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Aggies leap from hot-air balloons, set insane ‘rope swing’ record

August 20th, 2014 Posted in Arts and Life

By Sarah Romero, BSJ ’14

SOMEWHERE ABOVE THE NEVADA DESERT—The bulbous hot-air balloon, blue with red and white stripes, rose slowly. I stood at the edge of the wicker basket, my heart racing as I prepared to jump into the empty sky.

GERONIMO!!! Sarah Romero after a 200-foot step off a balloon.

GERONIMO!!! Sarah Romero chillin’ after her 200-foot step off a hot-air balloon.

Three-thousand feet below, the Nevada desert stretched for miles, lit by the rising sun. It was only 7:30 a.m., yet the thermometer attached to the balloon’s basket already registered 91 degrees.

Watch “Flossing the Sky,” Patrick Romero’s Mountain Dew video.

I looked out at the other balloon rising in tandem with mine, this one brightly striped red, green, yellow and magenta. My eyes ran along a rope, attached to the other balloon’s basket. It stretched 200 feet across the sky and ended knotted to a gold carabineer secured to my basket.

“It’s time,” said a voice from the basket behind me. I heard the words, but somehow they seemed distant. I knew I didn’t have time to waste. Or think. We had only one shot at this—in a matter of seconds, the balloons could drift too far apart, and my chance to jump would be gone.

I unclipped the carabineer from the basket and secured it tightly to my harness, then climbed awkwardly onto the basket’s edge. I bent my knees, ready to spring away from the basket like Kyle had told me to. I tried not to look down as I counted in my head 1 . . 2 . . . 3 . . . and leapt off the basket into open sky. Air rushed past me as an animalistic scream escaped from my mouth.

My arms flailed wildly as my body plummeted toward the ground.

When the rope caught, it whipped me upward, cracking my back and momentarily stunning me. But the screams of celebration coming from the balloons above distracted me from the whiplash. I was alive—the best kind of alive. Every nerve vibrated with adrenaline and the feeling of accomplishment was overwhelming, because our plan, our system, had worked.

MAD GENIUS—Patrick Romero likes living on the edge. And a little Dew.

MAD GENIUS—Patrick Romero remembers, “I kept falling.”

I was now hanging under the second balloon. My husband, Patrick, peered down at me from his basket. I watched him climb onto the edge of his wicker basket and signal that he was about to jump.

“When the time comes to jump, you’re not thinking normal thoughts,” said Patrick, 25. “Your brain goes blank, and yet everything seems so clear.”

I craned my neck up at him, holding my breath and praying he would be okay. And then he was diving through the sky past me, a line of dust trailing behind him. He kept falling and falling and falling. Then his rope caught after eight seconds of free fall, 1,400 feet below the balloon. Patrick had just broken the world record for the largest rope swing.

“As soon as I jumped, I remember yelling with excitement as I fell and actually running out of breath from yelling for so long,” Patrick said. “But I kept falling.”

“When the rope finally caught me, it was so smooth. It was ’way smoother than bungee jumping. It was awesome.”

Now we were both hanging beneath the balloons—still thousands of feet above the ground. How were we going to get down? And how did we get there?

The 2014 Mountain Dew Film Festival

Three months earlier, Patrick had heard about a competition sponsored by Mountain Dew to create videos showing how to “Do the Dew.” The top nine filmmakers would receive $10,000 to make another video for the final round, competing for a $250,000 grand prize to make more content for Mountain Dew.
It was a perfect fit for Patrick, who graduated from USU in 2014 with a BFA in graphic design. His video career began when he was 14, filming his teenage friends launching their snowboard-strapped bodies off cliffs in the Wasatch Mountain’s backcountry. He continued to film in college, creating “Why Men and Women Can’t Be Friends” in 2011 for his English class at USU—it went viral with almost 9 million views on YouTube. Besides his video experience and creative ability, he’s also been a loyal Mountain Dew drinker for years.

PATRICK ROMERO takes a giant leap from a highway bridge.

AS A WARM-UP, Patrick takes a giant leap from a highway bridge.

For the qualifying round, Patrick made a compilation video of rope swings we’d built in the past. These are not your typical back yard tire swings: Patrick’s idea of a “rope swing” is jumping from a 1,000-foot bridge while harnessed to the end of a climbing rope, getting as much free fall as possible until the rope catches.

“The feeling you get when you do these rope swings is out of this world,” Patrick says. “I like doing them because of the adrenaline, the risk. Fortune favors the bold. That’s it.”

A few months after submitting the video, we received a letter from PepsiCo, Mountain Dew’s parent company. Out of hundreds of video applications, ours was one of the nine finalists. We were given $10,000 and only two weeks to create a new video for the final round.

We would have to go big for this one.

Bigger than we’d ever gone.

Bigger than ANYONE had ever gone.

“We wanted to build the biggest rope swing that’d ever been built,” Patrick said. “So far, we’d only jumped from bridges. But with bridges you need to get permits and we didn’t have that kind of time.

“Also, with bridge-jumping, you can only swing the height of the bridge. So we thought, why not build a swing between two hot air balloons? That way, we could go as big as we wanted and we wouldn’t need permits.”

YOU NEED GOOD EYESIGHT to follow the high-flyin’ Romeros.

YOU NEED GOOD EYESIGHT to follow the high-flyin’ Romeros.

We contacted a hot air balloon company in Las Vegas that agreed to help us pull off the stunt. $10,000 goes surprisingly fast when paying for hot air balloons, a helicopter, four new GoPros and more than three-quarters-of-a-mile of heavy-duty climbing rope. Once everything was purchased and organized, we had one weekend to film and just a few days to edit the video.

A group of Patrick’s friends from Salt Lake met us in Vegas. Our team consisted of two mechanical engineers, a commercial laundry-equipment salesman, an air-traffic controller and an entrepreneur. While their professional skills varied, every person brought a crucial element to the team.

“Each guy was there for a reason,” Patrick said. “I have a long history with every single one, and their willingness to come out and help us plan, set up and film made the entire thing possible.”

We met in a hotel and began to organize everything for the next morning. “We were so excited and had so much planning to do,” Patrick said. “We literally did not go to sleep.”

By 5:30 a.m., we’d met up with Las Vegas Hot Air Balloon in the middle of the empty desert—far away from power lines and tall buildings. We had an hour-and-a-half to set up. Everyone ran around each other, tipping balloon baskets, starting fires, tying knots, unraveling rope and filming shots. By 7:30 a.m., the balloons lifted into the sky and we began the ascent, hoping everything would go as planned.

And it did, for the most part.

Back to Earth

BACK TO EARTH—The world record longest rope swing in the bag, the balloon drift back to Earth.

BACK TO EARTH—The world record in the bag.

7:50 a.m.—After my jump, I hung 200 feet beneath the balloon for about 40 minutes, waiting for Patrick to jump and for the balloons to separate and lower us to the ground. After hanging there for about five minutes, thousands of feet above the desert floor, my legs began to go numb. By the time my feet touched the sagebrush-spotted dirt, I was surprised my legs still supported my body.

That morning was the most intense, exhausting and adrenaline-packed few hours of my life, but it was just the beginning of the filmmaking process. Patrick spent the next few days editing the footage.

“When a quarter of a million dollars is on the line, an incorrect edit could be the difference between winning and losing,” he said. “It was definitely a hard video to edit because I would second-guess every single decision.”

But we were all proud of the final video, which we titled “Flossing the Sky.”

Mountain Dew flew us to New York City for the film festival premiere of all nine videos at the Tribeca Cinema. Our video was played last, followed by a nerve-wracking 10-minute break for the judges to deliberate.

Those 10 minutes were eternal.

Finally, the officials came back to the stage and announced the $250,000 winner. But the name they called wasn’t Patrick Romero. We looked at each other, silently communicating our disappointment. But, we knew we’d given it our all, and there was nothing more we could do.

We didn’t win the $250,000. But, honestly, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Those screaming, plummeting seconds were the high point of our life.

So far.

Note: The 2014 Mountain Dew Open Call Film Festival grand prize went to filmmaker Nathan Balli.


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