Kite-Assisted Expeditions Cover New Ground—Fast

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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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