Ice Castle Imaginings

by Kimberly Nicoletti on February 2, 2012

Ice Castles. Photo: Mark FoxThis water, frozen yet shape shifting in time, transforms into anything you want it to be. It is dangerous, sensual, magical, psychedelic, opulent, gruesome, cold, hard, melting, warm. The longer you look, feel into it, the more it becomes.

I enter through the thick archway, shards of hanging icicles dangle over my head, glass glistening, calling me deeper into its mystery. It becomes a place where I lose myself for hours, watching the clouds sift over Buffalo Mountain and darken this man-made ice castle in Silverthorne, Colorado. Shadows shift among the nine towers of 20-foot ice columns, which will continue to grow throughout the season, until they stand 40 to 50 feet high by April, leaning into one another and forming tunnels through their deep turquoise colors. Until then, I witness streaks of thin cloud mist play in perpendicular shapes with upper icicles reaching to form ceilings — and eventually caves — and I look up to the icicle-dotted sky and spin around, until I’m dizzy with diamonds.

Then, I regain footing as my boots sink into the 2-3-inch depth of ice cubes as castle co-creator Brent Christensen explains how he and his crew manually pick or jackhammer the few inches of ice buildup throughout the castle’s walkways every day. Each night, as they enlarge the nine towers by funneling more water out of 90 sprinkler heads spouting out of PVC piping that measures about a mile in length as it coils through the acre-sized castle, the overspill freezes on the pathway. They chop the walls back 2-3 inches a day, but, eventually, the castle will become a matrix of tunnels without daylight shining through, so it will feel like you’re in the middle of a glacier, within a honeycomb of eight entrances and exits, surrounded by glossy, layered ice patterns feathered, flocked and daggered upon one another.

“It’s not to where you’ll get lost, but you may feel like it,” Christensen said.

Christensen and his partner, Ryan Davis, have never constructed a castle of this magnitude, but they’ve built two in their hometown of Midway, Utah (just on the backside of Deer Valley). Christensen began playing with the idea, building ice forts with his kids, a few years ago and he got hooked. He started with a wooden structure that became a springtime mess to clean up, which led him to PVC pipes.

On the outer edge of the Silverthorne castle lies an extensive “ice farm,” where employees harvest 3,000-5,000 icicles every 24 hours. Every night, they step into crampons, squeeze into the belly of the towers, climb icy “stairs” and meticulously place long, thick icicles, first horizontally, building structural hangers on which to hang vertical icicles. The horizontal ice pieces literally become scaffolding, able to support someone after about a day, Davis said. As water softly spouts out of the 90 sprinkler heads, it fuses with the horizontal and vertical icicles, creating strong tower walls, which eventually will morph into the ice-castle cave.

The castle opened Dec. 8, and as of mid-December, Christensen was working 12-16 hour days (or more accurately, nights, due to unseasonable warm weather), and his team had placed about 65,000 individually farmed icicles and used 2 million gallons of town water.

Ice Castles. Photo: Mark Fox

At night, 100 white lights, frozen in the towers, illuminate the natural colors within the formations. The thicker the ice, the more aquamarine the color. While the pure light brings a crispness to some of the columns, highlighting the swirls in long, thin posts, reminiscent of barbershop poles stripped of color, other configurations take on eerie, nether-world appearances: suddenly, it seems as though hoards of bloated jellyfish encapsulate the towers, their long tentacles hanging loosely down the 20-foot rises, and surrounding the perimeter of the “castle,” ghostly ships sit frozen, their masts dripping with icicles that threaten to unleash themselves in a fury if a stranger dares set foot upon this haunted territory. In the land of the living, two five-year-old boys stay up past their bedtime, wielding frozen swords they pilfered from the icicle farm.

I hear muffled voices in another passageway as I lean back against a wavy wall, surprised at how it feels like a muscular being, only more solid. I begin to rub my trapezius muscle against one of its protruding, icy spines as it penetrates my coat, relaxing my body.

As I listen to the droplets of water tinkle down windows of the caverns, it’s impossible to think this grand structure will sink into the ground. But I know nothing remains frozen in time, especially not a kaleidoscope of turquoise — a fantastical temporal world, living and evolving.

INFO

Castle hours: Noon to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 9 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Adults $10, 12 and younger $7.50 (under 3, free), adult season pass, $30, family season pass $50 (includes 2 adults; add $10 for each child 18 and younger) www.icecastles.com

From the time Kimberly Nicoletti first stepped onto the frozen swamp in her backyard with double-bladed ice skates at age two, she has been fascinated with all things ice and snow, even though she abhors cold weather. As an ex-competitive skater, she doesn’t think the 1978 version of “Ice Castles” is cheesy and might just have to buy a bumpersticker that says, “I love ice castles” from the guys who have created this ice castle in Silverthorne. She lives and writes professionally in Summit County, Colo.

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