Balloon festival stays aloft despite snow

Preparing to launch a hot-air version of Vincent von Gogh swissinfo.ch

The annual balloon festival in Château-d’Oex is considered one of the top international events of its kind, attracting pilots from more than 20 countries.

This content was published on January 29, 2004 - 09:24

And even when inclement weather grounds the balloons, the mood in the alpine village in canton Vaud is far from deflated.

After clear skies at the beginning of the nine-day festival, heavy snowfall has grounded the balloons and dashed hopes of an improvement in the weather before the last couple of days.

It’s not good news for the pilots who have gathered for a mid-week morning briefing.

Experienced British pilot Peter Mason refuses to let the forecast bring him down. “There are some years we fly all nine days,” he says. “We often wish it would snow one day to have time off to go skiing!”

Rolled up newspaper

Mason, who flies a rolled up “Financial Times” newspaper during the special-shaped balloon event, believes the Chateau-d’Oex festival deserves to be in the headlines.

“It’s probably the finest alpine ballooning anywhere and it’s one of the pre-eminent balloon meets in the world,” he enthuses.

“There are others that are bigger and attract more balloon pilots or balloons but this is very special.”

Before he rounds up a few other balloonists for a day on the ski slopes, the man who has ballooned in the Himalayas making an unsuccessful attempt to fly over Mount Everest, continues his praise of Château-d’Oex:

Microclimate

“It’s a wonderful place to fly. You have a microclimate within the valley of Château-d’Oex which enables you to fly in clear conditions when the rest of Switzerland might be under cloud or even snow.”

“The first thing that makes it unusual is that it’s in wintertime,” says one of the festival organisers, Patrick Kearley.

He says a long distance competition (using traditional hot-air balloons) is one of the most popular events in the festival.

Kearley says a pilot in the early 1980s flew nearly all the way to Venice, about 350 kilometres as the balloon flies from Château-d’Oex.

Long-distance

The record was broken two years ago when a German pilot caught the right wind and sailed in the direction of home, landing in a Munich suburb, 396 kilometres away.

“Every flight is completely different,” says Kearley. “Either the weather is different, or the wind is different or the landing, and this is one of the great attractions of ballooning.”

Kearley quite literally dropped in on a local farmer last year while taking a few friends for a flight.

While they waited for their “chase vehicle” to retrieve them, the farmer invited them in for breakfast: “homemade cheese, jam, special double cream and lots of coffee and fresh milk!” laughs Kearley.

Japanese partnership

Thanks to Kearley, the festival organisers have this year signed a “twinning” agreement with a large ballooning event in Saga, Japan – one of the most popular in the world.

Whereas Château-d’Oex attracts tens of thousands of spectators each year, hundreds of thousands flock to the Saga International Balloon Fiesta, where the emphasis is on competition.

“Saga is mostly for competitions and the national championship,” says Hiroshi Mizumachi, chairman of the Japanese festival, who has come to check out ballooning in Château-d’Oex.

“But Patrick [Kearley] told us that while there is nothing wrong with competitions, there are other ways of enjoying ballooning so we thought it would be a good idea to see for ourselves.”

“Not many Japanese balloonists participate in this kind of event [like in Château-d’Oex],” agrees Sabu Ichiyoshi.

“This is designed more for fun.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Château-d’Oex

In brief

Pilots from 20 countries have brought more than 130 balloons to the Château-d’Oex festival.

In its 26th year, the festival is one of the few events of its kind to be held in winter.

Festival highlights are group launches, specially shaped balloons and a long-distance competition.

Passenger rides are also available to the public.

Château-d’Oex hit the headlines in March, 1999 when Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones lifted off from the alpine resort to become the first to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in a balloon.

The nine-day festival ends on February 1.

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