On a String and a Prayer: Our Reporter Tries Snowkiting for the First Time

November 25, 2019
snowkiting
Paula ChampagneEven a small gust of wind can pack big power, which is why snowkiting lessons focus on safety first, followed by lots of instruction on steering.

There’s something I need to get off my chest. You probably started reading this article thanks to the accompanying photos, but they’re a total ruse.

OK, yes, that is me in the matching pink ski goggles and jacket. And yes, I did take a snowkiting lesson in a picturesque field. And yes, I did, in fact, manage to harness the power of the wind to propel myself across said field. But despite how cool the photos make me look, I am not a badass.

The truth is, I’m not much of an adrenaline junkie. My sense of adventure tends toward strenuous day hikes—significant and challenging, but with my feet on the ground. So when the opportunity to try snowkiting came up, I was equally excited and terrified.

It turns out that’s pretty much the right mindset, because snowkiting is hard. Like, can’t-move-my-arms-for-three-days-later hard. It’s not something a cross-country skier who has “flown a kite or two on the beach” can pick up in a few hours. I spent the entirety of my lesson trying to keep my kite airborne; forget trying to move. But when—suddenly! unexpectedly!—I did catch a gust, it pulled me forward with such power that I glided across the field with ease. Well, ease until my anxiety kicked in.

Which is maybe a long way of saying: Don’t try this at home. But do try it.

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In the Beginning

For those unfamiliar with snowkiting, here’s how it works: As in its sister sport of seaside kitesurfing, snowkiters are harnessed to a parachute-like kite, which in turn is attached by a complicated mess of strings to a steering pole. Although the kite leaves the ground, your feet don’t. Most participants choose to wear skis, but if you’re more comfortable on a snowboard, it is (theoretically) possible to snowkite via board. That’s the basic setup. Then there’s the grasp of thermodynamics and the athletic agility needed to catch the wind and manipulate it to get you where you want to go: across a frozen lake; over a snow-crusted field; even up a mountain.

The first traces of snowkiting appeared around 1972, with a prototype from the German skier Dieter Strasilla. His model evolved, as thrill-seeking skiers looked not only for a way to glide across flat terrain but to get pulled uphill, eliminating the need for a chairlift or for strenuous backcountry skinning. Before long, snowkiting took off throughout the ski regions of Europe, especially in Norway, where there’s an annual snowkiting race in Hardangervidda National Park (also known as the planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back). In the last decade or so, snowkiting has gained traction in the western United States, Canada, and New Zealand. Within AMC’s region, schools offer lessons in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and on the border of Maine, as well as on Long Island.

My own introduction to snowkiting came in three parts. First, through a documentary short at a 2018 Banff Mountain Film Festival tour stop in Boston, where I watched a professional snowkiter get lifted off the ground only to land—hard—on her back. At the end of the film, she revealed she’d broken multiple ribs in the accident. Part 2 was also passive: From the comfort of a train car, I watched snowkiters gracefully sail across a valley in the Swiss Alps. Unlike the film, which presented the sport as intimidating and terrifying, these recreational skiers made snowkiting seem effortless, even relaxing.

So by part 3, my lesson last January, I’m not sure what to expect. But I quickly learn there are two kinds of amateur snowkiters: the ones who want to experience the thrill and the ones who actually want to master the sport. Which category I fall into is the first question I get over the phone from Zebulon Jakub, a snowkite instructor with the International Mountain Climbing School (IMCS) in North Conway, N.H. His point is snowkiting requires dedication and investment, including an arsenal of gear and a solid handle on safety tactics, before you so much as strap on a ski.

Upon my arrival at IMCS headquarters, I’m sent to an upstairs classroom, where Jakub and I will spend the next two hours meticulously going over gear and the ejection process, in case of emergencies. In the lofted space above the store, he has laid out several kites and drawn a series of diagrams on mobile whiteboards. He explains we’ll be using foil trainer kites, which are designed to go only so fast, giving beginners, like me, a chance to get the hang of snowkiting before getting carried away—possibly literally.

Jakub has been an International Kiteboarding Organization (IKO)-certified instructor for six years and has been kiting through New Hampshire for the last 10. He fits that ski-pro stereotype—athletic, with an obsession for weather—and fills his lessons with tales of adventures on the slopes. His philosophy on snowkiting is: If the forecast looks good and there’s plenty of snow, drop everything and take advantage of the day. He’ll often head onto the fields with friends and set up chairs and a pirate flag, which helps him estimate the strength and direction of the wind, waiting for conditions to be just right.

“You need good snow and good wind,” he says. “Finding that perfect combination is like finding a $100 bill under a tire.” Jakub recalls one season, in 2009, where he went snowkiting a total of 193 times. That’s practically every day! “But that was a rare year,” he laughs.

Extreme sport engenders extreme passion, but with me, Jakub is careful to take it one step at a time. “You really need to know what you’re doing,” he says repeatedly while we’re still inside the classroom. “You will see that there is a specific order [of what you need to learn], and if you try to fast-track that, you’ll very quickly realize you have no idea what you are doing. You need to have a sense of control and be on the cautious side—not the reckless, thrill seeker side.”

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Windiest Place on Earth

Beyond gear, preparation, and a healthy dose of fear, both snowpack and terrain play crucial roles in snowkiting.

“Everyone overestimates their ability to ski and snowboard,” Jakub says. “When [you are downhill or cross-country skiing at a ski center], you are on groomed terrain. But when [you are snowkiting], there’s an inch of snow that is a crust layer. If you were skiing that at an angle, you’d probably break a leg. There’s some factors at play with the kites that allow you to ski on ice you usually wouldn’t ski on.” Case in point: During our lesson, Jakub pulls up YouTube clips he shot from his “climb” up Mount Washington, using a kite.

Of course, in New Hampshire, where Jakub calls home, conditions can be a bit…unpredictable.

“This is a windy part of the country, and it certainly changes quickly,” says Tom Padham, an education specialist at New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Observatory. A private institution, the observatory has stood near the summit of New England’s highest peak for 87 years, recording and analyzing data to better understand the weather and climate of the White Mountains. Much of the observatory’s research is used by the National Weather Service in forecasting nationwide models and regional reports. (See “Weathering Washington, Then Everest.”) Observers even clocked the fastest human-recorded wind gusts on Earth: 231 mph atop Washington on April 12, 1934—a record challenged only by an unmanned instrument’s read of 253 mph in 1996, during Typhoon Olivia off the coast of Australia. 

While wind speeds haven’t blown that hard in recent memory, Padham was present for the highest wind gust of 2019: 171 mph on February 25. So, it’s no exaggeration to say the observatory researchers are experts when it comes to wind.

“Winds above 80 mph start becoming very difficult to stand in place, and I couldn’t imagine attempting to fly a kite of any kind in conditions even close to that,” Padham says. “Ideally, you would prefer winds to be a steady 15 mph or so. Winds above 35 mph, I’d imagine, start becoming increasingly dangerous and difficult to control the kite.”

In the forest and towns below Mount Washington, Padham says wind speeds rarely average more than 15 mph, but in the notches, like Pinkham and Crawford, there can be a localized funneling effect that leads to very windy days in concentrated locations, making snowkiting even more difficult. Snowkiters must also keep in mind that wind isn’t steady, meaning it fluctuates with gusts and lulls.

“The best advice I can give is to always check the forecast before doing any sort of outdoor activity and be prepared for potentially even worse weather than what is forecast,” Padham concludes.

“New England likely has some of the most temperamental winds and ground conditions anywhere I have ever kited,” Jakub says. “[Snowkiters should] absolutely take wind speeds and forecasts into account. Sadly, no matter how little or long someone has been kiting, going out in poor wind or poor conditions often leads to close calls, accidents, or death.”

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Field Work

Back to my own lesson, which—as recommended by the IKO playbook—begins with escape.

If the kite is out of control, Jakub instructs me, simply let go. Most beginner kites are designed to collapse on themselves. If that doesn’t work, you can pull a quick-release tab on your harness, which detaches you from the kite, minus the safety line. That’s where step 3 comes in: Disconnect the safety line and let your kite fly off.

With some basics under my belt, we head outdoors. Despite bluebird skies, the temperature is barely grazing double digits. Equipped with two layers of warm gloves, wool socks, waterproof winter boots, fleece leggings, snow pants, and an expert stratification of wicking shirts under wool sweaters and my pink puffy, I am prepared for the cold. Now I just need some wind.

We set up camp on a large field in Fryeburg, Maine, right over the New Hampshire border. It’s private property, owned by Green Thumb Farms, which lets IMCS use the land for lessons while the potato fields hibernate. A few days of thawing and refreezing has created a nice crust, although the occasional wrong step means I posthole a foot deep into the snow. As a novice, I’m not allowed to wear skis or even snowshoes until I can steer my kite to Jakub’s satisfaction.

He draws a half circle in the snow and has me stand at its base. Together we visualize a diagram in the air: With the kite at 12 o’clock overhead, I should be able to control my direction with minimal pulling. In order to gain speed, I’ll navigate the kite in a figure 8 on either side of the 12—to the left or the right, depending on where I want to go. This involves swiftly maneuvering the end points of the steering bar up and down, at times turning it vertical. If I ever feel I’m going too fast, I can steer the kite back to the center line to slow down.

Finally, it’s time to fly. The wind is mild, but when a breeze blows, it’s shocking how powerful these kites really are. Each quick burst lasts long enough for me to get my kite aloft, propelling me forward, only to lose momentum and have to wait for a new gust to come through. I spend the first half of my tutorial trying to get used to these inconsistent bursts, sometimes strong enough to lift me off my feet. But even as I worry about the wind getting stronger, I look forward to the next breeze coming through and untangling my kite’s elaborate strings. (A benefit with these trainer kites is they can unsnarl themselves, to a certain extent. Just wait for the wind to pick up your chute and set it right, and you’re back on your way.)

As I struggle to gain control, I realize it would be easier to sit in the snow and let the kite pull me along on my butt. It may not be glamorous, Swiss-style flying, but at least I get the idea. The more comfortable I get steering, the easier it becomes to let myself fly. I love the feeling of sliding along the flat snow, kicking up a wake of frost, and I can easily imagine what it would feel like to be on skis, eliminating the bumps in my exhilarating ride.

Toward the end of the lesson, I encounter a snowkiter’s worst enemy: dead wind. Jakub has warned me that, even once you’ve acquired all of the gear and skills, you can’t snowkite without a breeze. There’s another snowkiter on the field with us, so as I wait and increasingly doubt my ability to execute the basics, I peek at him to see if he’s also struggling to stay aloft. He is. That’s indication enough to wrap up the lesson and head back for lunch.

So, what are my big takeaways? First, snowkiting is a lot harder than those kids in Switzerland made it look. And second, you have to factor in safety every step of the way. You can’t just go out and buy a kite and expect to be zipping back and forth on the snow in a day. Mastering the sport takes time and involves some major gear frustrations and lots of shaking your fist at the sky.

My arms and core are fairly sore the next day, as expected, but at no point do I regret the experience. Would I try it again? Absolutely! Do I briefly consider buying myself a trainer kite for practice? Sure, but I would never actually go out without the supervision of an expert.

Maybe next time I’ll try kiting in the warmer months. I hear they offer lessons in Hawaii. 


Go Fly a Kite: 3 Places to Take Snowkiting Lessons

International Mountain Climbing SchoolNorth Conway, N.H.

A multi-lesson course developed by the International Kiteboarding Organization helps novices become fluent enough to snowkite and even kite mountaineer independently. Prices begin at $150 for one hour, with most specialty gear included. Students must bring their own skis or snowboard and boots, or rent them offsite. 

 

Hardwater KitingNorth Conway, N.H.

Beginners can dip in a toe with the $120 “Intro to Kiting” before continuing on to beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. Most gear—including a trainer kite, which is helpful for newbies—is provided, but students must bring their own skis or snowboard and boots, or rent them offsite. When you’re ready to go it alone, Hardwater suggests three accessible lakes: Winnipesaukee, in New Hampshire; Moosehead, in Maine; and Champlain, in Vermont.

 

NY Kite CenterAmityville, N.Y.

Intro classes start at $200 and increase to $300 for advanced levels. Lessons are designed to promote safety and independence and are taught by an IKO-certified instructor. All gear rental costs extra but is available onsite: $100 for a kite and steering bar; $80 for boots and skis or a snowboard.


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Kelleigh Welch

Kelleigh is managing editor of AMC Outdoors.