Ski Mountaineering

Skiting on the San Joaquin Ridge
Jan 11, 2003

Reiner Stenzel

"Skiting" (=skiing & kiting) is a new sport of skiing with a power kite. We heard about it at a recent SMS program from Andrew McLean; one can read about it in a recent issue of the Couloir; finally, there are several web sites describing it Basically, you ski over large distances propelled by wind power instead of human strength. It works best in flat or gentle terrain where a steady breeze exists. It has been used on expeditions to Greenland, Antarctica, Lake Baikal, but also on many less ambitious trips. I have practiced it on the San Joaquin Ridge north of Mammoth and I think it would work well in the White Mountain Range.

Skiting combines two skills: piloting a traction kite while skiing with pack without poles. A power kite is not a toy. My NASA Wing 9 has a surface area of 3.4 square meters and can develop a pull of 150 lbs. Uncontrolled, it can propel a person to dangerous speeds and cause serious injuries. One has to steer it so as to match the pull to a safe speed. Steering occurs via two or four lines connected to handles. With these, one moves the kite horizontally and vertically out of the wind so as to limit the pull. Two of the four lines serve as breaking lines by changing the curvature of the wing. The lines are typically 75 feet long, lightweight but rated at 500 lbs. Kite and lines weigh only about a pound and can easily be stashed away in a backpack. I have ordered my kite from the web. Count on spending $100-200 for a basic setup.

Here are my initial experiences: I started to practice without skis in flat terrain when the wind is moderate. Stay away from people, trees, power lines, etc, since one has to count on occasional crashes or loosing the kite. A second person is helpful, but one has to learn solo starting the kite.

The worst mistake is to let the kite go into a spin since it entangles the three dozen or so bridle lines. The resultant tangle-fest can be very frustrating. The nicest practice condition I had was a steady on-shore breeze at the beach. Then it is a pleasure to steer the kite gently in figure eights or fly it dead vertically above you where a wing still produces lift. More challenging are variable wind conditions: One moment one struggles to keep the kite up, the next moment it pulls so hard that one cannot stop it. Then the options are limited: run with it and loose balance sooner or later; let it go and possibly loose it; tie into an anchor and feel the forces equivalent to a climbers fall. Conclusion: It's a dangerous toy in high winds! After some of these experiences I went skiting on the San Joaquin Ridge north of Mammoth.

The conditions were favorable, the kite pulled nicely and I got a pleasant ride. At times it became too fast and I had to brake. Of course nothing is perfect: The snow was wind blown crust and the kite was right in the sun. It requires some mental effort (or practice) to control hands and feet separately. But that is part of the challenge of skiting. The falls are outweighed by the pleasure of gliding with the wind. It's a thousand times better than being pulled by a noisy, smelly snow mobile or a bunch of barking dogs.

What are the long range plans? Having once skied 50 mi in the White Mountain Range I am thinking of better ways to do that again: Skiting from Westgard Pass to Boundary Peak. The terrain is open, gentle and there is always a breeze. Of course, it has to be done when snow, weather and wind directions are favorable. Most importantly, it requires a group of people with comparable skills. Thus, I am hoping to entice some other SMS members to try the fun of skiting. New toys open up new adventures. Let's do some pioneering ski trips with kites.

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