Witnessing 200 kites hovering over the Hardangervidda Plateau of Norway is surreal and almost indescribable. Being one of those kiters on the Redbull Ragnorak starting line, especially after battling cancer, struck a deep chord that overwhelmed me with emotion, at least until the sound of the starting gun exploded across the open expanse. The giant mass of stationary kites accelerated into a frenzied swarm and the mixture of skis and snowboards began edging through the crusted snow as we began to climb the first hill.
For the past two years my kiting time has been under steady decline. Sunset sessions and wind adventures have been slowly replaced by an endless routine of scheduled doctors visits, tests and scans. And because life has little respect for our simple plans, this happened in the midst of raising a young family and pursuing my dream of building a snowkiting business in Lake Tahoe, California.
Life was so good minus this little glitch, cancer. Yeah, the word that immediately draws condolences and pity, which is probably because we all have a cancer story, whether it’s someone we know, knew, or have read about. On one hand, my story deserves no special attention. It’s no more important than others, but I’m probably inclined to say this because I’ve never been good at being the sick person. It’s hard for me to write about cancer, but because it is so prevalent, perhaps sharing my story could help someone identify, give direction, or maybe even inspire.
My story is as much about me, as it is about snowkiting. This sportbrought me hope, a steady direction and an outlet during the hardest of times. The lifestyle of kiting trains us to live in the moment, and that extends to all aspects of life – it’s an important part of being a father and a husband – sharing your experiences with loved ones and making each day as good as it gets. I’ve never been much of a planner, or the type of person that holds back. Whether good or bad, I tend to live in the moment and sacrifice whatever is needed for the adventure or epic session at hand, but my appreciation for living in the present grew even stronger when cancer became a part of my life. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we all have a ticking clock and after my diagnosis, I strived to cram in as many experiences as possible.
I found snowkiting in the winter of 2008. As I began to meld my love for skiing with the power of kites, I was heavily influenced by the photos and videos coming out of Norway. The Norwegians were far beyond the rest of the world when it came to snowkiting, and for good reason — the Norwegian landscape was built for this sport; a place where you can kite as far as the eye can see. In those days Bjorn Kaupang and Remi Meum graced the pages of kite mags and inspired me in a new direction. Remi was really pushing the wakestyle influence on the snow with his handlepasses and effortless style and Bjorn, his skiing counterpart, could throw kite loops in any situation, all the while making it look graceful and fun. This new sport was the perfect collaboration for me and I was ready to trade a lifelong dedication of early morning pow days at Squaw for something entirely new.
I had competed in skiing my whole life, and now with a solid base of a few years kiting, I was attending the early snowkite events. Like most sports in their infancy, snowkiting found professional kiters competing alongside a mixture of kids, moms, and dads. This grassroots growth of the sport remains a big part of snowkiting today, probably because it takes a special person to want to hang out on a freezing cold windy mountain for a weekend just to compete in a few races. Over the next few seasons I found myself at the right place at the right time. Suddenly there was structure, events, sponsors, and even film crews. It was so fun and fresh. I can only equate it to the birth of skateboarding, or the 70’s freestyle skiing movement, or the beginnings of surfing. Competitors, event organizers, industry folk, and spectators were all traveling from event to event together. We didn’t know what we were doing, or where we were going. We were just following the wind, having a lot of fun, and pushing things to new heights — a group of derelicts living and traveling together with one common love. From our passion, the North American Snowkite Tour was born.
After competing on the tour and traveling for four years I decided to build my own kite school and guiding facility in the Tahoe area. During the summer of 2012, I was able to lay the groundwork for the Sierra Snowkite Center, which I had negotiated the perfect location for at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort. In late fall as colors turned and naked aspens accompanied patches of snow atop the upper peaks I was diagnosed with non-seminoma testicular cancer. Within three days of my first doctor’s appointment, I found myself being wheeled into the operating room, and let me tell you, this is not ideal when you like to spend all of your time kiting.
I went through the standard procedures for treating testicular cancer, all along not really worried, just taking the necessary steps to get it done. This was happening while I was scrambling to put together the Sierra Snowkite Center. After my surgery I was restricted from heavy lifting, any quick movements, and certainly snowkiting, yet in two months I was opening the first California-based snowkite school partnered with a ski area. I was hiding the fact that I couldn’t fly a kite because I didn’t want Sugar Bowl to catch wind and pull the plug on the whole program. I was hammering out ski tours, hikes, and any other rehab activity outside of kiting, but I still couldn’t do any heavy lifting. Thankfully with the help of my brother and my small snowkite staff we pulled it off. The kite school opened successfully and along with it my health improved as well. Sugar Bowl was very excited about the addition of this new sport, and we began to grow and transform larger numbers of skiers and snowboarders into snowkiters. I was able to return to kiting and with our successful first season under wraps and plans for future development, all of this cancer nonsense seemed to be just a bad dream fading from the back of my mind.
That following spring of 2013 I transitioned from snowkiting to road trips to the coast for wind and waves. It was so good to be healthy again and kiting the California coast. My sponsor, F-One, had been amazing through this whole speed bump and we were moving forward with plans for the next season. Norway sat at the top of my list and when I heard the Red Bull Ragnarok would be returning, it was all I could think about. The Ragnarok is a 60-mile all out battle over the treacherous terrain of the Hardangervidda Plateau. Competitors fight for position while navigating through a vast series of hills, valleys, rocky outcroppings and cornices. Snowkite racing is so different from its counterpart, kiteboarding course racing, because it incorporates a highly tactical third dimension that combines elevation, various types of terrain and wind shadows. I love it!
I was so fired up to kite with the Norwegian crew on their home turf. Unfortunately, a single phone call was about to turn my Ragnarok plans, as well as my entire world, upside down. My body grew still, my words stuck, and a whirlwind of emotion, confusion, and fear flooded my already emotionally tense self – my remission was no longer. It’s not often one hears the brutal reality as cold cut as I did that afternoon: “If you don’t begin treatment now, you will die.” Here I was at the age of 31, feeling at the top of my game, the snowkite center posed for its second season, and two weeks prior, my wife and I had welcomed our second child into the world, but this time cancer had me in its vicious grips. In the distraught moments following my diagnosis all I could think about was my children Celia and Gavin, and my wife Stacey. What was going to happen? How were they going to fend for themselves? I don’t have time for this! Why me, will I ever be the same? Celia… Gavin… W.T.F.
For the past seven years, kiting has been very good to me. It has given me a direction to grow, fueled my exploration of the mountains and ocean, and broadened my love for skiing and surfing through alternative means. There are two sides to this sport that I really love. The first is being a part of a community of kiters brought together because of a common bond. At most kiting locations around the world people are very helpful and friendly and it’s quite often that these relationships are timeless because of the special uniqueness and closeness within our sport. Second, I love the solo aspect and self-reliance aspect of the sport. Kiting, and especially snowkiting, is an amazing vehicle for travel, a means to escape. When I began snowkiting in 2008 the Tahoe backcountry was empty. There weren’t any snowkite schools or clubs, nor could I find anyone to go with me. To this day, I’m often solo in my winter adventures; I thrive on these experiences and in idle moments I find myself daydreaming about the next adventure.
No longer in remission, I was attending early morning chemo treatments and it was these snowkiting reveries that pushed me through eight-hour blocks of sitting in a clinical chair with machines injecting poison into my body.
At the start of my treatment I did whatever I could to allow myself the opportunity to get back into action. This meant passing on the suggested chest port for my chemo injections and requesting to receive my prescribed dose through a series of IV’s. A mid-week IV removal allowed me to ditch out for an afternoon paddle or kite session. Taking that break was immensely therapeutic during a five-day treatment week. It’s also amazing what a good musical playlist and gazing out at the dancing trees on a windy day will do for you. In a way I was blessed. It’s not often that one gets to hear from family and friends, and how they truly feel. In today’s society we hug, kiss, and say I love you. But, this sort of hardship brings out so much more, a deeper connection, and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.
In the fall of 2013, I was crawling my way out of the chemo fog and back into the swing of things. I had been taking full advantage of my free time and I was kiting and surfing a lot. I made several trips to the coast and this is where I labored to find the former athlete within. At first it was pretty ridiculous. It’s bizarre when your mind thinks it can do certain things, but your body just isn’t there. Kite maneuvers that I never thought twice about were all of a sudden an unexpected challenge. At first these lapses wrecked me, but luckily these mental/physical disconnects didn’t last too long. I was fired up and pushing everything way harder than before. I was kiting, running, surfing, working out — charging at everything. It’s hard to describe the two months following chemo, but the clarity of my resolve to recover was overwhelming. During cancer treatment, “No News is Good News,” but once again the phone rang with reports of several suspect spots that remained. Surgery would be the next step. My progress had been completely deflated because this surgery was literally a full dissection of my torso. That December they removed 29 lymph nodes and two additional “suspect” tumors.
This surgery proved to be my hardest battle and as a reminder, I will always have a surgical zipper from top to bottom. Bouncing back after surgery was far worse than my previous recoveries from chemo. In kiting we draw so much energy from our core, and mine was shredded to pieces, but nonetheless I pushed myself by casually skinning up mountains at my own disturbingly slow pace to regain my composure and strength.
Throughout this pattern of diagnosis, treatment and recovery, Norway still rang heavy on my mind. At every stage of the struggle, I’d always felt that I still had something to prove to myself. Even before cancer, I had always pictured myself reaching a certain point with many of my sports; a certain undefined potential that I’m still striving for. This must be true for a lot of athletes, and racing in Norway was one of those broader goals that kept me moving forward. Following surgery, the next move in my story was uncertain, but whatever was next, I knew I needed to be ready physically.
During the spring of 2014, Tahoe was experiencing its worst drought in over 30 years. In March, with no snow on the horizon and little snow coverage on the ground, we were forced to put the Sierra Snowkite Center on hold. This is when I got a phone call from a few friends of mine, Nick Levy and Eugenia Gueorguieva who had previously competed in the two famed Norwegian snowkite races, the Vake and the Red Bull Ragnarok. They basically gave me an ultimatum, and after a quick call to F-One we were on our way to Norway.
I was so stoked, but incredibly nervous because it had been a few years since I had competed and at that point I had only flown a kite twice since my surgery. Within a few hours of landing, we found ourselves ripping down Norwegian perfection in the drawn out Nordic sunset. My physical concerns left me. I have been on similar trips before, but the culmination of my struggles combined with my deeper appreciation for life heightened my senses. These first few sessions were playing out in my mind as a glorified movie trailer for what was essentially my personal rebirth into kiting. The magnitude of snowkiting in Norway is indescribable. On one occasion, we rode a chairlift to our launching location and then kited miles past villages, houses, cornices, and cliffs, and then, in the middle of nowhere, we found a small traditional bar nested at the base of a 1500-foot cliff. It was visually stunning.
Touring skis are the traditional method of transportation in Norway. After kiting for hours, exploring deep into the solitary backcountry I felt like I was totally isolated and alone. In that moment I was greeted by a dog, then a mother on skis with a child on her back and another in a sled. Wow! There is nothing like watching a mother casually stroll through your perceived wilderness adventure to keep your ego in check.
In the days before the Ragnarok event, Nick, Eugenia, and I were welcomed by Bjorn Kaupang and his family at their Haugastol Resort. If you were to dream up an ideal location for a snowkite trip, this was it. Snowkiting fills the air at Haugastol and each session is a contagious adventure. I’m already looking to make my way back to this place and I would encourage anyone to do the same.
For those of us who know kiting, it’s hard to describe the feeling, somewhere between love and passion. It’s so much more than a kite, and while the contextual meaning is different for all of us, it’s so very similar in other ways. I know I’m right, because you wouldn’t be standing out there on those days with a low to marginal forecast, if you didn’t love it as much as the rest of us. Our little worlds can get so crazy so fast with struggles as small as getting kids to school on time and as big as cancer. It’s those epic sessions at home, or trips like Norway with good friends like Nick, Eugenia, and the Kaupang family, that help broaden our perspective.
I long for my next Norwegian sunset session, feeling the cool wind pushing in from the North Sea, as the waning sun lingers over the vast motley terrain. These thoughts bring me back to Ragnarok and remind me of the strength I gained on the road to Norway. In its simplicity, snowkiting is just another way to play in the snow, but after visiting Norway and meeting an amazing array of people from 16 different countries who all share one common love of wind and snow, I feel it’s an avenue, or the road less travelled, of which one can discover whatever they like. For some it’s a way of life, adventure, means of travel, passion, a career, transportation, excitement, or maybe nothing more than simply a good session. Kiting has given me many of these things but most importantly it has given me motivation to push forward throughout my ordeal.
For now, I’m still in remission and kiting a lot. We’ll take it one wave at a time. I’m enjoying any and every moment with my family. Life is good. I hope to see you on the next storm, swell, or warm Delta breeze.