Setting Sail: Enthusiasts spread their wings and fly over snow
Sunday, November 20, 2011
BY MOLLY LOOMIS
PHOTO BY WAYNE PHILLIPS
It’s a cold February day. Strong winds have compacted the snow into a hard, breakable crust. Fred’s Mountain at Grand Targhee Resort is veiled in a storm cloud. Instead of enduring a drive up Teton Pass and a Shackelton-esque outing into the backcountry, we turn toward Tetonia’s potato fields, lying cold and dormant under a blanket of snow.
We aren’t the only ones that figured today would be a great day for kite skiing—already half a dozen cars are parked alongside the road. Brightly colored sails fill the air, and skiers and boarders rip across the barren, white ocean of snow. I unwind the lines running between my steering bar and the kite, don my harness, and orient my sail to the wind. Meanwhile, my husband Andy pumps air into his kite—a different design than mine, with inflatable baffles. I clip into my skis, pull down on the steering bar, and spend a few minutes reacquainting myself with the steering motion of angling one end of the bar towards me and then the other, while the sail floats high above in an elegant figure eight. I cut the turn short and hold the kite at the edge of the wind. The yellow nylon grows taut and off I go, racing over the snow.
Yep, just when you thought you had all the winter stuff you needed, here’s an excuse to add yet more gear to the collection. Kite skiing is gaining momentum in the Tetons as one more way to get outside when snow blankets the ground. In fact, kite skiing conditions are often best on days when sitting on a chair lift or backcountry skiing above tree line is less than appealing. When the wind is howling, that is.
Relying on wind for travel in winter conditions was a practice used as early as 1911, when Roland Amundsen and company used sails for their return journey from the South Pole. More recently, European daredevils have brought attention to kite skiing as they careen down steep mountainsides in the Alps before launching into the air in a heart-racing combination of skiing and paragliding. The sport was slowly making inroads in the United States, until an important equipment innovation new just five years ago—a safety release that allows kiters to exit the system if headed toward dangerous obstacles—helped kite skiing’s popularity surge here. Kite skiers (and boarders) can now be seen on winter days around the country, whipping across fields, launching off jumps, and even getting tugged uphill by the force of nature.
Tetonia-based Steve Shepro started kite skiing seven years ago, after being introduced to the sport by his uncle, an avid windsurfer.
“I had flown small stunt kites at the beach as a kid, so the mechanics made sense,” Shepro says. “But what really excited me about it was realizing the power you get when you harness the wind, even with something like a small trainer kite. It’s amazing.”
Shepro recommends that newcomers to the sport use new gear if they’re going to fly anything bigger than a trainer. “The equipment has gotten much, much better in terms of ease of flying and safety,” he says. He also recommends a lesson: “It’s like going rock climbing—you don’t want to climb on an old hemp rope and you want to know how to be safe.”
For those seeking formal instruction, local kiting guru Wayne Phillips provides a free lesson with kite rental; he’s the contact person for Jackson Hole Paragliding, which also offers lessons. Phillips started experimenting with the sport back in 1998, when he’d use an old stunt kite to pull him around on a skateboard. The next year he upgraded and has been hooked ever since. He is now at the core of a group of locals helping to put our region’s potato fields, sagebrush flats, rolling hills, and expansive frozen lakes on the kite skiing map.
Phillips acknowledges that the sport has been slow to catch on in places like the Tetons, where so many people come specifically to ski. He finds that many kiters are ski bums who, after decades of sliding down the slopes at the resorts, are searching for a new experience.
With a kite, Phillips loves having the ability to not only ski downhill, but also uphill.
“There’s one spot by Craters of the Moon [National Monument & Preserve] where you can climb up over three thousand feet in less than fifteen minutes,” he says. He predicts the sport will continue to grow, especially in Teton Valley, in part because of relatively easy access to a number of good sites. One of his favorite places is a hilltop just north of Hatch’s Corner between Tetonia and Driggs.
Phillips is enthusiastic about sharing his passion for the sport with others and highlighting the area’s fantastic terrain. He posts wind and condition updates, as well as links to videos from recent exploits, on his Jackson Hole Kiters Facebook page.
“This is a really windy place, [and] there are a lot of rolling hills that are easily accessible from the road,” he says. “You can find wind any day, from ten minutes to two hours away.”
Blowin’ in the Wind
Wayne Phillips is planning a kite skiing gathering for January 2012. Check out the Jackson Hole Kiter’s Facebook page for more information—although some details, like the exact location, will be dependent on the wind.