ANCHORAGE - Richelle and Bryan Kemper were on their way to Alyeska for some simple, old-fashioned snowboarding Dec. 10 but took a detour to Kincaid Park to learn about adding a kite to the sport.
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Not that downhill skiing or snowboarding in the traditional sense isn't enough for the military couple. But kiteskiing piqued their interest. They grew up water-skiing, and the idea of attaching oneself to a kite while wearing skis or a snowboard seemed similar enough, Bryan Kemper said.
That's how they found themselves atop the Kincaid Chalet sledding hill, gripping an oversized kite that flew surprisingly strongly despite a very slight wind. Given a little more air, they would have been pulled along for a free ride on skis or snowboard.
But as is often the case in Alaska, the weather did not cooperate. KiteAlaska.com owner John Tompkins, leader of the introductory course and an instructor for kiteskiing enthusiasts, spent more than an hour going over the basics of the sport - the types of kites, how they fly and how to stay safe while operating them. They are a cross between paragliders and the kites used for surfing on water, but they've been adapted for the wide-open terrain of snowy valleys and above-treeline passes.
A kite can travel as fast as 30 knots, although most riders prefer the comfort of riding at 5 to 10 knots. They can carry the skier or snowboarder for miles too, allowing him to flip, jump and catch air for as long as the wind is blowing strongly enough.
In ideal conditions, Tompkins said a rider can go for hours with the kite attached to his waist by a harness, which absorbs the pull. All the skier must do is adjust the kite's steering bar here and there to stay on course. It's a new twist on an old sport that has thrill-seekers jazzed about new ways to experience the backcountry in much less time.
"I don't know who the first person was who started this, but since 1999, that's when the first few riders showed up," Tompkins said. "It really didn't make its way into magazines and general popularity until about three years ago."
At Kincaid, Tompkins reviewed the principles, pulling out demo kites to explain their styles and what each is best used for.
Kiteskiing is quickly gaining momentum. Just five years ago, there were only a handful of kite manufacturers. Today, the competition is stiff, driving the manufacturers to develop safer and more effective products.
"Now there is a larger range of kite sizes and performance options, so you can fly in different conditions," Tompkins said. "The larger the kite, the less strong the wind has to be."
Learning to ski or snowboard while being pulled by a kite is akin to walking and chewing gum at the same time. One must be able to do both simultaneously for success. And it's not as easy as it looks on the video Tompkins played, showing skiers and boarders gracefully gliding along the snow like breezy apparitions.
The class took turns holding the trainer kite - the most basic of designs that at $250 is well worth the investment. It allows beginner skiers a chance to practice their kite-flying abilities, which inevitably will include countless crashes.
Tompkins said it might sound weird, but there is no feeling like it.
It's not like paragliding, Tompkins said, which gives the flier a feeling of floating on air but in a gentle descent. It's not like snowmachining, either, in which speed provides rider thrills. Think of it as riding a rollercoaster, without the tracks.