What do you get when you dump 200 tons of man-made snow onto an insanely steep street, toss in some ski and snowboarding daredevils, then add thousands of hooting, high-fiving, hooky-playing fans?
An event that’s uniquely San Francisco -- with a dash of Mammoth Mountain and even Manhattan Beach.
Many wearing flip-flops and sunglasses, 15,000 snow aficionados who apparently couldn’t wait for winter gathered Thursday for a ski-jump spectacle and street party in pricey Pacific Heights. The event featured some serious hang time, sensational crash landings and residents who gave fans the cold shoulder, complaining that their neighborhood had been avalanched with outsiders.
Yet once the action started on the steep two-block stretch of Folsom Street, it was all downhill for racers and organizers. A flawless autumn afternoon with temperatures in the mid-80s attracted a crowd that included men in suits who had skipped out from work, young purple-haired girls in bikini tops and a grandmother in her 70s yelling, “He’s got hang time!”
The event, Icer Air 2005, was held in an old-money neighborhood not far from Fisherman’s Wharf, where the homes of the city’s social elite -- including bestselling author Danielle Steel -- command views of downtown and San Francisco Bay.
As the crowed roared at each stunt, landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island shimmered in the bay beyond.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” one bystander told a friend, “unless you count skiing in Vail in June.”
Sidewalks were so packed with onlookers that security personnel eventually limited the number of people in the area. Grade-school boys perched in trees to catch the action, while others peered out windows or from nearby balconies and rooftops as a helicopter hovered overhead.
As sweaty spectators elbowed past, one man used a cellphone to describe the jumps to colleagues back at work. Nearby, boys threw snowballs from a pile of snow dumped onto an adjoining street. A man in a suit slipped off his jacket, remarking, “Gee, I feel overdressed here.”
Dean Peterson drove up from San Jose for the show.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” said the 40-year-old construction worker. “If these people had held this on a weekend, you wouldn’t be able to get within 20 miles of here. Then neighbors would really have something to complain about.”
Many residents insisted they’d been snowed by their own mayor, Gavin Newsom. They said Newsom gave preferential treatment to organizers, including Erik Gordon, who attended high school with Newsom in Marin County in the 1980s. Gordon is co-founder of event sponsor Icer, a Nevada ski apparel company.
The connection prompted a front-page story in the San Francisco Chronicle headlined: “That’s Snow Business.”
Mayoral spokesman Peter Ragone acknowledged that Newsom played on the same high school baseball team as Gordon. But “it was an acquaintance from 22 years ago,” he said.
Ragone said the event was even postponed in August after Newsom told sponsors to do more community outreach. Still, neighbors went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to block the competition.
Rory Silva, a 20-year-old snowboarder from Mammoth who participated in the event, scoffed at the suggestion that residents could wreck such a party: “Look at them staring out the window. They can’t be that [mad].”
Participants took off from inside a replica San Francisco cable car parked at the top of the ski run -- its side-door steps packed with snow to give racers a slippery downhill start.
Shooting out the door were squatting skiers in camouflage-colored helmets and snowboarders wearing Lawrence of Arabia-type desert scarves.
Then there was Silva, who wore oversized goggles and a shoulder tattoo depicting a human skull drenched in blue and green candle wax.
“That slope is definitely steeper than it looks,” he said.
With each descent, onlookers shouted, “There he goes!” They banged on barriers and chanted “Go! Go! Go!” After a block, racers scaled a snow-packed jump, negotiating a 40-foot chasm before landing on another ramp. The crowd shuddered at the wipeouts and cheered the monster moves.
But organizers soon faced the reality of staging a snow event on a beach-weather day in a city where real snow has fallen only twice in the last 40 years. The machine-made snow quickly became slushy, prompting participants to super-wax their equipment.
This was clearly no alpine event. With each start came gasps: “Is he going fast enough? He’s not going to make it!”
Still, encouraged sponsors plan to take the contest on the road to other cities.
Even Pacific Heights resident Mike Rossi admitted that he watched a few jumps. “It’s an urban event, a novelty,” he said, sitting outside his house as the crowed surged past and boys threw snowballs nearby. “And it only lasts one day.”