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Almost Heaven

Skip Brown shreds the meadow.

We’re so close. We’ve waited all winter for this day: good snow, good wind from the right direction, sunny, not too cold, and we’re about as deep into the West Virginia backcountry as you can get on a road.

And we’re stuck in a ditch.

The snowplow had turned around miles ago, so we slipped and skidded our pickup almost to the trailhead before sliding into a ditch. Behind the pickup, we’re towing a snow machine, a four-wheeler outfitted with tracks instead of wheels. It’s a cross between a snowmobile and a small tank and it’ll get us into the good stuff if we can ever get it off the trailer.

Snow kiting is a colder version of kite boarding, and it’s grown rapidly in recent years. Out West, where there’s a lot of snow and above tree line terrain, the sport has taken off. Here in the East it’s harder to find good kiting locales, and conditions change so fast that you have to jump quickly on a good snowfall.

One guy chasing it more than anybody is John Regan. A legend in the whitewater paddling world, John pioneered many now famous class-V rivers, notably West Virginia’s Upper Blackwater. A few seasons ago, John got into snow kiting, and he’s pursued it with the same vigor as his aggressive paddling style. Living in Western Maryland near wide-open hillside fields, John added a kite to his tele skis, got permission from his farmer neighbors, and started a new kind of first descent.

After an hour of pushing, pulling, sweating, and cursing, we manage to get out of the ditch and head into the Sinks of Gandy, a high mountain meadow with a celebrated cave and underground stream system in West Virginia.

John plants a windsock in the snow, quickly unfolds and launches his foil kite, and within minutes he is a half-mile away, zooming uphill on his tele skis before unleashing turn after turn in powder as he glides back downhill.

He then skis over to one of the giant cornices overhanging Gandy Creek. You don’t find too many 30-foot cornices in the Mid-Atlantic, so a jump fest commences with lots of soft landings.

I launch my inflatable kite and slide off after John on a snowboard. The wind holds, and we explore the entire valley. There are some thin spots and patches of ice to contend with, but mostly we’re zig zagging across snowfields, going anywhere we want. It takes minutes to kite up hills that would take an hour to hike. Then we knock out a ski-run’s worth of turns in the fresh powder.

So it goes till near sundown when the wind starts to ebb. We pack up kites and gear and head home. It’s dark and freezing back at the trailhead, but we’re happy, and the PBRs go down well.

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