There’s a certain type of wintersports enthusiast to whom the contours of a groomed slope and clatter of a jostling lift queue are anathema. For these skiers and snowboarders the back country is their playground, but navigating it without a helicopter or a cat is problematic if you’re too green or too mean (or not financially loaded).
There is another way… hint: it’s not skins – only mad Swiss people enjoy an arduous three-hour climb before a three-minute descent – the clever ones use wind power.
Developed around six years ago by the sort of ski bums who spend their year with their feet attached to a board of some kind, snowkiting is the answer. Master controlling a ten-metre kite, and pray that the wind is blowing in the right direction, and mother nature will carry you up slopes of virgin powder. Get to the top, roll the kite into a bundle smaller than a shoe box, ski down – no lifts, no queues, no snowboarders carving you up, just silence and alpine terrain.
For beginners, the journey begins on the flat – or a frozen lake in my case. Hoping I could undergo the indignity of being a beginner learning an alien sport I envisioned being the only person tackling this obscure sport on a Swiss lake, but to my amazement there were others. As well as my instructor for the day, the former professional snowkiter and Fat Face team rider, Matt Taggart, my boyfriend Charlie, and some of Matt’s snowkiting posse, there were 12 other people wizzing across the lake at Silvaplana, near St Moritz. Boosting numbers further, in the far distance there were around 30 snowkiters taking part in a series of weekly snowkiting events – according to Matt there are now around 10,000 active snowkiters around the world.
The first lesson is mastering the kite – a doddle to anyone who’s kite surfed. Despite having not flown a kite for well over a decade I got the hang of it quickly flying “the Imp”, a beginner kite that measures six metres and won’t lift you off the ground – although in gusts of wind it did propel me across the ice.
After an hour or so it was time to step up to the ten-metre Access 2 kite, and the skis. Both kites are made by the leading snowkite manufacturer, Ozone, a company started by Matt and some mates when the sport was in its infancy. With a family history of hang gliding pioneers – “I grew up strapped to my Dad’s back”, says Matt – adrenalin is in his blood. “Andre Kuhn, a Swiss skier, started the sport using World War II parachutes,” says Matt. “We started Ozone in 2001 developing an open cell foil that de-powers”. In English this means the kite is collapsible, unlike kite-surf kites, which must be deflated before they can be bundled away; secondly, pull the right line and Ozone kites collapse – a feature I can attest to when I stopped metres from a thawed pool of icy water on Silvaplana lake.
You only need to be a skier of intermediate standard to snowkite because apart from leaning against the kite and keeping your balance, it’s no harder than skiing down a green run. For snowboarders it’s more tricky as you can’t put a leg out if you over-balance.
If the wind is strong enough, keeping the kite downwind can pull you forwards, but in lighter winds the key is to master flying the kite in a figure of eight across the “wind window”, the downwind section of wind. This pulls the kite in bursts and if you maintain the figures of eight, will keep you skudding across the snow. For snowkiters who graduate to tackle uphill slopes, the movement is exaggerated by spinning the kite in tight spirals to pull you up slope.
The reason most skiers won’t have come across snowkiters is that the two sports require different terrain. Kiters favour expansive glacial plains and soft slopes with a decent exposure to prevailing winds, making Iceland, Norway, parts of the US and Canada, and the Bernina area of Switzerland, near the Italian border, the best spots for snow kiting.
On day two we ventured to Bernina, just minutes away from where we were staying – the Hotel Ospizio Bernina, a 130-year-old mountain hotel that stands like a stone monolith on the remote Bernina Pass. For years it acted as halfway house for people making the crossing between Italy and Switzerland by horse and cart, and now it is popular with walkers and skiers who refuel on the hotel restaurant’s legendary polenta and risotto.
Word had clearly got out that conditions were ripe at Bernina, and a caravan of stickered minivans and battered cars were parked on the side of the road from which had disgorged ten or so kiters. Finding a spot between the wall of a damn and the railway line, along which the region’s chocolate box Little Red Train trundles, we set up camp.
It was going swimmingly, until a drop in wind dashed our hopes of graduating to kiting uphill. We joined the other kiters sitting in the sunshine, but when it was clear that the wind was not coming back, it was time to pack up. But instead of calling time on the slopes, we headed to a nearby ski resort, Corvatsch, and bought a half-day pass to salvage what was left of the day. This is another reason why Bernina is a great place to head – when the wind drops, you can go downhill skiing at diminutive resorts and have the pistes almost to yourself. But despite the quiet at Corvatsch, at least to compared to the resorts I’m used, the whirr of lift machinery, proximity of other skiers and marked piste, made it a world away from snow kiting in the pristine alpine environment.
Matt summed it in his charismatic buddhist-meets-ski junkie manner: “It’s a real true free ride out there in the back country, without polluting it.”
Need to know
For anyone who wants to have a go at snowkiting in Bernina, Ozone distributor Patrick Koller, who runs Board Workshop in Pontresina rents out kites, helmets, harnesses, ski/boards and boots. For beginners he also runs weekend workshops.
There are a number of videos hosted on the Ozone site for kiters who want to learn more or be inspired by the acrobatic antics of some pro kiters. Some other great clips can be reached here.
More places to learn
Southern Norway offers some of the best snowkiting spots in the world. Hardangervidda is a vast mountain plateau between Oslo and Bergen. The best place to stay is the Haugastol hotel and apartments, five minutes from the plateau. A local kite school offers lessons and rents equipment, but as the website is in Norwegian you need to call or email to book. The nearest airport is Gardermoen.
Germany also has a number of snowkite schools: in Oberwiesenthal (website again only in German, but has contact details and great pictures), accessible by flying to Dresden, Leipzig, Berlin or Prague; or there’s the Freekite school in Marienberg (click on the “Kurse” link, which is in German but relatively self-explanatory), also accessible from Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin; and finally GlobalXTeam, in Schwenningen (site also in German, but has contact details), near Basel, Zürich, Stuttgart and Memmingen