LAKE TAHOE - Truckee resident Tyler Brown can ski uphill. He can ski on flat ground. He can ski almost anywhere, as long as there's wind. And this isn't cross-country skiing or Alpine touring or ski mountaineering, it's skiing with jumps, flips, spins and speed powered by a source as natural as, well, air.
Brown is a part of the up-and-coming group of snowkiters in the Tahoe area that is pushing the sport to new boundaries both physically and technically.
"It's so three-dimensional," Brown said. "With skiing and snowboarding, it's just going downhill. I can look at a mountain so much more differently now."
Similar to its watery counterpart, kitesurfing, snowkiting follows the same basic structure: a large kite with a four-line control system pulls a skier or rider across the snow. Lately, Brown and crew have been using the kites to access the backcountry on the North and South shores.
"If you can ski down it, you can (kite) up it," Brown said. "It's pretty incredible how far we can get out there."
Brown can race up mountains, climbing at a rate around 1,000 vertical feet every two minutes depending on the wind, he said. Skilled snowkiters can jump from cliffs or let their kites lift them off flat ground and glide safely to landings, he said. With the variety and shear scope of the terrain, the possibilities for maneuvers and exploration are greater on snow than water, Brown said.
"I feel strongly that snowkiting has much more potential than on water," wrote David Grossman, publisher of Drift Snowkite Magazine, in an e-mail. "The sport has incredible terrain to play in, an almost smooth surface to move over and the advantage of 100 years of ski and snowboard technology and skills to build off of."
Snowkiting has taken off in popularity in snowy states with large open treeless areas like Utah, Montana, Minnesota and Idaho.
"California hasn't been leading the charge in snowkiting like it did in skateboarding, surfing and even snowboarding, but the scene is set for that to change," said Grossman.
This year, Brown won the North American Snowkite Tour, a series of four competitions across the U.S, placing him at the top of the competitive field. He plans on traveling to Europe next season to compete, but he still has his eye on growing the sport in California.
Brown and Royce Vaughn of Kite Gear Boxx out of Oakland, Calif., have been looking to host snowkite lessons in the Tahoe area, but haven't found a homebase just yet. Vaughn believes it's easier to learn the mechanics of flying kites on snow than it is on water, he said, and because of this, snowkiting is growing rapidly.
"People are saying it's the fastest growing sector of kiteboarding," Vaughn said.
Without the challenges of being in the water, beginners can learn to navigate the wind in a matter of hours as opposed to several days, Vaughn said. And once a beginner learns how to handle the kite, it's easier to cross over into other realms, he said.
"Once you get the hang of the kite, you can do it anywhere in the world."
Snowkiters are flying around Squaw Valley, Mt. Rose, Hope Valley, Grass Lake, Red Lake Peak and Caples Lake among others. There's a lot to explore, and kiters will keep going farther and farther into the mountains, Brown said.
Though with the right size kite, snowkiters can ride in winds up to 40 mph, the ideal conditions are 15-20 mph winds, Brown said.
Grossman expects more and more skiers and snowboarders will take up snowkiting in the Tahoe area.
"Tahoe has an amazing pool of talent in skiers and snowboarders," Grossman said. "All those athletes need to take a couple hours and learn some kite skills and feel the freedom and power a kite provides."