Behind snow giants

Chris Conway dissected a cheese grater and folded it around a trowel to make a sanding tool that Team Alaska could use to put the finishing touches on their snow sculpture. It was just one of many responsibilities that Conway, a local Breckenridge resident, took on when he and his wife Deb agreed to host a team for the annual International Snow Sculpture Championships.

A time-honored Breckenridge tradition, this year’s snow sculpture championships take place January 24 to February 5, 2017. Teams of sculptors from around the globe converge to carve awe-inspiring, otherworldly manifestations from 12-foot-tall, 25-ton blocks of snow in the Tiger Dredge Lot in downtown Breckenridge, while tens of thousands of visitors brave sometimes subzero temperatures to witness them. During the day the sculptures gleam pure white against the high country’s azure sky, and at night they glow with multi-colored, LED-lighting set inside and out.

The glistening behemoths are a sight to behold, but also inspiring are the hidden workings that make their existence possible—from the snowmakers at Breckenridge Ski Resort who blow the towering mountain of snow used to create the blocks, the Town employees who truck 80 odd loads of snow into the center of town, to the volunteers and employees who stomp the snow into molds, act as team hosts, prepare the exhibition site for the sculptures’ unveiling, and handle all the other tasks needed for the event to go off without a hitch.

“Building the blocks is a big part of the job,” said Greg Gutzki, who manages technical aspects of the event for the Breckenridge Tourism Office, which co-presents the International Snow Sculpture Championships with Breckenridge Creative Arts each year.

First, Breckenridge Ski Resort employees set up four snow guns at the base of Peak 9 and spend nights blowing a huge mound of snow, using added water to make the snow dense. “We’ve been doing this a long time for the Town,” said Brett Gray, snowmaking manager for the ski area. “We enjoy making the product for them.”

Unlike snow sculpture competitions that use sometimes dirty snow piled in parking lots, Breckenridge’s event is known worldwide for the consistent, firm, pure white medium it offers sculptors. “The snowmakers take pride in their work,” Gray said. “They keep an eye on the guns and make the product that they like.”

After the snow sits awhile so the excess water can leach out, drivers from Public Works’ Streets and Parks department take it by the truckload to Tiger Dredge, where a crane operator sets three 10x10x12-foot concrete molds into place, and Public Works uses two front-end loaders— one with an enormous snow blower affixed to the front—to transfer the snow into the molds.

During the process, a group of 6-8 volunteers climb down a ladder into the giant boxes, shovel and level out the snow, stomp it down to pack it into the forms, and climb back out to await the next layer. As each block is finished, the crane operator breaks the mold free, lifts it up and places it in the next location. “It’s a pretty labor- and equipment intensive process,” Gutzki said.

The volunteers work in 2-hour shifts, and it takes four full 8-hour days to get the blocks done, explained Mark Johnston, manager of Public Works’ Streets and Parks department. “It can be a little taxing, but in the spirit of the event everyone is just so upbeat that no one really thinks it’s work,” said Michelle Lyman, who stomped snow with a group of friends for years before getting a team together from Summit Combined Housing Authority to do it. “It definitely brings a team together,” she said. “There were lots of laughs all the way around.” Building the blocks is just the start, as an equally large effort goes into shoveling and hauling away snow scraps carved from the blocks by the sculptors during carving week, which runs through January 28.

“On a continuous basis we are moving through the site with two skid steers and a group of people who go along shoveling snow into the bucket,” Gutzki said. “Can you imagine shoveling snow endlessly for days, while keeping up with your own snow that falls at home?”

On top of that there are site management needs—building the scaffolding from which the artists work, erecting sun shades to protect the sculptures from the bright January sun, and providing tools like shovels, scrapers, and snow scoops.

Once the sculptures are finished, an army of volunteers and employees prep the site for Saturday’s viewing. “It’s a very hectic time with all hands on deck handling fencing, roping off the sculptures, and removing all the tools and scaffolding to get ready for the thousands of people who come to view the event,” Gutzki said. “We need to make sure the site looks pristine around all those beautiful pieces of art.”

Nearly all 29 full-time and seasonal members of Johnston’s Streets and Parks crew support the event in some way—whether by hauling snow, building blocks, sanding the viewing site to keep it safe for guests, pulling trash, running extra buses, or doing the tear-down at the end.

Even the tear-down is an opportunity for creativity, as Public Works employee James Smith demonstrated last year. “Are you ready to raise the roof?” Smith shouted before demolishing the snow-sculpted likeness of a cabin, eliciting cheers as he tore down that piece and many others.

“It’s a big production,” Johnston said, “but I think it’s the coolest event there is.”

Throughout, the international teams stay in rental properties donated by the local lodging community, and enjoy a night out courtesy of the restaurant community. Hosts do grocery and supply runs, provide meals when the teams first arrive and at the end, check in on teams to see how they’re adjusting to the altitude, navigate language barriers, provide hot chocolate, and anything else that crops up. One year the Conways chased down lost luggage while a shivering Team Lithuania got to work in tennis shoes and borrowed gloves.

“In the past I’d just go to see the end result,” said Lyman, whose team from Summit Combined Housing Authority also hosted an international team last year. They were there to support Team Mexico, but found themselves offering hot food and drink to other teams too in the deep, dark hours of night when the sculptors were cold and hungry.

“Not until this last year did I get to see the work day in and day out for seven days,” she said. “It’s interesting to see the progression from the simple form to the final sculpture, and to see how the weather plays a role in if the sculpture stands until the end. It’s pretty amazing to us to see what it becomes. Our experience was so much greater than anything we could have imagined.”

“The way we look at is we’re a part of a team,” said Conway, who has hosted a team for six years running. “We want them to succeed. We don’t want them to walk two miles if they don’t want to. We help by getting meals and groceries, and by being there to help throughout the event and offer encouragement as the sculpture is going along.” 

“I go into it with the thought process that I’m looking to build a friendship,” he said. “Every time we’ve worked with a different team, we’ve come away with exactly that. We could land in Whitehorse, Canada; Skagway, Alaska; or Lithuania—and we’ve got people who would take care of us there.” To this day, Team Alaska still totes Conway’s hand-hewn tools to Breckenridge.

International Snow Sculpture Championships //

Photos: Carl Scofield and Rob Neyland, courtesy Breckenridge Tourism Office