A transatlantic phone call sent the author off to a Scottish mountaintop, where he found balloons, bedlam and a couple of birds named Amanda and Eve
September 28, 1980

At the start, with the Western Highlands of Scotland golden with June sunshine, Hamish MacInnes and I had taken a lighthearted, not to say flippant, view of the whole venture. We sauntered down the straggly main street of Fort William like tourists, casting our eyes over the tartan-and-tweed shops but finding no bargain until we came on the five-and-dime store which, incongruously, featured a window display of mountaineering boots.

Hamish, no doubt, had a hundred pairs of his own, but I had come ill-prepared for our upcoming flight, so we entered perhaps the only Woolworth's in the world that caters to mountaineers. At $20 the boots were the best deal in town. Also, there seemed the chance for a little fun.

I took a pair from the rack. "Are these boots guaranteed for high altitude?" I asked the saleslady as I tried them on. "Will they stand up to 12,000, 14,000 feet? Do they grip well in the basket?" Hamish, spare, eagle-nosed, fiercely bearded, transfixed her with a stare that demanded the truth. "Hard to find a good ballooning boot these days," he said.

The woman looked around wildly for the manager, but I let her off the hook. "I'll take them," I said. Out in the street again, snickering, we moved on to the liquor store. It was stocked floor to ceiling with Scottish malt whiskies. I picked up a bottle of the Dufftown Glenlivet. "Is this a good altitude whisky?" I asked the girl behind the counter. She was a winner, with dark blue Celtic eyes and long black hair, but she could have made it on wits alone.

"No, sir," she said, deadpan, "that's almost a sea-level whisky. What you want is the 21-year-old Glen Grant." A K.O. The stuff was the most expensive in the house. A fifth cost more than my new boots, and she had it wrapped before I could say a word. A girl wasted in Fort William. She should've been selling Chevies in Japan.

Five days later I would've been grateful to be in Japan or anywhere out of the Western Highlands, though that first morning gave no indication of what was to come. We didn't realize that the calendar was taking us on a collision course with Friday the 13th.

Time for explanations. Hamish and I were in Scotland for a somewhat unusual race. As soon as the weather proved suitable, each of us would ascend from the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the Highlands, in his own hot-air balloon. The summit of the Ben, as we came to call it, is 4,406 feet above sea level, an unimpressive figure when compared to the elevation of the peaks in the Himalayas or even the Rockies, but the Ben rears almost straight up from the sea and isn't unimpressive when you look at it from below.

The rules of the race were quite simple. Neither Hamish nor I had ever set foot in a balloon basket, but each of us would have a professional pilot. We would lift off in turn—there being no room on top of the Ben for a simultaneous start—and after a minimum flying time of three hours, the winning two-man team would be the one that landed, packed up its balloon and found its way to a pub first.

Landlords and innkeepers within a 50-mile radius of the Ben had been alerted to expect the arrival of the intrepid balloonists. More important, the Scottish police, in a rare moment of permissiveness, had issued a blanket dispensation from the strict local licensing hours so that liquor might be served the aeronauts at any time of day or night. That was vital. Not only did the winning balloonists have to get to a bar first, but the landlord also would have to gravely record the exact moment when they raised glasses to lips. The prize, somewhat redundantly, was a case of champagne.

Months earlier, when I was challenged to the race by way of a transatlantic phone call, it had sounded like superior fun. But by the time spring came around, I had half forgotten it. There was this mysterious entry in my diary that seemed to read "Fat William," which at first I reckoned must be the name of a Manhattan restaurant that somebody had recommended. Then I realized I'd written Fort William, the town on Loch Linnhe that had been General William Augustus (Butcher) Cumberland's base when he set out to break the Scottish clans after Bonnie Prince Charlie's abortive uprising in 1745.

Romantic country, and much of it still as wild as when the Redcoats drilled their straight military road through the Great Glen and north to Inverness. The wildness was part of the race, of course. It would have been no challenge to land on a neat meadow next to a highway and flag down the first passing car. North, east and south of the Ben were mountains; to the west lay the Isle of Skye and the North Atlantic. Landing a balloon wouldn't be easy.

So it seemed likely that I would need those Woolworth boots. There were 46 pubs within three hours' range as the balloon flies, but many of them were in Fort William itself. If we touched down in the country, there might be some tough walking, even climbing, ahead.

Which was where, I had to concede, my rival had an advantage. Hamish MacInnes, who is 50—a year younger than I—lives just down the road from Ben Nevis at Glen Coe and is one of the world's great adventurers as well as one of its finest mountaineers. I'd met him two years earlier when he gave me the chance to go along with him on an utterly absurd hunt for a fabled Inca gold mine in the highlands of Ecuador.

Of course, I didn't go. After all, for four centuries, people from the Conquistadores on had been looking for that mine. Maybe they weren't as tough as Hamish, because he found it after only three weeks of searching, just as he had been the first man, seven years previously, to cut through virgin rain forest in Guyana and then climb 8,500 feet to discover the so-called Lost World Plateau. He also has almost a full set of the Himalayan peaks to his credit and was deputy leader on the 1975 Chris Bonington Everest expedition.

Such, then, was my opponent in the race. But there was a chink in his armor, and it came out that first afternoon as we sat in the sunshine looking out over Loch Linnhe, studying the map. "Interesting," Hamish said. "An easterly wind would take us straight out over Ardnamurchan Point, and that's the most westerly land in mainland Britain. Then we'd go just south of the Outer Hebrides, just north of Ireland, and we'd be set fair for Labrador. And the water's awful cold just now. I'm not too keen on flying over water.... I'd be far happier landing on a cliff somewhere."

So, hydrophobia, eh? I wished Hamish no harm, but a sea or a loch landing seemed more preferable to me than coming down on a mountain ledge. There were to be helicopters tracking us, the balloons would float in the water for a time, until the air cooled, and one could always use an empty gas cylinder as a flotation device. I said as much to Hamish.

"In the water temperature out there in the North Atlantic, you'd last about five or six minutes," he said judiciously.

The whole race had been Hamish's idea. He'd been figuring out ways of filming a rock-pinnacle climb on Utah's Canyon Mountain, and he thought a balloon might make a steadier camera platform than a helicopter—if it could be controlled. Then his mind made one of its lateral jumps—just as it had when he realized that previous searchers for the Inca mine had been misreading the old Spanish manuscripts—and the concept of the Great Ben Nevis Balloon Race sprang, fully created, to life. It was then that he made the transatlantic telephone challenge that I'd lightheartedly accepted.

"What's it like, ballooning?" I'd asked him when we first met in Scotland.

"I don't know," he said. "I've never been in one. You?"

"No," I told him. "Never."

"We don't have to fly them," he pointed out. He was right. We would meet our pilots next morning.

Actually, I was quite looking forward to my first flight. Victorian comfort and an Aquarian calm were what I anticipated: traveling in a basket richly furnished like an old Pullman car, perhaps, or a Soviet airliner, as the panorama of mountains passed peacefully, silently below. The thought of what would happen after disembarking gave me my only uneasiness. But I wasn't too wary, seeing as our pilots were professionals.

But did pros bring girl friends called Amanda and Eve with them? More pertinent, having brought them, should they be romping and frolicking together in the grassy meadow where the balloon gear was laid out and where, presumably, anemometers and similar devices should even now have been analyzing the weather for our race? "Amanda!" one of the pilots called shrilly, "watch out, you are standing on a valve!" And so she was. Air or something was hissing out of a piece of equipment I couldn't identify, into which she had dug a heel. "I reckon that's your pilot," I said to Hamish.

All that took place on the morning following our shopping expedition in Fort William. The blue-and-gold weather was still idyllic down in Glen Nevis—a glen being what the Scots call the narrow, often lushly green valleys between the mountains. The River Nevis burbled and glittered in the sun, and to the north lay the Ben itself, its peak still streaked with snow in midsummer.

The mountain looked benign enough at the moment, though it occurred to both Hamish and me that the less delay in our flight the better, Highland weather being notoriously changeable. But it was clear that our companions were in no hurry. Amanda and Eve and our pilots, Ian and John, were obviously enjoying their summer break in Scotland, and there were lots of preparations to make, like getting a new tire for their Jeep: one had split when Ian had tried to back up over a boulder.

I was pleased to discover that Ian, the one who had spoken sharply to Amanda, was indeed Hamish's pilot. He was in his 20s, a newly qualified doctor, and he had grown a black mustache to add gravitas to his bedside manner. Ian very soon revealed himself to be one who slid effortlessly into the lecturing mode. Hamish and I quickly learned not to cue him into one of his 15-minute explanations of why hot air rises.

That morning, however, as the anemometer was rigged to judge wind speed and little helium balloons were released to tell us the wind direction, Hamish and I had yet to learn to avoid this pitfall, and it was not until lunchtime—or after a number of lectures—that we got a professional verdict on the weather. "Hmm, hmm, just flyable, I would say," Ian informed us in the manner of a wine connoisseur giving a bare passing grade to a burgundy. Hamish and I started to pick up our crash helmets and life jackets loaned by the RAF fighter station at Losiemouth, about 60 miles away. We were premature.

"That is not to say," Ian said, smiling at our foolish enthusiasm, "that the windspeed at the summit is acceptable." Then he asked, "How are the Mets coming along?"

"I haven't seen an American paper all week," I said.

All I got was a blank look. "The meteorological reports," said Ian, explaining as to a child, "the ones that tell us how hard the wind is blowing." It seemed to Hamish and me that it was more likely that there wasn't enough wind. It looked so calm up there that the local golden eagles might have had trouble taking off because of lack of lift.

Neverthless, we couldn't begin our race that morning, Ian decreed. We would have another shot at it when the wind dropped in the evening—in Scotland at midsummer the light lingers until past 11 p.m. And that was that, aside from a 10-minute dissertation on just why winds tend to drop in the evening.

It was unjust, I felt, that Ian wasn't present at around 6 p.m. when Hamish and I, abstemiously sipping cider in the bar of our Fort William hotel, noticed that the pine trees we could see through the window were moving quite a bit. We walked to the door. The gold had gone out of the evening, the temperature had dropped, and a nor'easter, 30 knots of it, was whistling down the Great Glen. We put our helmets away and stopped ordering cider.

The nor'easter stayed with us for three days. Not only was it strong, it was a seaward wind as well; though, as I pointed out to Hamish, the north in it gave us a sporting chance of making Greenland rather than Labrador.

The three-day break also gave me a chance to talk with my pilot. John seemed a little overshadowed, a little diffident, when Ian was around. But on his own, he was different. He was a full-time professional balloonist, I learned, and had flown in New Mexico and California, as well as Europe. All that flight experience made up a little for the shock I'd had when I saw the basket we were to fly in.

It was high-sided and very small, with barely room enough for its two passengers to stand upright, hemmed in as they were by the four cylinders of propane gas that fueled the burners supplying the hot air for the envelope. With difficulty I climbed in, grabbing some of the entrails of the craft for support. "Leave that hose alone!" John said sharply. "And that red line! That's the rip line. If you pull it, you let the hot air out. Please, please, don't hang on to it accidentally."

The lecture proceeded, but it was a lot more purposeful than Ian's earbenders. I listened with undivided attention. "If it gusts like it's gusting just now," he was telling me, "when we hit, the basket is going to tip over and drag. Get inside it. Right down. Hold on to something. Not the gas hose! Don't jump out or fall out until the balloon stops or it'll shoot up in the air again—with me in it. If we get sudden gusts or changes of wind direction at low level, the sides of the balloon could collapse. Don't worry! We have two burners, just like a twin-motored aircraft. We can blow it up again fast."

I should have studied all this months ago, I reflected, instead of nourishing those Aquarian fantasies. When we hit, indeed! It might be fun dragging across pasture land, frightening the cows, but this was the Highlands, very little of which is flat. "What if we hit a mountainside?" I asked.

He considered the point judiciously and then said, "Well, you do get this kind of curling effect of the wind running up a valley. It could happen. We could get stuck up on a ledge. But we have a helicopter following."

Being picked off the side of a sheer granite wall running with water would seem to involve hazards for us as well as for the helicopter. I was ruminating on all this when, with unerring timing, Hamish arrived with the news. "We'll fly tonight!" he exulted. "The Mets are looking great!"

"Yes, I saw that in the International Herald Tribune," I said, mystifying him but keeping my cool. Even as John and I had been talking, the wind had eased. We seemed all set.

We had, however, failed to reckon with Ian's thoroughness, which manifested itself as soon as we had hauled the two balloon rigs as far up the side of the mountain as the Jeep would go. He'd brought the anemometer with him and, as it slowly turned, he studied it with the intensity of a prisoner on the gallows staring down the high road for the king's messenger carrying a reprieve. He also began to talk a little strangely: "I don't want to take off if there is any risk of ending in the water. Though water is flat. Sometimes it's flat...." It seemed no use to point out that what little wind there was would take us over the Great Glen and inland. Ian kept staring at the anemometer.

The helicopter, which would carry the packaged balloons to the summit, arrived. There seemed no reason to delay. The gear was hooked up and the first package, swaying like a great pendulum, was on its way. Then the second. The next flight took up the pilots and their girl friends, while below, Hamish and I readied ourselves for the trip. I noticed that the label inside my life jacket declared that it had been made by a company called Frankenstein and Sons of Manchester. Also, inside my jet pilot's helmet were inscribed the names of the previous owners, each one carefully crossed out. It looked like a small war memorial. And then the helicopter was coming back for us.

No, not for us, because Ian and John were still aboard and Ian was shaking his head. "Marginal on the summit," he said. John was poker-faced. The helicopter pilot winked at me and mouthed a phrase silently. "Chicken in the basket," he seemed to be saying. He also had some news for us. The next day, he said, was the last he could set aside for us. On Saturday, he said, he had to take Rod Stewart, the pop singer, fishing.

"Tomorrow's Friday, then," I said. I'd lost track of the days.

"Right," said the pilot, grinning. "Friday the 13th."

It would be our last shot. At 3 a.m. the next morning, just before first light, Hamish and I were at base camp on the side of the Ben, looking for the headlights of the pilots' Jeep to appear. 3:10, 3:20..."They're not coming," I said. But then, a little before 3:30, there was the flash of lights, and Ian and John—yes, and Amanda and Eve—joined us just as we heard the throb of the helicopter coming to pick us up.

When we all assembled on the summit, we found the equipment already there, lying on the snow like the abandoned gear of a failed Everest attempt. There was only a light wind blowing, and to the north of us for 100 miles, like line after line of frozen surf, were the saber-toothed Highlands of Scotland. The early morning sun shone pinkly on the summit snow—virgin still, until jolly old Amanda and Eve started a snowball fight.

Even so, for two more hours Ian held off, John seeming to defer to him. In the end, though, there could be no more procrastination. The first balloon was unwrapped, the envelope stretched out over the snow, and the hot-air burners turned on to pump it up. As it filled, the basket dragged a little along the icy skim on the snowfield, but it righted itself, the guys were released and Hamish and Ian floated off the ledge, over the black north face of the Ben.

Shrill cheers from the girls. Then, not girlishly at all, Amanda was shrieking, "Oh, Jesus!" As if giant hands had slapped it, the sides of the balloon had collapsed inward and it started to drop out of the air. That was at 4,500 feet, we learned later, and it lost 1,000 of those. "Wind shear," John said, ashen, using the term for a violent buffet from one of the rogue gusts that hang around mountain-tops. For a moment we lost sight of Ian's balloon, but then, hugely relieved, we saw it float out across the valley, inflated and under control again.

It wasn't a good moment to contemplate one's first balloon flight. Now our craft's envelope was stretched out, and the burners were shoveling in the hot air. I was concentrating on just how I was going to scramble into the basket, when our first crisis hit. One of our anchoring ties snapped, and the balloon, three-quarters inflated, started dragging across the ice toward the ledge. By now John was in the basket. I was half in, half out. Then came our second crisis.

Not so much a crisis, more of an apocalypse. Suddenly, the wicker basket burst into flames. I rolled out and started to run. Chicken in the basket was one thing. Roast chicken was something else again. Even so, four cylinders of propane exploding probably would have caught up with me. That they didn't was because John, surrounded by flames, got to the extinguisher and put the fire out.

His face was scorched, but his flying suit and helmet had saved him from worse. Sitting in the snow, I told him, "You were crazy to stay in there."

His answer was truly professional. "Did you know those things cost $15,000?" he said. For the first time I noticed the balloon was still on the mountaintop, deflated. "After the fire was out," said John, "I pulled the rip."

The helicopter came back for us, of course. Before long we were in the bar of the Nevis Bank Hotel, where a little pre-breakfast whisky seemed in order. Not winning whisky, of course. Hamish and Ian were drinking that. Hearing of our abort over a walkie-talkie, Ian explained airily, they had cut short their flight. Indeed, the Nevis Bank, of the 40-odd pubs alerted, was the nearest to the Ben's summit, and they had been in the air only 80 minutes. We wouldn't insist on a strict interpretation of the rules we said. They'd won.

Ian looked happier than he had on the Ben. "Not an epic flight," he conceded graciously. His audience was nodding sympathetically when he added a rider. "Just a great flight," he said.

It hadn't been wind shear that caused the collapse of his balloon, he said, but a minor error. "I should have broken out the parachute before takeoff for more lift. But I did it after we were up and we lost a great deal of air." Suddenly, green as I was, I knew just what he'd done. He'd pulled the red cord, the descent cord, opening up a panel at the top of the envelope. "We were never in danger at any time, even though we were dropping at 1,000 feet a minute. I was in complete control," Ian concluded.

Hamish MacInnes is a very gentle man, with never a hard word for anyone. But this was too much even for him. "Tell me, then, Ian," he said, "why did the sweat break out across your face when the ground started to come up at us?"

Later, at breakfast, Hamish said to me, "That ballooning is all right, but I prefer to be more in control, like on a mountain. Listen," he said, "I've got a good climb for next month. A gas storage tank in central London. Four hundred feet. Do you fancy it?"

"I have to get home," I said, "to see how the Mets are doing."

ILLUSTRATIONJOHN HUEHNERGARTHVictorian comfort and Aquarian calm were what I anticipated on my first balloon flight: traveling in a basket furnished like an old Pullman car.
ILLUSTRATIONJOHN HUEHNERGARTH"Are these boots guaranteed for high altitudes?" I asked the lady at the five & ten. ILLUSTRATIONJOHN HUEHNERGARTHAs the birds frolicked, doctor-pilot Ian was boringly serious. ILLUSTRATIONJOHN HUEHNERGARTHHamish and I swapped cider for stronger stuff as the wind picked up. ILLUSTRATIONJOHN HUEHNERGARTHJoy turned to terror as Hamish's balloon abruptly dropped. ILLUSTRATIONJOHN HUEHNERGARTHAs we prepared to lift off, our basket suddenly burst into flames. I leaped to safety but John was trapped inside.