Where does courage come from or belief in oneself?
I keep asking myself this these past few days as I return to my daily life at home. That question haunts me as I repeatedly see myself one month ago standing in an open balloon wicker basket lifting a 9 kilo bag of sand from the outside of the basket. I shake the bag then pour all the sand into a special canvas hopper. The last remaining grains of sand I shake towards the towering snow covered Alps. I am above the Swiss Alps with the 15000 foot Italian Dolomites to yet transverse.
My teeth chatter with the cold, my whole body shakes. I stamp my feet lost in my grey Ugg Boots and woolen socks. It’s my hands covered with 2 pair of gloves that I can’t get warm.
I peer into the distance to see three mountain tops reflecting the full moon shooting off slivery flashes of light in the darkness of night. I feel I could reach out to stroke such beauty. Or that our balloon could meld into the mountain. I pull myself back from such thoughts into pilot mode so essential if my co-pilot Tanys and I are to survive this awe inspiring flight.
The next 17 hours demand that I nurse our balloon to keep her flying level using only a throw of a tablespoon of sand each time. As the temperature hits below freezing I increase the sand ballast so our balloon will not descend too aggressively. During all these hours both Tanys and I breathe oxygen. I try to eat but my mouth is so dry I can not chew food. The water set aside to drink freezes in the bottle. A faint voice inside my head insists that I swallow something. A small amount of chocolate revives me.
Finally only one mountain range to cross. The coastal plain winks in the distance. Over the next few hours all hell breaks loose. Thermals throw our balloon left, right, towards the volcanic mountain edges. Three sand bags urgently out to avoid a crash. Fast climb away to be confronted with bulbous white clouds swirling towards us now at 8000 feet. Losing any wind to sit with light and variable 3km/hr speed going nowhere. Fifteen sand bags used to keep us safe. Only 2 bags remaining. Two bags available to use for our eventual landing.
This is tough, much tougher than I ever expected. I begin to lean on my belief that I am surrounded by angels and departed love ones, specifically my three dear and close friends who were gas balloon pilots during their earthly life. That in some way I do not understand they are supporting my efforts and protecting Tanys and myself. Any thoughts of tough gradually fritter away. An inner calm and knowing that I can do this settles through me. I must do this. That’s how I find my courage and belief that all will end well.
We are representing our country Australia, one of 20 teams chasing the 2018 Gordon Bennett Cup across Europe. Chase it we do.
What will tomorrow bring?