Each year, the first snowfall in New England tends to elicit some pretty strong emotions. You either love it or you hate it, and there’s not much middle ground. If you are into adventure sports, or if you like to have even a little fun outdoors in the winter, then the snow brings about some fresh possibilities. One of the most common activities that we New Englanders pursue is skiing and snowboarding. The great thing about this sport is that it’s easily accessible, and today’s modern ski resorts with several high-speed lifts can pump hundreds, if not thousands more people up the mountain in any given day than they could 20 or 30 years ago, making lift lines a bit more bearable. Unfortunately though, the thrill of cutting not so fresh tracks down the groomed terrain at the resort can fade quickly, especially when your frozen ass is stuck to the chairlift for a good portion of the day.
That’s where snow kiting can help. If you have ever seen pictures or video of riders being pulled across the snow by a large power kite, then chances are you have wanted to give it a try. Being pulled across a frozen lake or snow covered field looks like the epitome of freedom. But due to the highly technical nature of the sport, relatively few people have cracked the code on how to ditch the lift lines and let the wind give them a free ride compared to the massive number of snow sliders that take to the resort slopes each year.
New Hampshire native Zebulon Jakub, one of the Northeast’s authorities on snow kiting, is one of those people. Jakub began snow kiting in 1998, which in kiting years makes him a pioneer of Lewis and Clark proportions, although when talking about the sport he is quick to downplay his many accomplishments and experience. He first became involved with winter sports as a child, and credits his parents with fostering an active lifestyle that encouraged his curiosity in a wide variety of activities. “I started out as a skier and snowboarder, and during this time in the summers, we would take surfing trips where my father taught me to fly stunt kites. Of course, kiteboarding was already in existence, especially on water, and so I purchased my first real-deal kiteboarding kit while I was in college. But I bought the equipment in the winter and thought, ‘I have the gear, I might as well go out to the frozen lakes and fields covered in snow and see how it works.’”
These days, that sounds pretty ambitious, if not straight up crazy. Nobody today would recommend that someone buy a kite and board and just head out without some formal instruction. But back in 1998, kite sports, even on the water, were in their infancy here in New England. Instructors were difficult to find, so he combined his previous experience flying stunt kites along with his skiing and snowboarding skills, and self taught himself the ins and outs of the sport. That’s not the recommended path these days, though. For someone not familiar with the handling skills of large power kites, lessons are critical for learning the technicalities of the sport. “It’s so often that people will start out with a small 2-3 meter trainer kite (probably because they are cheaper), and they can be really good at flying those kites, but they do not have the trimming or de-power system that kiteboarding kites have. Then you start doing the math, and how strong the wind has to be blowing for a 170-200 pound person to be moved by a 2-3 meter kite. It’s probably about a 30-40 mph wind, which often times is associated with a storm wind that can have significant gusts. That’s not safe. That’s a bad idea. In New England, there have been numerous injuries and one death from people going out in very strong conditions. On the other hand, you could also have a huge 17 to 20 meter flying machine, where the winds can be lower, but then the wind changes. If you’re not familiar with the design of the kite, then you could have your hands full really quick with just a small shift in wind speed or direction. That’s why lessons are so important. All of that will be learned.” Outstanding advice, especially when aspiring kiters are used to hearing that snow kiting is easier than kiteboarding on water because the solid ground reduces the need to generate so much force to get started. True, but the consequences for crashing are also higher, again due to the solid ground, which could wreck your kite or your head.
Even today, Jakub is one of only a few people certified to instruct snow kiting. He holds certifications from both the International Kiteboarding Organization and the Professional Air Sports Association, and is clearly passionate about the sport. Although he holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Adventure Recreation from Green Mountain College and also teaches rock and ice climbing, ski mountaineering, and mountain rescue skills, he notes that snow kiting has risen to the top of his winter activities. “Kites had always been on the sideline. But as I got better at it and saw more and more of what people could do with the kites, it has completely trumped a lot of the other interests that I have. Snow kiting in particular is so dynamic and can be applied in so many different ways within one season. With water kiting, people often hit a plateau before you start getting hurt. But with snow kiting, the terrain dictates possibilities. You can kite up mountains and ski down or stay on flat frozen lakes and fields and just go as fast or as far as you can, build jumps or set up rails like a skate park. I have even had trains of people holding a rope behind me just for fun. It allows so much personal expression and creativity, more so than any other sport that I’ve seen.”
“Most of my kite festival energy is now put toward Tug Hill in New York. What we have there is people getting together to ride the deepest snow on the east coast with the most consistent wind. Everybody gets together and enjoys their day, and then there are raffles that raise money to donate to the local community”. So in addition to the boost in the local economy from tourism, there is some philanthropy intertwined with Tug Hill. “The great thing about Tug Hill is that it’s not going to cancel. The weather has been great every year.” Gotta love that lake effect snow, and with hundreds of windmills dotting the landscape, you know that the wind is about as good as it can get.
What about gear? Generally, snowkites are of the foil design, meaning that the baffles within the kite fill with air and give the kite some structure while under flight. Foil kites are ideally suited to land based kiting, as they self launch easier and are less likely to get damaged in the event of a crash. However, if you have been kiteboarding all summer, then the leading edge inflatable kite that you already own will suffice. In fact, most riders in New England are using inflatable kites because they already own them and can serve that dual purpose.
The kiteboarding harness can also do double duty, but layered on top of all of that winter clothing can become uncomfortable and also inhibit ventilation and produce excessive sweating, something to be avoided in the backcountry. A lot of kiters are using climbing harnesses, which are less bulky and won’t pull at your clothing as much.
What you put under your feet is really a matter of personal preference. Skis or a snowboard will both work. Skis offer the advantage of walking around as you are launching or recovering from a crash, which may be a great advantage as you are learning. Snowboards offer a similar feel and riding experience to the board that you may have been riding on water. If you are just getting into the sport, then a good idea is to just go with whatever is stashed in your garage.
In addition to flat fields and frozen lakes, the mountains are also a target destination for the most advanced snowkiters, although there are plenty of unique challenges to consider. Aside from having superb kite flying skills, one must truly have a handle on winter mountaineering itself. Avalanche awareness, first aid skills, and knowledge of the weather are basics that need to be mastered before attempting this type of terrain. It may be a two to three hour hike into the backcountry before reaching the treeless alpine environment, so it is not an undertaking for everyone. Jakub has spent the last seventeen years in the mountains leading rock and ice climbers and backcountry skiers, and still admits that one can never really be truly prepared for what the mountains may throw at you. However, for those that are able to graduate to this terrain, the possibilities become even greater. “You can kite up the mountain and then ski down, or you can even fly down the mountain, using the kite as a paraglider”. Jakub has even used the kite to ski upMount Washington.
Jakub says that adopting a Zen-like attitude toward snow kiting, and most extreme sports for that matter, can be helpful. “There’s a snow kiter from western Massachusetts named Bob Christian, who goes out all the time. If it’s windy, he’s going. If it’s not windy, he’s still going. But he will tell you that for every ten times that he goes out, only one of those days will be that take home bucket of gold that you would never trade for anything. That’s the thing about snow kiting that is elusive. It’s really hard to get that perfect day. But when you do get it, it’s worth more than a bucket of gold, because when everything aligns, it’s that connection of chance and timing as much as it is skill and ability, all working together. So if you want to go snow kiting, just go. Bring a chair and a book, and if you spend the day sitting in the sun and reading on a beautiful winter afternoon, then that’s a good day as well. That’s the take home message that I want to push, rather than some sort of adrenaline rush. Because it’s not just for adrenaline seekers. It is for those that are seeking a soulful way of living, and although the learning curve may be steep, with timing, skill, and a good attitude, has great rewards”.
Zebulon Jakub teaches snowkiting and kiteboarding at numerous locations in New England, and can be found athttp://www.kiteboardne.com/. He also runs the snowkiting program at International Mountain Climbing School (IMCS) in North Conway, NH. He also leads a snow kiting clinic at the annual Mount Washington Valley Ice Fest.