Sunday, January 20, 2008

What have I been "up" to?

Hello gentle reader. Bonne annee! I have been taking a little break for the past few weeks because since I have been back to Switzerland, my life has been mad. I have been working like crazy, 12-14 hours a day which is nuts. However I am really really trying to not let work control my life so much here, because often (as it is such a huge part of my life, spending 14 hours a day there) it really can control my mood. So although I am slaving away 5 days per week, I have resolved to keep my weekends to MYSELF and no one else.

Well this weekend was the beginning of the 30th Annual Festival International de Ballons in a little area of Switzerland called Chateau D'Oex, about 2 hours from me by train. I had wanted to go to this shindig last year but couldn't for whatever reason, probably WORK. And I originally had wanted to go because my sister and I bought a puzzle a long time ago which just so happened to be a picture of this festival (we never did finish it as there was too much white). I figured blue sky, white snow, pretty balloons...should be something to go see.

Then last week I was poking around on the website and saw that passenger flights were offered. I have to say that riding in a hot air balloon is not something I have ever considered doing. And I am not really afraid of heights, but I am finding that as I get older, they are scaring me a little bit more. However, how often do you get the chance to take a hot air balloon ride in the Swiss Alps in the middle of winter? Right. So I booked the flight for the morning of today, Sunday, got up to a very early 530 alarm clock and by 630 was on the train on the way to Chateau D'Oex (pronounced "chateau doh," I will never understand why the french even bothered with putting xes on the end of words).

It was COLD this morning!! I fortunately bundled up in a layer of long undies, boots and my ski coat and my ski mittens (including liners). I had to be there by 9am, paid up and then wandered around as I was told to come to the field at 945. However around 935 the announcer paged "JACQUELYN D----, JACQUELYN D----- S'IL VOUS D PLAIT ALLEZ A INFORMATION DU VOLS" so I guess they got the time wrong. Or I did.

I was whisked off to Balloon #15 which I immediately liked because it was in the design of a big cartoon bumblebee. There were probably about 20-25 other balloons on the field all in various stages of blowing up. The male passengers were helping our pilot to inflate our balloon while me and another girl stood back and watched.

Very quickly, in about 7 minutes, it was ready. We hopped into the basket which had enough room probably for 6 passengers, but it fit us 4 comfortably. We took up about 2/3 while the pilot had another 1/3 to himself with the gas tanks. The basket came up high enough on me, a bit above my waist, and the floor was nice and cushy since we would be standing the entire time. I felt reasonably comfortable and secure. I saw other balloons taking off and knew we would be soon. I was really excited but also a little nervous. Was I insane? Well, too late now. We were pushed across the snow by some crew to a more open area. Although it was cold, the flames which the pilot would constantly shoot up and off were warm, so I was happy about that. Suddenly we lifted off the ground, and off we went!

The immediate ascent was wonderful. I was worried about my stomach dropping away, but we went up so smoothly and peacefully that I didn't feel anything of the sort. I had a fantastic view of the balloons still on the ground readying themselves and the other ones beginning to take off. We climbed very slowly, flying through the snow-covered valley. All sorts of trees (at one point we flew into the branches of one but our pilot handled it great and we just cruised right through them) and little rivers were below while blue sky and other brightly colored balloons were above us and around us. People in cars and houses below waved and we waved back. I have waved to balloons countless times in the summer in Naperville during the neighboring Lisle's 4th of July "eyes to the skies" balloon festival - it was really funny to think of myself as the person waving!

Once separated from the other balloons a bit more, we began to climb higher. I watched our little shadow on the side of the mountain ascend which was really the only way you could tell. I would describe the ascent if anything as that of an escalator rather than an elevator - it is so gradual and smooth that you really don't notice how high you get until you are there! I admit that once we were up about the same height as the MOUNTAIN TOPS which I think was close to 2800 or 3000 m, I was a little bit scared. That's really high! And I did NOT like looking down and seeing the top of another hot air balloon! I calmed myself by looking around instead of down at first until I was more comfortable. The ride was very gentle and quickly I was back to enjoying the beautiful sights all around me. There were some balloons which were realllly high and flying over the mountains but I think that perhaps these were not for passenger flights as they landed much later than we did and took off earlier. Now that we were up high, we were out of the shadows of the mountains, and the sun was shining brightly upon our brave little bumblebee and the sloping hills to our left. It was extremely quiet and peaceful. The only sounds were that of the talk of the passengers and the radio, and the gas constantly being released into the balloon.

We floated around with the mountain tops for about 20 minutes and then began to descend. Again I was worried my stomach would drop but it didn't. Still, I did not exactly watch the ground though as we were going down!! Instead I watched as other balloons went up and down around us. Sooner than I realized we were not too far off the ground, hovering above the little chalets and waving again. Our pilot directed us towards a large snow covered field and hovered, waiting for the crew to arrive.

As the crew car pulled up, the pilot landed the balloon softly into the snow. The two guys got out and helped to maneuver the balloon onto the truck bed (yes, balloon is still inflated at this point, it was pretty cool, and I am still in the basket!) When the basket was on the bed, the guys secured it and then the womenfolk hopped out.

We ran up to help the crew member to bring down the balloon, the five of us pulling and tugging to bring down the big bumblebee. After a few minutes the balloon, the balloon was mostly deflated and we helped to begin to wrap it up. I was quite surprised that the material of the balloon itself was so thin - my jacket was a heavier material. It was amazing to think that just a humongous sheet of that fabric plus a whole lotta hot air had carried five people up to 3000m! You are apparently supposed to have a glass of champagne after your first balloon flight, but apparently this was not included for us. Oh well. I can drink champagne any time! Overall it was fantastic - a little scary, but it made it exciting and I really enjoyed the beautiful views. It was such a great way to see Switzerland!

In 2 weeks my adventures continue as I am giving ice climbing a try (going with a guide, I'm not stupid enough to do something like that alone). I've put a few ballooning pictures on here but you can see the rest on my kodak gallery page link.