New Snow Sport hits P.C.
Out on the Richardson flats, to the southeast of the junction between S.R. 248 and U.S. 40, people have been flying with kites. However, these kites are not the small toys of our childhood, but large sails used to pull winter athletes across the flat snow at speeds that were once reserved for the slopes. The snowkiters fly across the meadow, carving smooth arcs and taking huge leaps into the air where they spin and twirl like tops.
While it appears to be a prime example of an extreme sport for thrill seekers, snowkiting was first developed for a far more practical purpose.
"Kites were first used over 16 years ago during an Artic exploration," said Brian Schenck, a representative for Ozone Power Kites, one of the premier retailers for kite sports.
Schenck came into snowkiting from an oblique angle. As an avid snowboarder who was marooned in the desert of Las Vegas, he began experimenting with using a kite with his mountain board, which is essentially a skateboard with oversized wheels used to go off-road. He quickly fell in with Ozone, moved to Utah and began marketing snowkiting late in 2000.
"We found that a lot of the best snowkiting in the country is within a few hours of Salt Lake," said Schenck.
The technology that is used in snowkiting is not that different than what is used in kitesurfing, which has largely replaced windsurfing since the turn of the millenium. In both sports, the athlete is harnessed to a kite that pulls them along either water or snow. Similarities aside, there are differences between the kites, and these actually make snowkiting safer.
"We have a Power Control System," said Schenck, "one flick of the wrist and you cut off all the power to the kite."
This works by spilling wind from the kite, which turns it into a passive piece fabric that will gently drop from the air, quickly bringing the rider to a stop.
There are other differences as well. Kitesurfing kites are lined with inflatable rings that keep them afloat in the water while snowkiting kites do not. This allows the rider to collapse the kite as previously described. And you don’t have to worry about any of the unpleasant complexities raised by water.
It is also, Schenck claims, easy to learn. "You lay your kite out, unroll the lines, take a few steps back, pull the bar tight, and the kites immediately fills with air. You have total control left, right, and in bringing the kite down."
Jenny Post, a twenty-year Parkite and four-year snowkiting veteran, doesn’t agree. "It’s one of the hardest sports I’ve ever done."
Perhaps part of the difference of opinion is in the choice of equipment, which falls into two categories: what goes on your feet, and what goes in the sky.
Snowkiting is compatible with snowboards, skis, and even tele-skis, which are Post’s choice. Schenck runs on both skis and boards depending on conditions. "If there’s a lot of snow or I’m doing tricks I’ll take a board, but if I’m doing more cross-country, distance stuff I’ll take skis," he said.
As for kites, the main difference between them is size. "If the wind is big you use a small kite, and if it’s small you need a big kite," said Post.
This means that in order to ride under a large variety of wind conditions, it is best to have a range of kites. And they don’t come cheap. "For a trainer kite that’s more rec style, you’re looking at $100 to $200," said Schenck, "but that can go up to $400 to $800 for a real power kite."
Post agrees. "It’s expensive to get started up," she said, "but it’s totally worth it."
Because the sport is dependant on wind strength, there is an extra dimension added to the conditions. Riders not only have to consider snow conditions and temperature, but wind speed as well. "You can’t really fly anything with wind blowing at less than five miles per hour," said Schenck. "Between five and 15 is like being on a bunny slope, 15 to 25 is pretty moderate and you can jump about 20 feet, and the 25-40 is like blacks."
Because gravity is not the driving force behind this snowsport, riders do not have to wait for a chairlift to take them to the top; if the wind is blowing hard enough, they can ride up the mountain as easily as they can down. "It’s the ride that never ends," said Post.
" One of our favorite places is Skyline," said Schenck about the area near Fairview in central Utah, "it’s about four by five miles of rolling hills. It’s basically an endless terrain park; we even have a half pipe."
"Skyline’s great," said Post, "but there are a lot of people out there doing jumps and stuff. I try and just stay on the ground."
Post prefers to ride at Strawberry Reservoir, where the high winds and open terrain make for ideal conditions.
Whether skiers are going up a mountain or down one, they have a common love: powder.
"Five inches of fluff is about perfect," said Post.
"A couple weeks ago I was out in about two and a half feet of powder, which is hard if you’re short like me," she laughed. "It’s really fun if there’s a lot a wind and a lot of powder."
While these conditions are as rare for snowkiters as everyone else, riders are frequently able to launch a kite. "You can ride about 5 days a week," said Schenck.
Post gave a more conservative estimate, "We go as often as we can, about 50 or 60 days a winter."
And some of them are far from all fun and games.
"I had a ‘kitemare’ a while ago," remembered Post. "I fell down and got dragged by my kite for about 200 yards. My boyfriend had to come knock my kite out of the sky. I hung it up for the day after that."
Risks aside, the sport is growing. "I started four years ago, and there was nobody doing it," said Post, "but over the last three years there are definitely a handful of us doing it."
"There are thousands of people doing it nationwide," said Schenck, "and 100 or 200 here in Utah."
On the competitive side of things, snowkiters compete in several different events. There are freestyle events that feature tricks similar to those seem at the X Games, except that the riders have assisted airtime. Riders will also navigate a two-mile obstacle course in a distance race. One competition that features these events is the Ozone Snowkite Masters, which will run March 25 and 26 at Skyline. For those who are interested, they also provide coached trails of the equipment.
"I’ve never had somebody hand a kite back to me and say, ‘This isn’t for me.’ Everybody comes back with a smile."
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