Losing My Snow Kiting Virginity Mai Tai-Style
'To the truly engaged, work and play are one and the same', Bill Tai (Silicon Valley Entrepreneur, Pro Kite Surfer, and Co-Founder of Mai Tai)
What happens when you combine some of the world's most promising entrepreneurs, a buzzing kite surfing community, and the hottest kite boarding pros from all four corners of the world? It's called 'Mai Tai', and I am not sure when you last took up a new sport, but here’s my story of losing my snow kiting virginity. Skiing with a windy twist!
My regular HaylesTrails readers know that I often write about the incredible heli skiing trips we do at Total Heliski. Few, if any experiences can match the exhilaration of having a helicopter at your beck and call, flying amongst majestic peaks like a bird, landing ‘on top of the world’, and the unmatched virgin powder skiing or boarding that results.
However, there's a fast growing water sport called Kite Boarding (and it’s winter version of Snow Kiting), that seems to be sweeping the world by storm. Considered edgy, dangerous, thrilling and downright cool, kite boarding attracts the same sort of globe-trotting thrill seeker that heli skiing does, and the similarities don’t end there. Anyone who is, or knows a kite boarding enthusiast understands, that like powder is to the heli skier, so too, is the power of the wind to a kite surfer. It’s addictive, it’s awesome, and a complementary summer experience to skiing.
So it was that late last year, I had the fortune to meet Bill Tai, a seasoned Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Bill gave me my official introduction to the sport by inviting me on his 'invite only' entrepreneurs event held several times a year called Mai Tai. Mai Tai started among a few friends of Bill Tai and Susi Mai (a leading female pro kiter), in Maui, where they shared their love of kitesurfing amongst like minded friends in the technology industry and kite surfing community. Now, 10yrs on, Bill has managed to carve out a technology investing niche with his international Mai Tai event calendar and Susi Mai runs the newly incorporated version called Global Mai Tai. Like heli skiing, these private events are held in some of the most exceptionally beautiful, natural locations the world has to offer including Maui, The Dominican Republic, Necker Island (yes that's Sir Richard's Island), and the winter version in Utah that I went to.
Attending Mai Tai Snow Kite Camp in Utah this winter, was going to be a great way to kick off my plan to learn to kite surfing as my new summer sport. And given that I can ski, what better way to kick start the learning than in an environment I am completely comfortable with? Or so I thought.
Set in Utah’s high mountains at 10,000 feet in altitude, MaiTai’s daytime activities centred around a picturesque high plateau location called Skyline. Situated a scenic 90 minute drive away from the hotel, Skyline was designed for snow kiting, - high, sunny, windy, and vast, a haven for 200+ participants to fly their kites. The visual of seeing the kite surfing community here setup, and launch their kites was ethereal. Bright, beautiful, flowing kites attached to small bodies on skis or snowboards winding their way up the hills.
And then there were the pros. No blog about MaiTai can be complete without mentioning the plethora of pros that were amongst us. Worldwide names like The Netherlands Ruben Lenton (Red Bull Athlete), Suzi Mai, and Aaron Sales heralding from Oregon (one of the pioneers of the sport). These guys provided maximum visual entertainment with their kite flying- large air ‘flights’ with their kites over trees, across the road, and tricks. Adding to this, not only were they amazing kiters, but super nice guys. Ruben also doubles up as a professional DJ- lending his services to the evening parties and a special ‘Skyline’ party @ 10,000 feet.
I must make special mention that The Mai Tai event was supported by the WOW (Wind Over Water) kite school owned by Jeff Kafka – his notable claim to fame being that he taught Larry and Sergei to kite surf. (Yes, Google’s founders). Jeff’s team of kite surf instructors brought everyone’s gear, and supported the show with instructional clinics, and snow mobile safety backup and food.
On our first day of Mai Tai whilst the established kiters did their thing on the hills, our group of eager beginners gathered to learn the basics starting with flying the trainer kite. I’d done a little kite flying as a child, but my blissful childhood kite experiences couldn’t prepare me for the volatility of flying a kite approximately 2m x 1m at a distance of 100m or so overhead. We had to demonstrate to our instructor that we could fly it with control (using a pushing/ pulling motion of both arms, without tilting them) in order to perform what are called ‘power strokes’. The idea is we use the wind to fly the kite in a figure of 8 pattern in an imaginary range from 9 to 3 (using a clock interface) in order to provide controlled power to the kite which ultimately drags us up and around the hill. As easy as it sounds, it was pretty difficult in varying gusts of wind not to noseplant the thing at full speed into the ground, forcing your training partner to have to run in their ski boots in the deep snow to pick up your kite and help you relaunch it. Great training for the calves we concluded.
Once we mastered this, we then learnt to set up and launch the real kite. These are 7 metres plus in size and involve blowing up the ‘leading edge’ with air and attaching the cords and bridles and then yourself with harness to the kite. Thank fully, modern kites evolved from their primitive predecessors and now have many safety release mechanisms to prevent potential accidents that Kite Boarding was known for. Actually, the real kites turned out to be less volatile and easier to fly, but the corresponding ramifications of errors are bigger. At times, the kite would launch and lift me entirely up in the air a couple of metres, which as a skier gave me a thrill, but didn’t lets just say not everyone was comfortable with.
At the end of the first day, the Mai Tai crowd met for dinner first at the event ‘Hotel Zermatt’ (a Swiss imitation set in the Utah countryside), and then an after party at ‘the haunted mansion’. This was a great chance to meet the community of kite surfers and technology entrepreneurs from all over the world. What I felt was a warm comraderie of shared experiences amongst this community, similar to that of powder skiers. I also met many different entrepreneurs and so found the networking side very interesting too.
The after party each night was set where I was staying, in a huge rented mountain home owned by a very large Mormon family where all the pros were staying also. Set at the end of a country lane, it was spooky and eery, but was perfect for a party. Unbeknownst to me, they brought professional (night club grade) speakers and DJ decks meaning that I had to be pretty tired to get to sleep at 2am in my room directly above the noise.
After two days of taking turns flying the kite, and watching in awe the rest of the kiters flying around the hill, I was itching to get on the skis. It had been a while since I had been a ‘beginner’ and I was starting to feel the frustration. Towards the end of the two day camp, my instructor finally gave me the OK to graduate to skis. My power strokes were looking good! I jumped in my skis and let the kite sweep me up and down the plateau whilst I held on and controlled it. It felt amazing and different to skiing. I felt a great sense of achievement, and vulnerability at the same time but at least now I could feel as well as see the potential. However, too soon, the lesson and the camp was over. New friends were made and new experiences had. Now I have to migrate to the water. Stay tuned!