Chinese Pine Nut Harvester Drifts 200 Miles in Runaway Balloon

  • It’s a dangerous job but someone has to do it. Even if you risk floating away.

Work accidents are always serious business. But they don’t usually send you drifting aimlessly through the skies for days on end.

Unless you happen to be a pine nut harvester from China. Then you run a very real risk of taking to the air uncontrollably.

That’s just what happened to one nut picker. The hydrogen balloon he used to get to the top of the pine trees got loose by accident.

The man — named Mr. Hu by China’s state broadcaster CCTV — ended up floating in the sky for two days. In that time, air currents pushed his balloon nearly 200 miles away from its starting point.

Luckily, there’s a happy end to this story. Rescuers managed to Mr. Hu back on terra firma and he survived his ordeal without serious injury.

He may think twice before getting back in a balloon, though.

“I don’t think we’re in Heilongjiang anymore.”

Losing Control

On Sunday, August 4, Mr. Hu was doing his job, harvesting pine nuts in the Heilongjiang province in northeastern China. Together with his colleague, he climbed into a balloon in order to get to the top of the tall pine trees.

To keep the balloon from floating away, the duo had tethered it to the trunk of the tree they were harvesting. But for reasons unknown, their lifeline suddenly came loose.

As the balloon began to rise uncontrollably, Hu’s colleague jumped out. But without the other man’s weight, the balloon only began to ascend faster.

Before Hu was able to leap out, the balloon was already up too high. He lost control of the balloon completely and drifted away helplessly.

As he gained altitude, the wind began to push him along. With no food in the balloon, Hu spent two hungry and cold days floating aimlessly across China.

Out of the Fire and Into a Tree

Although Hu probably felt so in the balloon’s gondola, he wasn’t alone. According to the Chinese state-run news outlet Global Times, his employer, local police, firefighters, and professional rescue workers put together a 500-strong team to get Hu down safely.

Fortunately for Hu, he had been carrying his mobile phone when the balloon took to the skies. We can’t imagine the connection was particularly good up in the air, but the rescuers were eventually able to contact Hu in his gondola.

Following their instructions, Hu successfully began to deflate the balloon. As the hydrogen slowly escaped, he drifted closer to the ground.

By the time he finally stopped, Hu had traveled 186 miles from where he started, ending up in the Fangzheng region of Heilongjiang. But his ordeal wasn’t over yet.

On his way down in the forested Fangzheng, Hu’s balloon collided with a tree. Although he was not firmly in place, he was still not back on solid ground.

‘I Almost Gave Up’

But being closer to the ground had the advantage that the rescuers could now pinpoint Hu’s location with his cell phone signal. The rescue effort was still no small feat due to low temperatures and hard rain, which turned the ground into a muddy swamp.

“It was raining heavily in the dark forest, which was really hard for us to see anything clearly,” said Meng Qingchun, a member of the rescue crew.

Finally, after spending 10 hours looking for him, the rescuers found Hu’s balloon and brought him down. Despite being cold and hungry, Hu was in good health with only some back pain from remaining on his feet for two days straight.

According to Chinese officials, Hu is now recovering in a hospital.

“I almost gave up. But thanks to the rescuers, otherwise, I wouldn’t be alive,” he told Global Times.

A Dangerous Job

Using balloons to harvest pine nuts is a fairly common practice in China. Hu’s strange journey wasn’t the first time one of the balloons has escaped, but he probably set a record for distance traveled in a runaway balloon.

In 2019, two men harvesting pine nuts in the Changbai Mountains near the border of China and North Korea lost control of their balloon. They ended up drifting for six miles before they landed safely — and got arrested for violating aviation regulations.

Another incident happened in 2017 when a nut picker went missing around the same region. We couldn’t confirm if he was ever found.

But believe it or not, the balloons actually make pine nut harvesting safer. Without them, the workers usually use spiked shoes to climb the 65-feet-tall pine trees, risking fatal falls.

The next time your sprinkle pine nuts on your salad, say “thank you” to Mr. Hu and his colleagues.