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Riding the Wind: Snowkiting to New Heights on Mount St. Helens
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Photo: Vlado Sklenar

In 2004, my snowmobiler friend, Bob Riviello, described an area on Mount St. Helens as “snowkite heaven.” He guided me to the lahar (mudflats) on the southeast side of the mountain. That’s where the eruption produced a massive hot ash mudslide, creating a mile-wide path of destruction and wiping out the trees. 

 

In snowkiting terms, we now had a snowkite location at a much lower level than normal. It was the best-looking terrain I had seen in North America.

 

However, after several snowkite missions there, I found a challenging pattern. The wind comes from the opposite side of the mountain and blows straight down the face of the slope.

 

To climb up a mountain with a kite on skis or a snowboard, ideal conditions include winds that blow straight up the mountain. As much as the lahar seemed promising, it offered riding only on the lower, flatter areas. I wanted to climb high. 

 

 

Another Way Up

 

A few years later in the fall, my mountain-bike partner, Vlado Sklenar, exposed me to a full-day mountain-bike ride to the Plains of Abraham on the east side of Mount St. Helens. I couldn’t believe my eyes as we pedaled through a wide-open field three times the size of the lahar mudflats, a field that offered a direct route to the summit.

 

Four months later, the Plains was covered in 6 feet of snow. On a bluebird day, Sklenar and I used our snowmobiles to cross over river canyons, avalanche debris paths, and steep hillsides to get there. 

 

A light but rideable 10-knot wind swept across the mountain’s lower flanks, so I strapped on my snowboard, launched my kite, and began climbing the foothills. As I ascended several hundred vertical feet, I was surrounded by the most breathtaking view of the largest alpine summits in the Northwest, ranging from 11,000-14,000 feet. Mount Rainier dominated the northern skyline, with Mount Hood to the south, Mount Adams to the east, and, of course, the Mount St. Helens summit so close I could smell the sulfur that still seeps from its crater.

 

 

Although the wind was light and flowing across the hill at an angle 90 degrees from optimal, I still was able to use the kite to pull me up the lower face of the mountain on my snowboard. My ultimate goal for Mount St. Helens is to climb slightly more than 3,000 vertical feet, land my kite on the summit, peer into the crater, snap a few photos, and snowboard back down for the nonmotorized record ascent to the top and a first descent on my snowboard.

 

As I began climbing, I had no plans to reach the summit. The conditions weren’t exactly perfect. But the higher I got on the mountain, the stronger the wind became, and I was able to work my way slowly to the midway point of the climb. There I ran into what became the most technical snowkiting I had ever experienced. 

 

With the wind traveling across the undulating mountain face and over several canyons, it caused a swirling wind called a rotor, which is a recipe for disaster. As much as I wanted to keep climbing, I knew I had reached the point where if I pushed myself any further, the conditions would become more dangerous. So I made the call to bow out and descend back to base camp.

 

 

 

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