Learning to sail on snow in the New Zealand backcountry
Words and photos by Derek Grzelewski
In the carpark of the Snow Farm, on the slopes of the Pisa Range in southern New Zealand, I used to see them coming back – tired, cold and wind-burnt but buzzing with excitement and wide-eyed with wonder. The snow kiters! On skis or snowboards, tethered to colourful kites, they would sail off into the arctic landscapes of Mt Pisa and return with tales of covering 50 or more miles of remote backcountry in just a couple of hours, and acres upon acres of untracked powder worth several days of heli-skiing which they had all to themselves. But for me, the final jolt of inspiration came from the documentary film Mountains of the Wind, an informal history of snow kiting, in the words of Noah Poritz, one of the sport’s pioneers.
“Quickly, I realized I don’t need a lift ticket anymore,” Poritz was saying. This somehow encapsulated an irresistible idea: a personal ski lift in your backpack, a wing to unfold and sail over pristine and otherwise inaccessible backcountry snow. And so, well before the arrival of winter, I had a three-meter trainer kite, aptly named Ignition, and began flying it in my local park. In New Zealand kids learn to sail long before they get to drive cars, but I was a total wind-sport rookie, for the first time touching the power of the wind and learning its ways. Then, with the first snow and wind of the season, I found myself on the beginners’ slopes of the Pisa Range learning to ski again, only this time while being pulled along by the power of the kite.
Even after the initial taste of the sport, it became apparent that southern New Zealand is something of a snow kiters’ paradise. The Central Otago block mountains — The Old Man and Old Woman Ranges, St. Bathans, Hawkduns, Garvie and Mt. Pisa — flat-topped mesas, high and desolate, covered in snow for most of winter, and above all, exposed to the wind, are ideal snow kiting destinations. This however, does not make the learning progression any easier.