Hundreds of spectators gathered in the chilly morning air to watch as fiery air inflated 39 hot air balloons and propelled each into the sky during the first day of the 23rd annual Community First National Bank Hot Air Balloon Rodeo.
"What a beautiful sight, what a beautiful morning," announcer Rob Powers of Endurance Racing Services said over the microphone as balloons inflated.
The Meadows Lot was filled with cars by 7 a.m., and more lined Mount Werner Road.
People filled the field behind the lot to see the balloons up-close as their pilots prepared for launch.
"We come up here every summer for the activities," Longmont resident Bill Knoche said. "Spectacular."
Knoche said he has a timeshare in Steamboat Springs for the specific purpose of visiting during the Balloon Rodeo.
"This morning was different (from previous years)," he said. "They had different launch times. It was much better."
In past balloon rodeos, Knoche said he had seen the balloons take off in a linear order. This year, the launches seemed more sporadic, he said.
"Balloonmeister" Marty Pearlman said the random look of the launching was carefully planned to avoid balloon collisions.
"We had eight or nine launch directors," he said. "We did it in a safe progression."
Pearlman said weather conditions for the balloon rodeo were excellent. He said rain clouds looked threatening early on, but the sun burned off any precipitation, and the balloons all had safe journeys.
"The winds are very maneuverable," he said. "That is what is very unique about Steamboat. There are different layers of winds."
Pearlman said those layers help balloon pilots to stay within a "box" in the valley. The lower winds will cause them to drift one direction, and higher winds will often push them back to their starting point, he said.
The pilots cannot steer their balloons beyond lowering or raising them using hot air, he said.
The pilots participated in two competitions while in the air, the Rodeo Roping and the Don Quixote Race.
The first required that the pilots lasso a hay-bale "steer" on the ground. From high above, they attempted to toss lassos onto the steer, which was placed on a tarp on the ground.
The Don Quixote Race involved the balloon pilots popping tethered target balloons with a sharp nail attached to a broomstick.
Pearlman said that four of the seven target balloons were popped on the first day of this year's rodeo. Last year, only two were popped over both days.
Food, beverages and commemorative T-shirts were sold in tents set up in the field.
The sponsors of the balloons, some from Steamboat and many from out of town, were announced as each balloon began to rise into the air.
Missing from the festivities this year is the nighttime Balloon Glow event.
After the event was canceled by weather for two years in a row, the organizers decided not to schedule it this year.
"It takes a lot to get everything geared up and up there, and then both of the last two years it was canceled because of weather," Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association spokeswoman Riley Polumbus said. "One year it was lightening, another year it was wind, and we decided not to go with it this year at all. The weather's just a lot more unpredictable at night than it is in the morning."
The Balloon Rodeo continues with another 7:15 a.m. launch today at the Meadows Lot.
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