When you were a kid did you ever bundle up when the big snow hit, run outside and build a snowman, or a snow house or fort? I did. I don’t recall receiving the kind of heavy snows that hit much of the U.S. this week during my years growing up in the Midwest, but there were plenty of winter days that enough of the cold, white snow blanketed the ground to build a couple of small walls in my aunt’s big vacant lot. We lobbed packed snowballs back and forth at each other by popping up and ducking behind these freezing fortresses until we were so cold and wet that a truce was called and we retreated indoors to warm up with steaming cups of hot chocolate with sticky sweet marshmallows floating on top.
Our childhood’s frozen fortresses were fun but nowhere as fancy as the elaborate Ice Castle I visited last winter in Midway, Utah. I was in Midway attending a film festival conference when, during one of the evening’s gatherings, everyone was invited to see the Ice Castle at the Homestead Resort where we were staying. It was late, and cold, and I was tired from sitting in meetings all day. But those who had been at the conference before told me that I must go out and see the castle.
Having no idea what exactly to expect, I grabbed my camera and carefully made my way down the snowy path behind the resort until I came to a lighted entrance. Even as I stepped past the attendants at the arched entry, I didn’t anticipate what was coming. I walked through an illuminated blue tunnel of icy stalactites looming high above me that revealed at the end to a spectacular, snowy open cavern surrounded by 20 to 35-foot high and 10-foot thick walls of ice. Sitting in the center was a towering singular free-form sculpture lit like a big birthday cake with light that changed color every few minutes.
Off on the sides and built into the walls were tunnels through which other conference attendees were carefully crawling or walking as they took in the beauty of the icy formation that encased them. At the far end stood the slickest slipper slide I’d ever seen down which sliders sped on their tushes like two human toboggans. The dark silhouettes of bulky-clad visitors wandered the shimmering structure, disappearing in and out of the walls, convening in the center to look like eerie explorers in a strange frigid landscape.
The Ice Castle is a man-made creation designed by a crew of artists who put it together by growing individual icicles and attaching them to one another until they are absorbed into the larger structure. Brent Christensen created the first ice castle creation for his daughter in his front yard of Alpine, Utah. Converting his hobby into a company, he founded the $2 million business, Ice Castles. His first public installation was constructed in Midway in 2011 at the Zermatt Resort. It was so popular that he expanded to include his four partners. Today, their company builds ice castles in six locations in the U.S. and Canada and attracts more than a million visitors. A crew of 50 now do what Brent once did alone.
More than just a wintry wonder, the Ice Castles are the setting for outdoor winter concerts, weddings, family outings and conference attractions, like the one I attended. Of course, the success and the ability of the ice artists to come up with these castles is weather-dependent. They start in the fall spraying water through a system of sprinklers onto metal racks that grow the icicles harvested by Christensen’s team and attached to scaffolding that eventually becomes totally covered by ice and develops into unpredictable shapes.
Yes, walking through a tunnel with thousands of pounds of ice hanging down above you is a bit disconcerting though Ice Castles assures you it’s safe because of the way it is constructed. The longer you stay, however, the more you’re overcome by the sheer magic of the icy-blue beauty of the castle. Trepidation is taken over the fascination for how the castle is created and how something so simple as water can transform itself into such an enchanting experience. Although helped in the process by human touch, Christensen’s ice castles provide yet another reminder of nature’s amazing majesty, even when temperatures are well below freezing.