Norway’s battle with the wind gods, waged upon skis

Published 7:29 AM EDT, Fri April 21, 2017
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Story highlights

One of the largest races in the emerging sport of snow kiting takes place on a remote, windy ice field

Like the legend for which it is named, few make it to the end of the snow kite competition

This episode of “Fit Nation” will air on Saturday, April 22, between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET, and on Sunday, April 23, between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET.

(CNN) —  

Snow kiting is as exciting as it looks. Speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. Leaping 80 feet up in the air and gracefully soaring distances as far as 500 feet before landing back on frozen terra firma.

Combining proven fun activities of skiing or snowboarding with kiting makes the joy exponential.

It’s also harder than it looks. The skills required are highly technical, the gear is complicated, you need to be very fit to be competitive, and it can only be done in certain regions of the world.

One of the best is Hardangervidda, a Norwegian national park that is the largest mountain plateau in northern Europe. The 3,000-square mile field is devoid of power lines and tall buildings and feels remote, but is just a majestic three and half hour drive north of Oslo. The wind is constant, the snow is more than 4 feet deep, even in the spring, and the terrain is a thrilling variety of open flat stretches, vertical hills and rocky obstacles.

If it reminds “Star Wars” fans of Hoth, the frozen planet from the opening of “The Empire Strikes Back” it’s because it was filmed nearby, on the edges of Hardangervidda.

And it’s home to a large annual snow kiting race called the Red Bull Ragnarok that, at 80 miles in length, is more endurance than speed race. It’s so difficult that of this year’s 350 athletes, only eight finished.

Ragnarok: Battle of the gods

Norse mythology holds that the final battle between the gods of good and evil was fought at Ragnarok. It’s a story they teach Norwegian kids in school. Like the legend for which it is named, few make it to the end of the snow kite competition of the same name. It’s a battle to the non-finish for nearly everyone who competes.

Race day starts with a gathering at the nearby Haugastøl Hotel. It’s only then that the location and course layout are revealed for the first time – they change from year to year. Everyone loads into buses, their skis, boards and kites packed in the luggage hold, and goes to the designated rig area.

This year, the temperature at the start was 2 degrees Celsius, just above freezing, but the winds were, as local organizer, Bjørn Kuapang, 31, says, “epic,” reaching up to 45 miles per hour. As with past years, the race day was postponed 24 hours for clearer skies and more wind.

Some assembly is required. The snow kiters lay out their sails and lines in the snow and those with inflatable kites start pumping away. The vast assembly area resembles a colorful refugee camp, sans kids and poverty.

Then, by 11 a.m., they glided to a starting line that is about 800 feet wide. No megaphone would carry across that distance in that wind, so the start is signaled by flags: red (15 minutes warning), yellow (5 minutes), and green – sail!

The mass start makes for a beautiful panorama, like a flock of dayglow gulls against a near-white background, with huge cloud shadows floating across the course. At a distance, it’s as quiet and peaceful as watching a sailboat race from the shore. But up close, every one of the athletes is struggling to catch air and pull away from the pack, with many miles to go before they rest.

Of the 350 snow kiters this year, more than 200 were on skis, the rest on snowboards. They came from 29 countries; 60% from outside Norway. One guy was from Afghanistan. Thirty-three were women. Ages ranged from from teenagers (the cut off is age 16) to age 60.

This year’s course resembled a stretched-out Star of David, criss-crossing the tundra through five gates. A huge red and blue Norwegian flag was planted in the middle as a visual reference point for the athletes who can easily get blown off course. You can’t see one checkpoint to the next, even on a clear day like this year’s race day. The finish line is at the fifth gate, after five loops.

The 2017 Ragnarok snow kiting race course.
Red Bull
The 2017 Ragnarok snow kiting race course.

Yet only about 2% of the racers will know what that experience is like. I asked Kuapang, why, if the race is so difficult to finish, was the length increased by 18 miles from last year. “It’s not supposed to be for everyone to finish,” was his matter-of-fact reply.