After 28 years, Breckenridge is still carving out a name for itself in snow
January 27, 2018
Part of the allure that draws people from around the world to the International Snow Sculpture Championships in Breckenridge every year has to be that the event's run like a marathon.
Coming from four different continents, 16 four-man teams representing their countries plow their way through 60-plus hours each over the course of four days, outdoors the whole time, often in temperatures well below freezing for a contest without any cash prizes.
New tools and growing imaginations have expanded the boundaries of what can be done, said Rob Neyland, a veteran snow carver and Summit County local who's credited with founding the annual event in Breckenridge now going on its 28th year.
Much like the 4-minute mile, Neyland said, what was once thought impossible is a long way from today's high-water mark.
"One of the magics about this art form is you're able to see people make monumental-size sculptures in three-and-a-half days and to perform that sculpture live on the public stage," Neyland said.
He gets credit for helping get things started, but he in turn credits the internet and modern technology for creating a blizzard of new ideas and interest for the competition that exists "precisely at the intersection between art and sport."
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"People see what's happening elsewhere and what the community of snow artists is able to accomplish with this art form," he said, adding he's happy to say the competition in Breckenridge "has been a significant contributor to the advance of what can be done with snow."
The great equalizer of the snow-carving contest is that everybody starts with the same 25-ton, 12-foot by 12-foot block, made from the same snow at Breckenridge Ski Resort. They work in the same conditions and have exactly same amount of time to execute their vision.
Each day of the contest when the sun goes down, so does the temperature. The overnight cold can be excruciating in January, but under the bright lights is also when some of the best sculpting happens, Neyland said.
"The lights actually show how the piece works," he explained. "Clearly, as a monochromatic medium, what you're working with is shape and shadow."
Lights accentuate the sculpture, produced in a process based more on subtractions than additions.
In essence, "the race is who can actually get their piece the most perfectly finished" in the time they have, and that's what makes it a sport, he said.
Additionally, the consistently cold temps in Breckenridge and amazing blocks of snow put together by the folks at Breckenridge Ski Resort allow the snow carvers to do things here they can't do other places, Neyland said.
"We are seeing that as we speak," he said Thursday inside the Riverwalk Center while the sculptors worked in the parking lot outside. "There are some sculptures that are being performed by some of the elite snow sculpture teams of the world that will seemingly defy gravity in extraordinary and astonishingly way."
Come Friday morning, most of the teams had worked throughout the night, but at least two of their sculptures didn't survive to the judging. It was a disappointment, but going big comes with risks.
Even the ones that did make it to the finish line won't last long, as all of them will come down Monday.
In addition to the race, part of the fun is that the sculptures' beauty is fleeting. Still, after 28 years, Breckenridge's snow carving contest has shown it has staying power.
It all started with Neyland and his teammates, Ron Shelton, Randy Amys and Bill Hazell. A longtime member of Team Breckenridge, he's won numerous silver and bronze medals, in addition to the gold in 2006, since the first contest in 1990.
Now, he does the sponsor's sculptures for the event he believes has "become part of the beating heart" of the community.
"Not to be trite about it, but it literally takes a village to raise a sculpture," he said before rattling off everything that goes into pulling an event like this and all the people who help make it happen.
As the years have passed and the snow carving contest has gotten bigger and bigger, successive competitions brought new teams, new concepts and a lot of different languages together in Breckenridge. Ask Neyland how to bridge those language barriers, and his answer is sharp and compact: "Sculpture is the language."