Breckenridge International Snow Sculpture Championships, 2003


by Stan Wagon
Our team this year was very very strong: Brent Collins, a very experienced sculptor from Missouri who initiated the use to wrapping up cylinders with multiple saddles into a torus form; Carlo Sequin, a distinguished professor of computer science from Berkeley who developed software to realize Brent's vision, and more, and also has access to a 3-D prototyping machine that can make small models for us; Steve Reinmuth, who owns a foundry and sculpts interesting-looking and interesting-sounding bells in Springfield, Oregon; and of course Dan Schwalbe and me, who have been the nucleus of the Minnesota minimal surface snow sculpture team for five years now. Carlo was the non-sculpting team helper.

As we worked on the small model on the evening before the competition, it became clear that our plan of roughing out a rough convex hull, inscribing some curves, and continuing by eye, would not be good enough for a shape of this complexity (photos are at Carlo had made a plastic template, but in fact we never took it out of its envelope. We realized that we needed a perfect torus to start with, and then we could use that as a coordinate system, with the help of a wooden circular guide on which we could mark the points where the edges hit the torus. A neighbor helped us fabricate the right wooden guide on the night before the event, and it was invaluable. Carlo computed that our piece had about 280 feet of edges, by far the most of our five years with similar shapes. I think also that we removed more snow for this piece than for any others. Indeed, viewed on end it looks very narrow, and one feels that the entire block was not really used. Yet viewed from the front it looks quite massive. The orientation was chosen to maximize the torus, and that means aligning it not quite along the diagonal, since the edges of the sculpture don't go to the edges of the torus! In other words, the (virtual) torus was extended a few inches beyond the block. Another complication was due to the melting prior to the event: our block was 11 feet 5 inches, and our plan called for 11 feet 10 inches. Thus we added a foot-high block to the top center, which is always unpleasant as we have not mastered the art of doing this seamlessly. Other teams know how to do this so that the seam is invisible.

For those who have followed our efforts in past years, the first three days were predictable. Carve out the rough shape using ice-fishing drills, make a perfect torus, inscribe the marks, connect the curves, and sculpt away. But we were a little slow, despite being a very strong team, and on Friday night (the event ends Saturday at 10, with judging from 10 to 12), we realized that we still had a lot of rasping to do to smooth it all out. Moreover, the weather on Wednesday and Friday was very very warm, and we simply could not touch the piece from 11 - 4. So I stayed in town overnight, catching a few hours sleep at the condo, while the team promised to return by 7 am so we could get three good hours in in the morning. I rose at three and stumbled over to the site. Only three other teams were working through the night: Manitoba, Breckenridge, and British Columbia. I was so tired I could barely lift a shovel. I did a little smoothing, took lots of chat breaks, and finally hit the cafeteria floor at 6 am for 30 minutes of sleep.

At 7, I was ready to work, and the team was ready to go, so we did the final rasping. The piece had frozen nicely, and we could stand on its apex, and lie in the central tunnel confident in its strength.

At 10:30 the five judges came by and I explained our mission and methods. The conversations went very well: one of the judges knew about soap film and wire networks, and that was surely a very good omen. I pointed out how our shape has no detail to lose, and would look as good 10 days from now as it did now. They came by again around 11:30 -- I imagine they make a short list and then look at those pieces in more detail -- and at noon we went in for lunch.

At 12:30 Ken (physical plant director for the event) came down to our table with a very very sad look on his face. "Your piece has just collapsed. I am not joking." Aaargh. Total miscalculation. Sure one can blame the warm weather (or a virus attacking the "web"), but our failure to adapt by thickening the base was our biggest snow sculpting error ever. Dan was out skiing, and when he saw it at 3 pm, he was totally surprised. it is very sad to stand by a piece telling people: "You should have been here an hour ago." The sun, perhaps focused and reflected by the sculpture, just melted the support, and once our shape wobbles a bit, it is gone. Fortunately, the crowd was respectful of the ropes and no one was hurt. The eye-witness accounts were exciting. We figure that the finished piece weighed about four tons (it starts at 20), and it was sitting on two lobes about 10 inches by 6 feet.

But there was hope. The rules seem to be that the pieces are judged by how they look at the time of judging. Last year, a Swiss piece was collapsing at the same time as it was being given the technical merit award. I thought that was silly, but a judge said that it did not matter. The two-hour judging period was what mattered. But the director of the competition, Julie Foster, just said: "We told them what happened. The decision is up to them". Still, it cannot look good for a ribbon to sit atop a pile of rubble for 10 days, and, in any case, it is very difficult to predict what art judges will do.

I try to avoid eye contact with the judges prior to the announcement, since one can often guess a result from their demeanor (as with juries). But waiting for the ceremony I saw one and said: "Can you just tell me: Were we judged along with the others?". His hearty affirmative response left no doubt that we would get something.

After a somber moment of remembrance for the Columbia astronauts, and another especially somber prayer led by Klaus Ebeling, the American cheerleader for the support of snow sculpting, the awards were announced. First came the awards for the school division. We were more interested in this than usual, since Carlo had lectured at the high school and was something of a coach for one of those teams. And that piece, called 3NA, won two prizes, including Best of Show.

First come the honorable mentions, where a bottle of champagne is given to a non-medalling team that did something extraordinary. One went to a Chinese team that was reduced to one man for various reasons. Some locals helped him out -- he is a very talented sculptor -- and he created a nice Moore-like form. Then a second honorable mention went to the Manitoba team for their hockey players emerging from an egg. Sounds silly, but they were a high-spirited team and the sculpture did in fact work well. Indeed, the judges said it was a close decision between third and fourth. When third place went to the Breckenridge team's intricate cat going after a fish in a fish bowl -- A Fishing Tail -- we knew we had second locked up. First was pretty much decided from the start, as British Columbia -- last year's winners -- had an amazing piece ("Winter Comes") involving a snow owl, a little town, and a large number of snowflakes: a truly beautiful concept and their execution was flawless. And, yes, we did receive second place (as we did four years ago with a Robert Longhurst sculpture). The judges' introduction made it clear that they valued the scientific aspects of the piece, its swirls and vortices, and the computer allusions (it was a "piece for the 21st century"). They even referred to the title, which, in my humble opinion, was clever and apropos on several levels: WHIRLED WHITE WEB.

Whew...what an emotional day. Well, I will not be rising at dawn to catch the morning light on my piece! Observation: the top four finishers coincided exactly with the four teams that worked through most of the night on the last night.

So why did we not sculpt an appropriate heat-resistant base? We just failed to adapt to the circumstances. Our past experience told us that the base could be very very thin. We were indeed lucky that no one was hurt, and lucky too that the event, for unspecified reasons, concluded an hour earlier than prior years. Had it stopped at 11, and not 10, we would have been viewed as sculpting an interesting pile of rubble.

Thanks for listening.....and special thanks to those of you who have joined our Minnesota team in the past to develop the world of mathematical snow sculpture: Helaman and Claire Ferguson, Robert Longhurst, Bathsheba Grossman, Tamas Nemeth, Andy Cantrell, John Bruning, Matthias Weber, and Rob Nachtwey....and of course thanks to my enthusiastic, strong, and artistic teammates this year.

Please view the photos at, at least the photo of the finished sculpture -- and the pile of rubble! We will update this page with better photos, and some of the other pieces too. And Carlo's page has much more information on the genesis of the piece and its mathematical underpinnings: