...and track freshies where you never thought you would
They are heckled by some. They are banned at many places. They have equipment that breaks down often and they always have to carry a Swiss Army Knife at all times to MacGyver-it together on regular basis. Reminds us of snowboarders in the early days, doesn’t it?
But even if you are among the hecklers, feel free to read this short brief on snowboarding’s latest sibling and possibly closest relative: kiteboarding on snow, aka snowkiting. You’ll want to do this because they are already blasting airs bigger than us – 5 seconds of hang time is stock – and tracking freshies in places we can’t go, such as a field or a lake nearby your house.
Of course, it was invented by the French. It takes an ingenious mind to invent the idea of launching a huge piece of cloth in the air with the purpose of being dragged quite uncontrollably behind it. As they did it on water at the time, the Hawaiians soon took notice and developed it into what kitesurfing is today, a massively popular sport on beaches all over the world. Then the French took it back and developed kiteboarding on snow – snowkiting. Although the brightly coloured kites are less common over snow than over water, you are still very likely to encounter them this winter. The movement is gaining ground rapidly at the moment, another parallel to snowboarding in its early days.
A key feature of snowkiting is that it is scary and enjoyable at the same time.
A key feature of snowkiting is that it is scary and enjoyable at the same time. For it to work, you not only need snow, there also needs to be at bit of wind. For both, it would be true to say that the more the better, but the wind can – depending on the size of the kite and the rider – actually get too burly. The skill level matters but even experienced riders get in trouble occasionally when a gust catches them. So although it may look like an easy ride from a distance, you can be sure that even though a kiter might be sporting a wide grin he also has butterflies in his stomach. After all, he’s now connected some aspects of his life to unpredictable Mother Nature by a set of 25-metre lines.
But yes, there is some security incorporated into the equipment, although as the sport is young all of the brands have their own idea of what is a safe system. They all have their pros and cons, but some of them are pure crap too and seem to add more danger than they take away. Another side of this is that as they all work differently: you have to learn a new system each time you try out a new kite, and you won’t have time to think about what you are doing when shit happens. You have to know where to pull your release instinctively when you suddenly find yourself being dragged and bounced in a cloud of snow at, say, 75km/h.
If you are an average snowboarder, you have all the board skills you need already.
While we’re stuck on the equipment side of things, it’s good to know there are two distinctively different kinds of kites: Foils and LEIs, or Leading Edge Inflatibles to be correct. The first kind is basically just a big piece of foil-like material, very much like a small version of a parachute with 4 lines connected to it and attached to a control bar. These work well over land, but once crashed in the water they aren’t much good. The latter kind is what the Hawaiians developed and they can be re-launched in case of a crash in the ocean. These are more rigid, generate more power, and can be flown over land too – except if you crash them hard enough, the tube within them bursts. There is also an ‘in-between’ kind of kite called Closed Cell. They become partly inflated during the flight and they have more in common with Foils than with LEIs. Also some older kites are flown using 2 lines only, you’ll want to stay away from those because they give you no option of de-powering the kite.
For those who weren’t scared off by the safety talk or bored by the equipment details, here are some useful facts about snowkiting:
- Snowkiting is a lot easier than kitesurfing. You need less wind, you can stop at any time and place, and holding an edge on a snowboard is a lot easier. If you are an average snowboarder, you have all the board skills you need already, like being able to go fakie.
- Unless you know how to kitesurf, you’ll want to get a Foil rather than a LEI. They pack in a small knapsack and rig in almost no time (without using a pump, something that can be a hassle on a windy mountain). They are also a lot safer as you can collapse them into a lifeless piece of cloth at any time. LEIs on the other hand maintain their shape on the ground and can pull the rider after a crash. Brands specializing in Foils include Ozone, Flexifoil and Flysurfer.
- As you may have guessed already, there is no need to be in a ski area or resort to snowkite. Anywhere there is snow and a wide-open space is good. Frozen lakes are excellent for beginners for example. Just stay clear of power lines, lift lines, buildings and other kite boarders. Epic snowkiting locations are Hardangervidda in Norway and Col Du Lauteret in France – but anywhere there’s snow and fairly steady wind will suffice. And yes, it is possible for snowkiters to travel uphill, if the wind is blowing in the right direction.
- Some geeks are using kites to traverse across vast distances, like on skis across Greenland and the North Pole, but don’t put too much emphasis upon such things. Most people find the fun with kites lies in riding and jumping very much like on a snowboard.
- The world’s best snowkiter over the past years is a former pro snowboarder from the south of France, Guillaume Chastignol. After top placings in the halfpipe at both X-Games and the Nagano Olympics, he’s taken his incredible, smooth style to new heights using a kite.
- You’ll get up to speed a lot faster if you go with an experienced rider the first couple of times. To learn about setting up and flying a kite on your own takes a lot of patience, so it’s a lot faster and more comfortable when riding to have someone help you rig and launch the kite at the beginning. Most snowkiters you meet will be happy to help you out for a few minutes with this, but if you feel the need to ask a gazillion questions, perhaps paying for a weekend course is a better option.
Although the purpose of this article wasn’t to turn you into a snowkiter, it’s hard not to point out the advantages of it in an article like this. So keep in mind that it’s both hard to learn as well as expensive before you set yourself up. Most of you reading this will probably have more fun in the ski areas on your snowboard. Snowboarding is, after all, what it’s all about for most of us. But ‘to each his own’, as the ancient put it.
Anders Hagman is a Swedish former pro snowboarder who snowkites occasionally, although not at the level of Guillaume. Quite a few of his mates are following in his tracks too for some reason…