Never Coming Down
Noah Poritz can be a hard man to please. The 53-year-old has spent the last hour snowkiting his way across cruddy late-season terrain on Bootjack Hill in Island Park, Idaho. He’s never been here before. He reaches speeds upward of 30 mph with skis strapped to his feet and, more notably, a 13-meter-wide, multicolored kite tethered to his torso via four 65-foot flying lines. The kite—and a strong wind coming off nearby Henrys Lake—pulls him to Bootjack’s top, cheating the usual uphill grind of backcountry skiing. He also uses the kite during descents, lifting off the rotten snow and soaring 20, sometimes 30 feet into the air, spinning, twisting, rolling “boosts” that suspend him like a slow-motion highlight reel against the snow-covered backdrop of the Henrys Lake Mountains.
Save for those precious moments when he dangles in a perfect blue sky, there’s nothing slow about what Poritz is doing. He constantly maneuvers the kite with his hands, positioning it in “power zones” that harness the wind and propel him forward, while his legs work to hold an edge against the icy ground and absorb his landings. When everything’s working in harmony, he looks like a Hollywood special effect, a martial artist from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or some high-flying Marvel superhero. Cars down below Bootjack pull to the side of the road and watch the display, and onlookers on the hill are speechless.
He makes it look effortless, an ear-to-ear grin visible behind his goggles on each pass.
But even when everything clicks, like it does on Bootjack Hill, there’s something gnawing at Poritz. Like any hardcore thrill-seeker or dedicated athlete, he wrestles with the balance between blissing out in the moment and wanting to push the moment further. He wants more.
“You know, if I had any cojones, I’d take advantage of that wind and fly down the whole side of the hill, maybe get 100 feet up and just coast all the way from top to bottom,” he says during a brief break. “If I had the cojones …”
The wind pulls Poritz away before he can elaborate, and before anyone on the hill can respond. Glances are exchanged and one person laughs. If he had the cojones? It sounds ridiculous coming from a guy who just flipped his way through the air 20 feet directly above us and landed on a surface that crunches like breakfast cereal. There seemed to be an abundance of cojones, of intestinal fortitude, even brazen showmanship on display that morning.
Poritz saw it differently. He won- dered if there was more he could do, a new trick he could try, or a way to improve one he’d already performed.
Poritz is something of a recreational perfectionist, and his recreation of choice the last 11 years has been the obscure one called snowkiting. He spends between 80 and 100 days each year chasing the right combination of wind and snow, logging thousands of miles in his customized RV and hundreds more on a snowmobile he uses to reach prime backcountry. He’s a team rider for Ozone, a leading manufacturer of snowkites. He’s recognized as Montana’s most devoted snowkiter, a title that’s difficult to confirm aside from the fact that no one even remotely disputes it. The only one with doubts about Poritz’s credentials is Poritz himself.
Joel Beatty fields lots of questions about snowkiting. As cofounder of MontanaKiteSports.com, the state’s only dedicated snowkiting forum, and a former snowkiting teacher out of Bozeman, he hears from all sorts of people curious about the sport and how to get started. Many have seen kiters on the West Coast or in Hawaii, performing tricks on waves instead of snow, and are surprised to hear that there’s a winter version. Others may have caught a glimpse of a glider casually skimming frozen Georgetown Lake, and figured it looked easy and fun. Beatty says Montana has a healthy snowkiting community, and it is relatively easy to get started, but the sport remains far from the mainstream.
“I’d say it’s a niche thing, even though it’s been around for a while,” he says. “There are a lot of people, especially here, who are still new to it.”
Beatty describes a close-knit group of die-hard kiters who stay in touch about weather conditions, new spots and opportunities to meet up. Asked who’s most active in that group, Beatty doesn’t hesitate.
“Noah takes it to another level,” he says. “He’s pioneered the most locations, he’s out there the most, he’s most active in the forums, he’s—let’s just say he takes it to another level. He’s unreal.”
Devon Powell, a Montana State student, frequents MontanaKiteSports.com and often uploads video of his kiting adventures. Asked about the state’s best kiters, he defers to what he’s heard.
“There’s a guy out of Bozeman, an older guy that’s really into the scene,” says Powell. “He’s the kiter other kiters talk about.”
He’s talking about Poritz.
While Beatty admits he doesn’t kite as often as he’d like because of “real life stuff” (he recently left Montana to pursue a doctorate at Michigan Tech) and Powell is often waylaid with studies, Poritz has few distractions. During summers he works with his wife, Leona, on the business they started in 1986, Biological Control of Weeds, Inc. Day in and day out, Poritz, who holds a master’s degree in entomology, collects insects that help farmers and ranchers fight invasive species like knapweed, leafy spurge and St.-John’s-wort. The work ends by October, leaving him to dedicate his winter—and parts of fall and spring—to snowkiting.
“I don’t do anything else,” he says. “I don’t ride chairs. I haven’t telemarked for years. This is it. This is my drug. I gotta get my fix.”
Poritz ticks off a list of favorite locations and when he visits them, ranging from the Snowcrest Range in October to the Beartooths in May. Between those months, there’s Mount Haggin, Big Hole Pass, Raynolds Pass on the Montana-Idaho border, the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming and Montana, and a few spots right in Bozeman. He goes wherever conditions are best, or wherever work or fun might take him. A trip to a Widespread Panic concert in Denver included snowkiting stops in Wyoming. His weekend at Island Park may or may not have been planned around a Rusted Root show at a pizzeria in West Yellowstone on Friday night.
“Despite it being a low-snowpack year, I’ve had a lot of great days,” he says. “It can be done if you’re willing to drive for it.”
What separates Poritz from the park- and-kite pack is his willingness to work for kiting’s best spots. He and frequent snowkiting partner Chris Archer snowmobiled through “tremendously rotten” snow at Raynolds Pass last winter, hitting 3-foot-deep trenches and getting stuck multiple times on their way to open terrain. It was almost enough to turn them back. “We weren’t going to get skunked,” Poritz says.
The Beartooths require another heavy commitment. Once the road is open, he’ll drive his rig to certain vantage points, then snowmobile 20 miles into backcoun- try to find the best terrain.
“Once you have kiter’s eyes and you see these huge plateaus and verticals, it’s jaw-dropping,” he says. “I try to spend as many days there as I can, every year.”
If it sounds like Poritz is obsessed, that’s because he is. He got the bug his first time out, when his nephew, a water kiter, strapped Poritz into a harness for the first time on the Oregon coast.
“I hadn’t even buckled my helmet and the next thing I knew—BOOM!—I’m slammed down into sand and my helmet goes flying,” Poritz says. “Next moment after that, I’m Superman out over the water, and for the next 20 minutes I’m getting teabagged.” (Teabagging is getting repetitively dunked in the water; it’s not a good thing).
“I finally got the kite under control,” he remembers, “steadied it overhead, and I started to drift downwind. I knew at that exact moment that I wanted to kite. This was something I needed to do.”
Poritz taught himself how to kite on ice and, soon after, snow. Before long he was traveling to Europe for weeklong workshops and competitions, and snowkiting throughout the West. His desire to improve eventually overtook every other aspect of his life, to the point of being unhealthy. Hardly a day went by with snow on the ground when Poritz wasn’t hooked to his kite.
“It got to the point where I was depraved,” he says. “I didn’t give a shit about hygiene. All I cared about was kiting. There’s a balance now, even though I still get in a lot of days. I used to get in even more, if you can believe that.”
The sky above Island Park is so gray and dull that there’s no telling where the snow-covered plains give way to the Henrys Lake Mountains, or where the mountains meet the clouds. It’s all muck, made worse by a wicked easterly wind blowing as much rain as snow.
“I’d say this is a 2 out of 10 day,” Poritz says. “Cruddy snowpack. But a sliding surface and wind is all you really need.”
He’s beaming. Poritz has packed all of his kites—13-, 11-, 9-, 7- and 5-meter, the latter necessary only in 50 mph gusts—and a specialty trainer kite in anticipation of teaching the sport to a group of newbies. This is not something he does often—he’s given maybe 10 lessons, ever, he says—but he seems excited to talk about what he loves with three people eager to listen.
“It doesn’t matter whether you come from a wakeboarding background, skiing background, skateboarding, surfing—it takes all those skill sets that you’ve accu- mulated over your lifetime and takes them to a new place, because now there’s a three-dimensional element,” he explains. “Now you’re going up mountainsides that would normally take you hours to walk up. Now you can boost and end up being higher than you just were on that moun- tainside. It’s a synergistic sport.”
The kite connects to the harness via three or four lines made of high-perform- ance polyethylene and linked to a horizon- tal bar that provides steering. The experi- ence is similar to flying the classic dia- mond-shaped Eddy kite every kid has owned, except this kite is bigger, more powerful, and acts as if it’s connected to the kiter’s belly button.
Once a kite is “powered up,” or in the air, it’s easiest to position it directly overhead, at 12 o’clock. Here, the kite provides some resistance, but generally stays steady. A smooth push-pull movement of the bar to either side— think 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock—puts the kite into a “power zone” that catches the wind and propels the snowkiter across the surface. To boost, a kiter pulls the bar toward his torso and “flies the kite” as smoothly as possible through to a landing.
“Boosting is a controlled activity,” says Poritz. “There are some guys, like in Jackson Hole, who do more gliding than boosting. They just float. That’s their style. The key is to not be overwhelmed by your situation.”
Poritz makes it look and sound easy. After the lesson he tears across a stretch of Island Park ranchland—he says there’s a standing agreement between the landowner and snowkiters—and is soon joined by three other kiters with smaller kites. Two never leave the ground and the third doesn’t boost with nearly as much lift as Poritz. Nevertheless, all four look like dogs at play in a field, circling and leaping each other without ever getting too close. Even on a wet day with bad snow and low visibility, they have all they need.
At 7 a.m. the phone buzzes with a text from Poritz. Just hours earlier he’d been drinking beers and telling stories after making the best of a subpar day. There is no hangover.
“Bluebird day!” the text reads. “Have you looked outside? It’s blowing 17 with gusts to 22. I’m going to have a coffee breakfast and come get you when I’m done.”
Today’s the day he wants to explore Bootjack Hill for the first time, and he’s eager to get out there with a few friends before conditions change. Fellow kiters have mentioned the Island Park spot before, but Poritz had never made the drive. It’s difficult to reach, but there’s lots of open space on the hill’s north face and a pristine view over Henrys Lake. On this day, the sky is so clear you can see the Centennials and, from certain vantages, the Tetons.
Poritz drives his RV around the lake, snaking into a small neighborhood of vacation homes that appear to be empty for the season. A turnout offers a view of Bootjack, beyond a thicket of trees and two small fences. Poritz decides to drive to a clearing farther down the road.
Poritz parks his rig and jumps a fence carrying his skis, helmet, harness and kite. He suits up in a backyard, next to a swing set. He powers up the kite and boosts over several backyard fences before reaching Bootjack’s base. The traverse takes maybe five minutes.
Once he arrives at the hill, Poritz gets right down to exploring its terrain. He hardly ever slows or stops. When he does, he doesn’t say much. He can hear even less; he likes to crank music through speakers built into his helmet while he kites. One of his few respites is accompanied by that incomprehensible apology: if he had the cojones?
Another comes after a bad landing. He’s taken flight with a boost that looks like all his others, but his ski loses an edge on the landing. With the kite still powered up, the wind drags Poritz across the snow and up the hill. He looks like a baserunner sliding under a tag into second base until his ski’s edge crunches into the snow and he jolts back up. It’s hard to tell whether the worst of it came from the impact on the ground or the scraping across ice. Either way, he pauses to adjust his helmet and assure that he’s fine.
“It’s about this much softer than concrete,” he yells over his music, holding his fingers a centimeter apart, “but I’m smiling.”
It’s amazing Poritz doesn’t crash more often, considering what he does and how often he does it. He says he’s only been hurt once, last winter, when another squirrelly landing forced him to miss 11 days of the season with a sprained knee and hip. For an older snowkiter, though, he shows little wear.
“I see a really good physical therapist,” he says.
After more than two hours on Bootjack Hill, Poritz’s friends have left for lunch. He’s the only snowkiter in sight. He’s joined at one point by an eagle, near the top of the hill, that circles above his kite, but otherwise there’s not a single distraction. The wind picks up. The temperature creeps above freezing. He has no intention of leaving yet. The guy with no cojones doesn’t know when to quit.