The Extreme Winter Sport of Snowkiting
This Kite Climbed Mt. Washington. The bumper sticker hasn’t been printed yet, but it’s best not to encourage amateurs to join this club
On a brisk February day last year Zebulon Jakub plodded up the Winter Lion’s Head route on Mount Washington. The trail was steep and convoluted, winding through gnarled pines and growth-stunted shrubs. The wind blew steadily at 30 miles an hour, a mere breeze for the hill whose moniker is “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.” After an hour the trees faded in height as he approached tree line. In front of him a giant apron of snow led to the summit. Under normal conditions, the cadence up the upper mountain would take hours. For Jakub, it would take six minutes.
With camera in hand, I watched as Jakub stabilized his skis and threaded his legs through an intricate harness. The harness tethered him by a system of cord to a foil, a large kite designed to bite into the wind, deploy rapidly and drag a skier across the snow. With a snap of thin nylon fabric and a brisk jerk on the control bar, the foil rocketed skyward, yanking him up the hill in a rapid, controlled flash. In mere seconds, Jakub was gone, out of sight.
Snowkiting is an adventurous outdoor endeavor, one that is gaining popularity rapidly in New Hampshire. Executed while standing on either skis or snowboard, it’s a thrilling sport akin to kitesurfing, where foils or other forms of kites are used to tow those on wakeboards or surfboards, either on flat water or in the frothing surf of the ocean. Like wakeboarding, there is a wide variety of terrain from which to choose, with a wide range of difficulty.
From broad meadows to rolling cornfields, from steep mountain slopes to alpine areas fraught with cliffbands, snowkiting is a blend of riding and transportation, one where freestyle tricks, big air and exhilarating speeds can be enjoyed by experienced riders. And while some snowkiters certainly push the needle firmly into the “extreme sport” end of the gauge, an explosion of introductory instruction has made this once-nebulous sport an option for those with no former experience.
Today Jakub is one the country’s most revered snowkiting instructors. The 35-year-old man is stocky and calm, penetrating his confidence into his clients as he teaches them how to fly a kite, and hopefully, someday, learn how to be pulled by its force. While he honed his skills as a child kiteflyer in the fields of western Massachusetts, his boyhood fascination with the wind and its power evolved into a deeper understanding of its forces, vectors and ability to provide him a wild ride. And a wild ride it can be.
New England has no shortage of outdoor festivals that promote adventure sports. There are a half-dozen ice climbing festivals alone in New England. The Adirondacks host a backcountry ski festival. There are alpine-touring races and tours, geared toward spreading the word about the pursuit. But until 20 years ago there weren’t many public events aimed at spreading or celebrating the sport of snowkiting. And there were none in New England.
In 2005 Jakub started one of the East’s first snowkiting festivals, the Kite Free or Die event. This festival was initially held on Lake Winnipesaukee and it ran for two years. “We realized quickly that snowkiting on frozen lakes did not suit all ability levels equally,” he says. The exposed ice made conditions challenging, so he moved his project to Tug Hill plateau near Lowville, NY, where rolling hills and broad hillsides offered more variable terrain. This event continues today, but in 2012 Jakub sought to bring the sport back to the Granite State.
In 2012 he rekindled the Kite Free or Die festival and re-launched it at the golf course at the venerable Omni Mount Washington Resort. His perception was that an event would be more successful if there were a broad array of other snow-oriented activities available to attendees in the event of a slow or no-wind day. With more than 75 participants in the first few years, Jakub regards this interest as a harbinger of a sport growing out of its infancy.
“Back in the day,” recalls Jakub, “it took a full three years to fully figure [snowkiting] out. Now, with modern instruction and equipment, people can learn the sport in a year.”
Today’s snowkiting is a far cry from Jakub’s early days of flying kites. He’s been flying giant kites capable of towing a skier or rider since he was young. Back then, 30 years ago, the direction of the sport was still unwritten. The flight of huge kites was just taking off. In my own youth I watched these kite flyers at Kitty Hawk, NC, home of the Wright brothers’ inaugural flight. Another time I vividly recall watching employees of the kite store in Ocean City, Md., fly these huge instruments. They resembled small parachutes, but more lenticular in shape, more streamlined. Their pilots would launch seven-foot kites into the sea breeze, sometimes catching a gust that would allow them to leap off the ground and coast many tens of feet and over sand dunes. These were the kites with which Jakub grew. And flying them was a pursuit known as powerkiting, one that remains popular today.
“The first time I went snowkiting it was 1999. At the time it was a small niche pursuit. The sport was barely gaining popularity,” Jakub says. “But I’d already learned how to fly kites large enough to provide propulsion, so it seemed natural to use them to move me on skis.”
Although it’s just starting to fly with more popularity, snowkiting isn’t new. It has roots based in the Alps, where in the 1960s a man named Dieter Strasilla initiated experiments with his parachute, the one he used for parapente stunts. Parapente is a pursuit where the pilot deploys a modified parachute atop a mountain or cliffband and eases it into the wind and off the ground. Parapente pilots still fly today, although much of the sport’s popularity in the United States has faded, and its modern stronghold resides in places like Chamonix, France.
Strasilla modified his parachute’s system and began using it while skiing, allowing him to ski off and over obstacles never before possible. His experiments evolved and eventually he found it possible to slide uphill, pulled by his chute, then stash his parachute into a pack and descend peaks on skis with the aid of gravity. Snowkiting was born.
From a transportation point of view, snowkiting is a logical sport. Rather than utilize ski lifts or expensive helicopter rides, or gain skiable slopes by hiking, the rider can kite up hills and mountains and then enjoy the downward slide. The possibilities are almost endless and have taken Jakub all over the country. He’s kited in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, and has countries like Norway and France in his crosshairs. Kites have been used for years to aid expedition teams in conquering large tracts of land. They’ve been used to pull climbing teams across Greenland’s icecap and through Baffin Island, Canada’s gaping fjords. They’ve even been used in polar regions to aid teams in reaching the globe’s poles.
Jakub isn’t just a snowkiting professional; he’s a revered climbing guide. He works with the International Mountain Climbing School (IMCS) in North Conway. He guides climbing clients up iridescent columns of ice and frozen waterfalls, harrowing granite faces and wind-whipped mountains. And although he’s still an active climbing guide, his true passion is in the wind. In 2009 he became a certified snowkite instructor, a badge overseen by the International Kiteboarding Organization.
Jakub has become a popular instructor in this pursuit, partially due to his calm demeanor and partially because he is one of the few people who has sunk his talons into a growing, thrilling sport that is just getting off the ground. He’s self-taught, and given the fact that he has 15 years under his harness, he knows the limits of his clients and the forces of nature. And in his business, safety is top priority.
I witnessed Jakub provide a lesson to a new kiter, a young woman in her late 20s. She’d flown these kites once before, but today the wind was up and Jakub’s schoolroom was in prime condition. Soft snow blanketed the undulating surface of the instruction area near Bretton Woods. His client wanted to ride and ride fast. But first, she needed to learn to fly.
At first, each flight of the young woman’s kite ended in a crash landing. She wasn’t riding her snowboard, rather she sat seated, both heels augured into the snowpack, anchoring her to the ground. Behind her Jakub sat, holding onto a retention loop on her harness. The only way she could be uprooted from her stance would be via anomalous gusts, failure of her to drop the kite and Jakub’s failure to restrain her, the latter two of which seemed more improbable the longer I watched him.
Jakub has watched the evolution of the sport and noted that “… even in the last 10 years the change in equipment and instruction have become infinitely stronger.” By the end of this woman’s second lesson, I watched her fly her kite with steady precision, and eventually pull herself up onto her snowboard for a short ride.
There’s something pure about flying a kite. Even small, toy kites demand attention to detail and respect for nature’s forces. Perhaps nothing can make a child cry more than a kite that snaps loose, gone forever. Some of these events, and many other happy ones, are my earliest memories of flying kites on that same beach in Maryland. We’d fly them all day, keeping almost all from the hungry surf that bites at an inattentive little boy with a spool of twine in his hand. And when night would fall, we’d tie glow sticks to them and fly them over the dark ocean.
But big kites demand big respect. They can pull you onto your face, and if you’re tied into them, off your feet. However with proper instruction and a tincture of respect for the wind, we can use them for a free ride. Kites have taken skiers like Jakub all around the world, without burning a single drop of oil or gasoline or without the sticker shock of a lift ticket. However, like anything worthwhile, snowkiting doesn’t come that easy.
Jakub said it best: “You do have to put in your time. With ever-changing wind it can be a hard sport to learn. But as with most things that are hard to learn, they’re all that more rewarding once you do.”