Learning to sail on snow in the New Zealand backcountry - Extract from Derek Grzelewski's article in Wild Snow
"A sunset pow session on Mt Pisa in southern New Zealand. When it all comes together – wind, snow, visibility and skills – your backcountry tours enter a whole new universe of fun and possibilities."
In the carpark of the Snow Farm, on the slopes of the Pisa Range in southern New Zealand, I used to see them coming back – tired, cold and wind-burnt but buzzing with excitement and wide-eyed with wonder. The snow kiters! On skis or snowboards, tethered to colourful kites, they would sail off into the arctic landscapes of Mt Pisa and return with tales of covering 50 or more miles of remote backcountry in just a couple of hours, and acres upon acres of untracked powder worth several days of heli-skiing which they had all to themselves.
But for me, the final jolt of inspiration came from the documentary film Mountains of the Wind, an informal history of snow kiting, in the words of Noah Poritz, one of the sport’s pioneers, “Quickly, I realized I don’t need a lift ticket anymore,” Poritz was saying. This somehow encapsulated an irresistible idea: a personal ski lift in your backpack.
Daniel Clearwater, a former navy helicopter pilot and fellow snow kiting rookie only a few days ahead of me put it another way: “It’s like riding a dragon – awesome and exhilarating – but every so often you can get bitten.”
The greatest danger in the early stages of snow kiting is of course being overpowered by your dragon!
Before winter, get a trainer kite like the 3m Ozone Ignition and fly it as much as you can in a safe obstacle-free zone. Find and watch YouTube clips about “wind window,” how to generate pulling power and how to control it. You want to become so familiar with the kite and its power zones that you can find and feel them without looking. Kite skiing or boarding on snow is kiting first, riding second. Even if you fall over, you still need to fly the kite or it’ll drag your butt through the powder you’re meant to ride on your planks.
When the snow comes you can and should still use your trainer for the first few sessions. Start on flat terrain and work up to hills. Going uphill and upwind is the hardest. As you get more comfortable, you upgrade to a beginner’s 5-line kite like Ozone PURE or EXPLORE in the 6-8m range. At the beginning you’ll tangle up a lot, this is normal. Learn the primary and secondary safety releases so you can deploy them without thinking and with your eyes closed.
Get a wind speed meter (called anemometer) and learn to use it and match the size of your kites to wind speeds. As you gain confidence, you progress to bigger kites, perhaps up to 13 m.
The oddest thing too is that I used to hate the wind. Now, I can’t wait for it.
Fly safe, have fun!
Writer, backcountry aficionado and kite skiing convert Derek Grzelewski is now based in Colorado where he’s exploring kite skiing zones whenever the wind is strong enough. He also ski guides in Japan and has a strong association with OZONE Kites where he can help you source and choose the best and safest kites for your backcountry needs. For all kite gear inquiries, you can contact him at [email protected]