Riding the Wave

After heart-condition diagnosis, endurance athlete Brandon French turns to kiteboarding

By Tristan Scott
Brandon French kite boards along the north shore of Flathead Lake on Nov. 11, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Brandon French built his racing career as an endurance athlete and ski mountaineer with a freakish V02 max and an insatiable appetite for devouring mountain summits at a breakneck pace.

He participated in ski mountaineer racing circuits at the highest level and churned out fastest-known times on local mountain ranges that still stand all while working as a full-time firefighter in Kalispell.

But when French, 35, was diagnosed with a rare heart condition and sidelined from competing at the level to which he was accustomed, he struggled desperately to fill the void.

In an unlikely turn, he focused his attention on kiteboarding, a rarefied water sport in the hinterlands of Northwest Montana, where the windy conditions peak during the frigid spring and fall months, unlike in tropical or coastal locations where the thermals blow year-round.

French mounted a small arsenal of kites and boards and began scouting the waters of Flathead Lake, where he found a new, calmer sense of engagement with his wild surroundings and landscapes.

“Racing and traveling and moving fast through the mountains, I don’t want to say it defined me, but it was a huge part of who I am and what I did,” he said. “It’s weird to go from racing so much and being super competitive to something more mellow, but this sport is the first time that I’ve been able to take it easier and still push myself.”

Kiteboarding, or kitesurfing, combines aspects of wakeboarding and windsurfing, and harnesses the power of the wind with a parachute-like power kite that propels the kiteboarder across the water. Different styles include freestyle, freeride and speed, and the sport employs all manner of racing styles, jumping and tricks.

Before taking to the choppy swells of Flathead Lake, French said he spent untold hours practicing with a trainer kite, which involves negotiating a 2-or-3 square-meter power kite from the safety of land to gain an intimate sense of the wind, as opposed to using a much larger 12 square-meter kite on the water.

“That helped me get a feel for it, so that by the time I finally went out on the water there weren’t any surprises,” he said.

The wind patterns in western Montana require a special allegiance to the sport, and French recounted one cold March weekend during which he found himself kiting Flathead Lake one day and skiing Big Mountain the next.

“It’s pretty accessible to a lot of people, and the Flathead is such a great place for it because the winds on Flathead Lake are due south but the water on the north shore is so shallow,” he said.

Even so, French prefers the more tropical climes, and spent six weeks surfing and kiteboarding in Maui.

“Tropical waters are a lot more fun, but getting out on Flathead Lake on huge 6-foot swells and the mountains on the horizon is amazing,” he said.

French said he hasn’t given up his pursuit of nor passion for the climbing mountains and skiing steep lines, but his newfound devotion to kiteboarding has allowed him to settle back, ride the wind and enjoy the views.

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Brandon French kite boards along the north shore of Flathead Lake. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Brandon French kite boards along the north shore of Flathead Lake. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

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