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Breckenridge ice castles and snow sculptures

Massive castle built entirely of icicles
Massive castle built entirely of icicles
Judith Nelson

Breckenridge International Snow Sculpture Contest and the Breckenridge Ice Castle


For one reason or other, we didn’t manage to get to Breckenridge’s International Snow Sculpture Contest and exhibit until its very last day. But it was worth it. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and even though it was quite cold, no one seemed to mind. Mother Nature had just dumped a couple of feet of fresh snow on the ski resort town, and mounds of it were everywhere.

Even on the coldest days, Breck is a wonderful place to visit
Judith Nelson

What started as massive mounds of packed snow became art, as countries all over the world competed in the 24th Annual Budweiser International Snow Sculpture Championship. And we thought Budweiser was only interested in the Super Bowl Championship that day!

Beginning on January 21, snow artists from all over the world started hand carving 20-ton blocks of snow into works of art. They were massive, and they were awesome. Without the aid of power tools, the artists had 65 hours to carve their masterpieces. Some use vegetable peelers, chicken wire and saws. Internal support structures of any kind are prohibited. All of which makes these snowy works of art all the more intriguing and amazing.

All that snow formed massive blocks is made by the Breckenridge Ski Resort’s snowmaking equipment. Each of the blocks weighed about 40,000 pounds. They had to make and transport at least 320 tons of snow for the contest. Dump trucks carry the snow to the molds, then volunteer “snow stompers” compact the snow at various levels to ensure it is solid, making a block to sculpt. These blocks measured 10 feet long and 12 feet high.

Once you enter the exhibit, the snow paths wind around the 16-20 sculptures, allowing visitors to view all the intricately carved sides of the pieces. The huge pieces of art gleamed in the sunshine and loomed over the awestruck visitors.

Most were still in good shape on the last day, despite the huge amount of snow that had fallen in the days before. The one major casualty was Germany, whose sculpture of horizontally balanced discs of snow toppled. However, it remained undamaged in time to win a prize.

Colorado had its own artistic team, as did Breckenridge. And this year’s winner was Team Breckenridge with its joyous rendering of “Winter Fun”. This intricate sculpture portrays enraptured children snow-tubing down a steep sledding hill, with a dog leading the way. Somehow it managed to emphasize all the fun Breckenridge has to offer. Team Colorado’s entry “Must be Using the Wrong Bait” was a snow depiction of a fisherman on a boat above an enormous curving sea monster. An amazing array of textures was achieved in the details of the surface of the water, the scales of the monster, kelp on the bottom and the wood grain of the boat.

Two other US teams created wonders. Team Vermont created “Fugue”, which rendered impossibly suspended lattices of snow showing a musical composition, with a recurring theme, which is the essence of a fugue. Musical notes grace the curved latticework.

Team Wisconsin created an intricate composition featuring interesting creatures, especially butterflies on flowers. Their creation “Wanderer” offered new visual experiences as the visitors viewed all sides.

Team Mongolia, last year’s winner, sponsored two sculptures entitled “Fight” and “Mother Land”, each featuring a variety of creatures in combat.

Team Russia’s “Immortal Spirit of Antiquity” tied in with their hosting of the Olympics this year with a complicated carving of the Olympic Flame. In order to help the view grasp the complexity and meaning of the piece, a metal miniature of the sculpture was left at its base, so anyone could pick it up and compare.

From Lithuania’s “Once Upon a Time Here was a Forest…” depicting a copse of trees, to Great Britain’s “The Somerset Hunky Punks” capturing grotesque beasts surrounding a tower, it was hard to know where to look. Italy’s simple sculpture of a small man sitting on a gigantic snow chair, “Looking Up” was a study in simplicity, showing how small we are in such a large and difficult world.

Finland’s “Northern Sun” looked like a series of gear wheels in incremental sizes, while France’s “Dark Side of the Moon” was a vastly entertaining homage to Georges Melies, the French filmmaker who pioneered movie special effects at the beginning of the 20th century. His movie showed contrast in a friendly and malevolent moon. This sculpture shows a friendly face on one side of the giant moon which turns to a demonic face with fangs and claws on the other. Even though it was below freezing when we were there, the intense sun had created icicles hanging from the “good moon’s” nose.

We will definitely make it a point to go to the 25th contest next year. It was sad to think that shortly after we left the exhibit it was leveled, and all traces of the fascinating works of art became just snow again.

Across from the array of massive snow sculptures was an even more massive sculpture of a different sort, this one of ice. While the snow sculpture exhibit was free to enter, the gigantic Ice Castle charged a fee. It, unlike the snow sculptures, will remain open through March. It is billed as a “one-of-a-kind” experience”--and it is!

The entire “castle” is formed completely from thousands of icicles “harvested” by “icicle farmers”. Created by a specially designed irrigation system, icicles are formed daily and painstakingly “planted” to create thick walls on substantial bases forming intricate mazes, towers, tunnels and overhangs. It is all built by hand, with no other support or structure than ice. Walking through it, you feel as though you were exploring a cave—yet it is open on top. There are even child-sized ice tunnels for children to get a really close look, while parents wait at the other end.

The Ice Castle is environmentally friendly, as all the water used to create it came from nearby creeks. Once the castle melts in the Spring, the water will return to those same creeks.

The Ice Castle has remarkable strength for being made entirely of frozen water. Citing the US Army Corps of Engineers ice thickness recommendations, ice 7” thick will hold a car, and ice 10” thick will hold a 7-ton truck. Considering that the Ice Castle’s walls are between 60”-180” thick and the bases of the towers are about 200” thick, it is a remarkably strong and sturdy structure.

But, the art of creating a strong structure composed entirely of water is an involved process. The icicle farmers grow 3,000-5,000 icicles each night, then harvest them and plant them the next day. They are planted and fused together one at a time to create a lattice that is then sprayed with water. The icicles that are formed by this process thicken and grow over time. By the end of the season, thousands of icicles will have been grown, harvested and planted.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. To add to the experience, they also freeze hundreds of LED lights into the ice to light it up day and night, and speakers are strategically placed throughout playing popular music.

Even though the snow sculptures are over for this year, a trip to Breckenridge and the Ice Castle is definitely a must-do. It is fascinating and entertaining for the whole family.

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