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"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.