NEAR SPACE BALLOONING - STRATOSPHERIC PHOTOGRAPHY

MISSIONS

► LAUNCH 8 & 9 : COLORADO

LAUNCH 8
DATE: Friday, April 18, 2014
LAUNCH: 6:30 AM MST, Eldora, CO [ 39.93958, -105.57677 ]
WEIGHT: 5 lb 7oz (including chute, lines, and radar reflector)
ALTITUDE: 76,354 feet [ 39.2695, -104.92509 ]
BURST: 7:45 AM MST [ 39.27002, -104.9243 ]
LANDING: 8:13 AM MST, Black Forest, CO [ 38.99846, -104.72778 ]
TOP SPEED: 95 mph, 153 kph
TEMPS: High: 55 F (12.8 C), Low: -12.64 F (-24.8 C)
DURATION: 1 hour, 43 minutes
DISTANCE: 79 miles
LAUNCH 9
DATE: Sunday, April 20, 2014
LAUNCH: 6:15 AM MST, Penitente Canyon, CO [ 37.84041, -106.28555 ]
WEIGHT: 5 lb 15oz (including chute, lines, and radar reflector)
ALTITUDE: 111,279 feet [ 37.82311, -105.08707 ]
BURST: 7:40 AM MST [ 37.82375, -105.0872 ]
LANDING: 8:56 AM MST, Walsenburg, CO [ 37.7803, -104.74683 ]
TOP SPEED: 100 mph, 162 kph
TEMPS: High: 51.8 F (11 C), Low: -11.74 F (-24.3 C)
DURATION: 2 hours, 41 minutes
DISTANCE: 84 miles


THE STORYEQUIPMENTMAPS & DATAPHOTOSVIDEOLESSONS LEARNEDCOMMENTS


► THE STORY

Click to view largerThe Global Space Balloon Challenge was the first ever competition of its kind and signified the growing popularity of high altitude ballooning. Sponsored by Stanford, MIT, and the University of Michigan, and with a panel of industry judges, including engineers from Google, the contest offered prizes for highest altitude, best photograph, payload design, and experiment. Open not only to students and educators, but also hobby groups and individuals, I signed up the second I heard about it.

Weather permitting, contestants were to launch their balloons over a four day window in late April. As the start date approached, the organizers, communicating via e-mail and Facebook, seemed surprised by the popular response. The reputation of the institutions involved surely played a role. In North America competitors hailed from as far afield as Hawaii and Alaska to Ontario, Canada and the Yucatan in Mexico; in South America from Columbia to Brazil; in Europe from Norway to Ireland, Spain to Russia; in Africa from Casablanca to Johannesburg; and in Asia from India to Hong Kong to Sydney. In all some 100 teams were set to compete.

To stand any chance in the best photograph category, something extraordinary was called for. I'd attempt two launches, each with a different set of cameras, on different days, and from different locations. Success meant careful planning, but also luck. And if I pulled it off, from the thousands of resulting photos only three could be submitted for judging. As usual, the next question was where?

Planning

Ever since Launch 6, when the payload unexpectedly fell to earth 9,000 feet up in the mountains of south-western Colorado, I'd been intrigued with the idea of launching a balloon over the Rockies. The eastern half of the state consists of treeless high plains, making for a perfect landing zone. With easterly winds, a balloon launched from the center of Colorado was assured a flight over the High Country and landfall out on the range.

Based in Denver, Edge of Space Sciences (EOSS) is one of the most active, well organized and experienced high altitude ballooning groups in the U.S., but in a hundred and fifty launches dating back to 1990 they had never once purposely flown over the Rocky Mountains, instead sending all their balloons up over the sparsely settled eastern plains -- and for good reason. With a string of cities and suburbs sprawling north to south along most of the Front Range, where the plains meet the mountains, it's a challenge finding a balloon flight trajectory over the population centers that simultaneously dodges the airspace around Denver International, the eleventh busiest airport in the world, and the military operations in Colorado Springs, home of the Air Force Academy, an airport, the Army's expansive Fort Carson, Peterson Airbase, and Schriever Airbase -- main control point for the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Pouring over topographical maps, satellite imagery, and aeronautical charts I formulated several narrow flight paths: the first from Granby, over Rocky Mountain National Park, above Longmont, and out to the plains beyond; the second from Breckenridge, brushing by Mt. Evans, and out across Castle Rock; and the third, with views of Pike's Peak, between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Further south possibilities extended all the way to New Mexico, but a lack of road access out across the plains would make any recovery difficult. There was no telling which trajectory would work until just a few days before launch, when the weather forecasts were most accurate, but in any case winds had to be travelling east.

To track and recover past launches I had always relied on a Spot GPS device. The product was meant for outdoor adventurers, but had been co-opted by high altitude balloonists, and played a central role in making the hobby more accessible. None-the-less, relying on it was becoming frustrating due to the lack of real-time web-based updates and hour-long spans when no signal came in at all. With each new flight I'd been risking more and more equipment, making every venture an increasingly hair raising ordeal. To mitigate the anxiety I purchased a radio tracking device that used the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS), which could provide near real-time positions at any altitude throughout the flight, but with the Challenge fast approaching there was no time to take the exam required to be licensed by the FCC to use it. Once again, I'd have to rely on the Spot GPS.

Having secured a couple of 220cf helium cylinders and constructed two payload boxes out of styrofoam seafood coolers, I thoroughly tested each of the eight different cameras I'd be using. With everything prepped, four days before the start of the contest I packed up my car and headed west, a thousand miles of America lay ahead.

Wisconsin to Colorado

The corn fields start just outside Milwaukee and continue almost uninterrupted for seven hundred miles, petering out in western Nebraska, the Cornhusker State. Near Ronald Reagan's birthplace in Dixon, Illinois the fields were still stubbled with the remnants of last year's crop. After crossing the Mississippi River at Davenport I stopped for gas in Walcott at the Iowa 80 Truckstop, which billed itself as the world's largest, though it's hard to say if the signs for it weren't bigger than the facility itself.

Interstate 80 is one of the nation's major transport arteries, beginning near the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey and coming to a halt in the South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco. Across Iowa the road was crowded with flatbeds hauling enormous farm machines, over-sized trucks carrying wind turbine parts, and military vehicles loaded with humvees and mobile artillery. At the truckstop two passenger buses disgorged dozens of fresh-faced army recruits. Clad in combat fatigues, they mustered inside at the Dairy Queen, Wendy's, and Taco Bell counters.

In spite of the cold spring patches of green appeared along the highway. A few farmers were already out fertilizing their fields with anhydrous ammonia. East of Iowa City I drove by Herbert Hoover's birthplace and further west the historic Amana Colonies. Every billboard along this stretch seemed to alternate with instructions to the next adult super store or a message directing motorists to Christ.

Just past Des Moines, a tidy looking capital, I passed the exit to Winterset, John Wayne's hometown. Between Des Moines and Omaha the rolling hills along I-80 were peppered with giant wind turbines, part of the vast Adair wind farm. Iowa generates fully 25% of its power through wind, a greater share than any other U.S. state. Scanning the radio dial here it wasn't hard to find several stations carrying classical music.

Click to view largerOmaha came and went, the view from I-80 leaving a poor impression of what seemed like another low-rise, sprawl-ridden city. By early evening, bleary-eyed, I called it quits in Grand Island, which really was something of an isle of civilization in this ocean of agriculture. The clerk at the hotel exclaimed with some relief that the last snow had finally melted just days before.

Morning brought the sour smell of freshly spread liquefied cow manure drifting in from nearby farms. I checked the weather forecast. For the next few days south-easterlies were predicted over the Colorado Front Range. I hadn't calculated for that. Short of west winds, it couldn't be worse. Crouched in front of a laptop, I experimented with new trajectories using prediction tools online. Fortunately, at high altitude there was an easterly, which could carry a balloon a short distance out over the plains so long as liftoff wasn't too far west into the mountains. In the end the only workable launch site was around Nederland, a mountain hamlet 8,200 feet up in the foothills, fourteen miles west of Boulder. If the forecast held, a flight from Nederland would skirt south along the Front Range, jog east under Denver in the high altitude winds, and continue down over the plains near Elbert, north-east of Colorado Springs, far from any airport. With a plan in place, I headed out.

From Grand Island I-80 follows the Platte River west to Ogallala, for which the depleted aquifer under-girding much of Nebraska is named. In satellite pictures the area looks like a strange game board covered in huge green circles, the result of center-pivot crop irrigation, but from the ground the shapes are un-seeable, the only clue being the spindly, long metal irrigation arms set on wheels and affixed to the center of each field. A train slowly chugged east carrying coal. Road signs advertised pioneer museums and a historic Pony Express stop. Corn gave way to hay, and herds of Blank Angus dotted the pancake flat fields. At North Platte a fringe of the great Sand Hills came into view and with it small quarries, the sand likely destined for fracking operations. A mileage sign for Denver and Cheyenne, Wyoming appeared. I had entered more than just Mountain Time Zone, this was The West.

Click to view largerJust past Ogallala I-76 branches off I-80 and digs into Colorado. The last trees disappeared, giving way to sage covered range, and strong winds sent tumble weed rolling across the road. If corn was a cliché in Iowa and Nebraska, here was another. I dodged one, but hit another square on. Thirty-eight miles east of Hudson, coming over a rise I entered big sky country, the Rockies visible in the distance above a barren landscape, Denver completely hidden, tucked into a large fold in the plains. Huge, stinky feedlots with thousands of cows milling about sat right next to the interstate. Across the horizon gas pumps pecked up and down at well heads like flocks of birds tapping at scattered seed. Near Fort Lupton I came within inches of hitting a coyote.

Colorado is known for being politically purple. Some of the counties I was driving through had recently voted to form their own state, but by mid-afternoon, arriving in Boulder, cowboy hats and pickup trucks were replaced by bike helmets and hybrid cars, the gas fields and feedlots with research parks and the University of Colorado campus. Formally a counter-culture mecca, today Boulder is lamented to be home to more retirees, yuppies, and trust funders than hippies.

Click to view largerMy first stop was Mike's Camera shop. At the counter a CU student was giving the cashier his home address: Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Welcome to Colorado, I thought, home to the Upper Midwest. Much like Alaska, the state is crowded with transplanted Midwesterners. Errand complete, I drove over to the Boulder Outlook, an eclectic hotel just off campus, where despite some recent improvements it still seemed like stepping into the 1970s. Loud, live blues music pulsed from a stage in the restaurant. I unpacked, and then dashed off to nearby Chautauqua Park. From the end of a muddy trail fourteen-hundred feet up in the Flatirons, I watched two climbers on fixed ropes ascend the flat-faced rock formation.

The next morning I headed over to Flatiron Subaru to have my wheels balanced. In Colorado the state flower is the columbine and the bighorn sheep the animal; the all-wheel drive Subaru may as well be the official car. A worn-looking Outback clad with a bike or ski rack is a common sight around Boulder, followed in close second by the Toyota Prius; though occasionally you might spot a bearded figure in a mud covered Jeep coming down from the mountains.

Click to view largerLate in 2013 a thousand year flood had hit the area. The winding route up to Nederland, which follows Boulder Creek along a narrow canyon, had been partly destroyed. Now, months later, repairs to the park and paths along the creek were still ongoing, but the road itself had been fully restored. At first glance Nederland looks like a hard scrabble, gritty mountain town, but on second look, reveals itself to be a slower-paced extension of Boulder, with a similar mix of Left Coast, outdoor sport, and Old West, though the cost of living is undoubtedly lower. Next door to the police station was a yoga studio and near a livestock feed supplier an outdoors store. In front of the visitor center a white-bearded man in black sunglasses puffed on some product from a dispensary across the street. I ate lunch at a Nepalese restaurant, scoped out a launch site for the next morning, then checked into the only hotel in town. The overall weather forecast remained the same, though a strong breeze was predicted for the early hours, but I didn't give it much thought. I asked the hotel clerk to set a wakeup-call for 4 a.m.

Launch 1

The Eldora Mountain Resort sits just below the Indian Peaks Wilderness four and a half miles west of Nederland, at an altitude of 9,200 feet. In some years, the ski season is over by late April, but this wasn't one of them. The previous afternoon, when I'd come up to scout it out, three inches of fresh snow on the slopes covered a six foot base. The main parking lot was nearly full, but the long, narrow north lot, which was shielded by trees, wasn't in use and seemed like an ideal place to launch a weather balloon.

At 4:30 a.m. I headed up the twisty road to Eldora. Far below the lights of Boulder twinkled in the dark. Overnight the wind had blown snow across the road, which in places was half a foot deep. From inside my cozy, warm car the north lot appeared quiet and calm. At the east end a pair of large garbage containers formed a wind break. I parked behind them using my car to make another shield. It was 36 degrees. The sky was cloudless, black, and filled with stars. I laid out a tarp on the icy, snow covered ground, and weighed down each side with various objects, using one of the 100lb helium cylinders at one end. With great care, I rolled out the delicate latex balloon on the tarp and connected the filler hose to the neck, the other end to the cylinder, and began inflation. The sound of hissing gas filled the air.

A minute later a blast of wind barreled down the ski slopes ruffling the balloon. I leapt to one side, trying to prevent it from flopping around with my hands. Another gust and several objects holding the tarp down slid off. The wind increased, kicking up flurries of snow from the ground. Soon the huge tarp was wrapping itself around my legs. I scrambled to put everything back in place. In such situations it's common to cover the balloon with a second tarp, weighed down heavily, forming an envelope, but it was too late now. With the half-full balloon acting like a sail, every gust whipped it sideways and it took all I had to hold on. After half an hour the helium cylinder was nearly empty, but everything needed to finish the job lay scattered or tangled in piles.

The balloon finally full, the trickiest part came next: removing the filler hose and folding up the neck and tying it off. Usually, the procedure takes just a few minutes, but in these conditions the task looked daunting. I squatted on the helium cylinder and pulled the giant balloon down close to the ground. It tugged back, wanting to be free. I tied a length of rope tightly around the neck and looped the other end around the valve on the cylinder. Then, gripping the balloon neck in one hand, I loosened the filler hose with the other and yanked it out. The balloon was anchored again, but I feared the winds whipping it around might snap the tether at any moment. Now the neck had to be folded up to form a loop through which the line connecting the payload stack (box, radar reflector, and parachute) would go. A blast of wind caught the balloon square on and dragged me riding the helium cylinder four-feet across the slippery ground. I fought back, clutching the neck, and managed to regroup. I pulled off my gloves and waited for a lull.

With a fistful of zip ties in my mouth and lengths of rope dangling around my neck, I tried to fold up the neck and tie it off. In the cold, the plastic zip ties kept breaking and every half minute another gust came along, catching the balloon and towing me around. I'd seen videos of the weather service launching balloons in high winds, but until now had never experienced it myself. Sitting there, crouched low, riding it out, I wondered if I shouldn't just give up.

Click to view largerThe latex balloon proved surprisingly resilient, stretching into long oblong shapes and snapping back when the wind let go. Somehow, after what seemed like hours, I managed to get the neck loop tied off. A line of rope finally connected the balloon with the stack. Both hands now free, I coiled the line around my leg to keep the balloon low, pulled the payload box near, and started switching on the gear. It took another ten minutes before the flight computer, Spot GPS device, and all four cameras were running and the box was sealed. My hands bled from small cracks opened by the cold. The time was 6:30 a.m. It was light out. The whole process had taken twice as long as normal. In a state of disbelief, I released the balloon. In an instant all the drama vanished, replaced by a tranquil morning scene. It had been the hardest launch to date. As the sun poked up over the Front Range the winds abated. I packed up, the balloon no longer visible in the sky. Leaving Eldora, a parade of Subarus snaked up the road to the resort; employees heading in for work.

The Chase

I took it fast down the mountains on the Peak to Peak highway, following the slalom like road through twisting turns and tunnels. On my lap sat an iPad with the Spot GPS website open, keeping me abreast of the latest balloon positions. It took an hour to reach Interstate 70. Several signals had come in. The balloon had crossed I-70 near Idaho Springs and was presently over Pine, still above the foothills. So far, it appeared to be following the predicted course.

The interstate exited the hills just south of Golden, the home of Coors, where I got on Highway 470. The plan was to head to Elbert, some sixty-miles away, and wait for the Spot signals to indicate a landing. By the Chatfield Lake Reservoir in Columbine, I ran head long into bumper to bumper traffic. Given how and where I'd started the day, it was something of a surreal experience sitting there, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, surrounded by commuters in a rush to the office, while I had a completely different goal.

I checked the Spot GPS webpage. The balloon was between Centennial and Castle Rock. It had shifted east in the high altitude winds, exactly as forecast. Traffic moved frustratingly slow. The Spot was quiet. A half hour passed. I neared the junction with I-25. A new signal. To my horror it appeared over the heart of Black Forest, a bedroom community just north-east of Colorado Springs. Not only was this miles west of the prediction, Black Forest was, as the name suggests, heavily wooded, in fact it's the only forested area on the plains along the entire Front Range. The worst forest fire in state history had just devastated the area a year earlier. But there was no telling if the balloon had landed there or was still on the way down. Both Peterson Air Force Base and the Colorado Springs Airport were in a straight line just twelve miles to the south. I wondered what had gone wrong, but without real-time data, could only speculate. Once again, relying on the Spot GPS was becoming another angst ridden experience.

I caught the exit to I-25 just in time. It was a forty minute drive to Black Forest. The speed limit in Colorado is 75 mph, and I made short shrift of the distance, passing everyone in the fast lane. Another signal appeared, again over Black Forest, shifted slightly from the last. I started to relax. It seemed likely the payload had landed, but it would take a few more signals before I was certain. Ten minutes later another signal, the same place. The payload had come down in a cluster of pine trees next to a driveway, just a few yards off Burgess Road. The fire department was located only a mile and a half to the east on the very same road. If the payload was dangling from the parachute high up a tree, it shouldn't be difficult to convince them to come out with a ladder truck.

The Recovery

I exited I-25 at the Air Force Academy, where the football stadium and winged-shaped Cadet Chapel occupied the high ground. On the opposite side of the interstate stood the largest mega church I'd ever seen. God and Country.

Following directions on a smart phone, I quickly found my way through Black Forest and onto Burgess Road. Stands of Ponderosa Pine and Douglas-fir stood interspersed amidst tidy homes and small hobby farms with horse pastures. The forest fire had destroyed more than five-hundred houses here, and it wasn't difficult to see how.

Click to view largerI parked on the shoulder by the landing site; to the west a view of a snow-covered Pike's Peak under a strong blue sky. A four foot tall wooden fence marked the property line, but had collapsed to the ground in front of the place where the payload should be. I stepped over it. The box sat upright on the ground, completely hidden from the road, and surrounded by six tall pines. Somehow the parachute had missed all the branches. I didn't need to hike miles through the woods, knock on strangers' doors, or scale a forty-foot tree. Recovery was as simple as exiting my car and walking ten paces. Once again, I'd been incredibly lucky.

The Aftermath

An examination of the Eagle Flight Computer logs revealed what went wrong. Peak altitude was only 76,354 feet, as high as a U2 spy plane, but by weather balloon standards fairly meager. I knew from experience that the balloon contained the right amount of helium. But if not that, then what? I recalled the launch. Wind had whipped up snow from the ground and moisture likely coated the balloon. A short time after launch it would have frozen, adding weight and preventing the balloon from achieving its true potential. That or perhaps the wind stress had weakened the balloon. In either case, because it didn't get very high before bursting, the high altitude easterlies had less time to push it along, explaining the twenty mile shortfall.

Launch 2

With one successful flight under my belt, thousands of photos in the can, and a feeling of confidence, the previous plans suddenly seemed to lack challenge. East winds were forecast for several days, opening up many possibilities. But it had only been with luck that I'd escaped a complicated recovery in a populous, wooded area. A second launch with a landfall anywhere near a city seemed like pushing it too far. I looked to the south.

In Colorado there are two large, high altitude basins, the South Park, west of Colorado Springs, and overlapping New Mexico, the enormous San Luis Valley. Several rivers flow through the San Luis permitting extensive irrigation. The valley floor is a mottled carpet of round, center-pivot irrigated fields, forming interesting patterns from the air; the densest concentration of such farms in the state. The San Juan mountains sit on the west side of the valley, and to the east the 14,000 foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristos. In a pocket along the western flanks of this range, valley sands have collected over the millennia creating the tallest dune field in North America, what is today the Great Sand Dune National Park. Further east, a narrow valley divides the Sangre de Cristos from the Wet Mountains, and to the south, separated at 9,400 feet by La Veta Pass, the range continues into New Mexico. Beyond the pass, only the small town of Walsenburg interrupts the wide open plains. Not only did models show east winds strong enough to carry a balloon well over the Sangre de Cristo Range, a launch far on the west side of the San Luis Valley was possible with a landfall still well past Walsenburg. Between the mountain ranges, views of the valley, and the opportunity to fly over a national park, I couldn't resist. Getting there would take me hundreds of miles deeper into the state.

Black Forest to Monte Vista

Travelling south on I-25 from Colorado Springs toward Pueblo, the scenery was marred by industrial sprawl lining the highway. A sign for Albuquerque appeared: 355 miles. I tried the radio. While there was no deficit in Spanish language or religious programming, NPR remained elusive. The exit to nearby Florence flashed by, the home of Ted Kaczynski, along with many other nasty characters at the Federal "supermax" Prison.

Entering Pueblo through a thicket of billboards advertising nearly every national chain was a familiar experience, but set against distant snow-capped peaks rising above rolling plains and low mesas, the contrast and disconnect from the natural surroundings couldn't have been greater. A railway line threaded through Pueblo, and a gigantic steel mill occupied the south end of town. Leaving the place behind was like bidding farewell to the popular stereotypes of Colorado and stepping into the Southwest. When it seemed the landscape couldn't possibly become more arid, it did. Despite a balmy 61 degrees, the bright sun made it feel much hotter.

Forty minutes later I exited onto the Highway of Legends Scenic Byway in Walsenburg, a place easily mistakable for a Route 66 town. Downtown, neon signage decorated a few Art Deco buildings including a pristine, old movie theater. Two blocks away an insurance agent occupied the former home of Robert Ford, assassin of Jesse James. Locals seemed to busy themselves in diverse ways. I counted two antiques shops, a bookstore, pawn shop, knitting store, and a gun dealer. There were few empty store fronts; the nearest Wal-mart was forty miles away. I didn't know it then, but a few days later some local Walsenburg institutions would prove very helpful.

Click to view largerHeading up La Veta Pass, the majestic, twin Las Cumbres Españolas, or Spanish Peaks, dominated the view south, looming over swaths of forest and pasture land. On the other side of the pass in the San Luis Valley the snow covered Sierra Blanca Massif rose dramatically from the valley floor, its highest point Blanca Peak--at well over 14,000 feet, it's the 8th highest point in the Lower 48. A ring of snow covered mountains formed the horizon, the San Juans, easily discernable fifty miles away. Two-hundred years earlier this entire area had been a part of New Spain, and it was here that the U.S. first butted heads with the Spanish over the possession. I passed the turn-off to the Great Sand Dunes and crossed a remnant of the Old Spanish Trail. Sage brush dotted the sandy soil. Around here cattle probably outnumbered people. By tiny Fort Garland a mileage sign revealed that Taos, New Mexico was just 78 miles south. Reflecting back, the trip through Iowa and Nebraska now felt like years ago.

The largest communities in the San Luis Valley are Alamosa and further west Monte Vista. I was heading for the latter. Both serve as agricultural hubs and share an appearance similar to Walsenburg. In Alamosa tall cottonwoods crowded the banks of the Rio Grande River, but had yet to leaf out, instilling a sense of lifelessness to the town.

The Best Western Movie Manor outside Monte Vista was the most bizarre motel I've ever stayed at. Built-in the mid-60s, and changed little since, the motel consists of two wings, each facing a separate drive-in movie screen. It's the only one of its kind in the world. The desk clerk handed me keys to the Al Pacino "suite". Embedded in the wall was a volume dial and speakers. A large window provided views of both screens. The evening's program included a cartoon featuring Mr. Peabody and simultaneously on the other side, an Angela Jolie flick.

Too exhausted to attempt another launch early the next morning, instead I planned to wait until later in the day. If the skies were clear, I could try an afternoon launch culminating at sunset, something I'd only done twice before. It would allow plenty of time to scout out a launch site.

In the morning at the Monte Vista Carnegie Library, I observed a group of Amish women in ankle-length skirts and black bonnets. Several dozen Amish families had recently settled in the valley. Not having to pay social security tax, they were able to under-bid local contractors on some jobs, and judging by press reports a little resentment had developed.

Potato farming is big business around Monte Vista. That afternoon on the way out of town I passed an implement dealer, seed supplier, and several storehouses. I was heading to Penitente Canyon, a spot of BLM land twenty-miles away on the north-west side of the San Luis Valley at the edge of the Rio Grande National Forest. According to flight predictions, only a launch from that latitude was assured a trip over the Great Sand Dunes.

Click to view largerThe mouth of Penitente Canyon sits at the end of a deeply rutted dirt road just past the last of the giant center-pivot fields covering the area. Ending at a dusty parking lot in a small cul-de-sac, surrounded by low stone cliffs, the only other visitors were a mountain biker and two young women with large packs heading on foot into the canyon, accompanied by a dog. An interpretive sign included a trail map and warned of rattle snakes. Nearby, centuries-old pictographs covered a rock wall. The name Penitente comes from a historically reclusive Catholic Brotherhood comprised of Spanish and Indian men, Los Hermanos Penitente, who had sought out a place of isolation for their spiritual practices. Curious, I followed a path into the canyon.

Click to view largerChokecherry bushes, pinion pine, and aspen lined the trail. The cliffs and hoodoo rock formations grew taller and taller, reminding me of scenes from the Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock. High up a cliff face, a figure caught my eye. It was one of the women, harnessed to a rope, climbing; her partner far below, belaying. I hadn't known it, but Penitente Canyon is an international rock climbing mecca. All over the cliffs metal rope anchors studded the rock and white blotches marked the routes climbers have taken, their hands dusted with chalk.

Above the parking a lot a large campground offered dozens of sites, all empty. Any of the flat spaces, sheltered by pinions, could make a fine launch site. But would skies remain clear into the evening? Clouds were already moving in. Worried, I flipped on the iPad and tried getting online. No signal. With little alternative, I hopped in the car and drove a ways. Just beyond the canyon a small red-roof church stood alone atop a rise: La Capilla de San Juan Bautista. I parked beside it. From here one could survey much of the San Luis Valley. On the opposite side, the small town of Crestone nuzzles up against the Sangre de Cristos. Isolated and set amidst natural splendor, much as Penitente Canyon did in the 19th century, today the place attracts modern day seekers, and is home to Tibetan lamas, Zen Buddhist monks, Hindu devotees, and Carmelite Monastics. Retreats, institutes, and foundations, some affiliated with obscure Eastern traditions, form a sort of industry--an Episcopal and Baptist church round out the mix.

I got online. The current forecast had changed to partly cloudy, but the morning hours looked completely clear, meaning another early start. On the way back to Monte Vista I took a side-trip through the Rio Grande National Forest on a network of dirt roads. The Forest Service signs were riddled with bullet holes. Back in remote canyons, a smattering of people lived off the grid in cabins, solar panels arrayed out front and outhouses in the rear; modern technology permitting a foot in the past.

America: it's not what you see on TV.

The Launch

Click to view largerAt 3:45 a.m. I was up and shortly after four on the road. The weather still looked perfect, and the newest prediction showed the payload parachuting down just north of Walsenburg, 80 miles away. Traveling up the center of the valley in the dark was a hypnotic experience. In forty minutes of driving, I shared the road with just one other car. It was 32 degrees out when I arrived at the campground above Penitente Canyon, the faint band of the Milky Way visible overhead. I picked one of the camp sites. There was no wind. Setup went so quickly, I spent at least a half hour twiddling my thumbs, just waiting for launch time, the tethered balloon expectantly hovering in the air. As dawn approached, birds chirped and the sound of a barking dog echoed from a campsite in the canyon below. The mountains to the west turned purple with alpenglow and behind the Sangre de Cristo Range the rising sun colored the sky in pink and orange hues. At 6:15 a.m. I released the balloon. It had been a routine launch, but would everything else go as planned?

The Chase

Click to view largerBy the time I made it back to Monte Vista, the Spot GPS device had already signaled from the edge of the Great Sand Dunes, a hopeful sign. An hour later in Fort Garland I snagged some breakfast at a gas station: a coffee and two molten cheese and potato burritos. As the balloon gained altitude contact would be lost for an hour or more as it exceeded 60,000 feet, the communication limit of the Spot GPS. I continued east over La Veta Pass, coasting down the other side at 95mph, foot barely touching the pedal. Unable to get wifi in the pass, I re-checked the iPad. Two hours had elapsed since launch. I was expecting the payload to land sometime within the next thirty minutes. A fresh signal came in, one and half hours separating it from the last. The balloon had crossed the Sangre de Cristos, but instead of sticking due east as forecast, had nudged north a bit and was now over the San Isabel National Forest. I assumed it had reached apogee, popped, and the payload was now parachuting down. If so, the 12,000 foot Wet Mountains of the San Isabel now stood between the payload and the plains. Would it clear them or land high on the snow covered slopes? Naturally, right then the iPad conked out.

Click to view largerFortunately, I could keep tabs on my phone, but the small screen didn't lend itself well to driving and simultaneously monitoring the Spot Device using their mobile app. I stopped in Walsenburg and waited. If the payload came down in the mountains recovery might prove impossible. A new signal appeared. I zoomed out on the map. It was eleven miles to the north-east, out over the plains, exactly as predicted. I could hardly believe it. All that remained was for the signals to repeat from the same place, a sign the payload had landed. But studying maps on the tiny screen in an effort to find a route to the landing zone, proved frustrating. I dashed over to the local library. They were just opening the doors. I asked to use a computer. "Are you just passing through?" the librarian inquired. I nodded. After enduring a lengthy registration, she handed me a code to access the internet. I plopped down in front of a terminal, logged in, and brought up the Spot GPS website. Nothing new, yet. I looked at the last signal and pulled up some road maps. A half hour passed. Still nothing. That was disconcerting. I waited, growing nervous. Another half hour vanished. It made no sense. The last signal was over the predicted landing zone. I was certain the balloon hadn't gone "floater"--an unintended drift resulting from a lack of helium, possibly lasting many hours. One likely explanation: the payload was on the ground, but the gimbal keeping the Spot GPS face up, and in communication with satellites, had been knocked askew on landing and the device was pointing down. I'd mistakenly applied this same sequence of events to other wayward launches, but after another half hour passed, with a sinking heart I realized this time it must really have come to pass. Facing a great loss of money, time and energy, the whole endeavor suddenly felt like a crazy waste. What was I doing here?

Disheartened, I forced myself to come up with a plan. It was hardly the first time a weather balloon payload had been lost. Every few weeks a news item appears somewhere in the world pleading with the public to help find a missing balloon launched by students at a local school. Did Walsenburg have a paper? I searched online. They did; the office was just two-minutes away. I resolved to see what they could do, and then go to the site of the last signal and take a desperate look around.

The Huerfano World Journal is run from an old storefront in a brick building with plate glass windows on the corner of 6th and Main. Across the street is a Mining Museum. I marched inside. A woman named Mary Jo stood bent over behind a desk, organizing some papers. "Hi," I said, interrupting her. "I have a unique problem and maybe you can help." I described the morning's events. "I'd like to put a reward notice in the paper," I explained. She seemed intrigued, and it wasn't long before several colleagues joined the conversation. We brought up a map on a computer and I pointed at the last known location.

"Ranchers can be funny about who's walking around on their land," Mary Jo explained. "We don't want to send people out on a geocaching hunt without knowing whose property that is." I listened closely, aware that at that very moment a rancher in Nevada was in an armed standoff with the Feds. She picked up a phone and called John Stroh, a local realtor and rancher. He offered to help, and I sped off to his office.

The Southern Colorado Land & Livestock Company was located on the edge of town in what looked like a converted warehouse. Inside I was met by Mr. Stroh, a lanky gentleman with weathered features. He seemed completely non-plussed and without hurry led me to a gigantic plat map covering one wall of his office. I showed him the payload's trajectory and theorized that it was likely lying somewhere along a straight line in-between county roads 103 and 120, a distance of five miles, or possibly as far away as Highway 10, a dozen miles beyond. Without much consideration, Stroh recited from memory every rancher running cattle along that stretch. There was the Reagan family, the Edmonsons, and his own brother Dave. But the last signal was over property owned by the Faris family, land intended for a subdivision which had never come to be. However, he didn't feel anyone would be perturbed by reward seekers rooting around. "I'll probably head out there soon," I said. Mr. Stroh dug out a road map I could take along and patiently described how to reach the area. He promised to call his brother. I expressed my gratitude, and imagining a cowboy on horseback stumbling across my payload, I returned to the Journal offices.

The newest edition of the paper had gone out that very morning and it would be a week until the next was published. In the meantime they offered to post a notice on Facebook. With the names from John Stroh in hand, Mary Jo put a call through to one of the ranchers, explaining someone would be out walking around their property, and why. I was handed a classified ad form and began scribbling down a $500 reward offer with a pencil. It had been three hours since the last signal. I wanted to include some coordinates and opened the Spot GPS app on my phone. Dumbstruck, I shouted: "A new signal!" A ripple of excitement spread through the office. It was just a few hundred feet from the last, right next to a Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway line. A reporter speculated that the box might have been tipped over by the wind, allowing the Spot GPS to face up again. The signal repeated. "I'm going out there," I told everyone. "If I come back, it'll be to place the ad." Mary Jo took my picture standing with the editor, and they thanked me for coming by and making their day a little more interesting.

The Recovery

County Road 103 was accessible via a frontage road next to Interstate 25, about eight miles north of Walsenburg. It was less a "road" than a narrow scrape of dirt scuffing the range. Despite my haste, deep ruts made it slow going, and small herds of cattle standing dopily in the road brought me to a halt, only slinking away when I crept up within feet in my car. Carefully watching a hand-held GPS device displaying my location in juxtaposition to the payload, I followed the road seven miles across the plains, snowy mountains visible to the west. A pair prong horn antelope stopped and stared before bounding off. Not one iota of human habitation presented itself. I reached the railway tracks. A narrow, single lane tunnel granted access underneath to the other side and I drove through. A few hundred feet later the road crossed a cattle guard. A sign warned "Private Property. No Trespassing." I hit the brakes. Double-checking the GPS, I realized finding the payload might be easier from the other side of the tracks. I drove back and pulled off the road. Far in the distance the headlight of an oncoming train appeared.

GPS in hand, I hiked up a cattle path toward the landing site. The payload was a quarter-mile straight ahead. The GPS showed me closer and closer until I was almost on top, but the low brush made good camouflage. Finally, I saw it: parachute, radar reflector, and the payload box, which was lying on its side. Just a few hundred feet away a row of power lines marched to the horizon. I gathered everything into a pile and trekked back to the car, shoulders light. As the freight train rumbled by, trailing a long string of coal cars, I cracked open the box and discovered the gimbal holding the Spot GPS device had indeed been dislodged. Once again: luck.

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The Aftermath

The Spot GPS device communicates using the Globalstar system, a privately owned constellation of forty satellites in low earth orbit. Consulting with a fellow high altitude balloonist, I discovered he too had suffered a similar experience. We reached the conclusion that after landing my Spot GPS device had likely been facing sideways inside the payload box, and the long span between signals was due to a gap in satellite coverage in the direction it was facing, which resolved itself as the position of the satellites changed with the planet's rotation. Whatever the explanation, I'd dodged a bullet, and I looked forward to experimenting with radio tracking in the future.

The Global Space Balloon Challenge

The GSBC had served to bring together a disparate group of people with a shared interest, and organizers were thrilled by the result. Fifty-five teams from eighteen countries submitted entries. Local media covered many of the launches. By all accounts the first ever comprehensive international high altitude ballooning contest was a resounding success. Following the Challenge pictures were posted from Ireland, Russia, across the U.S., Brazil, India, Australia, and more. Having briefly taken part in a globe spanning effort, peering at the images taken from around the world at the edge of space took on a special resonance; a reminder of how illusory all the borders really are.

Some weeks later, after what must have been an arduous judging process, I received an e-mail from the organizers, a single word in the subject line: Congratulations!


► EQUIPMENT

2000 gram Hwoyee balloon, Chinese made

2000 gram balloon from Kaymont; sells Totex balloons from Japan, the most popular brand

2x 6' Parachute from Rocketman

2x Davis Emergency Deluxe Radar Reflector

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website: purchased on Amazon.com
  • Note: per FAA FAR 101 regulations. You could easily make your own with some cardboard and tin foil.

2x Spot GPS Personal Tracker Device

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website: http://findmespot.com
  • Note: You can do without this if you use a smart phone that has excellent coverage, but you run a risk without a backup device.

Eagle Flight Computer from High Altitude Science

GoPro Hero 3+ Black camera

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website: http://gopro.com
  • Note: I used a SanDisk 64gb SD memory card as well as the additional BacPac battery.

2 x Anker Astro Mini 3000mAh External Battery Pack

  • Cost: already owned
  • Website: http://www.ianker.com/support-c1-g95.html
  • Note: Both GoPros were plugged into one of these extra battery packs for more recording time. The Go Pro will not record while connected to a power source via USB unless you have the extra BacPac battery for the Go Pro itself and plug the USB cable into that.

Pentax K-01 w/Pentax DA 40mm f/2.8 XS lens, positioned for landscapes

  • Cost: $498
  • Purchased off eBay

Pentax Q7, positioned down

  • Cost: already owned

2x Olympus PEN E-PL5w/M.Zuiko Digital II 14-42mm lens, positioned for landscapes

  • Cost: $385 / $429
  • Purchased off eBay

2x RM-UC1 Remote Cable Release

  • Cost: $37.95
  • Website: B&H Photo
  • For interval shooting with Olympus PEN E-PL5.

    Canon PowerShot G12, positioned for landscapes

    • Cost: already owned

    Canon PowerShot SX260 HS, positioned down

    • Cost: already owned

    4 Adhesive backed HotHands Toasti Toes

    • Cost: $3

    Miscellaneous including: duct tape, plastic zip ties, velcro strips, tarp, Everbilt 5/32 in. x 75 ft. Diamond-Braid Poly Cord (all from Home Depot)

    • Cost: $30

    2 x 219 cf Helium from Sheeley Service, Wauwatosa, WI

    GRAND TOTAL: $2,669.90

    Gas, hotel, and food count as extra!
    Cost: $1,283


    ► MAPS & DATA

    LAUNCH 1: Spot GPS Map:




    LAUNCH 1: Eagle Flight Computer 3D Map:


    Click here to download the data (Google Earth KML file -- rename to .kml)

    LAUNCH 2: Spot GPS Map:




    LAUNCH 2: Eagle Flight Computer 3D Map:


    Click here to download the data (Google Earth KML file -- rename to .kml)


    ► LESSONS LEARNED

    1. I had planned to make a scientific comparison between the Chinese Hwoyee balloon and the Japanese Totex. Both payloads were almost exactly the same weight and the two balloons each carried an identical volume of helium. Launch 1 used the Totex. The balloon failed to get very high, but it's unclear if the quality of the Totex played a role. However, the Hwoyee balloon performed so well in Launch 2, that I see little reason in the future to spend the extra money on the Totex. The only drawback to the Hwoyee is that the neck is too short, making looping and tying it off a bit more challenging.
    2. The wind made getting the balloon up in Launch 1 a real nightmare. But a postponement isn't always possible, so the only thing to do is come prepared. It would have helped to have had a second tarp ready (with enough weights to keep it down) to cover the balloon during inflation thus preventing it from whipping around in the wind.
    3. If possible, it's good to familiarize yourself with local weather phenomena before the launch. This could include learning that in the early morning haze tends to obscure the local scenery.
    4. If you're using a Spot GPS device, and it goes silent, be even more patient waiting to hear from it than seems reasonable.


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