Stephani Weaver's Journal

The 1997 Swiss Alpine Hot Air Balloon Festival

(With an additional entry by Alf Erickson)

Wednesday, January 15, 1997

Today begins the new fantastic voyage. Remember cartoons and movies where the character steps into a book and becomes part of the events on the pages within? Today, the Swiss fairy tale opened once again for me. I am looking forward to becoming part of the adventures and fantasy within.

It is all beginning this morning as my friends take my sister, Mary Ann Wagner, and me to the airport to meet up with many of the others who will be joining our ballooning adventure. At the airport, I recognized Denise Stubbs and had the pleasure of meeting Pam DeVelder and her twelve year old daughter, Holland. Soon Alf Erickson and Jean Marks arrived, followed by Lee Anna Yater. Cindy Mielke would meet up with us on the plane, completing the Florida contingent.

We all took off from Fort Lauderdale together at 1:40 p.m., full of excitement. We arrived in Kennedy Airport after 4 p.m. It was here that we would meet up with Alf's daughter, Lisa Erickson. Alf arranged to make our layover as comfortable as possible by having us all wait in the airport's Crown Room. This proved to be a great idea. It gave all of us who didn't know each other an opportunity to get acquainted. After Jean and Cindy found Lisa, the group was complete.

At 7:40 p.m. we were once again on our trek toward adventure, still full of enthusiasm.

Thursday, January 16, 1997

Abundant LuggageAt 9:15 a.m., as we began our descent into the Geneva Airport, we looked out the plane's window to see fantastic mountain tops darting above the clouds below. It was the welcome one would expect from a fairy tale.

Alf arranged to have a van pick us all up at the airport. I don't know how we would have managed otherwise. With nine girls/women on this trip, we weren't short on luggage. Hotel RichemondThe van took us all, along with our abundance of luggage, to the Hotel Richemond, directly across from Lake Geneva. What a view, what a hotel. Both were beautiful. Upon checking in, we all went in different directions until dinner. Some of us slept, some went sightseeing while others shopped. Mary Ann and I managed to do all three!

For dinner we ate delicious fondue and dried beef at La Rotonde. After that, a walk back to the hotel. But, not before making a stop at the Internet Café, a quaint locale. The super technological vibes from the computers in this café had called out to Alf earlier in the day and drew him to this site for most of the afternoon. It was an interesting place. Our group pretty much made up the evening's crowd. After cruising the net, some of us stopped for a nightcap, which consisted mostly of hot chocolate.

Friday, January 17, 1997

The morning found Jean, Mary Ann and me headed for Geneva's department store, the Placette. They had quite an array of merchandise. Mary Ann and Jean made purchases but I didn't buy anything, which I know is difficult to believe. On the way back to the hotel, we wandered slightly off course which seemed to be directly in the red light district. It was cold, we were shivering, bundled up from head to toe. So you can only imagine how surprised we were when we saw a young lady standing on the street corner in short shorts.

That was our first indication that "we weren't in Kansas anymore". The items in the shop windows were our second. I didn't buy anything here either. For the record, neither did Jean or Mary Ann. We did eventually find our way back to the hotel.

The Buddy Bombard vans came to pick us up for our trip to Chateau d'Oex. There was an extra vehicle for our luggage, of course. It was good to see Michael Lincicome, our trusted balloon pilot from our summer ballooning trip. Some of the crew from summer, Jamie, Mike and Tim, were with him as well.

We all boarded our "coaches" and headed excitedly on to the Hotel Ermitage. We found this hotel to be the most excellent location for our ballooning adventure, since it is located directly across the street from our balloon take off site. It was here that we all met up with Hermann Sieger. He is enchanting. A very interesting man who completes our group of eleven.

First Ermitage DinnerThis evening, after one of the fabulously filling dinners, others in the group went across the street to continue the night time fun. I, along with Pam, Holland and Mary Ann, opted for plan B and went off to our rooms to catch up on our sleep. Not, however, before hearing a knock at my door. It was Alf, delivering a box of elephant shaped chocolates that he had brought with him all the way from his last trip to Thailand. These were truly imported, imported chocolates! I imagine that he has been planning to make the challenge once again for the weight gain contest where the winner really loses. He did not make a verbal proclamation this evening, but I feel that we are headed in that direction.

Saturday, January 18, 1997

We slept in until 9:00 a.m. With the convenience of walking to the balloon site, our mornings don't have to begin so early. Balloon InflationAs we all ate breakfast, we could look across the street to see many of the balloons being inflated. The excitement was building. Then Michael gave each of us a special badge so that special people, like our group, could get on to the take off field.

The atmosphere was very festive. The theme is "carnival" and that it is. There are marching clowns and bands on the field among the balloons. People dressed in costumes and funny hats are spread throughout. The balloons are of all colors and designs. Various Shapes and SizesSome are even of unique shapes. There is an electric excitement in the air with so much festivity to behold. It's difficult to take it all in. What I missed today, hopefully, I will catch tomorrow or the day after. The good thing about all of this is that the carnival will go on and we are here for the entire time.

Both Corkscrew BalloonsWe all climb into our prospective baskets anxiously looking forward to the first flight. Alf has both of his balloons here. Both of them are the most outstanding vessels at Chateau d'Oex. The colors and designs of both are far superior to any of the others and attracted much attention. Lee Anna designed both balloons. Her talent is unmatched.

I have the pleasure of riding in Alf's newest balloon, although riding in either would have been wonderful. Michael was the pilot of this balloon. It is Holland's and Mary Ann's first flight. Mary Ann rode in Alf's other smaller balloon, which is really large, but it is the smaller of the two. FlightTim von Zivec is the pilot of this balloon. Her traveling companions were taking good care of her.

Much of what we look down upon is blanketed with snow. As Holland said, "it is breathtaking." We still are hoping for more snow. As we travel above the ground and through the valley, we are overshadowed by the majestic Alps. Wow, it's difficult to believe that we are actually here.

Our landing is perfect, directly on the balloon trailer -- thanks to Michael and the crew. Upon landing, Lee Anna and Holland built a snow angel. It was Holland's first snow being. The snow wasn't perfect for building, but the end result was excellent.

Then, back to the hotel and off to a delicious late lunch. Mary Ann and I walked through the main street of town so that we could get some exercise before dinner. Dinner was at a great restaurant with fantastic desserts. Holland has developed a scientific rating scale for dinners.

Sunday, January 19, 1997

The carnival continues. As the days progress we will all have the pleasure and delight of riding in each of Alf's balloons. Today I am in the same balloon as yesterday with Tim, from California, as the pilot. I found out that Tim has a beautiful new baby (Becca) and a beautiful wife. I know because we forced him to show us pictures.

Today we ballooned mainly over the carnival grounds and over some of Chateau d'Oex. It was great fun gliding over the people with their array of dogs and children. This flight gave us a whole new prospective of our surroundings. Some of the children were attempting to sled in the somewhat melted snow. Some were also attempting to hit us with snowballs. The children were successful with their sledding but none have yet mastered the fine are of distance snowball throwing - lucky for us.

We floated for a little over an hour, taking in the variety of the sights below with a champagne drop to those lucky enough to be in our balloon. Jamie did a great job dodging obstacles and sprinting to hand us champagne while we were hovering above him.

After landing, Mary Ann, Pam, Holland and I headed for town block away. Later all of us met for lunch. It began to snow! It was wondrous. Major snow flakes just the size you would expect in the Alps in winter. We were all like children looking up and oohing at the white skies. Holland, Lee Anna and Pam braved the elements and, with the help of sleds made from hotel paraphernalia, went out and played in the freshly fallen snow. They built a snow woman, this time with perfect snow for snow people.

Mary Ann and I went to sleep. We were getting prepared, after our lunch, for dinner. For dinner, we all boarded the Previa vans, and drove at a slow, careful pace to the Café du Cerf restaurant in Rougemont. Luckily for Lee Anna, we were driving slowly because we accidentally left her behind. When there are eleven people, along with the pilots and some crew, it's most difficult to keep an accurate head count. Lee Anna was, however, able to hail our van from the street. Jean keenly spotted her and we stopped.

Alf stayed behind, on purpose. I suspect that he secretly hired a trainer to come to the hotel so that he could get the maximum out of a fast two hours of exercise. I feel the weight contest is close to being declared and Alf, gentleman that he is, is attempting to rig it so that I win! After a dinner of fondue, raclette and dessert, I think that I will have no problem tipping the scales at well above my Florida weight.

Hopefully the cheeses and breads breakfast I ordered for Alf for tomorrow is delivered as planned.

Monday, January 20, 1997

It's snowing! From the picture window at breakfast (never miss a meal), as I look out over the take off field, it doesn't look like we will be ballooning today. About three or more inches of snow is covering everything and there is a misty fog in the air. Two crew members are building a snowman as they wait for the pilot's briefing to end.

CurlingSo - today we go to Gstaad for lunch and a friendly game of curling. Curling is a cross between bowling (without the back) and shoes with numbers on the shuffleboard - played flattish on ice. The object of the game is to slide a bowling side ball with a metal handle in it to the colored circles on the other of the court - all without falling. It was great fun. the My team of Tim (from crew), Tim (the pilot), Pam and me came in second place. The other team came in first.

After a competitive game of curling, we went back to the hotel for a nap and, of course, dinner.

Tuesday, January 21, 1997 (Pam's Birthday To Remember)

The alarm went off at 6:30 a.m. I fully intended to go sledding with Holland and Pam but it was still very dark and cold. So, I went back to bed. The weather was undecided but Hermann was certain that we would fly today and he was right! We all climbed into our balloon baskets a little later than usual but were certainly not lacking enthusiasm. Alf, Jean, Hermann and I were flying with Michael today. We were in the smaller of the two balloons. Now I get to finally see the magnificence of Alf's newest balloon in the air. I must say that it is spectacular. The sun just beams off of the silver and gold colors.

We went on to balloon to an area of the Alps today where I had thought that only angels had clearance to fly. Words cannot do justice to explain the scenery that surrounded us. We saw snow covered mountains with summer homes sprinkled throughout, with snow up to or above their roof tops. Looking to a mountain top, Hermann pointed out chamois running around to the other side of the peak. I wonder how many humans were ever permitted the sights that we witnessed today. With every turn of the head, the view become more phenomenal. Many of the mountain tops looked like single islands surrounded by a sea of clouds, which they rose above. Even our landing was angelic. We floated from the sunny mountain tops, through the clouds, to a small sheep farm below. A perfect landing right beside the road.

It seems that, at this time, there was some concern about the landing and whereabouts of Lisa, Cindy, Mary Ann, Pam, Holland and their pilot, Tim. Denise was with our crew since she decided at the last minute before takeoff today to join them instead. We were concerned about the others because we had bits of information of what was happening with those from the other balloon but not an entirely clear picture.

It seems while we were worrying, they were having an adventure of their own. It was Pam's birthday and I guess that they wanted to give her one to remember. This group found it necessary to land their balloon in an area not easily accessible to their crew, so the passengers themselves crewed (somewhat) before leaving the balloon. This gave them a true appreciation for what the real crew really does daily.

PizzaTheir story goes ... As it began to get dark, the trusty seven secured the balloon and then slid, hiked and ran down a tractor trail, in the snow, to eventually catch a bus into Burr which took them to the station there where they waited for the rest of us. The balloon, on the other hand, spent the night in the Alps to be rescued in the morning.

When we once again became a total group of eleven passengers, at the station, this adventure was recalled to the non-participants. We then drove to a wonderful pizza place in Les Moulins, the Restaurant La Croix d'Or. Besides being Pam's birthday, this day was a memorable experience for all.

Wednesday, January 22, 1997

And on the seventh day they rested. The weather didn't allow us to fly today so we all got caught up on our sleep and, of course, ate. Once again we went to Rougemont for dinner and then back to Chateau d'Oex for karaoke night at the Hotel Richemont across the street. Denise, Lee Anna and a cast of crew members and pilots participated. While those at out table sat back, watched the organized insanity and, thanks to Hermann, sipped wonderful champagne.

Thursday, January 23, 1997

Today we were scheduled to fly high and long. And that is what we did. We were ballooning at about 10,000 feet, at times witnessing the most spectacular wonders of nature below. We were flying over the mountain peaks. The two balloons stayed pretty much together today. Over 2 ½ hours went by before the two balloons floated with the help of the trusty crew, nearly side by side, onto their trailers. A perfect landing and an equally perfect flight. Upon landing, we were greeted by a farmer, his son and an adorable black and white shetland pony, which wasn't much larger than my dog.

After a drive back to Chateau d'Oex, and of course naps, we met for a dinner. I fear that I am winning the weight gain contest. Maybe tomorrow I will skip dessert. Yeah, like that will ever happen.

Friday, January 24, 1997

This was the day that I literally flew with the angels. Michael, Cindy, Lee Anna, Alf, Jean, Hermann and I began our flight pretty much as usual. We rose to a comfortable height of about 10,000 feet, witnessing scenery reserved for balloonists and birds.

Alf, forever the true adventurer, asked Michael to get clearance to go even higher! We were now at 12,000 feet. The balloon passengers weren't all in total agreement to go higher but at this height there aren't many options. Physically getting down into the basket, as Lisa did, was about it. We rose to about 14,000 feet, which is just above ground level for angels when they first earn their wings. I truly realize that the possibility for bodily harm is really no greater at 14,000 feet than at 10,000 feet but I really feel better reserving this view to be seen from the window seat of an airplane.

This evening we were treated to a ballooning extravaganza. It is called "The Glow" and it is certainly something to behold. As darkness approached, about twenty balloon were positioned on the mountainside behind our hotel. A perfect view from our balcony. At about 7:00 p.m., when the skies were dark music began to play. The balloons burn or "glow" lighting at different intervals in time to the music. It was truly a thing of beauty. The grand finale included fireworks bursting above the balloons. A superbly orchestrated event.

Then off to the hotel across the street, the Richemond, for a dinner of mussels and fries. I had the pleasure of sitting beside Fred Barnes at dinner. Fred, along with Tim, Mike and Steve, is the fourth of the Bombard pilots at Chateau d'Oex. Although I have never ballooned with Fred, I know that he is exceptional. Not necessarily as a pilot, although he is that since Buddy demands a standard of excellence for each of his pilots. Fred and his wife are special because they open their hearts and home to children.

Saturday, January 25, 1997

It's surprising that we have been in Chateau d'Oex for over a week. It's true what they say: "Time sure does fly when you're having fun." The carnival atmosphere was in full swing again today. There was an array of costumed people, large and small, walking on and around the takeoff field. Two such people were Mike and Tim, the pilots of Alf's balloons.

We had a great flight today. At some points we moved slowly in the sky but Jean, Alf, Hermann and I, with Mike's skillful piloting, had the opportunity to fly down the valley and then catch the opposite winds to ride back up, while treating ourselves to an on-board picnic lunch.

This evening we had linner, which is a late lunch that doubles as dinner. I have heard of brunch (breakfast/lunch combo) so I am guessing that linner is the correct terminology for this meal. After linner, Pam and Holland stopped by our room for a visit. A little later, Lee Anna stopped by with Steve Trieber, another Bombard pilot. All that Steve wanted was two aspirin but (as Alf was so perceptive to notice) ended up in Mary Ann's bed. By way of explanation, Alf had joined the group by now and, for the peace of mind of Donn, Mary Ann's husband, Mary Ann was sitting on the floor. Steve did get his aspirin but was not permitted to leave without first answering at least twenty questions. After we found out Steve's life story, we allowed him to leave.

Sunday, January 26, 1997

At 1:30 in the morning I was awakened by Mary Ann smacking at me. Normally, because she is my sister, my first impulse would be to smack her back. Before I could react, however, she said "mouse!" Mary Ann was certain that she had a mouse in the closet. After tightly closing the closet door, I feel back to sleep, hoping it wasn't having babies in there.

Mary Ann said that she heard the mouse scratching on and off throughout the night. If there is a mouse in there, I will be breaking my "No roach, No rodent" rule, whereby I choose not to stay in a room with either. We aren't opening the closet door and, yes, we're wearing yesterday's clothes, thankful that we don't kept our clean underwear in the closet.

We named the mouse `Mr. Peepers'.

Our flight today was over three hours. We floated over the Chateau d'Oex area, looking down on a variety of special shape balloons. Some of these balloons might be difficult to imagine without actually seeing them - like the gigantic Scottish man playing bagpipes or the blue hand holding a cellular phone. After about two hours, Alf, Jean, Mary Ann, Holland, Pam and I decided that it was time to land. I must say that I feel that Alf wasn't 100% for this decision but he was a good sport and went along with the majority vote. As Mike attempted to land, however, Alf got his secret wish. The wind picked up so we ballooned for another hour seeking an appropriate landing site. While doing this, we were treated to sights of beautiful chalets, a glimpse of Gstaad and other fascinating scenery along the way. We finally landed softly in a snowy field.

We came back to the hotel tired and, of course, hungry. We ate another linner and then did whatever we chose. No one has yet seen Mr. Peepers but hotel management brought up a trap large enough to snare a bear with a hunk of cheese big enough for the entire Peeper extended family. We now think that he in not in the room but somewhere in the wall. Hopefully that is the case because if anything smaller that a poodle comes near this trap it will most likely end up headless.

Monday, January 27, 1997

(Alf:) The day started on a "calm" note. What I mean by that is that we had no idea that we were in for a bit of an adventure. The weather was quite "iffy" - in other words we were not going to take any chances with the air. Mike-the-pilot said that the flight would probably be a mere walk in the back yard - a no brainer up and down thing that might last 20 minutes - just enough time to grab a beer in the sky and take a snap or two of things that I'd already taken lots of snaps of (yuck - I'm ending on a preposition again - I need that Weaver woman to clean this up - after all, she was an English major). Whatever!

Anyway, after playing around in the air in our neighborhood for a short while we started to drift toward Saanen at a pedestrian pace. Every indication suggested that we'd have an uneventful cruise to or near Gstaad. Well, something funny happened. While we were at altitude (but not all that high) the local breeze sent us in a southerly direction - definitely not the way we wanted to go, as that way lay fog, mist and all sorts of stuff that made seeing anything very difficult. When we looked to our rear the sky looked just as bad. It was one of those situations when we wished we were on the ground.

It got worse.

We were above a cloud layer that was a couple of thousand feet thick. We could just see the peaks of mountains coming out of them. The sun was fast setting. We really did not have many options on our menu. To make matters worse, our radio contact with our chase crew was breaking up.

We were over an area that had no roads, so there was no way that our chase crew could reach us even if they knew exactly where we were. Below us were mountain slopes covered with snow, trees and patches of pastures that were inhabited by cows, but only in the summer. Fortunately, the herders who haunt the place in the summer have built a number of cabins that are available to stranded balloonists (and others) in the winter. They are stocked with fire wood and dry food. At this point it looked like our only option was to radio for a helicopter rescue (for the next day) and spend tonight in a cabin.

Mike decided to make another effort to get us over the ridge to an adjacent inhabited valley. Very slowly we crossed the ridge only to see that the valley was socked in. At this point, due to the setting sun, we had no choice but to go down. The cloud layer was a couple thousand feet thick. We descended at about 40 feet per minute ... keeping a close watch for power lines and other nasty things. About half way down we came to a clear area - but there was more white air below us - hey, we were a balloon sandwich. We started our descent through the bottom slice of the sandwich with some anxiety, for it was here that power lines and pointy things were a real risk.

And then we saw heaven: the ground with a road on it.

Tuesday, January 28, 1997

It was cloudy again today so, after the experience yesterday, we are all took part in an alternative experience. We went to eat at Piz Gloria, a revolving restaurant on the top Schilthorn. Not an everyday experience. The 007 movie, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" was filmed here. I continue to see sights that are beyond words and today was no exception.

We took four cable cars to get to the Schilthorn. Each one ascending higher up into the mountains. The view, as we traveled up to the restaurant became more and more spectacular. On the stop before boarding the fourth cable car, I looked up to see the Piz Gloria Restaurant in the far distance. The isolated, round glassed building looked like the desolate home of a creature from Star Wars.

It was a thrill to get to the top of the Schilthorn. As the restaurant slowly revolved around, we could get a constant view of mountain tops including a close look at the Eiger, Monch, and the Jungfrau.

The ride back to Chateau d'Oex found us less talkative and sleepy. Upon arriving back at the hotel, as can be expected, we first made dinner plans and then packed. Dinner was a unique experience. We ate at a special room at the Hotel Ermitage. Each table received a small grill along with an assortment of shrimp (with the heads still attached), veal, chicken and beef. We grilled our own meats. It was a new experience but honestly I prefer for someone else to do the cooking, along with taking the heads off of the shrimp.

We then said our good-byes to Hermann and the pilots. They all helped to make this adventure memorable.

Wednesday, January 29, 1997

8:00 a.m. and we are all off to the airport. All except Alf and Jean who have decided to stay on for another week. Alf's daughter, Annie, along with his son, David, and daughter-in-law, Adriana (remember David and Adriana from my last trip to Switzerland/Prague) will be joining them tomorrow evening.

It was such a wonderful two weeks. I had many new and fascinating experiences, saw unbelievable sights, met a variety of people and had the pleasure of enjoying the company of my sister along with old and new friends. This will certainly become a memorable chapter in my book of life.

As the adventure comes to a close, I am on the plane headed back to reality. I reluctantly exit the fairy tale but am looking forward to seeing my family again.

Next: Alf's Trip Continues

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