Soaring high above Aspen-Snowmass

Story and Photos by Lorenzo Chavez

Balloons prepare for takeoff on the horizon of Snowmass Club golf course's beautiful putting greens. It's a chilly 40 degrees and the 7 a.m. hot air balloon lift-off launches from a large softball field in the tiny Village of Snowmass: population 2,000. Spectators are warmed by the site of hot air balloons rising quietly above the mountain valley. Like first-time-ever visitors to Manhattan, visitors stare upwards in awe and wonderment—not at gleaming skyscrapers or the bustling sidewalk—but at the colorful aircraft drifting skyward. We're a long way from New York City. This is paradise. 

The 36th Annual Snowmass Balloon Festival held September 16-18 this year attracted 32 balloonist aviators mostly from Colorado but also hailing from throughout the Southwest. This three-day event attracts nearly 1,000 onlookers  to Colorado's scenic Roaring Fork Valley, as picturesque as any glossy brochure. No special filters or Photoshop magic needed here. The sky is stunningly saturated in blue and the putting greens of the Snowmass Golf Club provide a manicured backdrop for the multi-colored air ships. By 9 a.m. children are squealing and laughing while grownups stand in awe as one-by-one each balloon soars high above one of Colorado's most beautiful mountain valleys.

Jim and Dorothy Ahern of Albuquerque, NM crank up their propane of their balloon It's part science and part artistry. Ballooning best demonstrates simple hot and cold air physics and each pilot's skillful navigation. By carefully observing air temperature and prevailing winds, a pilot can guide his craft to a predetermined landing spot…with the help of course of a talented ground team that tracks the balloon's route. Each balloon is made of durable synthetic-like nylon or Dacron and baskets are typically made of sturdy but lightweight wicker. Powerful propane burners ignite to 250 degrees Fahrenheit heating the air of the balloons while pilots guide the craft’s movements using vents at the top of the balloons to release or increase the hot air contained inside. As the balloon increases or decrease in altitude, the pilot catch wind currents that allow navigation and steering toward landing sites. Depending on the style of the balloon, pilots work with 180,000 to 300,000 cubic feet of balloon. They fly in the early morning when the air is most stable and to avoid thermal air changes that would make navigation more difficult as the temperatures rise later in the day.

Aspen History/Culture
Located just three hours southwest of Denver, Aspen has a rich history as the nation's foremost silver mining capitol in the early 19th century. It wasn’t until post-WWII that this mining community became notable for its skiing, an industry that consistently ranks in the Top 10 North American resorts among skiers and ski boarders alike.

Aspen is known as having the highest per capita income in the state. Hollywood (Kevin Costner, Jack Nicholson and Bruce Willis), sports celebrities (Lance Armstrong, Martina Navratilova), and pop talent (counterculture author Hunter Thompson, pop folksinger John Denver), filmmakers, internet millionaires and industrialists have second or third or fourth homes here. The City of Aspen’s 6,000 full-time residents rub elbows with the rich and famous.

Aspen Snowmass Ski Resorts
Local Walter Paepcke founded the Aspen Skiing Company. Ski Lift Number 1—the first ski lift built in the late 1940s in Aspen—is named to the National Register of Historic Places. Within the past 5 years, literally billions of dollars have been poured into development. One lift ticket provides entry to four peaks: Snowmass, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk—each with its own distinct terrain challenges and personality.

Balloon pilots crank up their propane units to provide the crowd with the annual Snowmass Mountain is undoubtedly the most family friendly, known for its extensive ski-in/ski-out lodging and wide open trails.  Buttermilk’s beginner runs and snowboarder-friendly slopes boast a top-rated ski school and has also attracted the world's greatest winter action sport athletes hosting the Winter X games for 9 consecutive years. Aspen Highlands is the locals’ favorite with an abundance of expert terrain and cruiser slopes. Aspen Mountain is known for its double-black diamond slopes, preferred by expert skiers.

The Aspen-Snowmass ski season officially starts in late November and ends by in April.  The 2011-2012 Aspen-Snowmass Ski Season for the four mountains are:
Snowmass & Aspen Mountain: Nov 24-April 15
Aspen Highlands: Dec 10-April 22
Buttermilk: Dec 10-April 8.

Centers / Festivals / Events
The Aspen Institute is the granddaddy of non-profit think tanks in the West. Founded in 1950 (also by Paepcke), the Institute hosts a weeklong Aspen Ideas Festival each summer featuring award-winning writers, entrepreneurs, world leaders, historians and technological innovators. The region also plays host to the Jazz Aspen Snowmass music festival, FOOD & WINE Magazine Classic and the Aspen Arts Festival. Despite its size, Aspen is home to well-funded arts and cultural venues including the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, and the AndersonRanch arts center.

Less than 15 minutes from Aspen a bus runs on the half hour every season but winter to Maroon Bells. The twin purple peaks rise more than 14,000 feet into the clouds and are reflected by a beautiful lake. Maybe it's the thin-air or the spectacular 360-degree scenery, but its beauty is unsurpassable.

Getting there:
From Denver:  About 4 hours by car to travel 245 miles West from Denver via I-70 through Glenwood Springs. Mostly accessible by highway from spring to late fall. Most scenic view is from Independence Pass which is open only in the summer. Multiple daily airline flights from Denver to Aspen: Frontier Airlines and United Airlines to Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (also known as Sardy Field)

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