Kite-Assisted Expeditions Cover New Ground—Fast

Julian Smith
for National Geographic News
November 2, 2004
When the terrain is flat and the breeze is blowing, sometimes the best
way to cover ground is to go fly a kite. Outfitted with large, specially
crafted kites and harnesses, earthbound adventurers have started to use
wind power to reach some of the most remote spots on the planet.

Some credit goes to the relatively new water sport known as kiteboarding. A mix of paragliding, wakeboarding, and windsurfing, kiteboarding has grown explosively since it was featured in the first ESPN X-Games in 1995.

With feet strapped to floating boards, kiteboarders use special kites and harnesses to skim across the water. Experts can reach speeds up to 40 miles an hour (64 kilometers an hour) and launch 30 feet (9 meters) or more into the air off ramplike waves.

It didn't take long before someone realized that the kites' pulling power could also come in handy on land. Trip Forman, co-founder of Real Kiteboarding, an outfitter with branches along the United States eastern seaboard, Colorado, and Mexico, calls the winter of 2000-2001 a turning point.

"Europeans were the first, especially in France," he says. "There were a few guys in the U.S. and Canada, too, doing it on flat land and frozen lakes." Forman describes the two main types of kites: ram-air, which expand in the wind, and more powerful inflatable kites, which are designed to float on water.

On land and water, riders grasp a handle attached to the kite by 90-foot (30-meter) lines. A harness connects kite rigging to the body; a quick release mechanism allows riders to detach the kite in case of emergency.

Land kites, such as those made by Flexifoil and Slingshot, are typically 8 to 18 feet (2.4 to 5.5 meters) wide. A basic outfit runs U.S. $300 to 900, says Forman, whose company's half-day snow kiteboarding course in Colorado costs U.S. $200.

Risks and Rewards

Kiting on land has a few advantages. A breeze of only four to five miles an hour (six to eight kilometers an hour)—half the wind speed required on water—is enough to get you moving.

In winter riders usually mount snowboards and skis; in summer, wheeled buggies or mountain boards (imagine a snowboard on wheels). Andrew McLean of Park City, Utah, has used kites on expeditions to Antarctica and Baffin Island. He says it is important to choose a kite that's not so big it overpowers you.

"It's a really fine line between going as fast as you can and all of a sudden being 30 feet [9.1 meters] in the air," he said, citing the kites' surprising power as the hardest part of the learning curve. "It's like being pulled behind a water skiing boat."

Many riders wear helmets and other protective gear to avoid being hurt in unforeseen "kitemares," which could mean being pulled into a crevasse or power line, or simply dragged along the ground at 30 miles an hour (50 kilometers an hour).

McLean makes his own kites from plans available online, modified from NASA parachutes used in the Gemini rocket program. The designs are easily scalable for different size kites for different wind conditions, he says.

Sailing Over the Ice

Explorers are now using kites to cross the wide-open spaces of Greenland, Alaska, Antarctica, and Patagonia. "There's a huge difference between covering 10 miles [16 kilometers] in a day on foot or skis and being towed 100 miles [160 kilometers] or more," McLean said. "It's changing the way people are looking at crossing these big ice caps."

McLean likens the experience to sailing with a spinnaker. "[Explorers] are making Arctic and Antarctic travel into more of a sailing journey, where you're looking at which direction prevailing winds go instead of just going straight from point A to point B," he said. "With 24 hours of daylight [in the polar regions] and a good wind, now you can [cover] 15 to 20 days' worth of travel in one day."

The kites have enough strength to pull riders uphill and have been used in "kite mountaineering" ascents of peaks such as Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood.

A four-person British and Canadian team led by Patrick Woodhead, 26, of Great Britain, plans to use kites to cross a portion of Antarctica in record time. The expedition, scheduled to begin November 5, hopes to cover a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) in less than 55 days.

Still, says McLean, covering a lot of ground quickly isn't the only appeal of kite-assisted travel. Asked if it's fun, he laughed and said, "Of course!"

When conditions are right, he said, "it's just perfect, because instead of plodding along, you're going 30 to 40 miles an hour [48 to 64 miles an hour], dragging your sled, making incredible time. The first time people do it, it's like setting the hook."

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