It all started with the toss of a coin in the office. Heads, they would compete in the Ullr Fest snow-sculpting contest. Tails, they would build a float for the parade. The coin came up heads.
The year was 1980, and the group of realtors built their first competitive snow sculpture using what was then an additive process, where snow is piled up to create the sculpture instead of cut away from a preformed block. And they won - that year, and the next and the next.
Then in 1985, while they were sculpting a piece showing Prince Charming bending over Sleeping Beauty to give her a kiss, a man stopped by to ask if they'd considered taking their talent to nationals. "We didn't know there was a whole worldwide community of snow artists out there," said team member Rob Neyland. "Right then and there I knew that we had to make that a Breckenridge event."
And so the group embarked on a lengthy process to put Breckenridge on the snow-sculpting map. They worked with the town, the resort and other local groups to found and host the Colorado state championships while at the same time making a name for their team on the national and international stages.
Today, the fruits of their labor take the form of the Budweiser International Snow Sculpture Championships, which draws teams from around the world and upwards of 32,000 guests each year, braving sometimes subzero temperatures to witness the awe-inspiring and otherworldly manifestations come to life in snow.
And Breckenridge is now officially on the map, known internationally as one of the premier snow sculpting venues in the world.
The event takes place in stages. First, Breckenridge Ski Resort makes the snow, which is hauled by dump truck to the site by the Town of Breckenridge Public Works Department. Front-end loaders and a huge snow blower transfer the snow into wooden molds, alternating with volunteer human laborers, who jump in, stomp the snow to pack it down, and jump out to wait for the next layer.
This is how the 10x10x12-foot starting blocks are created.
Sculpting commences this year at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22 with a shotgun start and ends 65 hours later at 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 26.
Sculptors work with hand tools such as vegetable peelers, small saws and chicken wire to cut away snow and render their designs; no power tools or colorants are allowed. Participants often leave support beams in place until the last night and then remove them hoping the sculptures maintain their structural integrity, Neyland said.
Sculptures do collapse - like in 1988 at nationals, held at the Milwaukee Zoo, when the Breckenridge team's piece deconstructed 20 minutes before judging. Still, the weather and snow conditions in Breckenridge make this less likely to occur here than in other locales, Neyland said.
"I think that it's important to note the subtractive nature of this art form," he added. "It makes it challenging. And literally it is a performing art. Think of it as very slow theater - because you are performing this art on the public stage and you only get one shot at it."
The competition is also a race, Neyland said in a 2012 film by Second Act (http://yhoo.it/wRcp6h). "There's a 65-hour competition period and it's a pretty grueling, hardworking 65 hours."
The last night - Friday, Jan. 25 - is said to be one of the best times to visit, as the artists prepare to stay up the whole night to finish final detail work on their sculptures.
By Friday, too, Neyland said the sculptures start to sing. "When the internal form of the sculpture is exposed to the cold night air, it cures. The whole sculpture starts to turn into a crystalline structure," he said. "When my teammate is 10 feet away and I can hear and feel the strikes of his chisel at the base, it's because it's become a crystalline structure. It's still fragile but very solid. It's truly a remarkable thing."
Guests are invited to view the entire process, from the sculptures' creation through the weeklong viewing of finished sculptures Jan. 27-Feb. 3. At night, the white pieces glisten, lit up by eco-friendly LED lighting.
Teams are selected by committee from a pool of applicants based on their performance in other snow sculpting competitions, the designs they submit and other considerations. This year, 16 teams were chosen from a pool of 42 applicants. It's the widest and most diverse field from the largest group of applicants yet, said Rachel Zerowin, spokesperson for the Breckenridge Resort Chamber.
Among the competitors are an all-female team, new from Argentina, that will sculpt a caracol, or snail. Other countries new to the competition are Iceland, Singapore, Ecuador and Mongolia. They join teams from Australia, Baltic (Latvia/Estonia), Canada-Yukon, Catalonia-Spain, China, Germany, Great Britain-Wales, Mexico, USA-Alaska and USA-Breckenridge.
Some, like Mexico, practice and compete in sand, so they have to translate their skills to snow upon arrival in Breck.
"I must say that I have the greatest of respect for people that perform this art form in sand," Neyland said. "Sand is a very different medium. Snow is pretty solid. Sand, you basically pile up and go from the top down. You don't really get the chance to go back and mess with it."
After coming to the Breckenridge event for a few years, Team Mexico took first place in 2011. "I called them out as most improved team," Neyland said. "They obviously came with their eyes open; they took notes and learned and came back and applied that. In 2011 they pulled out an absolutely stunning piece. They came from a no-snow environment and cut their teeth on that art form in Breck."
This year Team Mexico will sculpt "Whal-e," a mechanical whale composed of plates, rivets, a gear system and a navigation controller. The message is about the superiority of natural over mechanical beauty, and the need to solve global warming.
Team Iceland brings "Lopapeysa," a ball-shaped snow house with windows in the pattern of a traditional Icelantic sweater.
From the U.S. come Team Alaska as well as Breckenridge's homegrown team of Tom Day, Tim West and Margo Jerkovitz, led by Keith Martin. The local team is creating "8 Seconds to Glory," a bull and rider inspired by Breck's new summer rodeo.
Last year Team Canada-Quebec took first place with "Great Expectations," a sculpture of Quebec's ice harvesting history. The piece also won the Artists' Choice and People's Choice awards. Second place went to Team Germany for "Dancing Screens," an angular, abstract work in snow symbolizing how interpretations change with perspective, intended to highlight the need for a critical point of view in today's media-driven world. Team Baltic (Latvia-Estonia) took third with "Discover the Edge of the World," and the Kids' Choice award went to Team Alaska for "The Deadliest Catch: Calamari's Revenge," in which the mighty beast pulled a ship into the depths of the ocean.
This year's winners will be announced at 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 27, along with the Artists' Choice award and the voter-driven People's Choice and Kids' Choice awards. There are no cash prizes, only recognition within and beyond the snow sculpting community.
New for 2013, folks can follow the teams online and see the submission sketches at BreckConnection.com, along with daily photo updates at Facebook.com/GoBreck. Also new are activities like photography workshops, a VIP party, the opportunity to host a team for a day and a snow sculpture gift pack - which can be purchased in conjunction with lodging for an extra-participatory experience, Zerowin explained. For info, visit GoBreck.com or call (800) 462-7325.
Inside the Riverwalk Center, the Snow Lounge offers warmth and comfy leather sofas, a store featuring keepsakes like pins, postcards and posters, an exhibit exploring the last two decades of snow sculpture championships and the snow-sculpting process, and voting boxes for the People's Choice ($1 donation) and Kids' Choice awards. The Ice Village, on the Riverwalk Center lawn, displays ice carvings.
"Rarely does the public get to see the living act of sculptures performed," Neyland said. "Generally you see the sculpture when it's done. The thing that's so incredible about this art form is that people literally get to see the transformational act of the birth of these sculptures. (The artists) start with a 20-ton block of snow and literally release the sculpture that lies within that block of snow - not unlike Michelangelo's famous quote, 'I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.'"