Cripple Creek takes its ice seriously.

That’s why this year’s Cripple Creek Ice Festival is, for the first time, a hard-boiled competition, complete with deadlines, a cash prize and carte blanche when it comes to design.

Up until now, the festival has required carvers to follow a theme. And in past years, carvers started working a couple of days before the festival opened, but often didn’t have anything finished by the first day. That didn’t sit well with early bird festivalgoers. This year, the four carving teams are required to have at least one significant sculpture finished before opening day.

A $5,000 people’s choice award was also added, as a way to incentivize carvers to live up to their artistic potential. This comes with one warning, though: Visitors must keep their hands to themselves. No touching the ice or even getting close to it, as a mishap might hinder a team’s shot at the cash.

“We want carvers to do their best work,” said Jeff Mosher, marketing and events director for the city of Cripple Creek. “That’s why we’re making it competitive, so they’re trying to outdo the carvers next to them. It allows us to get carvings done on that first weekend and make sure Saturday folks will see good stuff.”

The free annual festival attracts about 30,000 visitors. The popular party stretches along Bennett Avenue on Saturday and Sunday and Feb. 15-16. Also on tap is live music, a beer garden, interactive ice slide, retail and food vendors, heated tent, art festival at the Cripple Creek Heritage Center and more.

“It’s wintertime in the mountains and we’re not a ski town,” said Mosher. “Having an ice festival is important to local retailers and small businesses and casinos are supportive. It gets people in the casinos who don’t normally come up in the winter.”

Altogether, each carving team will receive 110 blocks of cut ice weighing 300 pounds apiece. Sixty blocks will arrive before the festival, and 50 will be delivered about a week later. Carvers will start Wednesday and work through Feb. 15. The big winner will be announced Feb. 16.

Ian Kunter and his Ice Cubed of Denver team will bring dragons and other mystical creatures to life at the festival. While Kunter’s not sold on the new competitive vibe of the event (“Competition sometimes brings out the worst in people,” he said), he does acknowledge the upside.

“If you’re just carving for the show, you might do a simple one,” Kunter said. “But with competition, it allows you to go above and beyond what you’re used to doing.”

Kunter got into ice carving via culinary school, where he was distracted by the fancy ice sculptures that decorated buffet tables. Instead of becoming a chef, he now spends much of the year making cocktail cubes, the 2-inch-by-2-inch ice cubes you find in mixed drinks. Winter finds him slicing and dicing blocks of ice for festival crowds.

“It’s an amazing feeling when you do festivals and carve ice into sculpture,” he said. “The reaction you get from the people, guests, whoever sees it, makes you feel warm inside. We don’t get paid a lot, and we work hard, but it’s the reaction of the guest.”

Contact the writer: 636-0270

Contact the writer: 636-0270

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