Snow kiters enjoy new sport near Mount Bachelor

BEND -- Finally, a gust of wind blew hard across the cold white terrain, puffing a swirling cloud of snow into the blue sky on a ridge near the east base of Ball Butte.

Tim Carlson took immediate advantage of the wind.

His bedsheet-like foil kite flapped into the air, and suddenly he was up and skiing. The kite took him back and forth across the flat swath of snow as he turned expertly on his telemark skis.

Soon others joined in, and the sky was filled with half a dozen colorful kites as the skiers and snowboarders carved their way along the snow.

"It's the new chairlift," quipped Carlson, president of a group known as the Bend Kite Crew (BKC).

One of the latest winter sports to hit Central Oregon, snow kiting has a small but dedicated following. The seven-member club meets most winter weekends at Dutchman Flat Sno-park near Mount Bachelor before snowmobiling about five miles due north to Ball Butte.

Snow kiting is an offshoot of kiteboarding, a water sport that is popular in places such as the Columbia River Gorge. Snow kiting, however, is practiced on land.

Just like kiteboarders, snow kiters use large inflatable kites -- some use foil kites that are easier to power down -- that allow the wind to pull them along. Kite lines attach to a snow kiter's harness and handle, which is used to maneuver the kite.

Most snow kiters in Central Oregon are snowboarders, but telemark and alpine skiers also take part in the sport.

Snow kiting has been popular in Europe for many years, according to Matt Willett of the Bend Kite Crew, who notes that the sport has been introduced in the United States over only the last five years or so.

Kiteboarding on water has surged in popularity over the last decade.

"It's actually easier to learn on the snow because there's not as much density (in snow as in water)," said Willett as he set up his kite. "It helps to have soft snow. Hard snow definitely hurts a bit when you're learning."

Wind speeds of 10 to 20 mph are ideal for snow kiting, according to Carlson, and the base of Ball Butte, an area popular with backcountry skiers and snowboarders, is a great place to find the right wind.

Waiting for the wind is a necessary part of snow kiting. But once that wind comes, there are plenty of options. On this day, for the Bend Kite Crew, those options included surging up Ball Butte, changing directions to catch air, or just gliding across the snow.

"When you're getting pulled uphill, that's the best feeling in the world," Carlson said.

Harnessing the power of the wind can also be dangerous. Snow kiters must make sure they do not get pulled into trees or slabs of ice.

"It's surprising how much power there is," said Steve O'Shea, another member of the group. "It's like having a motorbike up in the sky."

From Dutchman Flat, members of the Bend Kite Crew routinely make a 20-minute snowmobile trip up to the Three Sisters Wilderness boundary near the base of Ball Butte. Snowmobiles are not allowed past this boundary, which is where the snow kiters usually set up.

Groups of no more than 12 people are allowed past the wilderness boundary, per U.S. Forest Service rules.

Snow kiters must be careful not to travel too far or get into a difficult situation in the wilderness because snowmobilers will not be able to rescue them.