The Alaska Snowkite Project started not as a defined trip or a film production, but as a vague creative project; an incomplete thought that unfolded during long kite sessions, around dinner tables and after untold rounds of beer. From the start, the mission was to identify the boundaries of snowkiting, then leverage grassroots media efforts and growing industry connections to explore the sport’s past and take a stab at the future of what’s to come.
As it stands, snowkiting has already seen some impressively high benchmarks of achievement. Eric McNair-Landry and Sebastian Copeland kited 370 miles in 17 hours midway through a 43-day selfsupported circumnavigation of Greenland. Snowkiting’s backcountry history is littered with amazing landmarks like Johann Civel climbing over 30,000 feet of altitude in a single day, or Christophe Grange soaring 5,000 feet off a mountain to the valley below, flying over trees, cliffs, and gapping massive sections of mountains in flight. These are monumental steps in snowkiting’s progression, yet each step is just a scratch on the surface of what snowkiters are doing these days.
At each milestone, deep within the hearts of those that push our sport, there are epic tales of discovery, design breakthroughs and incredibly close calls. We’ve all shared these stories while kicking tires in the parking lot and collectively, these stories are the soul of snowkiting. The goal of this video project was to not only capture the history and lore of early snowkiting but also to tell that narrative within the context of the modern day evolution of the sport.
The history of snowkiting isn’t an easy story to tell; it isn’t just one style, and there’s no single point of origin. There are many disciplines in snowkiting: Flyers, jibbers, speed kiters, mountain climbers, and distance/multi-day kiters. These are just the main snowkite genres and although you’ll see a lot of crossover, each group is equally passionate and has contributed to the growing knowledge base. Bringing all the disciplines together to weave a cohesive story is a complex undertaking, however, long-running events like the Bighorn Snowkite Summit are exceptional narratives of how the fragmented world of snowkiting meets and forges connections that have become instrumental in the progression of the sport. As we look back at each of the Snowkite Summits, there’s been a steady stream of improvements in baseline safety standards, newly developed riding techniques and most importantly, progress in risk management. The simple act of riding together has become a collective lesson; we’ve advanced in such areas as gliding principles and managing the potential dangers of extended flight, as well as minimized the risks of climbing steep mountains where circumstances can too easily result in a massive unintentional takeoff.
As a group, the Jackson Hole Kiters have been pushing the backcountry side of snowkiting with multi-day self-supported trips through Wyoming’s vast peaks. This group, myself included, has managed to cover huge distances in remote areas, suffering in the extreme cold, lugging heavy packs and cumbersome cameras. Access to some of the more remote areas has succeeded after many failed attempts including getting lost, running out of time and encountering extreme conditions. Surviving long nights with the tent flapping out of control while trying to keep warm makes for even more epic stories and embodies the true spirit of exploration.
As a member of the Jackson Hole Kiters, our focus has been on merging snowkiting with mountaineering. Spending most of our time snowkiting in Wyoming, we find ourselves on epic multiday adventures to discover large unexplored areas that resemble some of the most incredible terrain commonly seen in places like Alaska. Here in Wyoming, there’s the extra challenge of climbing to elevations of over 10,000 feet, where we can kite above tree line and finally have an open canvas to kite across. Although it creates a great story, often when we reach Wyoming’s epic locations we’ll find ourselves intimidated by the remoteness, tired from the journey, and in the back of our minds worried about making it back out. Struggling to reach these remote locations in our backyard inspired us to begin dreaming of traveling to areas with wide-open terrain and easy big mountain access.
The treeless mountain terrain of the Chugach Mountains in Alaska is some of the best-known accessible extreme snowkite terrain. The wind can blow virtually from any direction and on most days you can find something to kite up. For the purpose of filming a documentary, Alaska is the place guaranteed to deliver vivid imagery of snowkiters aggressively riding amongst the backdrop of mind-blowing scenery while pushing the limits of the mountaineering aspect of the sport.
In terms of logistics, the plan was for five us to spend a month living out of a mobile home. Johann Civel, Wayne Phillips, Pascal Joubert, Charles Symons and myself packed our lives into 200 square feet of mobile living space, utilizing every available inch for gear storage and bare-bone essentials. We spent our time kiting nearly every day and filming our experience.
The wide-open terrain was brilliant just like we had dreamed. Based out of our mobile home on Thompson Pass, once we became more familiar with the area, we began to push the boundaries of where we were kiting, exploring increasingly challenging terrain. After our first week, we were kiting up, skiing down, and traversing across the base of various mountains. We quickly learned how to link up valleys and mountains, forming routes with different strategies for changing snow conditions and wind directions. Using the wind to climb where you can and then skiing down to the next launch point from where you can start your next ascent, the kite is an amazing tool in big mountain travel. As we began exploring new and challenging routes, each day we began to open up a much larger expanse of terrain.
In the process of logging incredible footage and exploring the limitless backcountry terrain, we learned some key lessons about our gear and the basics of responsibly adventuring in Alaska. The main piece of equipment that really changed our kiting experience was our foil kites. On this trip, we flew the Ozone Frenzy and Summit kites. If we had an extra foil kite, there’d always be someone wanting to borrow it. The foil kite is incredibly easy to launch and land in challenging situations, it saves a ridiculous amount of weight over an inflatable, and there’s one less piece of equipment to remember due to the simple fact that no pump is required.
The best days in Alaska were usually in big kite conditions, but there were some good small kite days and many days where we used a combination of both. I usually packed both a 7m and an 11m because we would typically use the larger kite to cover distances in the valleys and smaller kites for looping vertically up large pitches. Another tool I found to be vital and will never go without is a radio. You start every adventure thinking you’ll stay close and maintain visual contact with each kiter, but sooner or later, that plan falls to pieces and it becomes a race to the top or visibility drops and you find yourself in the middle of nowhere with bad visibility. Your radio is your only source of communication, so keep it close and powered. In the Chugach Mountains everyone wears a climbing harness for rescue purposes whenever they’re out on the snow. Guides quite frequently carry ropes and axes for navigating tricky spots. However, we only used ropes and axes a few times, purely to be extra cautious when we were on glacier terrain or when we just weren’t sure how safe things were. Most other times, we were in terrain that simply required the typical backcountry basics: A probe, beacon, shovel, and emergency provisions.
As a snowkiter in Alaska, you quickly become acquainted with the downside of its treeless terrain; whiteouts frequently render you almost completely blind. Like any Alaskan expedition, we had a few spells where we had to wait out storm conditions, but on more than one occasion a break or “blue hole” in the storm would entice us to leave the safety of camp. Under the power of a kite it only takes a few minutes to get miles away, but blue holes often don’t stay long and the atmosphere can quickly return to full whiteout mode.
A number of times I kited out into the mountains for 15 minutes under beautiful light, only to have the visibility drop to five feet. Taking out my probe and compass, I’d have no choice but to etch a line in the snow in front of my ski tips, making sure I wasn’t going to fall off a cornice or into a crevasse, while slowly scooting towards our home base. A 15-minute kite session that turns into a two-hour inching session grinds on you, but cabin fever is powerful enough to make you take your chances. If there were trees in the Chugach, you could at least go for a nice backcountry run, but without spatial awareness, there’s pretty much nothing else you can do but wait out the white.
Crammed into our small mobile home while exploring the wonders of the Alaskan backcountry, we brought our film full circle and satisfied our dreams of kiting to the tops of big mountain terrain. The evolution of most adventure sports arrives at a point where a wall is reached; the bar seems to be set too high and progression becomes incrementally small and requires significant increases in risk.
Despite this plateau, we’re all searching for ways to move forward because progression and breakthrough is what keeps us coming back for more. This was the key theme we wanted to showcase in this film project: Sooner or later we will all push our own limits. By combining the power of kites with mountaineering skills and big terrain ski access, we hope to take backcountry snowkiting to the next level.
Words and Photos by Will Taggart
Watch the trailer and then the full documentary below.