The science behind building a 16-story jump at Air + Style in L.A.
As we countdown to debut of Shaun’s White’s Air + Style in Greater Los Angeles this weekend, take the focus off of the man, brand and snowboarding legend formerly known as the flying tomato. If only for a moment, put the spotlight on the true star of the festivities: the 65-foot scaffold-based jump that’s been erected just adjacent to Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.
Air + Style is an international big air competition that was created by Charlie Weger and Andrew Hourmont in 1994. It debuted in Innsbruck, Austria and since then has expanded to Munich and Beijing. Now White, who bought the event last year, is bringing it home to Southern California. The drop-in to the 65-foot ski jump stands at 16 stories—that’s about 150 feet—and has a slope of about 38 degrees.
Why choose sunny Southern California for a big air snow-based competition? It's a hotbed of extreme sports. Skateboarding and surfing are two of the areas most popular pastimes. Since the Summer X Games left Los Angeles for Austin, Texas after 2013, that void has been waiting to be filled. But at some point, the obvious must be asked: How does one facilitate warm weather freestyle skiing and snowboarding?
“It’s definitely a little nerve-wracking, but far from impossible,” says Chris Gunnarson, President of Snow Park Technologies, the company charged with putting the snow on this quirky marvel of engineering.
SPT handles the courses for the Winter X Games, Burton U.S. Open, Red Bull double pipe and is no stranger to the Air + Style big air jump. Gunnarson even has experience with warm weather jumps; he was in charge of snow shaping on a ski jump during the 1997 and 1998 Summer X Games in San Diego and 1999 Summer X Games in San Francisco. He also has plenty of experience with Shaun White.
“It’s a trip, but Gunny used to work at Snow Summit, and it just so happened that he was building these incredible jumps and pipes that I was up there riding every weekend growing up,” White tells SI.com. “Since then he’s become the man. He builds every pipe and park for all these major events.”
This weekend’s jump will be the largest warm-weather jump that Gunnarson—or “Gunny” as he goes by— has ever built, but the science behind the jump is the same as it was nearly two decades ago.
The snow for the jump is not actually snow at all; it’s ice. A 300-pound block of ice is put through a specialized ice chipper that pulverizes it into a very fine dust. A blower then puts the dust down onto the areas it can reach, such as the lip of the jump and the landing base, and a snow team of 22 workers hand pack the snow onto the rest of the structure. When first applied onto the scaffold, the layer of snow is very soft and loose, but over time it bonds to itself and what doesn’t melt, freezes.
“The crushed ice bonds pretty well to itself, similar to ice that blocks together in a cooler,” Gunnarson says.
Insulating blankets allow the layers of snow to refreeze and helps mitigate the effect of the California sun on the top layer. Inca drainage mats go underneath the layers. They create air pockets and allow melting ice to drain off to the sides instead of collecting on the ramp.
Timing is key to the effectiveness to Gunnarson’s method. As of Thursday afternoon, snow had only been put on the landing base. Snow was applied to the structure for the first time later in the day.
“It will be a rapid all-night exercise to get snow in place,” Gunnarson says.
Fortunately for White, Gunnarson and the contestants, the weekend forecast is a favorable one temperature-wise, but there are precipitation concerns. According to weather.com, Saturday’s high temperature will be in the mid-to-high 60s and mostly cloudy. Sunday’s high is 59, albeit with a 70% chance of showers.
“My biggest concern is the same on every project; mother nature. Direct sunlight is the biggest threat to the jump outside of a major downpour,” said Gunnarson. “When dealing with a malleable surface like snow, anything can happen.”
Building a ski jump in Pasadena comes with unavoidable risk. White is as confident in Gunnarson’s ability to create a jump that will allow the riders to have success as he is with his choice of bringing Air + Style to California in the first place.
“I’m pretty confident, not only in Gunny’s ability to make this an incredible event, but also because I grew up riding in this environment. People forget that I’m not from Colorado, Utah or Vermont,” says White, who grew up outside of San Diego. “When the snow is soft, it’s nice out and you’re wearing less gear, those are great conditions to ride in as well as spectate. The landing is more forgiving and you can really throw your best tricks.”
The weekend’s festivities, which also include interactive fan-based villages, food trucks and a musical lineup—all hand picked by White himself—may suffer from some growing pains. White understands that. But both he and Gunnarson want to see Air + Style grow in America and in California specifically, and White is willing to put his money and time into growing the event.
“I certainly hope this continues past this year,” said Gunnarson. “It’s a great thing to bring to the area, it’s a great legacy move for Shaun. I hope it isn’t three stops next year, I hope it’s five.”
“If we can really pull this off, if we can get this to the point where we can have even more stops stateside, that goal is more than worth the investment for me.” White said.
Air + Style: Los Angeles begins February 21 at 11 a.m. PST.