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."