Snow kiters find home in Montana’s open spaces

By Rhyan McLaury EBS Contributor

Floating, leaning, launching, spinning. These words describe the spectacle known as snow kiting. Powered completely by wind, snow kiters harness themselves to kites generally ranging from 3-12 square meters, which allow them to carve turns and get airborne. Snow kiting encompasses both skiing, which is more popular, and snowboarding, which crosses over from kiteboarding on water.

Josh Smith catching air at Reynolds Pass. Smith has won four of the last six big air competitions at the annual Montana Snow Kite Rodeo.

Josh Smith catching air at Reynolds Pass. Smith has won four of the last six big air competitions at the annual Montana Snow Kite Rodeo.

Kite skiing got its start in the Alps during the 1960s and 70s with augmented parachutes. The technology began accelerating in the Great Lakes Region in the 1980s, and was even used in long distance polar expeditions.

Montana is unique in that kiting locations are ubiquitous, whether on snow or water. The hardcore riders may do both in the same day, and even at the same time, with the help of a dry suit.

“Kiteboarding is such a dynamic sport … getting out on the snow or on the water, exploring the backcountry, gliding off hill sides,” said Kevin Johnson of Big Sky.

Johnson tried kiteboarding several years ago on water, and was

Hans Schernthaner prepares his inflatable kite for launch at Reynolds Pass on the Montana/Idaho border.

Hans Schernthaner prepares his inflatable kite for launch at Reynolds Pass on the Montana/Idaho border.

quickly drawn to the sport. He moved to Long Beach, Calif., to get his fill of kitesurfing on the ocean while working in a kite shop.

“I had no choice but to become a kitesurfing bum that summer,” Johnson said.

After time abroad snow kiting in the French Alps, Johnson opted for a career switch to ski bumming and landed in Big Sky, where he can now downhill or kite ski on any given day.

“Better to do both and choose depending on conditions,” he said. “Others might complain when it’s really windy on the mountain but that’s when I’m most stoked to get dragged around on a kite.”

Hans Schernthaner, of Big Sky, is an eight-year veteran of kite skiing, and says he enjoys the sport because there are no lines, tickets or chairlifts required.

“Everybody has the same wind and the same snow all day long. You can ski powder, [even] making turns uphill.”

Schernthaner is originally from Austria and got his start as a wind surfer, but was drawn to kiting by the terrain Montana offers.

Eight-year veteran kiter Hans Schernthaner carves a turn at Reynolds Pass.

Eight-year veteran kiter Hans Schernthaner carves a turn at Reynolds Pass.

“We came to realize very quickly that [the land] we have here is really the big factor,” Schernthaner said. “There is nothing like it in the entire country [of] Austria: open space, and access to it. Out here is absolutely perfect.”

Reynolds Pass, Island Park, Henry’s Lake and Georgetown Lake are just some of these open, windy places in Montana and Idaho that Big Sky kiters target.

Each season, Jackson, Mont. hosts the annual Montana Snow Kite Rodeo on Big Hole Pass, which took place this year in mid-February. The gathering features a race and rider-judged big air and freestyle competitions.

“Montana kiters themselves are unique,” said Josh Smith, who’s been kite skiing since 2004. “[Here we have] very gusty winds which breeds some rugged kiters.” Smith won the big air event four of the past six years, reaching heights of 250 feet or more.

Smith, a Bozeman resident, began snow kiting when he was 11 after seeing kiters on Georgetown Lake. “We stopped and watched, and decided we’re getting into kiting next,” Smith said.

While the sport of snow kiting is growing, according to Smith, several factors keep participation small, including its extreme physical demand, the up-front investment, and a prerequisite of knowing how to ski, snowboard or surf.

Smith recommends that people new to snow kiting start with a trainer kite, which are small in surface area. They produce less power but move quickly and are “twitchy,” teaching control without too much consequence. According to Smith, this will help beginners figure out if they like to fly.

“When you decide you are committed, start buying bigger kites,” Smith says.

Most of the sport’s participants have a quiver of kites in multiple sizes, so they can adapt to changing wind conditions. There are also two types of kites: Inflatables, which have to be pumped up, are used on water, have more power and are better for gliding; and foil kites, which have their leading edge open allowing cells to fill with air, are lighter and easier to pack. This makes them more appropriate for backcountry travel.

New kites can cost $1,000 or more, and used ones can go for around $400. Many people just buy and sell from fellow kiters, and the Montana group is tightly knit, according to Smith.

“We consider each other family,” he said. “Since kiting is hard

Josh Smith using his kite's power to carve deep turns.

Josh Smith using his kite’s power to carve deep turns.

and dangerous to learn, we are always looking out for each other and anyone learning.”

As the weekend approaches, Montana kiters watch the weather and connect to spend another day out in the wind.

“After a week we really get kite fever,” Schernthaner said. “It’s like a drug. You walk away from something like this so invigorated.”

Rhyan McLaury is a professional ski bum originally from the Pacific Northwest, and enjoys capturing unique ways of getting out and exploring.