In its prime, Frozen Dead Guy Days was a spectacle of hard-partying costume wearing and macabre events, and was the pride of Nederland, a mountain town west of Boulder with a population of 1,500.
But those days are over for the cold-weather party that started the third weekend of March 2002 and grew up around a corpse wrapped in a sleeping bag and stored in a styrofoam-lined sarcophagus filled with dry ice in a Tuff Shed behind a half-constructed castle built to withstand fire, earthquake and other natural disasters.
In December 2022, the wealthy hotelier John Cullen, who owns the Stanley Hotel, bought the three-day festival for $250,000. And starting Friday, the party, which has been featured in newspapers across the globe, on major television networks like CBS and NBC and on BBC Travel is being reborn in Estes Park.
If the above paragraphs have your head spinning, you’re not alone. Much in this story sounds too strange to be true, but it is, and it’s causing heartache as well as celebration as some in Nederland mourn the loss of their festival and others in Estes Park prepare for a Frozen Dead Guys Day rebirth. The Lazarus moment starts tomorrow with a ribbon-cutting ceremony by Mayor Wendy Koenig.
But in order to understand what’s at stake, you need to know the strange story of how Frozen Dead Guy Days began, the even stranger one of where its going and how the guy at the center of it all — Grandpa Bredo Morstoel, the body lying in repose in the Tuff Shed overlooking Nederland — may get a better home to await his rebirth at the Stanley, making Cullen even richer and pouring money into child care and workforce housing for Estes Park.
Bradley Banta, a maintenance technician and contractor, shows the Tuff Shed storage unit where the body of Bredo Morstoel has been kept, cryopreserved, since the mid 90s in Nederland (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
How a dead guy ended up in Tuff Shed at 8,200 feet
The story starts not with Morstoel but with his grandson, Trygve Bauge, who, as a youngster, became fascinated by the science of preserving tissue at ultracold temperatures for future human reanimation.
According to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, one of several cryogenics facilities in America, cryonics is the “practice of preserving life by pausing the dying process, using subfreezing temperatures with the intent of restoring good health with medical technology in the future.”
A name you might recognize who’s been cryogenically frozen: the baseball player Ted Williams, who, according to a 2002 Sports Illustrated story, was decapitated by surgeons at the cryonics company where his body is suspended in liquid nitrogen. Some 500 others, including Bauge’s mother, Aud, reportedly lie in repose at places like Alcor, founded in 1972 in Scottsdale, Arizona, or Cryonics Institute in Detroit, Michigan.
But neither of these places were built when Bauge, looking out over the Norwegian Sea with his Grandpa Bredo as a young man, spoke passionately about the idea of self-preservation.
“My grandpa knew that I wanted to be suspended and he was probably aware that I wanted to freeze family members,” Bauge told The Sun over WhatsApp from Oslo. “He was not opposed to it. He liked to be alive, and he had visited both Nederland and Estes Park after I moved to Colorado in 1980.”
When Morstoel died in 1989, Bauge coordinated to have him frozen in Norway. Then he had Bredo’s body transported to a cryonics center called Trans Time Inc. in San Leandro, California. There, if experts followed traditional cryopreservation methods, the water would have been removed from Morstoel’s cells and replaced with a glycerol-based chemical mixture called “cryoprotectant” — a kind of human antifreeze. The process, called “vitrification,” according to the National Institute of Health, puts the cells into a state of suspended animation. In contrast, Morstoel’s body was “straight frozen,” Bauge said. Bauge paid for the process with inheritance money. There Morstoel stayed until 1993.
Meanwhile, Bauge bought a piece of property overlooking the town of Nederland, where he planned to build a cryogenics facility. The remnants of that place still stand — a half-castle made of dark gray concrete and fortified by rebar, “no wood allowed,” Bauge said.
LEFT: Trygve Bauge, Bredo Morstoel’s grandson (not pictured) planned to build a cryogenics facility overlooking Nederland before he was deported back to Norway in 1994. A concrete “castle” still stands near the shed where Morstoel is kept and is thought to contain family documents and cryogenics research. RIGHT: Bradley Banta unravels thermal blankets where the body of Bredo Morstoel has been kept. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
On one side he began building a two-story tower in which he planned to put a metal cylinder he would fill with liquid nitrogen to store one or two more people once the facility was finished.
Before construction was completed, Bauge had Morstoel collected from Trans Time and brought to Nederland. With his facility unfinished, he placed Morstoel’s container in a shed behind the castle. Ever since, Morstoel’s body, inside his “sarcophagus,” has been packed in dry ice, delivered by a rotating cast of characters.
Teresa Warren, a Nederland resident and creator of a television-series concept called “Frozen Dead,” met Bauge when he moved to Nederland. She said he “isn’t really keeping grandpa to bring him back to life … because all of the facilities that keep bodies for re-animation freeze them in liquid nitrogen which is minus 200 degrees Celsius. But on dry ice, they’re only minus 90 degrees Celsius.”
Bauge said bringing Morstoel back to life isn’t the point. “My grandfather and mother, who also lies in cryogenic repose, were dead before they were frozen. But there are still lots of options for extending their lives.”
He cites aspirational work by American researchers hoping to use a gene-editing tool to splice frozen woolly mammoth DNA into that of an Asian elephant and resurrect a long extinct species, though in hybrid form.
“Rome wasn’t built in one day, so what I can see with my grandfather — at some point we will be able to create a younger version of him,” Bauge said.
A very abbreviated history of Nederland’s Frozen Dead Guy Days
In 2002 — years after Bauge was deported back to Norway on an expired visa, after the town of Nederland discovered the castle hadn’t been built to code and authorities evicted Aud, and after Aud’s fears that eviction would lead to the melting of Bredo’s body were relayed to the public, and after the town created a “grandfather clause” that would let Morstoel and the Tuff Shed stay — Warren had an epiphany that would change everything.
Warren was president of the now-defunct Nederland Chamber of Commerce when she realized, in 2002, that the town needed a festival to help businesses get through the lull between when Eldora ski area closed and the summer tourist season picked up.
The lineup for the first festival was as goofy as it was inspired. It included coffin races, where seven-person teams raced a “corpse” down the street in homemade boxes, a hearse parade, a frozen salmon toss and a costumed dance called “Grandpa’s Blue Ball.” Through minimal advertising and word-of-mouth, 1,700 people showed up, Warren said. It was a one-day festival and the wind blew 70 miles per hour, Warren recalled.
It grew and “maybe the second year it was 5,000 people,” Warren said. “Then we were doing ice sculptures in the roundabout in Nederland, and New Belgium brewed us a special beer. More people wanted to volunteer — we added all of these things to do. When the chamber had it we had volunteers. And it continued in that spirit — growing every year with little money and force of volunteerism,” until Amanda MacDonald, an entrepreneur from Gilpin County, bought it from the chamber for $6,000 in 2012.
By then, MacDonald had been running the festival for the chamber for several years. Attendee numbers were high — 10- to 15,000 people. Several of the festival events were in place, and it now spanned three days. The chamber had stationed a tent for bands in the town park in a previous year, and MacDonald continued the tradition of hosting musicians. For several years, the festival ran relatively smoothly, despite monumental challenges, MacDonald said, like 90-mile-per-hour winds during her first year of ownership, day-of snowstorms and water main breaks.
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But like many things that turn from quaint and great to unwieldy and challenged, Frozen Dead Guy Days became problematic as it grew from 5,000 attendees to 20,000 attendees in the tiny town with narrow streets. As it grew, town officials began to feel they were unable to effectively manage crowds that large.
“I think it was when we started attracting 30,000 to 35,000 people and you couldn’t even get into a music tent. That’s when Amanda should have started charging money to get into the festival,” Warren said. “But she only wanted to charge for entrance into the music tents.”
It’s hard to manage a crowd that size without putting up some kind of barrier, Warren added. “If we had charged more money we would have made as much and made it more exclusive.”
Fewer people would have also made it easier for law enforcement and emergency services to protect the town and the visitors, Town Administrator Miranda Fisher said. And to make matters worse, the festival failed to follow the town’s stipulations, Fisher said.
“It outgrew us, a town of 1,500 trying to support 20,000,” Fisher added. “In the end, the town couldn’t treat the festival like it did in 2002. With thousands of people, we were left with damages and we knew we wouldn’t have the financial means to recover if we kept going.”
One point of contention Fisher mentions is a Great Outdoors Colorado grant the town had secured for improvements on Guercio Field, next to the teen center. The town had worked to define a trail system there, and following the festival, “it turned into a giant mud pool and we had to start over,” Fisher said. Event organizers insisted they needed to have the event on the field. The town was willing to make that agreement hoping the infrastructure problems wouldn’t happen again.
But in the end, Fisher said the organizers didn’t meet the expectations the town set for them. And MacDonald said she wishes things could have worked out differently. “I think there were different perspectives,” she said, but in the big picture she thinks the festival under her leadership was a “financial boon for the town.” Nonetheless, in March of 2022, the town shut Frozen Dead Guy Days down, after it had survived a two-year pause due to COVID-19.
Hotelier and Stanley Hotel owner John Cullen bought the three-day Frozen Dead Guy Days festival for $250,000 in winter 2022. According to Visit Estes Park, approximately 4,000 people are expected to attend the newly located festival in 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
A “visionary” snaps up FDGD
Nine months later, Cullen, the Stanley Hotel owner, bought the festival for $250,000. He then handed all operations to Visit Estes Park, retaining only the Blue Ball, which will be held Friday evening in the Stanley Hotel concert hall.
In the Wine Room at the Stanley on Tuesday, Cullen told The Sun he bought the festival to help round out Estes Park’s economy in the nonsummer months. He likened its potential for growth to the Burning Man festival, which started in San Francisco with 8,000 people and saw 80,000 people last year. He said he doesn’t want Frozen Dead Guy Days to get that big.
“There’ve been a couple of other groups who have said we should buy it and move it to the flatlands,” he added. “But Estes Park and Nederland share a lot of the same culture and spirit and they’re only 40 miles apart.”
One major difference between the towns, however, is that while Nederland has 1,500 residents and serves a reported summer tourist population of 150,000, Estes has 8,500 residents serving 8 million year-round tourists.
Estes Park has infrastructure demands, housing demands and education demands for those full-time residents who serve the 8 million people, Cullen said. That’s why when he bought the festival he gave it to the town with the stipulation that all of the proceeds and profits go to child care and workforce housing.
When they took the festival over, Visit Estes Park enlisted 14 businesses to join in the party.
Events planned for this weekend include live music, a “brain freeze ice cream eating contest,” a “frostbite fashion show,” a frozen T-shirt contest, a pub crawl and the Stanley’s Blue Ball. Some, like the coffin races, are holdovers from Nederland, while others, like “skull bowling” are purely Estes. And the feeling from some of those participating could be described as excited while a bit critical of Ned’s version of the event, laced with hopeful optimism that Estes can create a new, lasting festival.
Cullen reiterated that he’s getting “nothing” out of the festival. Then he added, “I get the glory of actually having one more event in this town that actually makes it fun and weird. And I will help keep it weird by having the central ball, the Blue Ball, be fun and weird. That is right up our alley at Stanley Hotel,” which has other, larger plans for Grandpa Bredo’s body, which he would explain later.
LEFT: Nick Smith of Lumpy Ridge Brewing shows a six-pack of Frozen Dead Guy Days beer, a 5% ABV pale ale, in Estes Park. Right: A “Frozen Dead Guy” pie, made by Estes Park Pie Shop & Diner (You Need Pie!), is a new cream cheese-based pie flavor that features edible gummy fingers. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
The New Estes Park FDGD
Out in Estes Park, on a tour of three businesses participating in the event, it appeared things aren’t going to be as weird as Cullen’s Blue Ball. On the first stop, at a restaurant-bakery called You Need Pie! owner Val Thompson took a break from a lunch hour packed with a clientele including spring breakers from Texas, locals with a sweet tooth and elderly members of the Estes-based folk-gospel singing group, Mountain Music Makers.
Sitting on a bench outside with a view of the Rockies, Thompson told The Sun, “I’ve actually never been to Dead Guy Days, so when it was going to come here I was like this could be interesting.” Thompson said she hadn’t had any ideas for the new festival when Visit Estes Park reached out to her to participate. “But we talked about resurrecting the things that they did in Nederland, only maybe in a little bit more … what’s the word … professionalized way.”
When asked to explain “professionalized,” she said, the way Visit Estes Park’s Kara Franker explained it, “it was instead of giving people chainsaws and saying, ‘here carve a block of ice,’ they might hire an ice carver. That kind of concept. But I think here, because Estes Park is so experienced at festivals … it may go a little more smoothly.”
Meanwhile Nick Smith, the founder of Lumpy Ridge Brewing, said the brewery was involved in Nederland’s festival for several years and made a branded canned beer for it last year. He said Estes’ festival will never be like Nederland’s, but that the town will do it justice in its own way.
He was also optimistic when he saw Visit Estes Park’s initial five-minute presentation. He thought “they get it. They didn’t lean into Halloween. They leaned into the freak-fest spectacle, human tricks and a reason to get outside and party in winter.”
Over at Cousin Pat’s Pub & Grill, the general manager was prepping for an faux Irish wake, which the bar is planning to host because St. Patrick’s Day and Frozen Dead Guy Days fall on the same weekend.
Smith said that even though he knows there are some hard feelings in Nederland about Estes Park’s takeover of the festival, he thinks people in both places get the overall intention.
And Koenig, the “ceremonial mayor of Estes Park, said she believes any money Cullen brings to the town will be a good thing.
Every two weeks, Bradley Banta and other “assistants” fill Bredo Morstoel’s sarcophagus with hundreds of pounds of dry ice, estimating the coffin’s internal temperature to remain colder than -100 degrees Fahrenheit. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
The real relocation winner may be Grandpa Bredo
On Tuesday afternoon, as the dinner crowd was ramping up at The Stanley, Cullen received an email from Estes Park officials.
It said, in short, that Cullen and Bauge could move forward with a plan they’d been concocting. Over the weekend, Cullen had flown to Oslo to meet Bauge in person. The two discussed moving Grandpa Bredo Morstoel to the ice house on The Stanley Hotel’s premises. Cullen said that while the town’s approval was big, two bigger approvals still were outstanding: Bauge’s, which rested on factors Cullen wouldn’t discuss, and Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s, because if the move happened Cullen said they’d facilitate it, not him.
He added that the final decision should be made within the next month or two. If Morstoel’s body is moved, Cullen is planning to turn the ice house into a cryogenics museum.
Visit Estes Park said it’s expecting approximately 4,000 people all told to come to the newly professionalized Frozen Dead Guy Days festival this weekend.
It remains to be seen how professional people will think a cryogenics museum, complete with a cryogenically frozen dead guy, will be.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 10:25 a.m. on March 16, 2023, to correct the spelling of Amanda MacDonald’s name. At 3:05 p.m. on March 17, 2023, the some details of Trygve Bauge’s story were corrected, including that he orchestrated moving his grandfather to Boulder from Oslo by phone, his grandpa was “straight frozen,” not vitrified, and the freezing process was paid for by Bauge. Also, his mother is in repose in The Cryonics Institute, and there are reportedly 500 cryogenically frozen people in the U.S.