INTRO - JIM GAUNT REPORTS FROM THE 2009 SNOWKITE MASTERS EVENT IN THE SERRE HAVALIER REGION OF THE ALPS, WHERE RIDERS SKILLS IN ALL THINGS VERTICAL WERE TESTED IN JANUARY
I peer beyond the blind in my bedroom window at 4am and am surprised to see KW photographer Will was on time and waiting for me outside my flat. The engine running while he waited; his heater fans blaring on the inside, demisting his window while exhaust fumes impatiently climbed their way up to my bedroom window, making it increasingly difficult to see anything. It's January, dark, cold and wet, but our spirits are high on excitement about heading to the Snowkite Masters event. I bounded downstairs, threw my stuff in the van and we were away.
The 90-minute journey from Brighton to Dover passed in an over-extended wink of the eyes on my part and we rolled onto the ferry in return for a semi-reasonable ?150. (Cheap at double the price in relation to what our French and Italian friends were to fleece us for over the next 12 hours!) Another 90 minutes on and it was 'Bonjour la France' and the various bargain alcohol establishments, with names like 'Eastenders' blazed boldly across roof tops that we could see from the motorway; calling cards aimed at the hordes of British booze cruisers that regularly disembark on the outskirts of Calais.
The weather in France was already a huge improvement on the dank filth we'd been invaded by in England over the previous few weeks. Blue skies everywhere here and we had a song in our hearts, even though Will was perturbed by a freakishly large black bird he insisted was following us and watching us from the trees. It was still early. A few hours down the road, it was time for quick refuel, a syphon of the python, a steak haché and a horrendously large first receipt for the tax man. €120. I'd heard something or other on the news recently about the Queen's round ones suffering at the hands of an 'economic downturn'... but surely not against the Euro! I thought we were untouchable! We stocked up on some budget crackers and Haribos for the rest of the journey, pushed the receipt deep in the back pocket, slapped the iPod onto an upbeat shuffle and rolled on.
Not half-an-hour down the motorway and we were directed to pick up a toll receipt. There were no figures on it, which was ominous, but we continued. Having forgotten about it by the time the next booth arrived some 45 minutes later, a man with a moustache who looked dead behind the eyes slid back his window and extended an arm. Putting our ticket in the machine he put down his cigarette to point at the screen with a yellowing finger and held his best poker face. Another €25 down and we were burning through the cash like it had gone out of fashion. It already had, of course.
Feeling helpless, but so 2007, we continued, pondering the wisdom of deciding not to pay for the ?70 easyJet return flights and wondered what more was in store.
17.5 hours' driving time, €130 in toll bills and a fuel count that we couldn't do the maths on, that's what. Thankfully, the ferry company ticket was a return. We apologised for arriving at such a late hour in the night to Tina, the delightful English lady that runs 'La Maison du Bez' in Serre Chevalier, where we were to be staying. She gasped as we traipsed camera bags and kiting paraphernalia into the rustic hallway of her lodge and told her of our journey. Turns out a hasty route planner print out, checking only the start point and then ten pages down that the destination was also correct, was a large faux pas. Otherwise, surely one of us would have spotted the €45 robbery we'd suffer at the hands of the Fréjus tunnel twoarmed bandit behind the desk on page eight. An oversight which would later be called, 'typical editorial team' behaviour by certain members of the office back home. (Embarrassed enough, we decided not to tell Tina of the €20 we'd also lost in an unmanned automatic fuelling station machine during a brief midnight sojourn over the Italian border an hour earlier at which we'd failed to figure out how to make the bloody thing work. But swore we'd return to check out the surveillance video which was surely worth ?250 on You've Been Framed (if we could edit out Will making illuminous yellow patterns in the snow in the top right hand corner of the shot while I kicked the machine).
We learnt of the 'other route around Grenoble' over a stunning breakfast the next morning. Apart from the brilliant snowkite event, the quality of the food Tina's chefs would produce, especially in the evenings, would soon push the thoughts of the credit card bill thumping onto the MD's desk to the back of our minds for a while.
THE SNOWKITE MASTERS 2009: 10 ? 16 JANUARY 2009
The event is held at the Col du Lautaret pass outside of the Serre Chevalier resort around 15 kilometres along a mountain road that winds its way between the powder fields, slopes and enourmous vertical faces of this section of the southern Alps. Throughout the week there was a great attendance with vehicles lining the curve in the road that dissects the rather vertical event site from a very alluring powder field. Riders, team managers and curious spectators who couldn't help but pull their cars over and get a closer look at who was attaching themselves to the canopies that swept the mountain sides, all added to the atmosphere.
I recognised a chap beneath the loudest luminous green and yellow snowboard suit I'd ever seen pulling a pile of kites out of the boot of his car in a hurried excitement. Brian Schenck is the US importer of Ozone kites, runs Windzup in Utah and pushes the sport of snowkiting as hard as anyone you'll meet. He had lost his luggage at the airport. Luckily Chasta had lent him some spares... and lucky for the rest of us we were wearing UV-protective goggles when we were standing close to him. He'd landed from the US the night before with his friend, Montana snowkiter and entomologist (he collects bugs and sells them to farmers as a natural alternative to chemicals for crop control and growth ? snowkiters are an unusual breed and, believe me when I say, you're going to love his These Things I Know that's coming up), Noah Poritz.
Noah was already up the hill kiting his nuts off. Brian pointed him out way up in the distance, kiting uphill even hough his kite was way below him as the wind was blowing down-slope (but we'll get your head around that shortly!) Brian was frothing at the terrain here.
'Man, we don't have anything like this in Utah! Yeah we might have a little hill like that one over there, but where we are it's more about the subtleties of the terrain, like insane powder, wind-lips to trick off and good wind. These mountains are immense and I can't wait to explore them. Isn't that what's it all about here?'
Over the week we shared dinner every night with another character who was staying in La Maison du Bez, Pascal Bougakow (pronounced 'Boolyakoff' ? thanks to his Russian ancestry). Pascal is incredible company and churned story after snow story to Will and I each evening. He is 51-years-old but lives his life with the infectious enthusiasm of someone half his age. After 25 years working as a school teacher he'd had enough, had got into photography just before he jacked the classroom in and became a prolific snowboarding photographer. As you do. To cut a long story short, he met Chasta; started shooting him snowboard; Chasta got more and more into backcountry riding and realised that kiting would offer him more fresh snow than he could shake his board at and Pascal simply had to keep up. Fully converted, Pascal gets up early every morning to check various weather forecasts and calls Chasta to see where they're likely to get the best conditions. Then it's on. Every single day of the winter season. Pascal's mission is to show the world how much back-country is out there, ready and waiting for you if you have a kite - and how easy it is to get to it. He wants to dispel the myth that snowkiting is an 'extreme' sport for heroes and to make sure that people understand that it's not all about flying off the end of cliffs - which is difficult at
times when you're Chasta's personal camera man!
Pascal has started filming his own videos way up in the mountains. He sets the camera down, films himself for a little while, demonstrating climbing, carving - anything that's relevant to the cause really - before picking the camera up and moving further up the mountain and doing it all over again. Personal video diaries if you like which he edits every night and puts on the web (you see he's fascinated with technology and the internet too, which he calls, 'the other world'). Unfortunately most of these personal videos are only available in French at the moment, but we're working on him. We have many of his English videos from last year on: www.kiteworld.tv and a sublime gallery he put together for our online 'Lens Masters' section at: www.kiteworldmag.com/lens-master-galleries/. We will be featuring Pascal in the magazine later in the year in a backcountry special. 'Ahhh, ze backcountry!'
I digress. Back to the Col and I'm up the slope, sliding backwards down the hill, tensioning the lines, powering up the kite and with a jolt I push the bar away as my kite climbs its way up through the window. Now what? The wind is light and, if anything, I'm still moving backwards. This wasn't as easy as it had been in Iceland! The general idea is to loop the kite a lot, so I threw a few one way and a few the other but my legs were heavy, my rail caught and over I went. Thankful for the anonymity of my neutral snowboard clothing, helmet and goggles, I rolled over, kept the kite in the sky somehow and tried again. Keeping a little lighter on my feet but remembering to push through my heels a little more this time, I made some progress up to where everyone else was riding.
There were two kickers positioned on the only flat area halfway up the first 'mini-mountain', which was of course the competition area. Unfortunately the wind was blowing me towards it and I hadn't quite mastered going downhill with the wind blowing up this particular slope! I dug in, kept the kite high, made it out of harms way, set the kite down and decided to watch how the pros do it.
The event was like the snowkite proms for competition coordinator and event M.C., Mathias Charton, who orchestrated things beautifully, rallying the troops and riders, making sure that all competitors' heats would run back-to-back and leaving enough time for the finals - as no one knew how long the wind would last.
The regular competitors, like Remi Meum and Bjorn Kaupang, kept commenting on how surprised they were that there were so many riders they didn't know at the event. Unfortunately the temporary absence of a world tour competition - to the benefit of excellent events like this - has meant that snowkiters from around the world have had less opportunity to meet and compete against each other. It was really interesting to see the fresh talent coming up and pushing the regular top place finishers.
The lion's pit that was the photographer's dug-out saw almost as much action as the kickers and inclines themselves, with event and freelance snappers jockeying for position as each rider approached the spot favoured most for performing tricks.
'Jeez, I've never shot anywhere like that!' Mused Will in the van afterwards. 'But I just stuck me elbows out and got on with it. I had to get out of there after a while and shoot from somewhere else, but then it's mad because there are kites coming at you from everywhere. The riders are so amped for it and knocking tricks out left, right and centre. Because you can ride in all directions when you're snowkiting (uphill, downhill, upwind and downwind - unlike on the water where riders are generally only coming from one of two directions), you've got to have eyes in the back of your head as a photographer to avoid getting decapitated. I thought hiding behind a tree would be a good spot, but it seemed like nowhere was safe. These guys are good and throw down massively, often wiping out badly.'
Although the wind was light, the riders were what I can only describe as mountain goatlike; their kites the proverbial sheep dog, herding them up-slopes and over obstacles. Just to the left of where the kicker tricks were going off was a little ledge and a slope of no more than 50 metres. As the wind was light, it seemed the general idea to generate good momentum was to get up there as quick as you could, then turn and race back down, hop down the ledge and power in to the kicker for your trick. Fair enough, but my God is that technical when you try it.
To illustrate: the final of the men's snowboarding event was moved up the slope to where there was much more wind. The dual was between Norwegian, Sigve Botnen and Austrian, Heinar Brandstotter and took place literally in a huge bowl. By the end of the session, there wasn't an inch of the bowl's sides ? facing all 360° ? that didn't have tracks all over them. Completely 'rinsed' I believe is the appropriate phrase here! A couple of tacks and the riders would make it to the top of the side of the bowl and come hurtling straight back down, unhook at the bottom and hit the big kicker carved out of the side. The crowd were literally sat a few feet away, which is another huge appeal of snowkiting; unlike kitesurfing, while you're riding it's so social, personal and easy to communicate with each other. It also meant I had a really good view of what exactly they were doing. Not the kicker part, but dealing with the terrain. Like I said, I'd tackled the steady slopes of Iceland already and had a ball, but with the shifting angles that you get here, the wind window moves all over the place above your head as the zenith is always perpendicular to the angle of the ground. Needless to say when I tried the same spot once the area had been opened up for general use, the results weren't as spectacular and I found myself unable to keep to the lines they'd been doing. (Don't worry, there are mellow sections around this mystical snowkite venue, I promise you!)
Once the freestyle event had finished by day three, the racing competition got under way. The idea was to go around three markers that were positioned at various points up the mountain before ragging it back down the hill as fast as you could to the finish point. Unfortunately the wind was light, but up on the hill riders started pointing to a speck on the ridge that looked like a powerfully looping kite. There was wind up top! A change in the mood washed over the event site. Riders were signed up for the race, and badly wanted to take part, but also desperately wanted to get up over that ridge to the fresh, open powder. As the racers crossed the finishing line a steady trickle of kites made their way towards the ridge before disappearing over the top. It was magic to watch. Needless to say, Pascal and Chasta had been up there for hours and the video and images Will and I were treated to later that night at dinner were out of this world. Perhaps ten guys made the second pass where Chasta and Pascal were and you could pick out the individual lines and moving objects in the vast space that were actually kiters. Unbelievable, but thankfully, believable. A little more technique and practice and next year I'll be up there.
The event itself was incredible. Loads of snow, enough wind every day to do something, blue skies (it's always blue here ? apparently the average for Serre Chevalier is over 300 days per year!) the legendary snowkite laid-back approach to life ? epitomised by organisers Wareck Arnaud and Regis Labourne... and beers in the Frog bar. Although Brian, Noah, Will the English girls - Johara, Sheryl and Emma - and I were amazed at how early all the riders vacated the bar! Apparently it was because 'the mountains are waiting for us in the morning'. And what about the old 'make the sacrifice at the bar the night before' approach to bring on the conditions? Never mind. Cue more stories from Noah and Brian about how in Montana girls flash their breasts at the bar tender (who is a customer by the way because the bar man's given up because he's too drunk) while some bloke flies past competing in the longest bar sliding competition in the world. Montana has moved up a few places on the travel wish list recently.
The journey home was a little bit shorter and, slightly easier on the pocket, having navigated the correct route around Grenoble, but next year we won't go so overboard on justifying the van 'because of the amount of extra gear and cameras we can carry'. We'll take the plane, save a couple of thousand miles on the tyres, get there in half the time instead and have more money for those funny little French beers.
I asked Brian Schenk for some words of wisdom:
DEALING WITH SLOPES
One of the great allures of snowkiting is the ability to travel up slope, gaining vertical altitude quickly. Proper winds and conducive slope angles allow any kiter a vertical elevator ride to the top of a hill. One of the more natural instincts is to use the kite like a chairlift, packing it up and freeriding back down. But as serious snowkiters we should be able to keep our feet on the ground and kites in the sky as we continue to ride both up and downhill.
First, we need a basic understanding of mountain winds, as there are new rules that apply to kiteboarding in the third dimension. Sometimes the only way to climb upslope is to go downwind, which can be a difficult transition for kiters who have been training since day one to go upwind. The terrain can also affect your velocity and direction, changing the game plan constantly as you travel along.
We all know that the wind typically travels in one direction. When we place a mountain in the way, the wind is forced to travel in more or less three directions: upslope (travelling directly uphill, from bottom to the top), cross-slope (blowing from one side of the hill horizontally towards the other) and down-slope winds (running from the top of the hill towards the bottom). While every steep face will create terrible down-slope rotors, gradual slopes can actually be climbed by skiing upwind on long slow tacks.
Down-slope winds are the most difficult to travel uphill with and, usually require, moderate to strong wind. Cross-slope winds are actually the easiest to manage, as it requires a more standard technique. Simply park your kite at the side of the window and point your sticks or board directly uphill. To climb faster, either stroke the kite, or release your edge a bit and point yourself more downwind. As you gain speed you will find the natural line carries you to the top at a comfortable pace. Keep in mind that the terrain is cutting into the bottom half of the wind window, changing the size of the available power zone, so never park your kite overhead as it could over fly you.
Finally, up-slope winds require us to let go of what we know about standard tacking. Once you hit the base of any terrain feature, gravity will start taking affect, pulling you back down. We now need to kite more aggressively, flying the kite in continuous loops or making figureeights with the wing, back and forth. These movements will keep your kite more in the power zone and pulling you directly downwind and uphill at the same time.
As you kite closer to any ridge line or summit the wind speed can increase as it is compressed in a venturi effect. This is good to bear in mind as you could become over powered as you gain elevation. Adversely, in light winds, one can easily go downwind, making your way upslope to where the stronger wind is waiting.
Just as these hill tops receive more wind, the opposite can be said for gullies and depressions. Often the base of a hill can hold a pocket of light wind as the stronger wind is pushed overhead in the most direct line over the mountain. Any bowl or river bed that is not facing the prevailing wind can also create windless traps. The most interesting and dangerous wind is found on the leeward side of steeper slopes and cornices, where powerful down drafts are created, as the ridge top venturi turns the wind that pulled you to the top, into a rotor filled wind that could pull you over into treacherous terrain.
Now that we have a better understanding of slope winds, we can choose the best line for kiting down the hill. Always remember to keep your kite low. If you start gaining speed while your kite is overhead, you could lift off and find yourself soaring. Next, edge into the wind as hard as you can. This will help keep your speed under control. You may find yourself pointing your skis/board directly into the wind as you edge against the kite to slow down. Depending on the wind direction, you may find yourself carving turns directly downhill, going towards the kite slightly to keep it from powering up. Or you may need to make long passes back and forth across the hill, gradually making it down at a comfortable pace.
Remember, you can always park the kite at the side of the window and edge hard, stopping completely to rest or re-start.
Snowkiting in this age is like walking on the moon, it's a new feeling to most people and opens up exciting sensations. Exploring is the name of the game and it will take adapting everything you know about wind to master the mountains. New techniques are constantly evolving as kiters push into new terrain and tear down the boundaries of what is possible with a kite in the winter time.
If you land your kite on a hill-side, don't worry about a powerful launch through the power zone. Just point your board or skis directly at the kite and, as you launch, allow it to dissipate its energy as you ride towards it. Use gravity and slope angle to your advantage. Know your safety systems and be prepared to engage them should you come face to face with dangerous terrain.
If your goal is to use the slope for gliding, keep in mind that speed equals lift. The faster you are traveling the better your glide will be.
MEN'S SNOWBOARD FREESTYLE:
1 Sigve Botnen (NOR) Ozone
2 Heinar Brandstotter (AUT) JN
3 Remi Meum (NOR) Nobile
MEN'S SKI FREESTYLE:
1 Bjorn Kaupang (NOR) F-One
2 Fabio Ingrosso (SUI) North
3 Johan Civel (FRA) Ozone
WOMEN'S FREESTYLE SNOWBOARD:
1 Tatiana (RUS) Ozone
2 Titaua Ropiteau (FRA) Ozone
3 Sheryl Confue (UK) Flexifoil / Turbulence
WOMEN'S FREESTYLE SKI:
1 Cristelle Baud (FRA) Flysurfer
2 Kari Schibevaag (NOR) Ozone
3 Johara Sykes-Davies (UK) Flexifoil /Turbulence
MEN'S RACE SNOWBOARD: 1 Simone Borgi (ITA) Ozone
2 Denis Soverini (ITA) Ozone
3 Marek Zach (CZE) Ozone
MEN'S RACE SKI:
1 Ludek Koecny (CZE) Best
2 Jerome Josserand (FRA) Airush
3 Alexandre Robin (FRA) Flysurfer
WOMEN'S RACE SKI:
1 Cristelle Baud (FRA) Flysurfer
2 Kari Schibevaag (NOR) Ozone
3 Tatiana (RUS) Ozone
Brian Schenck runs Windzup. Check it here: www.windzup.com
He also runs the US Snowkite Masters competition that takes place in March. You're too late for it now, but read all about it at: www.snowkitemasters.com
For fine food in a relaxed lodge atmosphere filled with like-minded people, stay at La Maison du Bez: www.hotel-dubez.com
The official Snowkite Masters website is: www.mmv-snowkitemasters.com
INTRO - Paul Mattin, a former Royal Marines Officer, was a member of the four man 'Commando' Team that accomplished the British Military's first 'return' South Pole journey. They encountered some of the wildest weather conditions on earth to arrive at the Pole in just 45 days. Their homeward journey ? by kite, was to be a near epic adventure in itself. As relative novices to the sport, the team were to firm-up their kiting apprenticeship through Antarctica's school of hard-knocks! Here Paul gives his account of the experience.
The concept of skiing to the South Pole was, being a keen skier, not only palatable (i.e. a small team, heavy weights, hard-graft and 'home for tea and medals'), but inherently doable. But the 'kiting-home-bit' - some 600 miles of random southerly(-ish) winds, negotiating crevasses and Sastrugi (ice-fins) at speed, in pukka wilderness - was undoubtedly 'off the wall'.
We trained during the summer on Norway's southern glaciers, working from a tented camp in near 24 hour sunlight. Importantly, only one of our number was a proficient kiter (albeit on water) so corporately we had much to learn. The week was kind to us and we experienced gradually increasing winds, experimented with long lines, raised foils ranging from 3.5 to 11m and crucially, for both morale and confidence, we progressed to kite assisted 'sledge-hauling'.
Leaping ahead several months, funds raised, preparations in Chile, and the 45 day South Pole ski 'bagged' - our now bearded and malnourished team, looked expectantly at a dejected looking windsock from the world's most southerly perspective. The plan was to reverse our inward journey to a rendezvous with a Russian Transport plane at a point called Patriot Hills.We reckoned on two to three weeks kiting and carried food to match. We'd experienced huge winds on our southern journey (and had the frostbite to prove it); navigated vast fields of Sastrugi ice and crossed up to 40 crevasses in a single day. Could we actually kite across such ground in the physical condition we were in?
After some angst as to whether the wind would actually show itself, our first Antarctic kiting experience was to be a good one. Situated on the Polar Plateau (the 3000m high table-top of Antarctica), four relative novice (but brave) kiters carved their way north. Flexifoil 6.5m Rage foils, on lengthy lines ? probably the most used kites in our armoury, carried us 61NM over seven hours. You can imagine our thought pattern; 'we'd be breaking records if we sustained this rate, indeed ? would likely be 'lorded' for our efforts'. It's funny how things pan-out!
Day two brought the blight of all tall-ships - doldrums. The only action we could take was to rest-up and limit our food intake. This first becalming experience lasted 48 hours that we were to spend well battened-down due to nil wind or violent storm conditions. But you have to be careful what you wish for! Not only did we acquire wind speed but we revisited the Sastrugi ice and the natural phenomena that as novice kiters we'd yet to encounter; gusting wind. As we crossed the 87th degree of longitude my diary took a joviality check. 41NM of progress saw us almost broken as gusts lifted us to the extent of our sledging lines (that's 15-18 feet of instant elevation). Knowing what I know now (hindsight being a wonderful thing) and things might have been different, but we'd opted to use the simplest of rigs and had declined the opportunity of de-powerable bars. So typically, in high wind and gusty conditions, if you lost concentration and your kite 'took itself' anywhere near the power zone - a split second 'heart stopper' saw you airborne. There was no hope of a fancy controlled landing or military para-roll, decent was brutal and, often amongst the icefins, was frequently damaging.
Sean dislocated his shoulder on one such punch-up, and Craig (as hard a man you'll never meet) managed to trap his trailing sledge amongst the ice, go airborne and, with the crack of the gust, snap clean his sledge line (9mm climbing rope!). Quite how he didn't break in two I'll never know. But we had to get on with it. Winds up to 30 knots saw us under 3.5m Flexifoil Rage kites, while light breezes would be harnessed with 11m foils and lines out to 70m.
Other than these 'gusts from hell', our primary concerns were with crevasses, sustaining a showstopping injury, frostbite and starvation. (Not your average list of 'points to consider', but we were in Antarctica!) Crevasses, we elected, were best taken at speed. So rather than a methodical 'one man over watched by the team etc.' - we simply ensured a perpendicular line of attack and screamed across the gaps! Unnerving? Yes, but effective! These crevasses were deep, but thankfully all were well bridged.
Frostbite was a bummer. We all 'froze cells' at different points of the trip, typically on our faces ? where the wind clawed its way through gaps in our fleece and Goretex. Fingers and toes were frozen, thighs were patched with open sores and one of our team even attracted a frost 'chafing' on his 'third ski pole' - not good. But as the kite voyage crept into its third week (and our 10th overall), the hunger pangs started to play havoc. We'd packed food for 21 days, but with all of us being 30 to 35 pounds under-weight, the reality of 'fasting' as a contingency for our slow progress was close to unbearable. Every loose pistachio, crumb and grain was scooped into some sort of pot-mess and, although we joked about our predicament, we gave regular thought to certain British predecessors whose dire scenario had ended so tragically.
But as with all good stories ? ours was to have a happy ending. During our final 24 hours we smashed an epic 75NM, only to have the wind die just a mile short from our link-up. Sean, Andy and I walked in to the airstrip; using this rare time to absorb the enormity of Antarctica and what we'd achieved together. We'd endured 71 days on the continent, covered some 2500km, shared six square metres of canvas ? and were still mates! I'm not sure whether gets any better than that!
Paul qualified as an IKO kite-ski instructor with 'Fluid Feeling' during 2008. He offers bespoke wilderness training and motivational opportunities, specialising in Norwegian outdoor ventures.