Because the GPS unit on our first balloon launch failed, Team Death Punch set out to accomplish the mission of filming a sunset from 106,000 feet. Launching the second balloon from Sugarhouse, Utah we watched as our payload drifted to the east towards the Unita mountains. When the balloon reached 106,000 feet it popped, at which point the payload was under the care of our homemade parachute. We received a single ping from our GPS unit after our calculated crash time. No confirmation data was retrieved after that. We figured that the silence was due to the payload being buried under a few feet of snow, and we could only hope that the last ping we received was from the actual crash location. The problem was that this particular location (40.7995 degrees north and 110.70015 degrees west) was one of the most difficult places to reach in the lower 48 states.
For our first recovery attempt, Marc, Angela, Marcus, Roger and I rented snowmobiles and snowshoes and set out for a full day of conquering the snow. Over pristine mountains, several rivers, we traversed the snow in a delicate dance at the mid-height of the trees. Making our way through thick forests of evergreens, and the ghost-town remnants of old forest fires, we invented our own trail over inconsistently packed snow. Each new step was pregnant with surprise. At 6:30 pm we were forced to concede that we were not going to make it to the crash site in time. We turned around and raced the setting sun back out of the backcountry. We made it back to our snowmobiles just in time for the last few moments of nautical twilight.
Two weeks later, after 57 inches of snow had melted in the region, Marc, Angela, Ingo and I made another attempt to reach the crash site. Without the snow we were able to mountain bike a trail for about a mile. But the population of fallen trees, and the immense propensity for the terrain to be wet, quickly made our bikes more of a liability than an asset. So we abandoned our bikes and headed on towards our crash site. The terrain was braided with seasonal rivers, marshes fed by melting snow, fields of dead trees, and then once again – snow.
We crossed 38 streams and rivers over logs, found a waterfall that we suspect is both seasonal and unnamed, and never slowed down. At 6:30 pm we were 0.57 miles away from the crash site, according to our GPS unit (as the crow flies). Although we were reaching exhaustion, the setting sun did not allow us to take a break. Later than we were hoping, we finally reached the crash site at 7:30 pm. The problem was the crash site was actually 45 feet up in a pine tree!
Angela attempted to climb a nearby dead tree that was leaning into our tree. When she got about 25 feet up the branches started breaking under her feet. The base of the crash tree had no low hanging branches, so we had to search for a dead tree that we could break off and prop underneath our tree as a wedged starter. It took me a while to climb the tree safely and cut the payload down, but I made it with only some scratches and cuts.
At this point we were exhausted, but we had to race back down in an attempt to cross back over the raging river, balancing on a log before nightfall. We barely made it. Then, without a trail, and led only by headlamp, we traversed the next two ridges in the dark. We finally ran into the trail that our bikes were on at 4:15 am. After finding our bikes we pushed them out (we were far too tired and exhausted to balance on them) and made it back to our car at 5:30 am. We made it out to a paved road just in time to watch a sunrise from Wyoming.
The retrieval was a lot of work, it carried us out into a region unknown to human eyes, it pushed us to our limits, but it was worth it. We now have footage of a sunset from 106,000 feet.
(There ended up being a little moisture inside the GoPro casing, so the high elevation images are distorted by a thin layer of fog, but the images are still beautiful. Next time we will pack some dehydration beads into the casing to avoid that problem.)