Every year, sometime in mid-winter, Rob Neyland’s mind is taken over by his alter ego, his evil twin, Carvin’ Marvin — Marvin calls the shots, and Marvin is smitten with whittling away at piles of white gold.
“Oh my god, he is totally focused and pushes aside and makes a complete mess of the rest of my life because he figures the snow sculpture is the most important, so I have to stuff him kicking and screaming back into the closet after each competition,” Neyland said.
Neyland has been feeding Marvin’s obsession with sculpting snow in Breckenridge since 1980, when the International Snow Sculpture Championships was still a no-name event, a sidebar to the town’s annual Ullr Fest.
“The whole thing came from a coin toss from Ullr Fest in 1980,” Neyland said. “We flipped a coin to decide if we’d do a snow sculpture, which we’d never done before, or do a float for the Ullr Parade. It came up heads, so we did a snow sculpture.”
Neyland and his team from Breckenridge Associates Real Estate continued to compete in the small, local competition, winning back-to-back awards with different pieces.
“We won quite a few years in a row,” he said. “Then one day in 1985, a gentleman came along while we were working on our piece out in front of what is now Ember and he said, ‘Hey, you guys are pretty good. Have you ever thought about going to the nationals?’ And we said, ‘Holy crap — there are nationals?’ That, then and there, was when we were set on the course of: We need to elevate this art form for Breckenridge to make Breckenridge become known for this art form.”
Building an international event
Bringing an international-level snow sculpture competition to Breckenridge was no small task. In order to drum up support, Neyland and his team — dubbed Team Breck — spent four or five years establishing Breckenridge as a name associated with world-class snow sculpting.
The piece Team Breck constructed in 1987 for the newly sanctioned Colorado State Championships was titled “Earthlings” and depicted a woman swimming with a dolphin. A similar piece was constructed in 1988 at the U.S. National Championships, but with temperatures in Milwaukee hovering around or slightly above freezing, the snow lost its ability to hang together and caused the sculpture to collapse 20 minutes before the judging deadline.
“That was a crushing blow, I have to say, because we were in a dead-on lock to win the nationals with that piece,” Neyland said. “We dragged our sorry butts on back to Breckenridge and said next year we’re going to go back.”
The following year, in 1989, Team Breck again won the Colorado event and headed back to nationals with a new sculpture concept titled “The Frozen Moment,” featuring a watch with exposed gears. The piece won a gold medal and the artists’ choice award, sending the local sculptors north to the Carnaval de Québec, one of the largest and oldest snow art festivals in the world.
Word of the team from the little town in the Colorado Rockies was spreading, bolstered in the following years by gold-medal wins at the Sapporo Snow Festival in Japan and the world championships in Finland and a silver medal at the world championships in Moscow.
“All the while, we’re wearing Breckenridge from head to toe and telling everyone that we’re putting together a competition in Breckenridge and y’all need to come so we can whip up on you in Breckenridge,” he said. “We were out to establish Breckenridge as a liable venue for an international competition. We were on the march to collect names and numbers to build a database.”
After years of compiling resources and contacts, Team Breck was ready to bring the international competition home. They put together a slide show of their work and presented it to “every organization that would sit still for it,” Neyland said, from realtors and lodging properties to the town council.
“The concept that we were after, we take for granted now,” Neyland said. “We need the biggest parking lot in town, we need to shut it down for a month during the highest (peak) in ski season.”
All of the hard work paid off in 1991, when Breckenridge hosted its first International Snow Sculpture Championships.
Though the sculptures are self-supported, it still takes an entire community to hold them up. The gigantic event wouldn’t have gotten off the ground — let alone lasted 24 years — without the initial help and continued support from the people of Breckenridge, Neyland said.
“It is a tremendous tribute to this community that everyone steps up to do that — the ski area gave us the snow, the town gave us the machinery and the machine time, the concrete company gave us the concrete forms, the crane people gave us the cranes, the lodging people and restaurants all weighed in,” Neyland said.
The International Snow Sculpture Championships have become imprinted on the identity of Breckenridge, which was precisely the goal from the very beginning.
“You can’t see any story or brochure or electronic imagery about Breckenridge in any venue in the world that does not include some sort of image of the snow sculpture that happens in Breckenridge every year. It’s become indelibly associated with Breckenridge, and I think that’s just splendid,” Neyland said.