The History of Breckenridge International Snow Sculpture Championships

In the 1970s, a couple of Realtors started organizing town folk to make sculptures out of one of Breckenridge's most readily available resources - snow.  If you've followed the Breckenridge competition over the past 30 years, you've probably heard of Carvin' Marvin and the Snowflakes. Breckenridge Associates' own Rob Neyland, aka Carvin' Marvin, spent many years carvin' out in the cold and organizing the event in steaming city council meetings trying to get the event national, then international status and into the world-acclaimed event it is today. Thousands come to see the event every January during the carving week while the artists work on the sculptures and the days following carving (temperatures willing) that the works are left standing for a short time.

How did it all start?

Carvin' Marvin and the Snowflakes get their start at the Breckenridge Snow Sculpture event in the 1970sSnow sculpture in Breckenridge began in the 1970s at Main Street businesses like Moore & Co.

Back in the 1970s, during Ullr Fest, amateur teams made sculptures from giant heaps of snow in front of shops on Main Street. Snow sculpting fit right in with our annual winter festival named after Ullr, a somewhat fabricated god of snow. 

Under the pseudonyms, Carvin’ Marvin’ and the Snowflakes, Rob Neyland and Ron Shelton made snow sculptures during every Ullr Fest in front of their real estate office. In the late 1980s, Rob and Ron landed the state snow sculpture championships for Breckenridge which was a success. The Neyland and Shelton teams were also successful, traveling internationally and making friends at some of the other state championships. In 1991, the first International Snow Sculpture Championships came to Breckenridge. The blocks of snow were concentrated in the old Bell Tower Mall parking area instead of lining the street. The craft of snow carving went way up.  When the Bell Tower was torn down in 2002, the event moved to West Adams and then later eventually took over a good part of the parking area at the Riverwalk Center. “It’s no small feat,” Neyland said, “that we take over one of the busiest parking lots in town for a week during ski season.”

snow sculpture 1990s Breckenridge

According to Neyland, the Breckenridge event is one of the best in the world because of the colder and dryer weather (more so than other event locations), the quality of the carving blocks made by the Breckenridge Ski Resort with man-made snow, and the willingness of the community to accommodate the event. 

The town of Breckenridge gives up some parking. Local lodging companies give rooms to house more than 80 people who come to carve and judge. Local restaurants and caterers provide food for the sculptors. The town redirects Public Works staff and equipment for this big event. Many local businesses donate their services as well. For years, Columbine Hills Concrete would supply the forms and the man power to assemble the blocks. Breck Iron brings outdoor gas fire pits to warm participants. Lighting companies have provided color and interest to nighttime viewing. The radio stations pipe in music.

More teams spun off from the original Snowflakes and continued to compete at state championships and travel to the U.S. finals in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; to Canada, France, Russia and Italy.

The Watch with Ron Shelton and Rob Neyland

The Breckenridge International Snow Sculpture Championships brings more than 30,000 people to Summit County to see the sculptures. The event has been covered by several national TV shows, a documentary and lots of print media every year.

Team Breckenridge Swatch Snow Sculpture

How it works: Breckenridge International Snow Sculpture Championships

A week before the competition begins each January, the town and sponsors like Breckenridge Crane and Stan Miller, Inc. erect forms in the Riverwalk Parking lot. These 10-foot x 10-foot x 12-foot forms are filled with snow made on the mountain and trucked to town. Volunteers climb into the forms and pack the snow by stomping on it. More snow is added and compacted by more volunteer feet until the height is more than 12 feet – with a finished weight of about 40,000 pounds. The block form is then removed and set up to make another block.

Snow sculpture Breckenridge Day 3

The town’s event staff knows how many teams will arrive to carve snow. They select teams from submitted designs and resumes early in the fall and coordinate travel to the event. In the 1990s, up to 18 teams arrived on the third week of January to make snow sculptures and most were from a different country. After 9/11, visas became harder to come by, and the competition evolved to include more teams from Canada, Mexico and the U.S.  Participating artists are not paid to make these snow sculptures, but are given room and board, some help getting from Denver to Breckenridge and back, and generous lodging.  

Power tools have never been permitted on the competition sculptures, but there are some sponsored snow and ice sculptures that do use power tools. So while there may be 16 or so teams competing, there are several other unique sculptures to see every year. Each competitive team comes with a variety of hand-powered tools from ice saws to cheese graters. Other rules ban the use of internal supports and artificial colors, but many teams freeze ice for details or use a variety of methods to develop texture and delineation on the snow.

If the weather is warm and sunny, spinnakers might fly for shade. Different markings and measurements will show up on the block. Generally, a lot of snow will be removed on the first two days. By Thursday in carving week, the sculptures begin to take a form of their own. Locals often make a daily trip to the site to see how the sculptures are progressing.

snow sculpture 1990s Breckenridge

Friday is the last full day of competition and the teams are allowed to work around the clock until the final bell at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning. Judging then starts and usually ends around noon. An awards ceremony follows. The judges are different every year, but are usually artists or art professionals from Colorado. One year an Icelandic sculptor was part of the jury.