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Team Breckenridge carves the “The Boy Who Believed He Could Fly” on Friday morning in Breckenridge. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

As temperatures hovered at -14 before dawn Friday, a group of carvers meticulously shaped snow sculptures in Breckenridge.

Nine teams of artists from around the world were putting in finishing touches after traveling to the high-elevation ski town to compete in the International Snow Sculpting Championships. Each had four days to carve a sculpture from a 12-foot block of snow weighing 25 tons, using only hand tools. 

Members of Team Wisconsin make final touches of “Bee Sustainability” just before the 9 a.m. deadline on Friday morning, Jan 28., for the International Snow Sculpture Championships. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

As the competition got underway Monday, the carvers approached nearly a dozen lumbering snow blocks with a layout in mind. 

Piece by piece, snow showered from each massive block as the carvers raced against time. The weather was just right for snow sculpting – freezing and mostly free of sunshine and snow. Team Mexico stayed awake through the final night of the competition and used the extreme weather to their advantage. Below-zero temperatures let them shape the snow in fine detail. 

Rob Neyland, who helped found Breckenridge’s contest, said it all started with a coin flip. In 1980 his real estate office was trying to decide whether to enter Ullr Fest with a parade float or a snow sculpture. The latter won, and his team took first place. 

Two more years of first-place wins – including a prize of a houseboat trip on Lake Powell – and the team was hooked. 

National and international wins followed, and the team “took names and took notes,” Neyland said. 

“How awesome would it be to have an international competition in Breckenridge?” he said. “We’ve got the best snow in the world. We started selling people on it.”

“Colossal Resurrection” snow sculpture, by Team New York, of a woolly mammoth stands tall ready for viewing on Friday morning after 4 days of carving. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Tim West, of Team Breckenridge, carves the “The Boy Who Believed He Could Fly” using the hand tool on Friday morning during the International Snow Sculpting Championships at the Riverwalk Center’s parking lot. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Team Wisconsin’s Gregory Brulla carves “The Digital Divide” with a hand tool while standing on the ladder Friday morning, Jan. 28. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Neyland and his friends found eager support, and Breckenridge hosted its first international competition in 1990. 

“It was a smashing success,” he said. “The community embraced this competition like no other ever had.”

Snow sculpting is “the perfect intersection between sport and art,” Neyland said. 

The public gets the chance to witness monumental public art come to life – which can be nerve-racking for artists in the four-day race to finish.

“Your triumphs and failures are on a public stage in front of hundreds of people,” Neyland said.

Visitors catch a glimpse of Barney L. Ford snow sculpture, a well-known businessman in Colorado born two hundred years ago and passed away in 1902, Thursday evening, Jan. 27, in Breckenridge. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

At some point, Neyland said every snow sculptor has a piece crumble.

“All your dreams, your travel around the globe, collapses in a pile of rubble before your eyes,” he said. “Everyone gets that merit badge at some point.”

Breckenridge’s snow sculpting contest benefits from man-made snow produced by the snowmakers at Breckenridge Ski Resort. 

Whereas snow in other competitions may be scooped from parking lots or parks and contain dog poop or cigarette butts, the snow in Breckenridge is pure, allowing artists to take bigger risks.

“This event has advanced this art form by demonstrating what can be done in snow,” Neyland said. “Suspended things. Elevated things. All things that constitute risk, you can do in Breckenridge.”

Team Mexico’s Carlos Ramirez Pereyra carves the “King of Thrones” 12-foot tall snow sculpture using hand tools early Friday morning. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

And it bridges the worlds of the temporary and permanent.

“Snow art is a performing art to create a temporal, fleeting thing,” he said. “You know snow art will melt. But it’s that frozen moment of letting people see this transitory vision of frozen water suspended into the sky. The hearts you touch last for a lifetime.”

“Envelopes,” by Team Ecuador, ready for viewing and judging after a week of carving by hand on Jan. 28 during the International Snow Sculpture Championships in Breckenridge. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The viewing continues today, with a free reservation system on for a timed entry for Saturday only, until Wednesday Feb. 2 in the parking lot next to the Riverwalk Center.

Hugh covers a variety of topics for The Colorado Sun, with a focus on outdoor and Western topics, environment and breaking news. Prior to working for The Sun, Hugh was a daily news photographer/videographer in Utah, Michigan, Wyoming and within...

David is a former Colorado Sun staff writer.