Remember leaping off the porch as a kid with a towel tied around your neck? Or that time you thought it’d be a good idea to stand up on the toboggan with your arms spread wide as it careened down the snowy hill? Even weeks later with your leg in a cast, you could remember those few seconds when it felt like you were flying.
The allure of flight tugs at most every kid’s heart, and if we adults are honest, that tug never really goes away, does it?
There is a reason some of us parachute out of airplanes or leap from cliffs strapped onto a hang glider. It is the same reason a handful of Sheridan residents circle Oct. 7 on their calendars.
Each year around Oct. 7 the Bighorn Mountains become one of the first — and also one of the premier — destinations for a different kind of flight called snowkiting.
A cousin to kite surfing, snowkiting is essentially what it sounds like: using a kite to pull a skier or snowboarder over the snow — often at speeds pushing 30 mph and often resulting in some precious moments of air time.
“It grabs your imagination,” local snowkiter Josh Tatman said. “The kite is pulled by the wind, and you’re laid back on your skis just trucking across these wide open spaces…fast.”
Tatman glances sideways, the fall sunshine reflected in his bluetinted sunglasses, seeming to forget for a moment that he is firmly on dry ground on the patio at the Blacktooth Brewing Company.
“You get this feeling that you could go as far as you want to and just keep going,” he said.
When the weather is good, which means nice and windy, Tatman and snowkiting comrades Mark Jones, Eric Holifield and Kevin Anderson will go and go until their legs are Jello.
Although the Bighorn Mountains feature Cloud Peak, the third tallest peak in Wyoming at 13,167 feet, they are not known for downhill skiing like the Teton Range in western Wyoming.
Still, come October, skiers from famous skiing towns like Jackson, Wyoming, and Bozeman, Montana, clamber to the Bighorns. Bald Mountain, a somewhat nondescript, treeless dome seen from U.S. Highway 14A west of Burgess Junction, becomes a skiing hot spot for snowkiters.
“Once you strap on a kite, you see the terrain differently. Kiting turns the Bighorns into premium backcountry skiing,” Tatman said.
Even though the city of Sheridan is often shielded from Wyoming’s infamous winds, they visit the Bighorn Mountains in a steady flow ideal for filling a kite and setting a skier soaring.
Add the area’s wide open spaces and the fairly predictable snowfall that usually hits the Bighorns by early October, and hills like Bald Mountain become a snowkiting paradise coveted by kiters around the world.
Jones, one of the area’s few snowkiters, started kite surfing in Florida in the early 1990s. Also a ski bum, he later moved to Jackson befriended Eric Holifield and started snowkiting around 2007, shortly after the sport came to the area. Holifield was one of the first kiters in Sheridan.
“To go backcountry skiing takes a lot of time and effort to climb a slope you want to ski. With a kite, it’s a matter of minutes,” Jones said.
Jones almost exclusively snowkites in the winter. Good areas like Bald Mountain are accessible by foot early in the season, and kiters often snowmobile to more remote locations later in the winter. Jones said most years he can snowkite from October into late June or even July.
“It’s just an addicting sport,” Jones said. “Harnessing wind and weather is pretty cool.”
Tatman does backcountry skiing and snowkiting each season since he still enjoys the challenge of accessing the good skiing available in the Bighorns if he’ll only trek a bit.
But, he said, it’s hard to beat tossing a kite into the wind on a wide slope and gaining enough momentum to reach speeds of 30 mph or more — going both up and down the hill.
Other skiers mix backcountry skiing and snowkiting on the same day, using their kite to
climb hills but skiing down without it in a traditional backcountry style.
Last year, regional kiters started the Bighorn SnowKite Summit, a week-long event featuring roundtable discussions on safety, ethics and the future of snowkiting, as well as on-snow clinics and plenty of kiting.
Days after the event was announced, the High Country Lodge was filled to capacity with kiters wanting to experience some of the nation’s best snowkiting. Many kiters tent camped near Bald Mountain, braving temperatures below zero for much of the week.
Some may call that crazy, but it is testament to the addictive nature of the sport.
What’s the allure?
Quite simply: flight, sweet flight — with skis for wings and a kite for a cape.