They shouldn’t be standing. They shouldn’t be able to reach so tall or spread so far. The giant sculptures are made entirely of snow, constructed by hand. They should give way to the forces of gravity and the ever-changing elements. They should topple or crumble or melt. And sometimes they do. But when the artists successfully realize their vision, these frigid, oversized works of art form an impressive gallery of snow sculptures that line downtown Breckenridge at the International Snow Sculpture Championships.
“There’s a saying in the sculpting community: You have to go thin to win, which means you need to push the boundaries, especially at these higher profile events like Breckenridge,” says Brett Tomczak, whose team won first place at Breckenridge last year. “If you play it safe and you leave everything big and thick and strong, it’s probably not going to be considered worthy of placing. You really need to go for it and take some chances and have people look at your piece and think, How is that not falling over?”
Team USA – Wisconsin Tomczak is one of 12 teams that have been selected to compete in this year’s 32nd annual International Snow Sculpture Championships in Breckenridge from Jan. 23 to Feb. 1. They will be joined by other world-class teams of four from Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Great Britain, Denmark, India, Switzerland, Vermont, Wisconsin and, of course, Breckenridge. It’s a prestigious field. The contestants must apply and submit their concept before being selected. The process begins each June when the Snow Sculpture Organizing Committee sends 250 open invitations to snow sculpting artists around the world.
“We always call it the Super Bowl of snow sculpting,” Tomczak says. “It’s the greatest event we’ve ever been a part of. You have the perfect location. The town absolutely seems to adore the event, and it’s the best snow we’ve ever sculpted.”
Tomczak says the competition is friendly, with a sense of camaraderie among the contestants. He is a graphic designer by profession, who happened to get into snow sculpting in college when he accepted a friend’s last-minute invitation to grab some kitchen utensils and road-trip to a weekend contest. Few of the sculptors at the International Snow Sculpture Championships are truly professional.
There is no prize money involved at Breckenridge. Artists compete only for glory. First, second and third-place winners each receive a trophy, and there are a People’s Choice Award and a Lothar Luboschik Artists’ Choice Award.
Each team begins the week with a 12-foot-tall, 25-ton block of pristine man-made snow. Breckenridge Ski Resort makes the snow, and the Town of Breckenridge Public Works Department hauls it to the event site around the Breckenridge Riverwalk Center with dump trucks. Then it is dumped into molds, where volunteers stomp it down to compact the blocks. Creating the snow blocks is an interesting process in and of itself, as you can see below.
Artists can use only hand tools to bring their ideas to life, including vegetable peelers, chicken wire, small saws and more. Tomczak’s favorite tool is a set of chisels from China that he bought from a member of a Chinese team several years ago. His team also likes roofing shovels (the kind used to scrape off old shingles) with a sharpened edge, and this year they are adding an ice-fishing auger — hand powered, of course. Power tools, colorants and internal support structures are prohibited.
“Until you see it in person, you can’t really fathom just how massive these sculptures are and how imposing some of them can be, but on the flip side how light and airy and open when they’re done,” Tomczak says. “It’s our job as sculptors to release the art form that’s hidden within each of them. And really, no one should know that they started as a cube if we do our job right.”
Tomczak estimates that his team’s 2022 first-place sculpture stood at least 15 feet tall or more. Most teams have scale models onsite to guide their work. Team USA – Wisconsin Tomczak does not. They tried it once, but their sculpture collapsed that year. Even though they have planned their design since the previous summer, the team relies on its experience and instincts to execute that plan.
“Each team finds their own flow and their own unique way of working. We have discovered over the years that if we just jump in and communicate with each other, we typically get a better piece,” Tomczak says. “We see what the block is willing to give us and what we’re feeling in the moment versus coming in with a plan that’s pretty rigid. You kind of have to walk that fine line of spending the week getting to know your block and the conditions and how far you can push it and when you can take out the supports.”
Teams sculpt around the clock, and spectators can watch the sculptors work all week. Tomczak says the artists are usually happy to answer questions or chat briefly. The weekend is typically the most popular time for sculpture viewing, just after the artworks are completed. This year, that is Friday, Jan. 27, through Sunday, Jan. 29. Timed entry reservations are required on Saturday, Jan. 28, to help ensure the best viewing environment for spectators. There is no cost, but availability is limited. Reservations can be made at GoBreck.com/ISSC.
Tomczak recommends visiting on Thursday afternoon and returning on Friday. “The amount of detail that goes in from late Thursday to Friday is mind-boggling. The finishing details are usually what make or break a piece. And most teams will put in close to all-nighters,” he says. “The difference from late Thursday to Friday morning blows people’s minds because they think they see it finished on Thursday; then they come back on Friday and they’re like, Whoa, that’s next level.”
Night viewing adds a magical touch, thanks to constantly changing lights to illuminate the sculptures. The finished sculptures can be enjoyed until 7 p.m. on Feb. 1. Then they are removed and returned to simple snow.
“There’s something beautiful about bringing together artists from around the world to create a world-class sculpture gallery that’s only going to exist for a week, two weeks if you’re lucky. And then it’s gone,” Tomczak says. “If you don’t experience it, you will never have known it was there. But if you do experience it, I don’t think you’ll ever forget what you see.”
How to Attend the International Snow Sculpture Championships in Breckenridge
See the complete schedule. Get parking and logistical details. Make reservations for Saturday viewing and more at GoBreck.com/ISSC.
Try Some DIY Snow Sculpting
Champion snow sculptor Brett Tomczak says there’s nothing exclusive about snow sculpting — anyone can do it. He recommends packing a garbage can with snow to make a carving block, then seeing where inspiration leads.
“Let your creativity run wild,” he says. “Breckenridge has elevated this event to an international art form, but at its core, it’s something every person that lives in a snowy climate can do in their yard in a short time. You don’t have to make a massive block, and you don’t have to make a world-class piece of art. Just go create something for fun and the sake of creating something.”