A hot-air balloon ride in the middle of winter – at first that might sound kind of cold and uncomfortable. However, this adventure is particularly spectacular at exactly this time of the year (and a lot warmer than our author had anticipated).
In the presence of a wonder, human beings lapse into silence. Helmut also becomes silent for a moment, although he has already experienced this hundreds of times before: 3,400 cubic metres of air are trapped inside the balloon envelope; as soon as the quotient of the total volume and mass is lower than the density of the ambient air, the air has been sufficiently heated by a burner. That’s the physical explanation of what I am experiencing in this exact moment and can hardly believe: From one minute to the next, the wicker basket in which we are standing lifts off the ground. At first, it lifts just a few centimetres but just a few seconds later it’s already twenty metres above the ground – and it continues to lift really quickly. It seems like we are in a free-floating lift that is ascending vertically.
„Goodbye, dear earthlings!“
In the meantime, Helmut has returned to his chatty self and courageously shouts “Goodbye, dear earthlings!” at the skiers who have been watching the lift-off. Then he turns up the heat again. With a laugh and three metres in altitude per second, we drift away from the world. And then suddenly: silence. The sound of the earth’s surface fades away; the burner stops spitting flames for a moment, and for the second time today, Helmut lapses into silence. Only the clear air and the endlessly wide background of mountains are around us now. I feel the rush of adrenaline, endorphin, and all the other ‘feelgood’ chemicals which our brain releases during extreme situations – and still, it is one of the calmest moments of my life.
This elevated calmness was however preceded by a hellish noise. In order to prepare the hot-air balloon for departure, first of all, it has to be partially inflated with cold air. At eight o’clock in the morning, the hot-air balloon pilot Helmut Winkler and I are at a parking lot in Brixental valley ready to fire up a generator-powered ventilator which will blow air into the still slack balloon envelope. While Helmut is making sure that all the ropes are adjusted correctly, I am holding the opening of the envelope so the air can flow into the inside of it. There are definitely more fun things to do when the temperature is around 2°C, but if you want to experience wintery Tirol from a bird’s eye perspective, you have to get through this.
„You don’t fly a balloon – you ride it.“
The setup is progressing swiftly. After just half an hour, the balloon is nice and plump and ready to set off. Before hopping into the wicker basket, I have to sign a release of liability and assumption of risk agreement which includes phrases such as “I accept and assume any and all risks of injury or death”; then I’m ready to go. There is limited space in the wicker basket, which is only three square metres. There are propane gas bottles in each corner, and directly above our heads is the burner – a kind of oversized flame thrower that heats the air in the balloon. I then courageously shout “Ready for take-off – let’s fly away!” and make my first mistake before even leaving the ground. “You don’t fly a balloon, you ride it,” Helmut explains. This wording dates back to the first balloonists of the 18th century, who made use of marine terminology. Well then: “Cast off!”
Just a few minutes after our departure, we are floating hundreds of metres above the snowy Brixental valley. I actually thought that ice crystals would form on my eyebrows. But it is a lot warmer than on the ground. “That’s because of the temperature inversion,” Helmut explains. In this weather condition a layer of cool air – which has a higher density and is therefore heavier – covers the surface like a blanket. In the layers above, the air is then a lot warmer. I should have done this a lot earlier; I think to myself. For example, in ninth grade when I nearly had to repeat a year at school because of my bad marks in physics.
A crackling sound in my ears wakes me up from my daydreams. By now we have already reached an altitude of 2,000 metres. I still cannot believe that I am alone with Helmut and four highly explosive gas bottles inside a wobbly wicker basket, which is only connected through some thin pieces of rope to a balloon full of hot air. The terrific view, however, distracts me from this thought: In the north, I can see the Wilde Kaiser mountain with its steep pinnacles; then I turn around and gaze on to the Hohe Tauern mountain range with its stunning peaks of the Großvenediger and Großglockner.
There is no other way to describe it: complete euphoria! The snowy white mountains seem so far away and still within one’s reach. No goal is unreachable: We are the kings of the horizons. We are floating in the sky over the valley and below us we can see the houses, streets, forests, and ski lifts passing by. From a bird’s eye view, the landscape with its natural and human-made patterns seems like a perfect miniature model. I can understand that the tiny skiers on the slopes are busy queuing at the ski lifts in order to get as high up as possible. However, even after reaching the most beautiful viewing point, they will never come close to this 360-degree panorama of a mobile hot-air balloon.
A mountain ridge is blocking the view from the valley behind and I am just about to suggest to Helmut that we fly a bit closer – I mean “ride”. Then I suddenly notice that I haven’t spared a thought about how the steering of a hot-air balloon works. The short (and at first unsettling) answer from Helmut: not at all. In fact, there are possibilities, but in the end, they are limited: At different altitudes, the wind speed and direction are different. Pilots place the balloon at different altitudes at certain times to change the direction of the flight path. Helmut is carrying a small device with him for this reason. On the black and white display, we can see all the relevant information: altitude, wind direction and speed. Nonetheless, leaving things to chance is a significant factor when riding a hot-air balloon.
Helmut has eleven years of experience, and he’s a real master of this game with the wind. After giving us an overview of the complete valley and the surrounding mountain landscape, he lets the balloon descend far down so that we are only about twenty metres above the ground. Suddenly, I recognise all the details again, beneath us I can see the ski slope, and I can watch the skiers enjoying the runs or trying to get their fingers back into their gloves. I notice how calm and elegant our means of transport – this balloon – is: As long as we don’t cover the skier’s direct field of view or block the sun, they won’t even notice us. Then there’s also a chamois that does not seem bothered by our silent presence and just continues wandering and hopping through the deep snow.
I could go on riding this balloon forever; I’m enjoying the undulating movement. The spitting flames when the balloon has descended too far; then the peaceful calm again. The mountain slopes, forests, and valleys – which I had actually got to know while skiing, hiking, or climbing – now seem so different and I am experiencing them from a completely new perspective. Scenic connections are revealed, and a film unfolds in front of my inner eye – a film about how over millions of years the earth plates had been moved on top of each other creating rivers in the valleys. But happiness does not last forever. Before the gas supply reaches a critical level, Helmut has to find a suitable landing space. He is already aiming for a large open space next to a cross-country ski track. Then he notices the nostalgic expression on my face. Instead of descending, he fires up the burner once more – and up we go again.
All photographs by Dominik Gigler