When youth culture guru and ski mountaineer Andrew McLean told me about his new sewing machine, I thought he’d lost it. One piece ski suits were out of style, especially bright yellow ones, so what was he going to use the thing for? Sewing pants for a rap concert? Kites, it turned out. Big wings. Sails that pull you like a mad 1,000 pound bulldog.
Although I have no conscious recollection of the fact, I’m sure kite flying was in the back of my mind when, per Andrew’s recommendation, I found our family a new Pfaff 6091 sewing instrument.”Now you’ll have to build a kite,” was Andrew’s comment when I mentioned I’d followed his advise about which machine to buy. Hmmm, funny, sounds familiar…
The NASA wing kite was designed in the 1960s by slide rule braniacs, as a type of parachute/wing to land Gemini program fuel tanks. Turned out it also flew well as a kite, was easy to build, and pulled like crazy. Over the past years, various individuals have refined the design, built software to yield measurements for any size, and created a sort of grassroots kite network. Most are built at home by enthusiasts, and used for a variety of things, from pulling carts to yanking skiers. Also, compared to kits such as those used for ocean wind boarding, the NASA is extremely economical.
During an Antarctic expedition, Andrew met some guys who were kiting across the ice cap. He was hooked. Now he’s trying to pass his addiction to innocent families such as the Dawson’s.
Over Christmas we built our first NASA wing — a rather painful process without a completed kite to copy — but nonetheless successful with careful following of directions (and a few calls to the guru, see links below).
Learning to fly the kite is an exhilarating and sometimes frustrating experience. For our first attempt my son Louie (age 12) and I drove up to a farmer’s field behind our home. The wind was gusting enough to launch the kite if Louie flew it and I held it, but once the gust died after a few seconds, the wing would dive bomb me then duff to the ground in a forlorn nylon pile.
Next attempt: We launched at a gigantic athletic field complex. The wind gushed. We hooted and laughed as the Black Beauty flew up in an exuberant display of technology blended with natural power. Louie returned a few days later. In stronger wind, he spent a few hours being dragged around the field on his stomach, returning home with a yard wide smile — and a thick crust of mud and goose poop.
When I’d first spoken with Andrew about snow kiting, I’d remembered that a seven mile long, high altitude reservoir near here was the local wind surfing mecca. Could it be the place for winter fun in the wind?The answer is YES. Our first trip to Ruedi Reservoir was a roaring success (no pun intended). The wind was blowing a steady 15 mph, with stronger gusts. First attempt, Louie makes the mistake of hooking his harness in, then launching. He immediately gets pulled over like a bowling pin and dragged 200 feet over bumpy snow covered ice, unable to release the kite (lesson learned). Next attempt, he gets it right, and goes flying down the frozen lake like some sort of low gliding bird.
Our friend, Matt, also came along, and after learning how to keep the kite aloft, he got a good yank as well. He wants more, what 12-year-old boy wouldn’t?
Next weekend we’ll give it another go. The boys insist. From one end of the lake to the other.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.