Paul's Chateau d'Oex Journal

The 1998 Swiss Alpine Hot Air Balloon Festival

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Thursday, January 22, 1998

(including The Scary Flight)

This morning, finally, the weather had cleared enough that we would be able to take the balloons up. We had been having a wonderful time doing other things over the course of the past several days, and there had been no complaints whatsoever about our lack of "air time," but this was the reason for being here, after all. We were excited to be going up again.

The winds were still a bit harsh, so our flight would be limited to the Chateau d’Oex valley: We were advised not to ascend above the ridges and go for a longer flight. On weekend days, this limitation was always in place, although for a different reason: Because the festival draws spectators, the organizers want to keep the balloons in the valley and in sight of the visitors. During the week, this is less important, since the spectator turnout is far less. The strong winds at higher altitudes imposed the same rule on us today, though, even though it was but Thursday.

I flew in Corkscrew-Balloon I, the smaller of the two, along with Richard, Rosemary and Linda. Steve was our pilot. We had a lovely, peaceful flight back and forth through the valley. The highlight was the in-flight cuisine. The crew packed a fabulous lunch for us to eat while we were sailing through the skies. This was a new level of luxury that I had not previously experienced in ballooning.

The service is lashed to the side of the balloon basket before takeoff. It’s all transported in a decorated wooden box that is about 8 inches deep and extends nearly the length of the basket. Packed in this oversized "picnic basket" we found breads, cheeses, meats, fruits, and of course plenty of wine. The cover of the box serves as a "table" for the dishes. We placed it on the panel that divided the balloon into two separate passenger compartments, so we all had easy access to the bounty that was provided us.

This was, indeed, a pampered flight. The food was marvelous, the wine was great, and we were again able to spend time up in the air in the peaceful, drifting world that hot air balloons alone can provide.

During the course of our flight, we would often see Corkscrew-Balloon II plying air currents of the valley. Unlike our first flight, way back on Saturday, we didn’t spend very much time close to the other balloon. It was riding different currents and tended to be on the other side, or at the other end of the valley.

We landed at the northwest end of the valley, and I thought we had last seen Balloon II a few thousand yards off to the east. We had our standard post-landing champagne as the crew attended to their packing duties, and then we hopped in the Previa and returned to the Ermitage. We assumed that those from the other balloon – Alf, Elisabeth, Annie, Cindy, Hermann, Susan and Michael – would already be there or would be arriving shortly. As it turned out, we beat them back to the hotel.

Since we had already eaten on board the balloon, our usual post-flight activity – a huge lunch – was not necessary. Once again, we had some free time. Of course, I went through my obligatory Internet cruise for a spell, but then I put on my boots and headed up into town. We were now past the halfway point of our trip – a sad thought! – and I had not yet purchased any postcards or Swiss chocolates for the folks back home. I decided the time had come to do a little shopping.

I was able to pick up some nice postcards at a newsstand near the train station. I also bought a copy of the International Herald Tribune, so I could get a newspaper fix. I also stopped in at the post office, where I was able to explain that I wanted some international airmail stamps. My knowledge of French had really atrophied over the years, but I held up my postcards and haltingly said "Etats-Unis, par avion." This seemed to get the basic idea across.

I also stopped in at the "Coop," which was Chateau d’Oex’s supermarket. We had visited many of the small shops in town; they were all quaint and boutique-like. The Coop was huge by comparison, and it had pretty much everything. There I was able to pick up some chocolate.

Previously, as we walked around Chateau d’Oex, Linda had mentioned an interest in acquiring some tequila to store in the refrigerator in her room, but none of the small shops we had visited carried such goods. Many shops had small selections of wine and beer, but tequila did not seem to be quite as "Swiss," I suppose. The Coop came through on this score, too. They didn’t have any Cuervo, but they did have some kind of cactus juice, with a cute sombrero as a cap. I picked up a bottle of this and took it to the checkout with my chocolates and some additional postcards that I’d found.

After I purchased my items and they were conveyed down to the end of the checkout counter, I discovered something that I think I once knew: Paper or plastic bags are not included in your purchase price. I stood there with my purchases and no means of carrying them. Of course, by the time this realization came, the cashier was halfway through the next customer’s order ... but I was able to solve my problem through an understanding cashier, an understanding customer, and 20 centimes. I bagged my stuff and was on my way.

When I got back to the Ermitage, the Balloon II passengers were sitting in the lounge. Apparently, they had just gotten back; their flight was substantially longer than ours. I dashed upstairs to unload my purchases, my coat and my boots, then I went back down to join them. It was then that I learned the story of the Thursday flight of Corkscrew-Balloon II ....

by Alf Erickson

It was an auspicious start; well, put it this way, at least the day did NOT start on a really inauspicious note. 201s.jpg (26269 bytes)The breeze was gentle and there were not too many clouds in the sky. There were seven of us in Corkscrew Balloon II when it took off from the field in front of the Ermitage Hotel: Mike (my pilot), myself, Elisabeth, Cindy, Annie, Susan and Hermann. The flight began as predicted and expected. We drifted slowly down the valley on the early morning cool air ... a path that I had taken dozens of times during the past years. All indications were that it would be another uneventful flight from a weather point of view ... and a spectacularly beautiful flight from a visual point.

By the time we reached the end of the valley the sun had managed to warm things a bit, and with a change of elevation our balloon gently reversed its path and we headed back toward the starting point. All went predictably well until we reached a little valley off to our right. Normally the wind would have been slowly flowing from this benign trough into the main valley. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. More unfortunately, this narrow but steep little valley was also choked with mist, clouds, fog and other vision damning things. Well, our balloon, following the directives of Mother Nature, obligingly made course for this unwelcome spot. Not only was this valley harboring unfriendly weather, it was also a place without roads. Which meant, dear reader, that if we had put the balloon down here we would have had to walk ourselves out and summon a helicopter to retrieve the whole flying contraption. However, in retrospect, that probably would have been wise.

The fog became thicker. At one point we could see nothing: just white everywhere ... up, down and all around. 342s.jpg (7426 bytes)And then we saw the side of the mountain coming toward us. We scraped a large tree and saw that there was nothing below us but a steep cold rocky incline. Now the only choice was to burn our way up and out of the fog. We did. Several thousand feet higher everything above us was blue. Everything below us was white; and it was white as far as we could see. And, on the 360 degree horizon there were dozens of Alpine mountain peaks. There was no wind. So if we descended we’d be back right where the trouble was.

Mike’s voice (tone and choice of words) showed concern: "This is not the ideal situation."

I was scared shitless.

Annie, whom I was standing next to, started to cry.

Hermann said that he had a good long life.

Cindy said "Oh Fuck."

Susan was apparently unaware of the position we were in as she was happily taking photographs of the beautiful, albeit deadly, panorama. I asked her if her parents would have the film developed after her remains and effects were returned to them.

08015617s.jpg (15125 bytes)Elisabeth, also presumably ignorant of the risk, but thoughtful of her face, was applying sunscreen. I told her that I didn’t think that the sun was her greatest enemy at the moment.

While all of this was going on, Mike was on both the radio and the cell phone with "ground control." At our request a helicopter tried to reach us, but because of the heavy overcast and the lack of onboard weather instrumentation it was not able to find us.

But the Grim Reaper was working elsewhere this day. I guess that he had easier reaping in some other field. We were lucky.

However, I really think that we would have not safely made it to the ground without our altimeter, our cell phone and our GPS.

For the next couple of hours we burned tanks of propane trying to find a friendly air layer that would nudge us to a more propitious dot on the map.

Finally, after checking with ground control as to the accuracy of our GPS coordinates, we started a very slow descent through the big white. After passing through a thousand feet of blindness we came to a break in the clouds. But, below us lay another sea of clouds. Hey, we were in the middle of fog sandwich! Continuing our orchestrated drop toward the ground we now were more concerned with what sharp and pointy things lay below: would we see the alpine ski lift wires, would we see the power lines? Fortunately a couple of hundred feet from earth the fog tapered into clarity.

We landed! We opened Champagne. We drank it and asked for more.

Back at the Ermitage, we sat around the lounge over a few beers, and we heard the details of the flight. We toasted our CB2 compatriots for their successful brush with the Reaper.

After we all calmed down a bit, we divided up again to do our various pre-dinner things. Linda and I took another run at the electronics setup in the lounge, and we succeeded in getting the Fawlty Towers tapes to work! We watched a couple of episodes; they were quite amusing. I really hadn’t seen much Fawlty Towers before, so it was nicely fresh for me.

We had dinner at the Ermitage, but we were split into two tables. Annie joined the group from Balloon I, while the rest of the Balloon II people sat at a nearby table. I once again had that old favorite, veau viennoise avec frites. It was perfect as always.

After dinner, of course, we went to the Richemont. Our stay was shorter than usual, however. By this point, we were becoming a bit Richemonted out. I joined Annie and Steve for a late walk through town. It was snowing heavily again, and the town looked very pretty. We stopped in a small playground and played. Off the road, the fresh powdery snow was a foot deep.

We also tried to loft a few snowballs into Bill’s room. The pilots were staying on the fourth floor of a hotel near the train station. Steve thought that Bill might not need to be asleep yet, so we made several attempts to rouse him. Hitting the window (or, better yet, getting one through its slight opening) was difficult, but we had a couple of really close shots.

When I got home, I spent a little time reading my International Herald Tribune. In our daily life in Chateau d’Oex, we were very much cut off from whatever gossip might be occupying the folks back home. From my regular checking of Internet sites, I knew that all of the United States was abuzz with its newest water-cooler topic: Monica Lewinsky. There was an early write-up near the back of the Herald Tribune. Tomorrow, it would splash across the front page, as it already had in the U.S.

Wednesday, January 21 || Friday, January 23

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