Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

Up, up, and away above the Arctic Circle

WideWorld discovers a hot air balloon adventure with a difference
Up, up, and away above the Arctic Circle

The Arctic Balloon Adventure is the world’s northernmost hot-air balloon event.  Sixteen teams from eight different countries gathered in the Swedish Lapland to fly across the untouched landscape.  WideWorld got an exclusive look at the event with Michiel van Nimwegen.

In temperatures as cold as -35° Celsius, hot-air balloons glided above the Swedish Gällivare and spectators from around the world gathered to watch as balloon pilots competed to hit their targets at the finish location each day.

“It was an unforgettable experience,” said van Nimwegen, a photographer in Gällivare who helped organize the event.  “The transport is completely quiet and you get to see the scenery from a completely different perspective.”

The Arctic Balloon Adventure began in 2007 and was held in the Finish Lapland for four consecutive years.  This year, the fifth edition of the adventure took place in the Swedish Lapland, where pilots flew over frozen lakes, forests and mountains, and from the balloons, the Laponian World Heritage area was visible on the horizon.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to fly over the Laponian area.  Since it was the first year the event took place in Sweden, the key word was safety and we focused on ensuring that nothing went wrong,” van Nimwegen said.  “Going across the area would be very special and at next year’s edition we are hoping to make that happen.  After a couple of years in the same location we would also like to have longer flights and higher locations.”

The Laponian World Heritage area is the largest national park area in Europe, consisting of four national parks, two nature reserves, towering mountains, and glaciers.  The area is relatively unknown and inaccessible.  The challenge to fly over this Laponian landscape is its narrow window for landing since balloons cannot land within the national parks.

“It would be a dream to fly over the Laponian World Heritage area, but it will take a lot of preparation and experienced pilots,” said van Nimwegen.

The adventure, which took place in mid-February during the early Swedish summer, consisted of one flight per day for an estimated hour and a half.  Flights were limited to daylight hours which are restricted this time of year as the 24-hour dark winters are transitioning to the 24-hour lit summers.  Pilots were able to fly eight out of the ten days allotted for the event.

“We were lucky.  The weather was fantastic with clear skies.  The downside was that it was extremely cold,” said van Nimwegen.

Pilots were not permitted to fly when temperatures plummeted below -40° Celsius or when wind strength was above eight knots.  Each day, a briefing would take place in the morning before sunrise to discuss temperature, wind direction, and locations for the start and finish.

Hot-air balloons depend on the direction the wind blows.  The amount you can steer a balloon is only about 15° to the left or right.  The start and finish locations of the event were chosen according to wind direction each morning of the event.  This is the essence of the competition for the pilots: who can land the closest to the target at the finish.

“Some pilots are better than others at steering the balloon and this is where it becomes a competition,” said van Nimwegen.  “Every day they mark where they landed and whoever was the closest would win for the day.  It isn’t a coincidence either.  It would often be the same pilots hitting the right spot.”

Six out of the eight days, pilots managed to land the balloons in the finish locations.  Due to a change in wind direction, pilots were forced to land in alternate locations two of the days, however, van Nimwegen said this was unusual.

But change in the wind direction was not the only challenge pilots faced during the adventure.  Cold temperatures froze burners and equipment.  These complications began to occur around -20° Celsius but with knowledge and experience all problems could be fixed.

“As a photographer it was all fun, but balloon pilots saw it as pushing their limits of what they could do.  That was mainly due to the cold and it being such an uninhabited area – if something went wrong they would be in a very difficult spot to reach,” said van Nimwegen.  “Some of them compete a lot and to them it makes a big difference if they win or not.”

Jan Oudenampsen from Excel, a small town in Holland, won this year’s Arctic Balloon Adventure.  On the last evening of the event, a dinner and ceremony were held at Dundret in celebration of the winner and all participants.

What it takes to fly a hot-air balloon

Under normal circumstances, it takes at least three people to manage a hot-air balloon: one pilot, one person to help with the balloon, then someone to follow the balloon and be there when it lands.  However, in practice four people are best to put up a balloon.

In addition to a crew, pilot, and balloon, you need propane – large quantities, especially when in cold climates.  In places like Gällivare, you need nitrogen to help the propane flow well and to put more pressure on the gas canisters when temperatures drop.

It is not unusual for balloons to be equipped with oxygen.  When flying over high altitudes it can become a necessity and is always good to have on board as a precaution.

“This year there was no reason for oxygen since they did not reach such altitudes.  The highest mountain, Mount Dundret, was 800 meters.  We are talking about making the next edition more exciting and special,” said van Nimwegen.

How to Participate

“The idea is to make the adventure accessible for the public as well as the professional balloon pilots, and to give other people the opportunity to join in,” said van Nimwegen.

During the summer months in the Swedish Gällivare, the weather and temperatures are moderate which creates a perfect opportunity to see the sites and test your skills as a balloon pilot.  “This is the adventure.  Anyone with a bit of experience in arctic ballooning could just come to the Lapland and do this in the summer,” said van Nimwegen.

Participants in the Arctic Balloon Adventure this year were mostly professionals with a few pilots who balloon as a hobby.  Experience is needed to participate but the challenge is open to everyone.  For those not yearning to pilot a balloon, you can even buy a ticket to join one as a passenger.

Hendrik Ten Cate and Ton Kurvers have organized the Arctic Balloon Adventure from its start in 2007.  Their companies, Easy Event and European Balloon Company can be reached for information on the event or for planning your own ballooning experience.

Next year’s race will take place in the Swedish Lapland for the second year running.  “There are so many reasons to pay to participate,” said van Nimwegen, “but above all people like to push the envelope a little bit and have the opportunity to have flown above the Arctic Circle.”