The record-shattering solo crossing of Antarctica by Quebec’s own Frédéric Dion has given fuel to the imagination of people reading about his exploits back home. As an avid follower of Antarctic explorers, one record in particular stood out to me amongst his other accomplishment: travelling 627 km in one day. Six hundred and twenty-seven kilometers! In one day! With sleds, and equipment, and food for weeks. As I read this in early January, I wondered how this feat could be possible. The polar explorers I usually follow typically cover 15, maybe 20 clicks on a good day. Could kite skiing really be that fast?
Yes. As I would soon find out kite skiing is really, truly, FAST.
Flashforward to a week ago, and I’m on the wind-swept ice of the Lac des Deux Montagnes, nervously clipping on my skis while 27 meters away from me lies a flattened kite, tethered to my harness, ready to catch the wind at a jerk of the lines.
It’s easy to forget about kite skiing, even if you know the sport exists. Unlike its popular water-born cousin kite surfing, kite skiing enjoys relative obscurity. You don’t see kite skiers on your vacation beaches; in fact unless you happen to ice fish where people kite, you may never see someone kite skiing up close. So it’s no surprise that so few of us have thought to try it.
And then there’s the financial element. At 300-400$ for an initial course and equipment running upwards of 2000$, not including the skis, even those who want to kite surf may not necessarily be able to justify the costs. At the very least, it’s not a sport that most can commit to on a whim. But of course, when there’s a will there’s a way and with a combination of autodidactitude and deal-sniffing, you can offset a large part of the cost obstacle.
On the plus side, it’s really not that difficult for beginners. I was surprised to discover that the art of kite skiing lies largely in the handling of the kite itself, rather than in the skiing. These sails really are proper kites, and much like an ordinary kite, keeping it in the air and where you want it requires some skill. The orientation, position and movements of your kite impact the force and direction of its pull, so it’s really important to learn how to control the kite itself. For this reason, beginners typically start on their feet with a small (2m2) training kite that won’t pull them off the ground.
I took a course with Gilles of the school 30Noeuds and it took me about 2 hours to really master the training kite. From there, it’s an easy transition to a small skiing kite. On snow, the force needed to pull you is much smaller than that required on water, so much smaller kites can be used even in modest winds. This makes kite skiing an excellent segue into kite surfing. The 4m2 kite that my instructor had me try first was easy to handle, and didn’t go too fast.
But the minute I tried one of the bigger kites, in even moderate winds, wow did I really take off. In good winds, a skilled kiter can apparently go 100Km/h. Our winds weren’t that strong, and I didn’t have time to check my GPS, but going on feeling alone, I’m pretty sure I was doing 350. That might be a generous estimate, but the feeling of speed was really quite impressive.
The cold hasn’t been much of a factor so far, despite the fact that this sport is practiced in the open wind. Naturally, you want to wear a good wind-resistant outer layer; I relied on my trusty Arc’teryx Alpha SV shell with a synthetic insulation jacket (Black Diamond’s Heat Treat), since I might sweat. For pants I used my ski gear (The North Face’s Freedom pants), and also brought my mountain hardwear compressors. In the end, I didn’t need the compressors, but that’s the whole point of that piece of gear, it’s there IF you need it. Gloves are a must, I would say, since you need your fingers to work the line, and in that department, I’m particularly blessed to have the ultra-dexterous Arc’teryx Alpha SVs. And of course, I had my ski gear.
Asides from clothes and ski gear, the dedicated hardware you need for this sport is a harness and at least one kite, which should have lines, a steering bar, a pack bag and if it’s an inflatable kite, a pump. There are two broad classes of kites, ram-air kites are simpler, lighter, pack smaller and don’t require an air pump. They also have the advantage of dropping like bed sheet when you pull the break, and generally staying down easily. But they’re not useable on water, save by experts. Air-filled kites have a rigid air-filled structure that allows them to float but also makes them harder to handle when resting on ice. Ultimately the choice of kite(s) depends on where and how, and in what winds, you will use your kite.
If you want to spot kite surfers around Montreal, the ice bridge between Oka and Hudson is a great spot to see them. But a word of warning to your wallet: once you see the fun these guys have speeding around and jumping with their kites you may not be able to resist trying it out yourself. Hey, at least wind’s free.