A heavy tug from the kite sends me into a lurching ski ballet. The wind, which has been steady and gentle out of the south all afternoon, is picking up. Instinctively, I sink the edges of my skis deeper into the snow and arch back into my harness. The kite responds with a burst of acceleration. “That worked out well,” I chuckle to myself. “Guess this old dog’s learning some new tricks.”
The wind swirls as I draw closer to the forest. I execute a 180 and reset my sights on the distant highway. I’m settling into my new course, when I hear Worth’s command. “Drop your kite! Now!” he shouts. “Right now!” A glance over my shoulder reveals a wild snow-cyclone skittering across the meadow toward us. Instead of pulling the controls to instantly deflate my kite, I hesitate, considering my position. I’m on the far side of the meadow, a half-mile from the highway. Without the kite’s assistance, I’ll have a long trudge across the flats. But I’m headed right for the truck. If I can just hold on for 30 seconds, I’ll be home free.
Disregarding the advice of my mentor—as well as the wisdom of Icarus and Dedalus – I crouch low, brace against the pull of my kite, and rocket across the meadow in a madcap race against the wind.
Like most Telluride adventures, this one began with a chance meeting on Main Street. I’d bumped into an old friend who manages a large ranch on Wilson mesa, where the wind is a constant companion. He’d just endured a particularly breezy week. “I’m OK with snowstorms that leave a foot on the ground,” he groused. “But plowing the driveway twice a day to clear wind drifts is making me crazy. I’ve got to find a way to befriend the wind.”
Those words pricked my memory. For the past several years, Mark Worth has been urging me to try snowkite with him on Lizard Head pass. Here was a perfect opportunity to take advantage of Mark’s offer. Two days later, we were driving southbound on Highway 145 for an introduction to the sport of snowkiting.
Worth grew up sailing small boats off the shores of New York and Connecticut. In 1979, he pried himself from the Atlantic’s watery embrace and moved to Telluride, where he became a pioneer in the nascent telemark skiing movement in the San Juans.
But when the snow melted, Worth pined for wind and open water. He spent most of the summer of 1984 at Miramonte Reservoir, teaching himself to sail an early-model windsurfer. “The rig was rudimentary,” he recalls. “There were no foot-straps or harness lines, so when the wind picked up, I’d just hold on really tight.” (A windsurfer consists of a mast and sail mounted on a surfboard-like platform. It operates on the same principles as sailboat – albeit a very nimble sailboat.)
The windsurfing bug bit Worth hard. By 1991, he was summering in Hood River, Ore., where he honed his skills in the famed Columbia River Gorge. Five years later, he opened a windsurfing guide service. His business thrived; he’d found his niche. At the end of the decade, Worth expanded his curriculum include the new sport of kiteboarding. He now runs Gorge Kiteboard School in the summer and Telluride Snowkite School in the winter.
Kiteboarding combines the maneuverability of a wakeboard with the power of a kite shaped like a wing—a curved strip of nylon with long, slender cords attached along the edges. The cordage from each side of the wing runs together and is anchored into a carbon bar. Pressuring the ends of the bar steers the kite through the air. Again, the general principles of sailing remain in force. But unlike a windsurfer with a mast and sail, the kiteboarder’s sail flies high above the sailor. This lightweight setup can generate huge forces.
The winter equivalent of kiteboarding uses a snowboard or skis to travel across the snow. When the wind picks up, expert kiters can easily slingshot 40 feet into the air. Untrained rookies may inadvertently do the same.
So my friend and I listen carefully as Worth opens our snowkiting lesson with a discussion centered on a wire model of a kite and a skier. “Imagine the wind is coming from this direction,” he points. “If you put your kite up here deep in the window, your lines will go slack, then your kite fills up with wind and wham! You’ll be yanked into the sky.” The model skier dangles haplessly in his hand. “That’s no fun,” he says. “On your first day, you want to keep your kite over here, on the edge of the window.”
My friend has clearly had some sailing experience. He’s asking intelligent questions, showing signs of understanding the nuances of Worth’s demonstration. I’m a bit lost in the sailing jargon, but come away from the hour-long chalk talk with the basic precepts and a hope that the finer points will come clear when I’m flying the kite.
We don harnesses and unfurl the kite on the snow. Before we hook it into our harnesses, Worth makes sure we understand how to deflate the kite by pulling a special piece of webbing near the control handles. (He also shows us the back-up emergency ripcord that instantly frees skier from kite if circumstances demand.) With these preliminaries completed, we take turns flying the kite with Worth, standing on our skis to keep us stationary. This proves to be somewhat counterintuitive, but with time and patient coaching, we grow accustomed to controlling the kite in the sky. Another hour passes quickly. We both, for the most part, can keep the kite aloft.
Now the moment of truth: Worth steps back and lets my skis run free. When the wind fills the kite and pulls me forward, I flashback to that delicious feeling I had as a kid learning to ride a bike. I wobble across the snow, searching for balance. “Hey, look!” I crow. “It works!”
And so it does, in fits and starts. I crash the kite into the ground and learn how to coax it back up into the air. I tangle the lines and learn how to unsnarl them. I struggle, I laugh, and I discover fleeting moments of glory when I glide silently and effortlessly across the snow. Those moments are as close as I’ve ever come to flying.
At dusk, Worth demonstrates how to repack the kite. Like a parachute, it’s imperative to keep all the lines clear for the next outing. My hands tremble from a deep full-body adrenaline buzz, but I manage to follow instructions. “How’d you like it?” Worth asks. “Yes,” I say, and realize my vocabulary has been reduced to monosyllables. “More soon. Please.”
A couple days later, Worth calls. “I’m going out to Lizard Head this afternoon,” he says. “Want to come?” Of course I do. Once my kite is aloft, I discover I’ve retained some muscle memory. I’m able to correct my mistakes sooner, sometimes even before the kite augers into the snow. I begin to relax and feather the controls. Soon I’m playing an awkward game of “follow the leader” as I try to hold my kite in the same section of sky as Worth, while following in his ski tracks. We sail to and fro across the meadow in a tandem formation. After a few passes, I start to feel frisky. I’m getting this new sport wired, and I love it. I’m tempted to push my kite high in the window and see how it feels to catch a little air.
And that brings me back to where this story started – crouched low, hoping to outrun the snow tornado pursuing me across Lizard Head Pass with my instructor yelling at me to pack it in. I wish I could say I made it back to the truck, that my new skills and prowess carried me through against all odds. But the truth is that I chickened out and deflated my wing two seconds after I started my foolish race against the wind. Because, as I mentioned earlier, I’m an old dog. And the only way to become an old dog is to suppress those puppy dog instincts and heed the commands of big dogs like Mark Worth.
If you’d like to join Lance Waring and the crew snowkiting on Lizard Head pass this winter, contact Mark Worth at telluridesnowkite.com.