekend of the festival. Tonight, assuming cooperative weather, there will be a street fair in town, the "Glow" of the balloon envelopes on the hill, and fireworks. Saturday and Sunday (again, assuming cooperative weather) will see a return of the spectator crowds.

Well, I was wrong to have any doubts about whether we would fly today. We did, and the flight was long and the flight was high. Mainly, though, the flight was spectacular. I have been up in Alf's balloons many times at Chateau d'Oex, but I really think today's flight blew all the rest of them away.

As we slipped into mid-morning, the skies slowly changed. Clouds parted and blue patches appeared. Billows of fog remained scattered about the valley. There was something primordial about it ... all was fresh and slightly aglow.

Down on the field, a number of local schoolchildren were running among the balloons. Field security is quite tight on the weekends, when we definitely need our "Equipage" badges to get onto the launch field, but during the week it's a bit more lax, and so these youngsters were able to marvel at the spectacle of all the balloons setting up. Alf always carries extra decorative balloon pins, and so he began handing them out to the children. Of course, this immediately created a throng of outreached hands pointing toward Alf and his prizes. And then, just when the children were wandering off without aim because they were admiring the little pins they held in their hands, Alf pulled out some stickers for them as well, and they came running back!

The flight itself started out in a normal enough fashion, as a typical flight down the valley with the beautiful scenery of the Swiss Alps and dozens of other hot air balloons. I was happily snapping away at my shutters, capturing the lovely images on film and on digital pixels. After a couple of days on the ground, it was really nice to be up in the air again, with blue skies and warm sunshine in our happy faces.

Level with the MountaintopsWe pulled out the inflight lunch, and once again it offered us a wide variety of wonderful selections. We nibbled as we floated along.

The transformation from the beautiful to the unbelievable came, as I recall, at the point in time when Mike advised us that we were going to drift up a bit higher. We would pass through some slight fog or clouds on the way up, and he said not to worry. (As regular followers of Chateau d'Oex journals know, there have in prior years been 'interesting' events with altitude and clouds; hence the pre-reassurance.)

We climbed up to a point where we were just about even with the mountain peaks. And then, for a period of time that I cannot quantify because time ceased to exist, we drifted along the rocky and snowy tops of the mountains. Especially beautiful was the area around the peaks known as Les Dents de Ruth ... "Ruth's Teeth," or, more mellifluous if less plural, "Ruth's Tooth." It was simply amazing. And off in the distance: a couple of Bombard flower balloons. We were all especially amazed at the sure-footedness of the herds of chamois who were surprised to have company at such an altitude and who were leaping across the rocks at the very tops of the mountains.

Friday Flight

As a fitting finale to our wondrous flight, we also had an "interesting" landing. Well, perhaps it would be more proper to say that we had two interesting landings! At first, we were going to set the balloon down in deep snow high above the valley. This would have been good because there is a lot of mud now on the valley floor, and snow is so much cleaner for the balloon envelope. Once we got near the ground and the crew grabbed the ropes, however, it became apparent that there was a low wind that was quite nasty! The crew guys were dragged for a long distance through deep and fluffy snow. They all wound up looking like Frosty the Snowman. Meanwhile, on board, Sian got whacked on the head by a metal d-ring. (She's not really been the same since!)

Our basket finally came to rest on a road, right at a hairpin curve. Unfortunately, this was not a suitable place to pack up the balloon. So ... the crew loaded up the ropes and we took off again, drifting down to the valley below.

Our new landing spot was in almost exactly the same place as the controversial "crash of 2000" [go back for details], and I now wonder whether this particular site is subject to a curse of some sort. Two years ago, there was plenty of snow covering the ground when our doomed passengers plummeted to earth. Today, though, the field was totally mud ... thick, sloppy mud. Much of it was natural dirt, but judging from the curious bovines watching us from the nearby barn, we also had to assume that much of the brown sludge on the ground had been ... um ... "processed."

Mike landed the balloon and we contemplated our options. Conceivably, we could take off yet again and fly to yet another landing spot. We still had a fair amount of fuel. After our flight across the mountaintops, we were now actually upvalley of Chateau d'Oex, and we could conceivably fly right back home. Mud PackBut it was getting late in the afternoon at this point, and the wind turning in a way that might have pushed us over the mountains into another valley.

After consulting our fuel load and maps, and holding a moistened finger up in the air, Mike decided the best bet was simply to make due with the spot we were in, and to pack the balloon there. The big problem, of course, is that the envelope has to be lain out on the ground to be packed ... the Screwmaid balloon is composed largely of white and other pale colors ... the field was AWFUL ... and balloon envelopes are not washable!!

Accordingly, we endeavored to deflate the balloon and load it into the bag wihout it touching the ground. Like the breathtaking flight we had today, this packing method was also a 'first' for us! The whole crew and all the passengers lined up along the field to catch the balloon as it deflated, and to hold it aloft from the deep and squishy organic matter that surrounded us. The envelope weighs 400 pounds, and it is, to say the least, a bit awkward! But we did our best, and we had another great adventure! We held the envelope off the ground, and the crew packed in the fabric as they worked their way from the basket end to the crown. Our boots and shoes wound up coated with prodigious amounts of brown muck, but the Screwmaids were protected from any besmirchment of their purity and chaste honor.

Tonight was the annual "Glow" festival. I was deep in the delights of an exhausted nap at 18:30, when Mike knocked on my door and announced that there was a party about to begin in Cindy's room. The GlowI dragged myself downstairs ... then, realizing that it was really cold because the balcony doors were open and people were standing outside, I trudged back UPstairs to get my jacket.

While I was back in my room, the show was beginning, and so I stepped out on my own less-crowded balcony and shot some photos of the Glow. Watcharee stopped by my room, on her way downstairs to Cindy's, and so I joined her and returned to the main party site. The pictures from our balconies aren't completely optimum: the best vantage point for seeing the Glow is the church on the top of the hill. From that vantage, the lighted representation of Chateau d'Oex on the hillside is especially impressive. However, being in our rooms affords some additional comforts. Cindy's room, in particular, offered a wide variety of refreshment options. (Hint: Hermann was present.)

The Glow itself, which consists of balloon burners firing in attempted synchrony with music piped from loudspeakers, is quite a novelty. It was especially fun two years ago, when the brand-new Screwmaid balloon participated in a place of priority, on the soccer field in the center of town. Fireworks!In general, however, the balloon glow part of the festivities is not all that spectacular.

This year's crescendo near the end of the program was really amazing, however. It was definitely the best Glow I have seen. In addition to the balloons glowing, a wide variety of fireworks were shot into the air. Of course, just a few weeks ago, I saw the great New Year's Eve fireworks display put on by the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok ... but I think the Glow fireworks this year were even better! There wasn't the sheer quantity offered in Bangkok, but the variety was amazing. Along with many different kinds of normally launched pyrotechnics, including some extrememly unusual "shimmer" effects, there were also a number of weather balloons that rose slowly while spewing forth huge flaming sparks. (Many of these appeared to be burning with much vigor all the way to the crowded earth below, prompting predictions that "they won't be doing this again next year.") Plus, several skydivers were released from an airplane overhead, and they soared through all the explosions, trailing sparks of their own from some kind of burning devices that had been tied to them. The entire effect was completely excellent!

After the Glow, we went downstairs and had dinner at the table next to the piano in the Ermitage dining room.

Next: Part IV

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