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?"