In my mind’s eye I hold the images I couldn’t photograph. We ride down a snowy ridgeline atop a range of hills topped by round, rolling crests, like a slow ocean swell frozen in place. The sky is a bottomless blue colour overhead that feels infinitely deep when constrasted with the brilliant white of the landscape. The wind is brisk and steady on my right cheek. To my left, a vivid green kite canopy hangs at the end of a taut twenty-metre line, about thirty degrees off vertical, locked in an open C-shape where the wind fills the foil. I am the third in four as we skim down the slope, our kites multicoloured variants of the same theme, the curious engines that conspire with gravity to drive us forward. I am leaning into the wind and carving my skis into the slope hard to hold my ground against the tug of the kite. The air is crisp and cold and pressing itself hard against my face. My body and my mind are focused on balancing the different forces pulling me down and across the mountain, and it’s exhilerating. As I look ahead, I watch Fabrice at the head of our line cut shallow ‘S’ turns into the slope where he plays joyfully close to a curled frozen windlip dropping forty feet into a gully below. He carves out into the wind, then snakes gently back again while his kite hangs static above him. We can see multiple peaks and multiple ridgelines, filling our vision from horizon to horizon, and we four are the only other humans we can see.
On our first day in the Southern Alps, our guide told us,
“The very best days of my life have been snow-kiting, and the very worst days of my life have been snow-kiting”.
Having spent a little time in the backcountry, I could guess at what he was alluding to, but it wouldn’t take very long at all for me to discover what he was hinting at for myself.
Snow kiting is a curious sport. Of all the ‘extreme’ sports that I’ve taken part in at various points of my extended adolescence (off-piste skiing, rock-climbing and abseiling, mountain-biking, tandem skydiving, white-water rafting and kayaking, and a variety of other activities), snow-kiting is certainly the one that best fits the ‘extreme’ tag. It is the most technically challenging by far to learn, and it is also the sport which I reckon offers the greatest chance of inflicting a serious injury on yourself. That said, on the occasions when it all comes together, our guide’s comment rang true. When it works, it’s absolutely fantastic.
The sport of kite-surfing has become recognizable over the last decade. Largely replacing the sport of windsurfing/sailboarding among the younger generations, it is an iteration of the same activity, where participants strap a [smaller] board to their feet and use a ‘kite’- a wing or sail canopy flown at the end of a series of lines, which can either be a foil or with a lightweight inflatable frame. The kite hangs in the wind, and by flying the kite back and forth (the kite is a structural wing), lift is produced which allows the kite-surfer to travel back and forth on the water- and, when they’re good enough- catch some pretty good air as well.
Snow-kiting is more or less the same sport, only adherents use a pair of skis or a snowboard as their ride. Then they do the same thing back and forth on a hillside rather than the open sea. It’s a subtle shift in medium, although in fact there are several key differences that make snow-kiting considerably more challenging to master (in my inexperienced and inexpert opinion).
The first and most obvious change is that snow is not water. This may sound like a silly observation to make, but it has some fundamental implications. You can’t drown in snow, for example. You can, however, break bones. Or snap them. Or shatter them. You can also bury yourself in avalanches, if you get onto the wrong slope. Which isn’t really a lot better than drowning, apparently.
The next difference is that you have to add a whole third dimension of travel. Kite-surfing generally involves going forwards, backwards, and side-to-side. This is all influenced (obviously) by wind direction. In the mountains, you also have the uphill and downhill elements. Travelling uphill is harder (in terms of the resistance you get from gravity). Travelling downhill, easier. Travelling uphill downwind is okay because you can get the kite to pull you up it. Travelling downhill allows you to move upwind- an advantage you don’t get in the sea so much. However travelling uphill upwind is near impossible as you’re fighting both gravity and the wind. It’s probably a losing battle. And travelling downhill downwind is quite simply terrifying.
You got all that?
The third big difference is that the land features affect how the wind travels. Subconciously we’re all vaguely aware of this. Standing on a hilltop you get more wind than standing on the downwind slope of the hill. Wind accelerates as it goes over the top of an obstacle, and can be channelled around an obstacle, so wind direction in gullies can be unpredictable, and the wind speed itself can drop off altogether. So you have to think not just in terms of how to travel with the wind, but also where the wind is likely to be strong or weak. You might be sailing quite happily along a ridgeline, but if you drop into a little valley the wind can evaporate and you’re left with a long steep climb in deep snow dragging your kite and skis back onto the hilltop to relaunch.
It’s really fun. I did it a lot.
In addition, you add in all the complications of regular backcountry skiing. Terrain hazards like rocks, crevasses and cliffs. Varying snow quality and surface (we spent some time skittering over frozen windcrust one evening, which was every bit as much fun as it sounds). Avalanche risk (this year is said to have the most extreme avalanche hazard in living memory in New Zealand right now). And the sheer remoteness of the locations you sometimes play in (though in this case we were mostly within easy striking distance of a lodge).
I think the challenge of snow-kiting appealed to me because it really was the confluence of two already-challenging sports. When you get riding, you have to think about all the elements of skiing: speed, direction, slope, hazard, surface condition, controlling the skis, etc. On top of that, you have to think about the kite: wind speed, direction, how it flows with the landscape and how to pick your route, which direction the kite is pulling you, whether the kite is diving or climbing or static, and so forth. All at the same time. It’s sensory overload coupled with multitasking to the max. One of these days I’m sure it will all become automatic and instinctive, but I have to say at this point in time, it’s exhausting.
And of course, with this sort of complexity, there’s lots of opportunity for it to all go horribly wrong. Launching a kite in strong wind is a pretty scary prospect as it can be quite hard to control, and more than once I ended up having my kite yank up into the air, yanking me horizontally across the landscape on my face. When you crash out skiing, most of the time you hit the snow and decelerate (though most of us have experienced brief high-angle incidents where this doesn’t hold true…). However when you biff hanging on to a kite, you have the initial impact- driven by both gravity and wind- but while gravity eases off, the wind doesn’t.
In a best-case scenario, you keep control of the kite, drag through the snow a short distance, then regain control of the [still airborne] kite and pull yourself back to your feet. Or lie there for a few minutes to catch your wind while keeping the kite lazily floating. In a less-good-case scenario, after you crash, you also lose control of the kite. The kite dives towards the ground, and for a few seconds all the power comes on to the kite, accelerating you across the ground in whatever state you happen to have landed, before finally hitting the snow. If you’re lucky, it’ll fold and stay there. If not, it can keep dragging you downwind- into and over anything that might be in your path- until you have the presence of mind and physical ability to reach your break or, in a worst-case scenario, your emergency release cord.
The recovery can be a hoot as well. The foil kites we were mostly flying were controlled by a bar with four fine lines on it- two front lines (left and right), and two rear lines (left and right). These lead to a bridle with two dozen connection points and a number of pulleys and knots and other fun string-related paraphenalia, all of which hang neatly from the kite while in midair, and get horribly, horribly entangled when it crashes and twists. I’m not great at untying tangled knots in fine nylon cable at the best of times. Doing it in ski-gloves in a gusting 20-knot breeze (which keeps tugging the lines) when the air temperature is –4 and I’m having to trudge through knee-deep powder in heavy ski-boots is a long, long way from my idea of fun. One particular afternoon I spent an hour and a half detangling my lines from a single messy crash.
But there were moments- prolonged, beautiful moments, I should add- where it all worked perfectly. Like those runs we had up on the Old Man Range a couple of hours out of Queenstown, out in the middle of nowhere while the wind took us up and down the gently angled slopes of the ridgeline. Or enjoying the soft powder of our first few days on the edge of the Pisa Ranges, when the power comes on and you lean right back against the wind so that you can reach out an arm and drag it in the snow if you feel like, with the kite hanging fully-charged a few metres off the snowpack downwind, and you glide, almost weightless, across the slope. It doesn’t yet come to me with the ease of downhill skiing, but I have to confess that kite sports have me solidly hooked, and I can easily see why being a competent snow-kiter would be one of the most rewarding sports out there to master.
Photo Note: All photos by me. None actually of me.