Eighty miles east of Boise, among the rolling hills of the Camas Prairie, lies ground zero for snowkiting in Idaho, where last Saturday the third annual Kite Soldiers Snowkite Event took place in Hill City.
Snowkiters rocket across windswept snowy terrain using wind-powered kites while strapped onto traditional snowboards or downhill skis. The colorful kites, designed specifically for the sport, facilitate aerial acrobatics, long distance jumps and incredible speeds--at times exceeding 60 mph.
Or in the words of veteran kiter Renee DeCosse of British Columbia: "Get powered up, laid over, then fuckin' cruise."
Favorable winds, unfortunately, were not to be had on Saturday, nor most of the weekend. Undaunted, competitors and sponsor reps teamed up to construct an articulated rail, crank the tunes and crack a few beers. Snowboarders and skiers alike flew down the rail, some with beverages in hand, to the delight of their fellow athletes and spectators.
The annual Kite Soldiers event attracts competitors from as far away as Norway and Australia. Participants compete in one of three categories: a long distance race, a rider-judged terrain park aerial competition or the always popular poker run.
Event organizers Monte Goldman and Trisha Smith, both from Boise, have seen their Kite Soldiers Snowkite Event grow each year from its modest local roots. Originating from a small group of snowkiters, the event now draws in nearly 100 male and female athletes. Despite the weekend's uncooperative winds, you won't find two more enthusiastic and gracious organizers than this Boise couple: Goldman with his evangelical-like enthusiasm and Smith with her buoyant natural charm and all-American smile.
What makes the Camas Prairie particularly unique is its expanse of open terrain, easy access and remarkably consistent winds. It's the quality and quantity of the wind, the lack of trees and the parallel road (Highway 20), that make this spot so special to snowkiters, Goldman noted.
"Our Norwegian snowkite visitors say 'this is home, this is the best,'" he said.
For folks more inclined to watch, snowkiting can be a great spectator sport. Said one participant, "People want to see extreme underground sports like the X-Games. People like watching it. Seven out of 10 people would rather watch kiteboarding than figure skating."
Even the city leaders of Fairfield, 20 miles to the east, are taking notice.
"Our hotels are filled. Restaurants and bars are doing a brisk business. Events like this help keep small towns in business between seasons," said Jeff Kreyssig, representing the Fairfield City Council and Chamber of Commerce at the event.
"This place blows Colorado away. This is the terrain Colorado doesn't have. These open, rolling hills, this is ideal," said Topher Sabella, a 10-year veteran of the sport who also runs a kiteboarding school near his home in Seattle.
When the wind conditions are right, Sabella continues, pointing to the top of a mountain 4 miles away and 1,000 feet up, "I can be to the top of that in 15 minutes."
And that wind is the primary difference between snowkiting and other winter gravity sports. Equipped with only a kite and snowboard, snowkiters can ride up incredibly steep terrain and cross vast, flat expanses, including frozen lakes, at fantastic speeds. In fact, many boarders will kite up a mountain, stow their kite in a backpack, then traverse fresh, untrammeled backcountry powder without the aid of a ski lift or motorized gear. Similar to windsurfing on water, modern snowkites allow the more experienced athletes to utilize the wind in any direction. For example, snowkiters can cut across the wind (reach), move upwind at an oblique angle (tack) or sail directly downwind (run).
Most of the snowkiters BW talked to, in fact, remarked about their own crossover from water sports. Many were or are windsurfers and kiteboarders, and most use snowkiting as a means of extending their boarding season through the winter.
"You see a lot of the same faces on the water at Baja and the Dominican Republic ... A large part of why we come here is it's a great group of people," Sabella said.
Snowkite trainer and Ozone brand promoter Amanda Weldy of Chicago talked about women's advantages in snowkiting.
"There's little strength needed. It's more about technique," said the wispy 30-year-old. "Women invariably know how to feel the wind better and not try to overpower the kite."
In the last five years, improvements to snowkiting equipment have improved the safety of the sport, making kites more specialized to better handle a wider range of wind speeds. Likewise, the newer harness and rigging systems allow more control of direction, lift and speed. More importantly, snowkiters can instantly dump their kites through one of three methods, including a quick release system, should a hazard suddenly appear.
And although Idaho affords snowkiters an expanse of public lands worthy of wintertime exploration, like all outdoor recreationists in the state, snowkiters are cautioned to know where property boundaries lie and to always ask permission before accessing private land. Though some riders say many private property owners seem more willing to allow access to their land due in part to the benign, quiet nature of the sport, others sheepishly admit to recent trespassing confrontations.
Trespassing wasn't an issue, however, at last weekend's Kite Soldiers event. Without wind, competitors stuck together and played with gravity instead. Even still, Whidbey Island, Wash., rider Jesse Thetford summed up the sport this way: "It's as addictive as crack, but you have to want this sport."