Soon, life in Breckenridge, Colo., will really begin to shape up. Snow sculptors from 20 countries will slip into town Jan. 8 for the second American International Snow Sculpture Competition.
Throngs of tourists will measure the artistic progress throughout the week. When not acting as sidewalk supervisors, visitors can seek out bargains in Breckenridge's many Victorian-style shops
and restaurants. The athletic types will head straight for the well-groomed ski slopes, while ice skating on Maggie Pond and free rides through town on the old-fashioned trolley provide other options for non-skiers.
Breckenridge boasts of a long snow-art history. Since 1967, the Ullr Winter Carnival Festival has included snow sculpting. State championships were held here several times. This mountain community enlarged its dot on the world map in 1991 by hosting the first American International competition.
Snow sculpting continues to gain in popularity, both as a sport and as an art form. Crews come from New Zealand, North and South America, Europe and Asia to communicate through the hands-on language of snow, while vying for the championship. Previously, Estonia sent the only all-female troupe.
First, snow-making machines from the ski slopes make mounds of fluffy flakes. Next, a fleet of trucks transports the white gold into town to establish a storage depot of snow. Workers erect 10-by-10-by-12-foot wooden frames to build the blocks. Then, reminiscent of Italians tromping grapes, laborers stamp and tamp, adding more snow, until a densely packed cube remains when the support boards come away. Lining the open-air studio like chunks of pure Carrara marble, each block awaits its modern Michelangelo.
Groups of four labor outdoors in the crisp mountain air. They battle the elements for three days to produce giant white masterpieces with a sun-limited lifetime. Come snow or come shine, the show must go on.
Artistic backgrounds dominate in the participants, but not all are sculptors. A glass blower on the U.S. team insisted that the main difference to him was the temperatures of the media. Both snow and molten glass require the same careful attention to detail. Carpenters comprise another major participating occupation. Their knowledge of how to deal with structural problems makes them invaluable.
The rules permit competitors to use only the snow from their cube. However, they can rearrange it to add an extra 3 meters of height or 1 1/2 meters to each side to enhance the design. While this allows more flexibility, it adds an element of danger if the snow isn't the right consistency to stick together well.
The regulations allow only hand tools, so each crew brings its own eclectic assortment of chippers, choppers and scrapers. The Breckenridge gang, as the home team, assembles an extensive arsenal of weapons needed to shape the hard man-made snow. The members willingly share what they own with their worldwide companions, who might not have brought one of "those gizmos" along. And if someone cuts into an air pocket, a bit of snow-dentistry may be required to fill the cavity.
Last year, at the end of the first day, spectators compared the artists' headway with their drawings and clay scale models. Many viewers seriously wondered how these would translate into finished artworks in just 72 hours.
Later that night, most work sites were abandoned in favor of food or sleep. One lone shivering Welshman remained, whittling away at the solid surface. He said he was tougher than his partners, who gave up to jet lag and the cold several hours before.
A New Zealander stated that his country does have snow in the winter. "But we also have 'air,' " he wheezed. Competitors agree that adjusting to the high altitude is tough.
Although most rivals are seasoned international contenders, the boys from Belize were the new kids on the block last year. These wood carvers from sunny sea-level Belize had never seen snow. To get used to the cold they rented a walk-in meat cooler in Belize, where they practiced working in a simulated winter environment.
The sun worshipers met the weather challenge well. They molded a Mayan sun god. Although competent in manipulating wood, the group encountered a whole new set of problems working with the fragile, cold, slippery stuff. But they persevered.
Along with other weary workers, they pulled an all-nighter Friday, declaring the effigy completed at 10 a.m. Saturday. Watching the sun peek through the clouds, they happily pointed out that "their sun god worked." Now, they will return as experienced veterans.