Winter kiting on the fly.
I enjoy flying a kite on a breezy day, and I look forward to skiing every winter. But I must confess, I have never wanted to do both at the same time. I'm one of those skiers you're just as likely to see maneuvering downhill with furrowed brow as with a blissed-out powder face, so operating a kite while staying upright on skis seems to me about as relaxing as say, trying to skateboard while juggling.
Bozeman kite skiers Jeff Hill and Ron Orton would likely laugh at the image, then assert that the sport is fully doable for anyone with basic, intermediate-level skiing and kite-flying skills. "Kiting" is harnessing into lines attached to a large, air-filled kite that looks almost like a parachute, then flying it and using the wind power to get pulled across water or snow on a surfboard or skis. (Envision waterskiing, except you’re both the driver and the skier, and the wind-loaded kite is the motor.) The sport first appeared about 15 years ago in Europe, and over the past few years has taken off along Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, changing the scenery at one of the most popular windsurfing meccas in the world.
Despite the growing popularity of kiting on water, both Hill and Orton—who spend windy summer days on Montana’s lakes—prefer the snowfields of winter. If you’ve ever driven by Bozeman Deaconess Hospital on a gusty, winter day, you’ve likely seen one of them or a few others careening across the surrounding snowfields. Hill feels that winter terrain offers more dynamics than summer lakes. "Water is comparatively flat," he explains, "but snow can offer rolling hills, cornices, and other terrain features perfect for jumping or carving turns."
Winter kiting offers advantages for beginners in that there are usually fewer obstacles in a snowfield than a boat-filled lake, for example. And, Orton adds, "If the wind dies, you’re not stuck out in the middle of a lake attached to a downed kite."
But winter kiting isn’t just for downhill skiers; snowboarders and ice skaters can also harness in and take rides. Orton recalls a happy day last year with his sons, nieces, nephew, and other relatives out on Canyon Ferry Lake, where they all donned skates and he worked the kite as they held on to each other, taking train ride after train ride. (For those who might worry about the potential for out-of-control speed, there are ways to stall the kite, though an easy solution is to just let go.) Hill says his most serene kiting experience was early winter last year at Canyon Ferry, on a gently blowing day. "I was skating with my big kite, the wind was quiet, not howling, and the new ice was mirrorlike."
Wind speeds that catch a kiter’s attention range anywhere from eight to 40 miles per hour, with smaller kites generally flown in higher wind, larger kites in light wind. Most people involved in wind-powered sports will tell you they can be addicting, which really means that any amount of wind catches their attention, all of the time. Indeed, when I arranged to meet Hill for this interview, he agreed to be there on the condition that he could reschedule if the wind was blowing.
Orton’s wife, Michelle, good-naturedly recalls driving home past a golf course on a windy blizzardlike evening, after a full day of family skiing and snowboarding at Bridger Bowl. The kids were hungry, they were tired, but they still piled out of the car to help Dad launch the kite so he could get a few rides in before calling it a day. Orton, a sponsored snowboarder and accomplished windsurfer, never actually planned to take up another sport. "I didn’t want to start," Orton laughs, when pressed about how he got sucked in to buying a kite a few years ago, "I just wanted to try it."
And while more ambitious trips to the Beartooth Plateau are the ultimate for Hill and Orton, the flexibility of close-to-home snowfields is a plus for both Hill’s overbooked work schedule as a cameraman, and for Orton, who balances work and family responsibilities with recreation. "It’s easy to sneak in a fix," says Orton. "Sometimes I just cruise out at lunchtime and take a few quick runs."
For a physical workout, that’s all it takes, Hill says. "There are days I feel like I’ve done a full day of tram skiing, and that’s in just two or three hours of kite skiing. When you get good with the kite you can control it in any conditions. You get a workout by creating pull, driving the kite back and forth across the sky."
Despite the physical demands, kiting seems to tap into something distinctly Zenlike, and for those not interested in challenges like taking big air, there is the possibility of sitting back in the harness and relaxing. "The coolest thing about this sport is combining the movement of the kite with your movement; so it’s a real creative thing," Hill explains. "One of my favorite scenarios is when the snow is blowing across the field like sand across the desert. There is a surrealness in joining with the swirling snow, merging with the wind."
For people with Hill’s and Orton’s skills, there is even peace in the moments spent flying through the air, allowing the forward speed of the skis and the upward movement of the kite to grant wings for a snapshot in time. "I’ve been surprised at how easy the landing is when you get air on a kite. You float down nice and soft," says Hill. In fact, the airlift can seem so effortless and kind, it’s hard to discern how perception measures up to reality. While others described one legendary flight of Orton’s in the Beartooths as 30 feet high, Orton says it felt more like 10 to 12.
No matter the numbers, what they are seemingly left with at the end of each session is gratitude for the elements, and this sport that allows them to join in for a spell.
Kites for winter and summer kiteboarding can be ordered from several companies on the Web. Both Orton and Hill own Slingshot kites, found at www.sskiteboarding.com. Keep an eye out for kites in local ski retail stores as the sport gains momentum.