In the Sierra Nevada

July 7, 2001

"In the mountains, there you feel free."

-- T.S. Eliot

In July 2001 I had an opportunity to go cluster ballooning with the sponsorship of the AIMS Education Foundation, to appear in a video they were developing to teach children about the math and science concepts involved in ballooning.  Because they wanted a scenic  flying location for their video, I suggested that we fly from Donner Lake, in the Sierra Nevada mountains north of Lake Tahoe.

Ernie Hartt, Jenny Wolf and Jerry Sebby joined me from San Diego.  My friend, local balloonist Ray Shady, was recruited to follow me with a cameraman in his hot-air balloon.  Two other balloonists, Stan Robertson and Don Morgan, advised me on local conditions, and volunteered to bring a number of other crew to assist with the inflation.

The weather was overcast on the morning of the flight, with thunderstorms reported to the south.  The conditions were not ideal, but with twenty crew volunteers, the helium, the cameramen and the equipment all somehow miraculously there at 4 AM, I really didn't want to reschedule unless I had to. 

We began inflatiing the balloons.  The inflation went rapidly with the new manifold system Jerry had built.

There were occasional gusts of wind down the canyon from Donner Pass.  Such drainage winds would be normal in a setting like this, but in light of the other conditions, it made me a bit nervous.

At dawn, I got into my harness and the crew began attaching balloons to me.

Soon I was lighter than air, my toes just brushing the ground, held down only by a couple of sandbags.  The crew walked me forward to my take-off spot by the lake.

When I was in position at my take-off spot, the wind gusted up again.  My balloons were suddenly bouncing wildly, leaning way out in front of me, almost on touching the ground.  Several people had to hold me down to keep me from being carried away.

I asked Stan to call the FAA for weather conditions again.  Conditions were calm at both the Truckee airport and over the mountains in Reno.  So the winds we were experiencing here were just normal drainage winds coming down from Donner Pass -- or so I hoped.

Finally, there was a lull in the wind.  I called Ray on the radio and told him to launch his hot-air balloon.  As soon as he cleared the trees, he was moving out at a good clip.  When he had passed over me, I had crew undo my quick-release. My feet left the ground, and a moment later I was over the lake.

As I accelerated up to windspeed, I began to lose some of the false lift from the wind at launch, and started descending toward the lake.  I pulled up my legs. With no time for my normal careful release of ballast, I chucked an entire ballast bag into the water. 

My descent bottomed out a few feet over the water, and I began to rise over the lake again.

Donner Lake and the surrounding mountains were beautiful from the air.  The wind took me east along the south side of Donner Lake. 


Beyond the lake were more wooded mountainsides. I flew over the Tahoe-Donner ski area. 

To the northeast I could see the Prosser, Stampede and Boca reservoirs.  Off in the distance I could see darker clouds, trailing dark streaks of rain.

The mountains were awesome: huge and dark green with trees under the grey sky.   I kept ascending, until I was about a mile above the ground. 

Unfortunately, the wind direction was not what I was hoping for -- instead of going northeast over the mountains towards the open areas north of Reno, I was headed more toward the south side of the city; my track would also take me through a flight restriction area that was still in effect from a recent fire.  So, I told crew I would be landing in the Truckee area rather than going on to Reno.  I burst some balloons to start a slow descent. 

I dropped in over the forested foothills south of Truckee.  As I descended I headed south, then picked up a wind taking me northeast to the Truckee airport.  I watched a few commuter jets take off and land -- to my relief, winds on the surface looked calm.

East of the airport was a lightly wooded area.  I dropped some ballast to level out.  It was very peaceful, floating over the tops of the pine trees.

When crew arrived, I threw down a dropline and they walked me out to the road.

I got out of the harness, and everyone who wanted to got to fly on tether.

Then we deflated the balloons and put them away to fly again.   The wind stayed calm, so I guess the winds out at Donner Lake really were just drainage winds coming down the pass!


Someday I hope to fly from Donner Lake again, on a clear sunny day with no wind on the ground and brisk winds aloft to take me over the mountains to a nice landing spot north of Reno.   However, I'll never forget my first flight in the mountains: that moment standing at the edge of the lake, the blood shaking my heart, my sixty-four blue and yellow balloons bouncing and straining in the breeze, ready to sweep me off into the windy grey sky.

Celebration VIII

Crew Chief: Ernie Hartt
Chief Engineer : Jerry Sebby, il miglior fabbro
Chase Balloon Pilot: Ray Shady

Suzy Gazlay
Vicky Kolbet
John LaVan
Bob McNeil
Brooke McNeil
Patti McWherter
Don Morgan
Kelsey Rivara

Mary Rivara
Tony Rivara
Stan Robertson
Bill Strand
Connie Strand
Barry Varischetti
Jan Varischetti
Josh Varischetti

Justin Varischetti
Geri Warkentin
Andy White
Tess White
Jim Wilson
Jenny Wolf
Brook Yancey

Videography: Alden Poetker, John Warkentin, Johann Weber
Special Thanks to the the AIMS Education Foundation, Truckee-Donner Parks and Recreation Department and Sierra Welding.
Photographs by Suzy Gazlay, Jerry Sebby and Jenny Wolf.

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