The Expedition

Balloon Over Zion Expedition 

The Challenge:  A 10-flight Expedition over Zion.

Steiger is the first to pilot a balloon across the monumental formations and surrounding vast wilderness of Zion National Park; November 16, 2011.

Steiger is a world-class balloon pilot and instructor.  He is drawn to highly technical flights requiring significant pre-flight planning and navigational skills resulting in “world-class” flights.

The Expedition over Zion is an effort to photograph the unique perspective afforded by balloon and the behind-the-scenes documentation of the effort required to plan and execute the flights over this unforgiving terrain.

The coffee table book of photographs, impressions and artwork is meant to be an allegory to so many of us working against the odds to accomplish heroic feats within our own lives and specific circumstances.

Join Steiger on this expedition and these historic flights.

Several of the local citizens of Springdale and Rockville have united to support the project and to take part in this epic event.

The Opportunity:  Join the Expedition as a contributing artist or passenger.

Flights Completed to Date:

Zion 1:  Launching from Anasazi Terrace rising to eye-level with West Temple and flowing “down stream” past Smithsonian Butte onto Gooseberry Mesa.

Zion 2:  Launching from Rockville traversing the Eagle Crags, Canaan Mountain and the Vermillion Cliffs into Apple Valley.

Zion 3:  Launching from Kolob Reservoir and zigzagging across the North and South Guardians, West Temple, North Fork Virgin River, East Fork and Parunuweap, across the vast stands of pinion pines, juniper and sage to Elephant Butte and landing in the Coral Pink Sand Dunes…or thereabouts.  This became the first Zion Crossing in history.  This noteworthy flight was made with 90 gal of fuel onboard and lasted 5 hours and 15 min.

Zion 4:  Launching from Springdale and rising to eye level with West Temple then on to 11,500 ft. above Sea Level afforded a “Cool, clear, celestial crossing.”, as described by passenger Monet Lion, an experienced and well-travelled balloon veteran of the skies including flights from San Diego and Napa Valley, California and the South of France.  Monet became the first formal passenger to join the expedition by responding within minutes online to the invitation in The Spectrum.  Along for the launch was Brian Passey, a reporter for The Spectrum and Regional Correspondent for USA TODAY who is on assignment to cover the First Over Zion Expedition and present his December 28, 2012 feature article in The Spectrum.  Other members of the expedition included Dave and Cheri Barton, although Cheri is afraid of heights, and David J. West, who owns a gallery in Springdale was this flight’s photographer.  Cheri wondered to herself if she would panic but quickly realized shortly after take-off that the gondola is so stable and peaceful that her normal concerns about height were not applicable in a hot air balloon….a report often made by acrophobes.  ”My husband surprised me with this Anniversary Gift promising me a “once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity”…and he was right, I will never forget our flight or his ability to “make this happen” especially in these difficult times.”

The flight then descended to an intimate altitude below the peaks of the Smithsonian Butte and continued our decent into Apple Valley.  Winds on the surface were 15 mph (considered a normal high wind landing speed wherein the gondola sets down then tips to its side and drags to a stop) and since Cheri was nursing a recent back surgery the pilot made an eggshell landing which can be viewed by video…a short 33 ft. to a complete stop with passengers resting gently in their reclined positions at the 1 hour and 10 minute mark. Monet continued her note to the pilot; “Thanks for the vision & the flight Steiger.”.

Zion 5:  Launching from the Smith Mesa we travelled a South Eastern direction up and over the Guardians and West Temple across the North Fork of the Virgin, Zion Canyon and then the East Fork and Parunuweap Canyon.  The passengers and crew included two athlete adventurers Sam and Candice Stoddard, who is also a writer, riding as an observer on this flight; world renowned artist and sculptor Lyman Whitaker, Pearl Meadows; who pushes the envelope in acrylics and silversmithing, Joy Stein; a soothing master of watercolor and who is currently developing a correlation between the patterns found within the micro and macrocosms and as such is particularly interested in the perspective offered by balloon, and as our professional photographer documenting this flight we have Gregory Murray; a professor and adventure photographer.

We travelled into the wilderness south of Zion and North of Elephant Butte where we touched down for a moment to smell the sage and juniper, then proceeded at 15 mph across a vast stand of pinion pines and juniper forest about 700 ft. above the surface while enjoying a picnic of rosemary crackers, havarti, swiss gruyere, hard salami and sweet peppers.  As we approached the Coral Pink Sand Dunes and Arizona the pilot saw his first Condors, a pair circling just above eye level in a rising column of warm air.

My very athletic passengers came prepared with several days of rations and protection from the elements in preparation for a hike out of wherever we might land.  I suppose they were a bit disappointed when I set the gondola down in an elevator style landing on the ribbon of pavement, Hwy 43, that connects the Coral Pink Sand Dunes with Mt. Carmel Junction.  Most passengers prefer a landing which requires no hiking, and with the gondola weighing in at just under 1000 lbs. and the envelope of fabric weighing 575 lbs. the pilot is highly motivated to select a landing spot where the chase vehicle can drive right up to collect the equipment and crew.

The 2.5 hour flight reached a maximum altitude of 11,300 ft. above sea level and 26 mph, included 6 passengers who very much appreciated the rarity of the opportunity and disembarked the gondola with their visual receptors fully saturated.  Each were delighted and pleased, and most joined the celebratory toast beaming in an introspective bliss without words.

Zion 6:  The gondola was brimming with local artists set to experience the flight over Zion with the mission and challenge to translate their experiences into a rendering of their choosing for contribution to the Coffee Table Book.  Joy Stein; watercolors, Gerard Steffan; Zion Canyon Gallery Owner and Photographer, Carrie Trenholm; fused glass sculpture, Arlene Braithwaite; pastels, and Jim and Randy Aton; as supporters of the arts.

On this day, while none were made aware at the time, the level of adventure presented by little to no wind renders the pilot unable to steer.  Climbing to 14,000 ft in search of a wind to take us over the park was fruitless.  For some it was their first time in a balloon and the passengers enjoyed a powerful vantage point which allowed a view across and down into the canyons of the park, but we did not cross over the park that day.  Instead I navigated the subtle winds back down to where we began and carefully landed near our launch point.

Recovery and Extraction by Ground Crew Chief Robert Dennis proved to be an exhilarating challenge as he carefully selected his route across the slippery fields of the Smith Mesa at 30 mph with passengers whelping Cowboy style standing in the bed of the pick up truck, tires spinning the entire time under the imposing doom of getting stuck with one wrong turn of the wheel.  Sprayed mud collected on the front wall of the trailer 9 inches thick by the time we returned to roads free of silt and snow.

As for the Expedition and our goal to cross the park that day, I was surprised and delighted to hear the satisfaction in the voices of the artists describing the opportunity to see the park in such a manner as an unsurpassable First…despite the fact that we were all set on crossing the park.  This flightpath will likely never be repeated as it is in fact more challenging to find a convenient place to land on a day with less wind with which to steer.

Zion 7:  I realize I say this after every flight: “Another first and likely to never be repeated flight path” launched from Apple Valley with the target of flying down the valley at the surface then climb to 10,000 ft. at just the right time to catch a wind from 210 degrees and use that line to cross directly over Eagle Crags after crossing east of Smithsonian Butte and into the Virgin River Canyon over Rockville.  We did just that.  Pictures of the Eagle Crags from directly above then dropping down low over Shunesburg and continuing on up the canyon caused us to spend more time traveling North in layers of wind on the way back up to 10,000 ft. which caused me to rule out our original plan of landing east at the airport.  Winds at 10,000 ft. were 33 mph as I began my descent onto the Zion Ponderosa As I approached my landing with over an hour and a half of remaining fuel I noticed a lovely wind from the east at the surface, which forced me off course for the Ponderosa landing.  That East wind was only 8 mph so I quickly recalculated my position and range and decided to make a run for the Kolob Terrace…if that breeze would hold out.  I kept just high enough to see the North Guardian Angel peek out over the horizon and I used that monument as a visual marker like a light house in a storm.  I knew I could land in the fields just beyond.  An unprecedented trip across the Narrows and the northern portion of the park, the terrace just below lava point, our view included Brian Head ski resort to the north and the Pink Cliffs to the north east.  A new development from the south carried us northward instead of west and parallel to the Kolob Terrace and our desired landing field.  Silence fell upon the gondola as the passengers gradually became aware of the never ending ponderosa pines without eyes trained to “see” potential landing spots, albeit safe for the passengers, locations which would pose a significant challenge in the recovery of the equipment.

I knew where we were and I knew I needed a wind from the east to inch west up onto the Water Conservancy fields which lay just south of the Kolob Reservoir.  Snowmobiles and a Snow Cat would likely be required for our extraction upon landing.

I subtly navigated up and down in hopes of finding a layer of east wind and it arrived in time to move west onto the terrace for a perfect landing on firm crust.  Some credit the appeals of a certain passenger to the “God of Wind to the West” and who am I to argue?

Just prior to landing a call was placed to ground and ground crew to localize our position. Upon landing and pack up, and the passengers, led by their fearless leader, agreed upon a strategy for staying warm in the case that it took longer to for recovery vehicles to reach us as we were aware that the roads are not plowed past a certain point on the Kolob Terrace Road in the winter.

The sun was shining, blue skies in the direction of oncoming weather combined with the hard packed snow on the roads gave us the confidence to begin the hike to The Center for True North Lodge about 7 miles down.

Several very well equipped Volunteer Search and Rescue Jeeps led by Deputy Jessie Williams of the Washington County Search and Rescue Team arrived like they had just pulled onto a Hollywood Movie Set.  My ground crew and trailer arrived thereafter and the Team blazed a path in the snow one after the other from the road across the field to make it easier to get the trailer into and then back out of the field.  The recovery vehicle is also a well equipped Jeep and so “enforce” a particularly yellow and powerful Jeep roped to the front of the recovery Jeep pulling the trailer like two locomotives drew the gondola and envelope loaded trailer back onto the hard packed roads where the entire group toasted the Spirit of Adventure and I toasted each of the passengers as fellow adventurers as we celebrated our opportunity to go places and see things never before seen and to living our lives to the fullest.

Special Thanks to the Search and Rescue Team and to my own Recovery Crew Chief Robert Dennis for rising to the challenge each and every flight.

 

Zion 8:  A particularly calm day was selected to accommodate 3 passengers in their sixties and seventies along with Zion Canyon Gallery owner and world class photographer Gerard Steffan and local artist Lyman Whitaker.  The launch from an airport on the east side of the park took advantage of a low pressure system rotating over New Mexico causing a counter-clockwise current of air to sweep from east to west over Zion.  We enjoyed a 5-11 mph glide across the eastern terrace and Monet Lion (a passenger who after having flown the Eagle Crags Flight realized that she must now fly the Zion Crossing) noticed deer trekking in single file with an American Bald Eagle circling at tree top level and below the gondola leaving a distinctive impression by the juxtaposition of the passengers enjoying the rare opportunity to experience the Birdseye view normally reserved for the Eagle.  Our journey continued over the North Fork of the Virgin River  and Zion Canyon descending slightly out of the wind and floating momentarily over the canyon and Zion Lodge below.

After the photographer had taken his fill of Emerald Pools, Angel’s Landing and the view down the canyon, (looking back down on the spot where most of the tourists stand to look up offered another juxtaposition from the vantage point of the Gods.)

Continuing our path just north of West Temple our photographer Gerard Steffan noticed a tiny arch formation on the top of a monument heretofore unknown and the passengers obtained closer inspection with binoculars as it reminded me of my box seats at the Prague State Opera and my sacred view of the Orchestra, Conductor and Stage.

The show was not over as we continued west to complete a full 180 degree view of West Temple and on over Cougar Mountain onto the Dalton Wash mesa we became the first people in the history of Mankind to witness, absorb and appreciate the unending and indescribable natural beauty of Zion National Park from above.

The entire trip was serene and breathtaking.  Monet Lion announced mid-flight that for many years a helicopter trip which landed on a glacier in Alaska had occupied her number 1 top slot for High Adventure, until now.  Ever present will the intimate views of these indescribable monuments remain a quiet and sacred part of each of us….the effect of standing in the presence of this greatness.

Sheri and Miles Weaver were joking and carrying on throughout the journey; like children absorbed in bliss.  Quite moments fell upon the gondola as Zion Canyon opened up below and as we crested the western towers.  It was clear to all that we were the first in all of mankind to have witness these vistas on par with eagles and the condors.  The awe and respect of such an exposure was at once both moving and exhilarating.

As fate would have it, and although I selected a particularly calm day, our trip of 3.5 hrs reaching altitudes of 11,500 ft. placed us just west of the park boundaries with no wind…which rotated to the west and started us back across the park in the direction we came.  We did not have enough fuel to make a second crossing so we were forced to land.  A call was made to verify winds at 1 mph on the surface from the west and I dropped the balloon out of the sky in a terminal velocity descent to land in the fields below.  Upon reaching the deck the winds had suddenly changed to 15 plus mph and carried us over an expanse of burned and charred trees reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s™ Kite Eating Tree…an entire forest of them.

In order to make a landing in a clear field under the new circumstances of the sudden increase in ground level wind speed I would have had to “stick” it and sustain an impact I was not willing to place upon my physically delicate, yet spiritually hardy passengers, so I leveled off over the trees and in less time than it takes to describe the options at hand I made the instinctive pilot decisions required to use the trees to slow our forward speed and set the gondola down in such a manner as to allow all of us to walk away.  The envelope was shredded as a cost of the safe landing and while each of us had a few bumps and scratches, all of us toasted the spirit of adventure and appreciated our opportunity to live our lives to the fullest… all but one immediately made arrangements for another flight.

Calls were made the next day by passengers more concerned about the status of the HMS Dauntless than they were about their aches and pains.  I suppose there is a bond that forms among members for each other and their ship during such an adventure.

A special thank you to Sheri and Miles Weaver whom, in their excitement to share the experience with others, sponsored a new panel of fabric in the spirit of getting The Dauntless “back into the air where she belongs”.

Zion 9: To be announced:

Any of several pre-planned flight paths are dependent upon upper level winds and every flight is a lifetime memory.  The experience of Ballooning Over Zion cannot be captured by the mind or by film in a single flight.  There simply is too much to absorb.

The perspective is at once breath taking and overwhelming.

When:  The Expedition continues into 2012.

The Pre-Requisites:  An appreciation for Zion and the Spirit of Adventure.

3 thoughts on “The Expedition

  1. I’m awaiting a call about ETD of Flight #6, Steiger. The blog about flight #5 left me envious to experience more of Zion from above! I can easily envision your passengers “beaming in an introspective bliss without words.” Nicely expressed!

    • Thank you Monet, I am so pleased that you are in agreement with me that Zion cannot be experienced in a single flight. See you soon.

  2. After our exhilarating Flight #8, please tell me more about the “new panel of fabric” the Weavers are sponsoring! They are intrepid folks and I treasure my memories of our “closeness” experienced on the flight!

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