At the start, with the Western Highlands of Scotland golden with June sunshine, Hamish MacInnes and I had taken a lighthearted, not to say flippant, view of the whole venture. We sauntered down the straggly main street of Fort William like tourists, casting our eyes over the tartan-and-tweed shops but finding no bargain until we came on the five-and-dime store which, incongruously, featured a window display of mountaineering boots.
Hamish, no doubt, had a hundred pairs of his own, but I had come ill-prepared for our upcoming flight, so we entered perhaps the only Woolworth's in the world that caters to mountaineers. At $20 the boots were the best deal in town. Also, there seemed the chance for a little fun.
I took a pair from the rack. "Are these boots guaranteed for high altitude?" I asked the saleslady as I tried them on. "Will they stand up to 12,000, 14,000 feet? Do they grip well in the basket?" Hamish, spare, eagle-nosed, fiercely bearded, transfixed her with a stare that demanded the truth. "Hard to find a good ballooning boot these days," he said.
The woman looked around wildly for the manager, but I let her off the hook. "I'll take them," I said. Out in the street again, snickering, we moved on to the liquor store. It was stocked floor to ceiling with Scottish malt whiskies. I picked up a bottle of the Dufftown Glenlivet. "Is this a good altitude whisky?" I asked the girl behind the counter. She was a winner, with dark blue Celtic eyes and long black hair, but she could have made it on wits alone.
"No, sir," she said, deadpan, "that's almost a sea-level whisky. What you want is the 21-year-old Glen Grant." A K.O. The stuff was the most expensive in the house. A fifth cost more than my new boots, and she had it wrapped before I could say a word. A girl wasted in Fort William. She should've been selling Chevies in Japan.
Five days later I would've been grateful to be in Japan or anywhere out of the Western Highlands, though that first morning gave no indication of what was to come. We didn't realize that the calendar was taking us on a collision course with Friday the 13th.
Time for explanations. Hamish and I were in Scotland for a somewhat unusual race. As soon as the weather proved suitable, each of us would ascend from the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the Highlands, in his own hot-air balloon. The summit of the Ben, as we came to call it, is 4,406 feet above sea level, an unimpressive figure when compared to the elevation of the peaks in the Himalayas or even the Rockies, but the Ben rears almost straight up from the sea and isn't unimpressive when you look at it from below.
The rules of the race were quite simple. Neither Hamish nor I had ever set foot in a balloon basket, but each of us would have a professional pilot. We would lift off in turn—there being no room on top of the Ben for a simultaneous start—and after a minimum flying time of three hours, the winning two-man team would be the one that landed, packed up its balloon and found its way to a pub first.
Landlords and innkeepers within a 50-mile radius of the Ben had been alerted to expect the arrival of the intrepid balloonists. More important, the Scottish police, in a rare moment of permissiveness, had issued a blanket dispensation from the strict local licensing hours so that liquor might be served the aeronauts at any time of day or night. That was vital. Not only did the winning balloonists have to get to a bar first, but the landlord also would have to gravely record the exact moment when they raised glasses to lips. The prize, somewhat redundantly, was a case of champagne.
Months earlier, when I was challenged to the race by way of a transatlantic phone call, it had sounded like superior fun. But by the time spring came around, I had half forgotten it. There was this mysterious entry in my diary that seemed to read "Fat William," which at first I reckoned must be the name of a Manhattan restaurant that somebody had recommended. Then I realized I'd written Fort William, the town on Loch Linnhe that had been General William Augustus (Butcher) Cumberland's base when he set out to break the Scottish clans after Bonnie Prince Charlie's abortive uprising in 1745.