The temperature lingered just above zero while the wind howled and gusted well over 30 mph. The recently fallen snow was deep and the ground blizzard felt like a firestorm of white. Overhead, I could see glimpses of blue sky, but at ground level the visibility was limited to 100 yards at best. I was flying my smallest kite, an 8m Ozone Summit, speeding uphill into an imposing whiteout at a solid clip. Kite skiing in the lee of corniced gullies, the powder snow was flowing to my waist and sometimes over my shoulders. Giddy with excitement, I rode lap after lap in these deposition areas, relishing the feeling of weightlessness as I floated downhill, finding the deep, untracked cold smoke of winter. As the hours progressed, I moved from one canyon to the next, each one getting steeper, deeper and requiring more and more commitment as I ventured further from the road.
Over one hill and down the next, I spotted a red fox frightened by my presence and running as fast as possible to elude my approach. The cornices were getting bigger and signs of recent windloading suggested that cornice failures could be eminent. “Terrain trap,” I said to myself, mindful not to launch off of the hulking masses of hangover snow, at least without first inspecting the terrain below. Towards early evening, the wind speed slowly abated and the visibility progressively improved. I now had views east, deep into Montana’s snowbound Centennial Valley. Familiar landmarks became visible as I kited; Antone and Antelope Peaks, and, barely visible, the dark volcanic plug of 10,500-foot Black Butte sticking up from the north. Far away on the eastern horizon, the magnificent Madison Range was already showing the alpenglow of sunset. Seeing this spectacular snow-covered landscape was my reward for being out on this winter’s day and will preoccupy my memory for months to come.
During the long winter in the northern Rockies, when a cold wind blows it’s time for most people to remain inside and shut the door to nature’s relentless fury. Few welcome the driving wind of a winter’s day. Even hardcore skiers will wait out a storm until after the snow settles before seeking out the guarantee of wind-filled powder stashes. However, there is a niche of hardy winter sport enthusiasts that look forward to the onslaught of winter’s wrath: This rare new breed is the snowkiter.
Snowkiting is a relatively new sport. In Montana, it has been practiced for about fifteen years by a small group of skiers and snowboarders. Many areas of Montana (and neighboring Idaho and Wyoming) are ‘world class’—perfectly suited to this winter sport. As snowkiters, we seek out large expanses of treeless, snow-covered terrain. Using the power of our portable wings, the snowy landscape becomes a vast playground for ripping untracked lines. Kiting breaks all the rules: uphill, downhill and across snowy mountainsides—we are no longer confined to a crowded lift-served ski resort. We are free to explore the snow-covered world around us and enjoy a unique high speed, adrenaline-charged freedom that often feels limitless. Terrain features add to the excitement: Wind-lips, gullies and cornices provide a draw to pull the trigger and ‘send it’ for lofty airs. Huge boosts are easy when loading up an edge on the snow and every freestyle move feels a notch more exciting when performed on a powder day. Those kiters with the skill, the focus and the right wind and terrain can even pull off paragliding-like flights that defy gravity. However, snowkiting is not the sport for every kiter. It’s often practiced in unbearably cold, isolated locations, and at high altitude where it’s quite possible to push a heart rate well into the red zone. Pilot mistakes are unforgiving and failure to finish a boost cleanly is usually met with unimpeded impact into terra firma. Even park-n-ride sessions have an element of risk. There is little in the way of a safety net when snowkiting (except what one brings for oneself) even when just a short distance from the highway.
The allure of snowkiting in the Rockies is the ability to always find new and breathtaking places to practice this sport. Expansive snowcovered public land seems to offer a never-ending supply of new sessions; many of these are park-n-ride, right off the highway and offer easy access without many complications. Other more remote spots may require snowmobiles, a higher level of commitment and mountaineering knowledge to access the isolated backcountry of the western mountain ranges.
Private ranchlands are particularly special for kiting. When scouting kite spots, it’s quickly recognizable that some places are better than others. Wind direction, strength, fetch, snow-cover and access are all important. More often than not, the perfect spots seem to be on the property of private owners. However tempting, it’s essential to get permission. The secret is to ask first rather than poach and beg for forgiveness later. Many times, I have driven up to an isolated ranch house, walked to the front door and knocked. “Sure you can fly a kite on my ranch, don’t bother me none,” is the reply I commonly receive. Introducing myself to a local rancher, asking and getting permission to kite on their land and having a fantastic day on a snowy landscape is an extraordinary adventure in and of itself. It even provides entertainment for the locals as they watch in amazement as we rip up their powder, boosting big airs, slicing up snowy wind-lips and showing off for an appreciative audience. While snowkiting can be adrenaline fueled and fast paced, there is definitely a meditative side to the sport. Cruising silently across a snow-covered field and feeling the steady pull of a wind-powered wing is quite relaxing. As a terrestrial sport, snowkiting provides a very different feeling than kiting on water. Swift, silent and peaceful, we look around at the ever changing views and enjoy the ride. One minute you can be speedily climbing a windy mountainside, while the next you’re intensely charged with the excitement of a gravityfilled descent in untracked powder.
Ridiculously huge distances can be racked up from a day of snowkiting. A couple of three-hour sessions on a properly powered kite can easily equate to 50 to 60 miles. Oddly enough, all that mileage might only be in a relatively small area of just a few square miles. When one finds an area of perfect wind direction, proper wind strength, powder snow and fun terrain, there is no reason to go any further; a kiter can do laps in an area like that all day long. The pleasure that comes from being fully powered and exploring snowcovered terrain is without equal. Harnessing the wind as you effortlessly ride uphill is like cheating some basic rule of physics or even Mother Nature herself. The satisfaction that comes from exploring a new kite spot, riding with friends and slaying lap after lap of untracked powder totally corrupts one’s sense of time, space and distance. Every winter there is a steady, incremental progression of individual skills, while new adventures await the unexplored and untested kite spots deep within the high mountains of the region. Even with well over a decade of kiting, there are still many locations that have never been kited. Whether you are an experienced kiter or new to the sport, if you can embrace the challenges of winter in the backcountry, the elements that make for a wild and wonderful snowkiting experience are waiting and well within reach.
Noah Poritz has been chronicling snowkiting in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming since 2002. A team rider for Ozone kites, Noah has pioneered scores of snowkite locations throughout the region and helps organize the annual Montana Snowkite Rodeo which hosts three days of kite demos, a winduro race, a poker run, kite touring and endless freestyle shredding.