I was very excited when invited to attend the Ozone Snowkite Masters event on the Bernina Pass in Switzerland last year. I was also going to be put through my paces with my intrepid companion, Fliss, from the Fat Face marketing department. Our mission was to learn how accessible the sport is to Joe Public. With two very different sporting backgrounds (Fliss, an accomplished dinghy sailor and, myself, a former member of the British freestyle ski team) it was going to be interesting to see what transferable skills we could each bring to the learning process. Fliss would have great wind awareness, and I felt that my balance and relaxed approach to dealing with speed would help me once up and running with the basics of flying the kite.
As I drove up the small road from St Moritz I was filled with mixed emotions. There was an overriding sense of excitement, though somewhat tinged with a healthy amount of fear! I remembered a few weeks back when I'd tried to get a sneaky go unsupervised with a big kite - an experience that I would certainly not recommend to anyone. A few seconds after launching I was whipped away by a strong gust and found myself five feet in the air travelling uphill at an alarming rate of knots. With more luck than judgement I managed to land (or should I say crash), narrowly avoiding rocks before freeing myself from the kite!
With visions of elegantly floating 80 foot airs fresh in my mind's eye from watching the footage on the big screen at the riders' party on the night of my arrival, I headed to sleep to prepare psychologically and physically for the next day.
Fliss and I found ourselves at the competition scene on a huge, wide-open area at the top of the Bernina pass. For a free skier like me it was a truly awe-inspiring place, with nothing but mountains stretching off in all directions as far as the eye could see... and without a single ski-lift in sight!
As we arrived on location we were met by Matt Taggart, our coach for the day; fellow Fat Face team rider, Ozone Kites boss and the pioneer of this event.
Following a short explanation of the fundamentals of flying a kite, Fliss and I were let loose to play with a couple of small four and six metre foil kites. We were quickly running around like mad and being pulled and buffeted in all directions by these beasts. However, to my relief and surprise, before long we gained some control and composure, taming the kite and keeping it working in a more predictable fashion. Looking back on events now I would say that this is certainly the most scary and hard part of the learning experience.
After a little over an hour playing on the flat and running around like a man possessed I was keen to strap in and do it for real, substituting my street shoes for boots and skis. Then it all started to make sense. When I got a gust without the skis I felt vulnerable and unsteady; but now, instead of fighting the power I went with it as it transformed into forward momentum on skis. No longer trying to keep it up high and out of the power zone I quickly began to steer it low, trying to get the kite flying hard against the driving wind. In many ways the principles were like sailing, and lowering the kite had the same effect as sheeting in a sail, giving greater power and more forward momentum.
Fliss too had quickly worked this out and was up and running on her snowboard!
I soon started to relax into things and was happily travelling at speed both up and downhill, moving with and against the wind. It was great fun to stand in a low, powerful skiing stance and to just set myself against the pulling kite while accelerating forwards; the sense of speed and power mirrors closely what you experience in downhill skiing! The difference was the liberating feeling of freedom; to be able to get to the bottom of a face and just pull yourself back up again - way more fun than standing in line and getting jostled by hundreds of other winter sports revellers.
As the first day drew to a close, my final thought was that it appeared much easier to move and balance on skis while learning. Having independent foot movements and being able to adjust and correct made it look and feel more natural than having both feet strapped firmly to a snowboard where you would have to be way more precise.
Following another hectic evening on the après side of things we woke to a very different scene. The weather had worsened and we were now faced with very flat light and poor visibility. We also had much stronger, gustier winds to contend with.
To combat this turn of events we simply down-sized the kite set-up and before long we were off again!
It was great fun blasting around on this smaller set up and I didn't even notice the difference given the greater wind speed. It seems like a delicate balance when learning to get this match right; you want enough power but also don’t want to get massively overpowered to the point where it could become dangerous... as I had discovered in my earlier unsupervised attempt.
My confidence grew over the second morning and before long I made my first few little airs! All rather tame next to what we were seeing the Snowkite Masters busting, but hey, it was an air all the same. I guess even Chasta the birdman had to start somewhere. FLISS:I had had one skiing lesson and one snowboarding lesson and had played with a power kite a few times on the common at home before heading to Switzerland. I have to say, I thought they were kidding when they said that I was going to learn how to snowkite having had zero experience of being on the snow, let alone on a fast moving board! So, on arriving at the Ozone Snowkite Master's festival, nervousness began to creep through me, although I was relieved to see a large, flat playground of snow on which to learn (I had visions of tumbling down hills wrapped up in a kite!). The wind was pretty strong, but after a couple of powerful lunges forward, I soon learnt where and where not to put the kite. It wasn't long before I was introduced to the board and told to strap it to my feet. I looked over in trepidation as Matt walked my way with a much larger kite! My thoughts of flying away over the hills on the end of a kite came flooding back and the adrenaline flowed freely once again. I meticulously went over all of the safety systems again before I launched the kite. It was quite hard at first to get up and the kite didn’t seem to be as powerful as I had imagined. Once I’d got the knack of letting the kite pull me up onto my feet (just like in wakeboarding), I began to slide forward very slowly – I was snowkiting! Brilliant. Despite a couple of falls and a little difficulty in turning around, it was much easier than I had ever imagined and the sensation of being pulled along by the wind was amazing. Infact, in many ways I found this easier than downhill snowboarding as it was on a flatter plane.I had a great time snowkiting and can’t wait to try it again. I felt totally secure the whole time as the quick release safety systems are so easy to use – even when I got dragged off a couple of times, it was simple to regain control; just pull on the bright red toggle and everything stopped. Having an awareness of the wind did help, as I’m sure a bit of experience in snowboarding would too, but otherwise, this is a sport that any snow sport lovers can have a go at and equally, wakeboarders or kitesurfers too! AFTER BURN
I couldn't wait to get back and explore my home resort of Verbier, recognising straight away the appeal of being able to access so many remote back-country locations with total ease and with much greater speed than ski touring. Not to mention also having the ability to find so many new ways of
getting into the air - I definitely want to learn to fly like I had seen Matt and the rest of the boys doing!
Our experiences put into context the skills of the guys we saw competing, from the big airs and rail action to the more natural and free form of kiting, such as the best line competition in which riders took off to untracked distant peaks. The sense of freedom and discovery is something totally unique and is what spurs me on to continue to develop new skills in this amazing sport! INTRO -
Snowkite instructor and all-round snow expert, Jon Imhoof, explains the procedure for safely setting-up and packing down a foil kite on your own in the snow
A snowkite rig can be set-up and packed away easily, even on your own. The key is to take the time to think it through the first time and do it efficiently. Conditions affect how easy or difficult set-up will be and your equipment will also determine what options you have.
If you’re flying a tube kite, for example, you’ll have to take your pump with you, and if you can drive straight up to your spot then it's not much different from setting up on the beach… other than the obvious fact that you are on the snow.
Snow behaves quite differently to sand and this can cause issues straight away. You don’t need to think about the condition of the sand each time you go onto the beach but you have to be aware of the snow conditions. Walking your lines out in deep snow can leave you exhausted before you’ve even got your kite in the air. Dry powder snow will blow away in the wind and is pretty much useless for anchoring your kite while you lay out your lines. Similarly, in hard snow it can be difficult to scrape together enough snow to hold your kite down. Lay your lines out first and use your backpack to hold the kite down.
A better option is to pack away your kite with the lines attached. This way you can get the kite organised and then just walk out the lines, saving yourself from struggling through the snow back to the kite. On flat ground this process is a lot easier on skis than on a snowboard, as you can walk back and forth, but be careful not to step on your lines and keep them away from the edges of your skis or board in case you damage them. If you are on a slope, you can simply side-slip downhill as you unwind your lines.
The benefits of foils become more apparent as you get further from civilization. They can be completely depowered and are easy to pack up and unpack on a slope without unclipping from your bindings. This sequence shows how an accomplished rider packs up a kite without releasing the re-ride system, so when he wants to use the same kite again, he can simply throw out the kite, scoot upwind and then re-launch without having to reconnect the re-ride system. This is achieved by stalling the kite with the brake (webbing strap handle which connects the leader lines) and then wrapping six turns around the bar ends (with the rear lines only!), leaving the kite stalled and locked. The remaining lines can then be wound in, bringing the kite towards the rider.
Of course this is a relatively advanced way of packing up on your own rather than just pulling the re-ride handle. In more extreme conditions with gusty/strong winds an advanced rider would use the re-ride safety system to stall the kite and then wind up the lines as normal.
To set up from the same position simply take the kite out of your bag and place it on the slope above you with the leading edge uphill/downwind and anchor the trailing edge with a bit of snow. In difficult conditions dig or kick a hole in the snow, stuff some kite material into the hole and pack it in with some snow. Unwind your lines as you side-slip down the slope away from the kite. Be careful not to put any tension on the lines until you are ready to hook in. When you get to the point where the centre lines have come off the bar but the steering lines are still on, be aware that you’ll need to pull the brake on before putting any tension on the lines to avoid an unintentional launch.KEY POINTS:SITE SELECTION:
One of the benefits of being in the mountains is that you can often choose the wind strength you desire. Wind speed increases when it goes over a ridge and decreases in the lee. For set-up, and when you put the kite down, choose a spot just over a ridge or in a ‘hole’ where there is still enough wind to relaunch the kite but not full force. LINE TENSION:
Be careful to only tension the lines when you have the brake on. Have one hand on the brake and slowly bring tension onto the lines to fill the cells of the foil and get the kite into the launch position. Let go of the brake and get ready for the power to come on. DEPOWERING:
There are a number of ways to depower different kites and you should check each manufacturer’s guidelines. The re-ride system is the safest and most simple but requires reloading when it comes to setting up again. Another way is to pull the brake on. This works well in lighter winds but the kite will tend to 'jump' and will not be fully depowered in stronger winds. The third way to depower the kite is as stated above, by winding six turns of the rear lines onto the bar. INTRO -
Noah Poritz is all about the adventure of pioneering new spots. He's a human with a super chip in his brain allowing him to analyse where and when to go to the right places. Astronaut meets middle-aged rocker, Noah has seen his fair share of powder action. Over the next two issues we'll be tapping into his extensive knowledge of weather systems and geographical terrain, because yes, he's a scientist by profession
On a perfect winter’s day there is abundant snow, steady wind and expansive terrain on which to kite. But as we know, not every day is perfect. In some places the snow is abundant but the wind is light. In others the wind is so strong that the snow surface is scoured and rocky. The magic trick of snowkiting is to figure out how to read the terrain and weather to find conditions that approach perfection. The first step towards a great session is finding snow-covered terrain, whether it’s a thickly frozen lake, rolling fields, steep hills or mountains. Jumping on the web and searching local forums is an easy place to start, and if you’re visiting a new area, contact a local shop or kite school and ask where the locals ride.
Once you know where to kite, the next element is the all important weather forecast. If you can, dig deeper than TV and newspaper forecasts by looking on the internet. Web-based forecasts can be very specific to a location; you can view remote weather station data, often reporting in real-time on snow depth, wind speed and temperature. You can also see historical data and read forecast discussions for the future. The same forecast models the weather service uses, are a click away.
Although the following information focuses on snowkiting in the western United States, some of it will help kiters anywhere.
Each morning I check several meteorological web sites to study the conditions that will help me find wind for the current day and plan for the days that follow. My first port of call is the forecast models issued by the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (www.rap.ucar.edu/weather/model/) - the same models that professional meteorologists use and which help me by graphically illustrating the pressure gradients that drive the winds we need to snowkite.
As I live in the mountains, I always examine the upper level winds, particularly the 700 millibar (mb) jet stream. When the 700mb winds come down to the surface it is nuclear: eight, six, maybe even four metre kite conditions. Obviously one does not need quite that much wind to have fun on the snow, though I always look out for them. Some days the presence of 700mb winds nearby will generate enough of a pressure gradient that even being close will make for a great day of snowkiting.
There are a variety of weather models that you can examine though, some with a short time span, others with the weather for a week in the future. Although the latter are less reliable they are still indicative of what may occur in the coming days. When looking at the 700mb winds I consider the various geographic locations that I have within range. I try to match areas that have snow with some degree of pressure gradient. Usually the greater the pressure, the tighter the isobars will be illustrated. There is some trial and error that comes from matching a particular snowkite location and a weather prediction. Some locations have natural features (mountains, passes and canyons) that will alter the pressure gradient and enhance (or obstruct) the strength of the wind. Learning these local conditions comes with experience.
Another web based resource I study is the National Weather Service (www.weather.gov) point forecasts for the specific areas that I snowkite. These forecasts are based on a grid of 2.5 or 5 kilometres and are an easy way to get a general sense of the weather for that day and perhaps the day after. I always dig a little deeper than the point forecast and read the 'forecast discussion' link - a detailed description that a meteorologist has written for the region’s weather. There is always some jargon to wade through, but the more you read, the easier it becomes to understand the big words. The forecast discussion frequently refers to the different weather models and this is where we kiters can develop a greater understanding of how the forecast models work in the real world.
Another useful component of the point forecast page is a link called 'other local obs'. This provides a summary of local weather stations’ remote observations, reporting temperature etc. and some have anemometers (wind meters). They often report in real time so you can get information on very current conditions. Rarely do you get the benefit of a weather station right at the kite spot though! Personal familiarity of a particular kite spot and a nearby weather station allows me to correlate weather conditions to some degree. For example, I’ve learned that when one specific weather station in Island Park, Idaho reports between two and four mph of wind, it’s usually kiteable with a 12 metre foil. If it reads more like five or seven mph, then I'd better get ready for an eight or ten metre day! This weather station is deep in the forest, away from the nearby extremes of wind - the importance of which you'll read a little further on.
In many states the Department of Transportation will have roadside meteorological stations that report in real time, and some have web cams. The station data is usually available to study online later and by reading a station’s data after a kite session you can correlate the conditions of a nearby kite spot to that station for future reference. Learning current weather conditions is made easy in the U.S. through the University of Utah’s MesoWest reporting system (www.met.utah.edu/mesowest/) through which thousands of meteorological stations can be accessed.
Many real-time weather reporting sites have simple text-based web pages as an alternative to their graphical pages and are easily accessible through most cell phones. To access these links when away from a computer, I’ve created a web page of text-based weather links which allows me to stay current using my cell phone.
A useful tool for learning local weather conditions is available through local avalanche advisories (www.avalanche.org). Avalanche forecast centres write daily advisories in many areas of the U.S. which provide valuable weather observations and snow stability analysis – crucial for staying safe in the mountains.
Finding one new weather resource on the internet always seems to lead to another dozen links. These secondary and tertiary links can be helpful and often become part of my daily weather forecasting routine. As with all scientific study, learning the science of weather can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. Spending a little time digging deeper can dramatically increase the likelihood of having day after day of wind.RIDING THE MOUNTAIN WEATHER
The expansive terrain, the beauty of the vertical world and deep powder snow make snowkiting in the mountains an unbeatable experience. Weather knowledge is crucial for personal safety and, for snowkiters, knowing the basics of mountain weather will enhance your experience and hopefully reduce the number of days you get skunked.
Mountain weather is controlled by air currents which are driven by changes in atmospheric pressure. In the mountains, air moves from regions of higher pressure to regions of lower pressure. Like the flow of water in a river, these air currents will also flow, from one area to another. How fast the air moves (wind speed) depends on how great the pressure difference or pressure gradient is from one area to another. Understanding local mountain weather is all about understanding pressure gradients.
Some may be on a very small scale, such as the daily thermal winds that flow up or down a local mountain valley. Other gradients are on a massive, continental scale such as when a winter storm or cold front moves through an area. In both cases the pressure gradient can be very large and result in strong winds.
Due to their physical size, mountains are often windy places, bending the flow of wind, concentrating it in some areas, blocking it in others and creating dramatic changes to the normally smooth flow of air from one location to another. The sheer size of some mountains, towering above the surrounding lowlands, creates localised wind and weather. Other settings can create turbulent 'devil' winds that make kiting impossible. For snowkiting, there is nothing more frustrating than winds that gust, rotor, lull and shift. Wind that shifts dramatically can be maddening, while wind that gusts dramatically can quickly place kiters at risk of injury or worse.
Mountain weather is complex and can be very localised. The knowledge of a particular mountain’s weather usually comes from years of direct observation. Most mountain areas have a prevailing wind direction that will frequently provide the most consistent wind for snowkiting. In some mountains, the only time the wind is strong enough to snowkite is during storms. In other areas, the unique topography alone generates a significant local pressure gradient making the kite spot windy regardless of storm fronts.
Because of steep topography, mountain wind is typically gusty. Finding the best wind and weather for mountain snowkiting is all about choosing the locations that have the cleanest, least interrupted wind-flow. When evaluating a new mountain kite location always ask: “Does the prevailing wind have a clean fetch, free of obstacles that may cause turbulence upwind of the kite spot?” Clean wind makes an enormous difference to the enjoyment of a snowkite session. Every great snowkite location sees days when the normally smooth air flow becomes gusty. Kiting in the mountains is frequently about gust management and, because of this, it is important to develop your kite and mountain skills to their fullest.
Always respect the changing nature of mountain weather. Storms typically develop rapidly in mountain terrain and white-out conditions with limited visibility occur regularly. There is no excuse for not being prepared for these rugged conditions, which is why, regardless of how tempting, never kite further then you are prepared to walk to safety.
Perhaps the most important ingredient for a great snowkite session is persistence. Don’t be discouraged if the wind or snow conditions aren’t perfect. Chase the wind and practice forecasting the weather, and you’ll know when you should drop everything and head out the door for another epic day of riding the cold-smoke of winter.
This article was taken from Kiteworld magazine issue 37.