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Harvesting Snow For Wintersculpt An Art Form In Itself

Jan 10, 2019

An Aspen Parks and Recreation employee prepares to load boxes for Winter Sculpt
Credit Christin Kay / Aspen Public Radio

Wintersculpt is underway on the Aspen pedestrian mall. It’s a Winterskol tradition, where teams carve a snow sculpture in 48 hours. Competitors use spades, shovels and chainsaws. Getting the snow ready for carving takes different equipment: Dump trucks, front loaders and a lot of elbow grease from the city’s Parks and Rec department.  

 

Dan Nelson had already had quite a morning, trying to harvest snow for this year’s Wintersculpt. His team was trying to load snow into a dump truck in the Marolt open space.

"But then the truck backed in onto a hump and got stuck. Then we had to get a bigger one to pull him out. So now we’re starting over here," he said.

 

Nelson, Aspen Parks and Recreation maintenance coordinator, watched as snow from Iselin field by the Aspen Rec Center was scooped up in big piles by a front loader.

Why is the Parks and Rec team here, rather than just grabbing snow from the pedestrian mall where the competition takes place? After all, there’s plenty there.  

Loading snow at Iselin field
Credit Christin Kay / Aspen Public Radio

Because the quality of the snow really matters for sculpting. Katherine Bell is with Anderson Ranch, which organizes Wintersculpt. She says the snow is so important because sculptors can’t add anything to it, like colors or light.

 

"It really just has to be based upon the purity and sculptural integrity of the snow," said Bell.

Dan Nelson says that in years with less snow than this one, clean snow is harder to come by.  

"Some years it wasn’t always pretty. You know, yellow spots and all that fun stuff.  So this will be pure white. The only dirt will be a little bit from the truck and from the loader,  and that’s it," he said.

Blair Elliot is the campus supervisor for Parks and Rec. He was driving the front loader right over the artificial turf that he prides himself on babying in the summer.

"You just want to skim it so the crumb rubber doesn’t come up, and as you can see, I’m doing a pretty good job," he said.  

Elliot has been harvesting snow for Wintersculpt for about 20 years. He’s learned a thing or two about what snow is best for carving. Sugar snow? No good. Man made? Crumbles away.

"The wetter the snow the better, because it makes a better sculpture," said Elliot.

He says champagne powder means a lot more work to make blocks of snow that are as close as

Credit Christin Kay / Aspen Public Radio

  possible to the consistency of an ice cube.

"It’s just so fluffy, it takes forever to pack up," he said.

Elliot used the front loader to pile snow into the waiting dump truck.  Then, the team headed for the pedestrian mall.

By the fountains across from the Wheeler, more Parks and Rec workers were putting the finishing touches on huge wooden boxes. They stand 8-feet-by-8-feet and are reinforced with thick yellow straps because they expand when the snow settles. There are five boxes for five teams to carve, the maximum allowed in Wintersculpt. The dump truck backs up and the snow tumbles out into a pristine pile.

Two Bobcats loaded the snow into one of boxes, and then the workers all huck themselves in and jump around to pack it down. It looks like stomping grapes to make wine, but a lot colder.

That whole process needs to be repeated at least twice more, just for one box. Multiply that by five boxes, and, Nelson said, "It’s a process."

The snow will settle and harden over two nights. Then, on the morning of the competition, Nelson and others will undo the boxes.

 

"Load them up, then we’re out of there. Then they carve away," he said.

After that, the work of this team is done. Blair Elliot often doesn’t see the cubes become sculptures.

"Do I watch 'em make it?  Sometimes we’ll see it, but usually I’m working or doing other stuff," he said.

A worker peers out of one of the wooden boxes holding Winter Sculpt snow.
Credit Christin Kay / Aspen Public Radio

And while the Wintersculpt teams carve up the snowy cubical fruit of Parks and Rec's labor, most of that staff will be busy with their normal winter tasks: maintaining trails, taking care of dog bags and, yes, clearing snow.