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Right time for kite time in the snow
Cool setting for what could be the hottest new trend on skis
Paul McHugh, Chronicle Outdoors Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2004
We have seen skiing's future. It will arrive under a cloud of Technicolor nylon. Well, actually, "snowkiting" won't be the future of all of skiing. But, it's certainly a segment that bids fair to provide the sport's hottest new trend over the next few years.
On a recent December day when cobalt blue, high-altitude skies above Hope Valley were fretted with lacy cirrus, bright bells of red, yellow and purple kites danced through the air. From these kites, long lines descended to control bars and harnesses, transferring power to riders mounted on skis and snowboards.
As those colorful, curving canopies swooped and hissed through the sky, skiers and 'boarders already adept at the art used wind power to dart freely across the valley's crusty, open snowfields.
"Once it opens and fills, a kite becomes your gravity," says Brian Schenck, 27, a representative for Ozone Power Kites. "It creates power for a skier or snowboarder to move fast, even over the flats. Throw in a few terrain undulations to slide across, and it gets just as exciting as any black diamond downhill run."
Kites may do for winter sports what they're already accomplishing for windsurfing. Six years ago, big U-shaped kites were a rare sight at windsurfing spots. Conventional triangular sails attached to masts and boards dominated the scene. Now, at Bay Area sites like Crissy Field, Coyote Point and even rough offshore spots like Waddell and Scott Creek, it's easy to see kites bobbing in the sky while riders on small, twin-tip boards skip nimbly over the waves.
According to longtime snowkiter Ken Lucas, utilizing wind power with a kite on snow may wind up even more popular than on water.
"Snowkiting is actually easier to learn than kitesurfing," said Lucas. "For one thing, there's no buoyancy issue. You won't need to keep yourself afloat and lined up while you get your gear sorted out. Another aspect is that you stay atop your sliding surface. Whereas, on water, if you fall, you stop abruptly while the kite stays powered-up. That's when unfortunate incidents can occur."
Lucas, 47, is a resident of Hood River, Wash., who understands how to forge a career from his passions. His Telefair Tour is a winter sports clinic that shows off the latest advances in telemark (free-heel) skis and bindings. This year he's added snowkiting demos to the Telefair for the first time, and the weekend of Dec. 11-12 at Kirkwood was his first stop on a 12-resort national tour.
"I'm psyched to try to turn people on to the sports I love," Lucas said. "But since it's the first time we've ever offered snowkiting, I'm not sure who will show up."
It turned out a half-dozen skiers and snowboarders were intrigued enough to follow clinic instructor Schenck down to Hope Valley. More interested parties pulled in off Highway 88 after they saw kites slicing through the sky.
Schenck began by explaining kite controls. Modern power kites have four lines. Two steering lines attach to ends of a bar which can be hooked to a harness on the rider's torso. An essential trick is steering the kite back and forth on a course nearly parallel to the horizon, movement which produces the most power. The two remaining lines are brake lines, tugged to dump wind from the kite.
Since wind that day was intermittent, most attendees were content to simply try to master flying small (3 square-meter) kites back and forth in a figure-eight pattern. But Matt Hansen, 29, the managing editor for Powder Magazine, clipped on skis and tried to move -- with moderate success.
"I'm impressed with how strong the pull is, when you fly it right," Hansen said. "This can be a real innovative way to get out into the backcountry. Already, it feels cool, kind of addictive, since I really want to figure this out."
Schenck put on a display by inflating a 12-meter kite, then rapidly carving his way across the fields on a snowboard, even catching a few yards of air on jumps.
"This is a brand new sport, it's still kind of in the closet," Schenck said. "But people will be eager to learn this if they live near any sort of snow-covered field.
"I predict the Midwest will become a hotbed, the biggest ski area in the world. It'll really turn heads at Salomon and Rossignol if they start selling a ton of skis in Nebraska and Michigan."
Schenck and Lucas say the extremely light, compressible and eminently packable kites (they lack the air-filled ribs used on water) make them ideal for empowering treks to backcountry snowfields, even at elevation.
"In the right situation, you can cover 30 miles in about 90 minutes," Schenck said. "It can be pretty mind-blowing, carving a turn at 20 mph while skiing uphill.
"About the steepest slope you can ascend is 45 degrees. But then, your window for maneuvering the kite gets real small. Any small mistake will turn you right off the mountain."
Lucas' eyes gleam when he discusses the possibilities.
"We're just starting to understand what can be done with these kites," Lucas said. "You might want to ride all day, gliding back and forth across a frozen lake or field. Or, you can find natural half-pipes and little jumps, when you're on terrain that's uneven, like a golf course.
"After you get real good, you might want to ride up to a ridge at the top of a bowl. Pack your kite, then ski down. Or use a big kite, and parasail off the other side."
The idea that skiers and snowboarders can, essentially, roll up a personal chairlift and stuff it in a fanny pack may send quivers through the resort industry.
But Lucas and Schenck insist a partnership is possible.
"Resorts can certainly sell us tickets to access their backcountry terrain," Schenck says. "Copper Mountain and Teton Village already do that."
One thing we probably won't see is snowkiters whipping up and down a resort's groomed runs, at least during the regular season.
Kitesurfers on water lament poor maneuvers, or panicked failures to brake, that get them dragged up levees, into docks or power lines. Such hapless happenings are dubbed "kitemares."
If kite-powered adventurers roamed across busy resort slopes, among trees and lift lines, as ordinary skiers and snowboarders slid the opposite way, the kitemares that ensued would likely give resort managers (and insurers) a fit of the screaming willies.
But Tim Cohee, president and general manager at Kirkwood, sees at least two ways his resort could accommodate snowkiters, should the sport take off.
"First, we do open backcountry gates whenever conditions are suitable," Cohee said. "These guys are welcome to buy lift tickets to access them when they're open."
"Another thing is, we never close in spring due to lack of snow, but only because people stop coming. If snowkiters want to use our slopes and bowls after the lifts shut down, maybe we can work it out. The Forest Service would have to agree. And we'd need to address the liability issue. But if that gets done, conceivably, we could grant permission," said Cohee.
-- The Telefair Tour with its snowkiting demo has left California. However, Ozone will hold snowkite free ride days at Mammoth Mountain on Jan. 22-23.
-- A search for current instructors in the Tahoe area yields Graham Sanders, Micah Mook and Gabe Brown of Lake Tahoe Kite Boarding. Lessons range from a group outing ($100) to an all-afternoon private lesson ($375). (530) 545-1779, or www.ltkb.com.
-- Another school listed is PowerZone Kiteboarding, (775) 742-2202, or www.powerzone.us.
-- There is crossover between kitesurfing and snowkiting skills. Kitesurfing instructors in the delta and Bay Area can also help you master basics. Check "windsurfing" in your yellow pages, and make inquiries.
-- One way to gain skills on your own is to fly a training kite (3 square meters or less), like the Slingshot Wasp 2, or Ozone Samurai. Cost of such kites is about $100 per square meter.
E-mail Paul McHugh at email@example.com.