by Christian Haldeman, 2nd Term Lead Chef Instructor

10” x 20” x 40” and 300 pounds. Although no one, to my knowledge, has written any songs about these dimensions, and fashion magazines have no interest in dressing them up to adorn their pages – to a certain group of people they couldn’t be more perfect. Those are the standard measurements of a single block of ice, and to an ice sculptor, they hold the inner beauty of their imaginations — most of the time.

As many paths in my career, ice sculpting was not a planned path, or even something I dreamed of, but it happened. I can recall attending The St. Paul Winter Carnival as a child — sitting curbside in sub-zero weather to watch a parade I did not understand. After the adults were certain the children had reached a pre-hypothermia state they would march us to the carnival’s center in one of the many snowed-in parks. I remember watching other kids playing hockey on one of the ice patches in the park and thinking how great it would be to be warm. Instead, I would wander behind my family and kick ice chunks at my sisters as they watched guys with chainsaws and chisels turn ice into shapes that got “oohs” and “ahhhs” from the crowd. I did not understand. And I was cold.

Only one year, in 1986, was the whole trip worth it — for about three minutes. This was the only year, to my memory, that they actually built an ice palace; one that you could walk into. They had apparently done this before, before, decades earlier, and those had been simpler snow packed structures. So this was a big deal. I wanted to enter the palace. 9,000 blocks of back-lit ice, erected into a 128’ 9” x 90’ x 90’ castle, complete with rooms and ice furniture. Unfortunately, there was also a small patch of ice just inside the entrance that my sister would slip on, sending us all to the medic tent and home before I had my chance to actually see any of it. Once again, I did not understand. And I was cold.

Of course, I no longer live in Minnesota. I’ve acclimated to milder climates. I enjoy winter sports, but only those where motion is involved and warm refuge is an option. I still have yet to understand the purpose of a parade.

In early 2000, I was introduced to the ice block. I was helping a friend teach ice sculpting classes — mostly gathering tools and making sure students didn’t cut through power cords, themselves, or each other. I would dabble in pieces every once in awhile and even created a few originals in my early years:

1. Angry Bird Defiling Pineapple (I believe the template was an elegant swan);
2. Crooked Oil Derrick (Eiffel Tower);
3. Totally Unintentional Phallic Golf Bag and Pull Cart (that was the design, minus the phallic part, I swear).

The early carvings were buffet pieces, but they got me to thinking about those childhood experiences and I realized that I enjoyed this mostly because I understood. And I was no longer cold. Around this time, this friend talked me into flying to Canada to compete in a team ice sculpting event. For some reason, I agreed. Perhaps the mild climates and lack of parades in my life had lowered my guard and weakened my faculties to make sound decisions, for I did not account for the weather in the Canadian Rockies in January, or the fact that we would be participating in The Winter Festival in Banff.

But I had committed, and I did not allow myself to back out. We designed a piece that would require 15 ice blocks. We found a third teammate. We practiced in cozy and spacious professional kitchens. We gathered our tools, booked our flights, and headed off to Calgary. After the gathering of luggage and a few mishaps in customs (for some reason, giant aluminum plates, chainsaws, die grinders, end mills, angle grinders, and propane nozzles tend to attract security personnel…), we boarded a bus for the mountains. We stayed at the Chateau Lake Louise, which features stunning views of the Rockies all around.

Chef Haldeman next to his team’s ice sculpture from another year

The event was a 32-hour competition over the course of three days. Days One and Two would go from 8:00am to 10:00pm. Day Three would be from 8:00am to Noon of actual carving time. On Day One, we woke nervously before 6:00am, forced breakfast down by 6:30, and were set up by 7:00. We then endured an anxious hour, all by ourselves, of waiting. As the other carvers trickled in, I stood in our work station and watched them walk by. An old familiar feeling was creeping into my very being — I was watching a parade. And I was getting cold.

The same scultpure lit up at night.

Day One wasn’t exactly a failure, as we were not sure what to expect from ourselves. We had designed a life-sized river raft, holding two rafters, going over rapids. I believe the height requirement that year was seven feet, which we just met. The rapids and raft dimensions were about 10’ x 5’. My job was to block out, fuse, build, and shape the rapids. Simple enough, I thought. I soon realized, however, that I was not very good at my job. Despite all of the practice, I had not planned properly. When the clock started, when the temperature dropped, when it mattered, I realized I would need to create an actual plan of action. After a solid half hour of wasted efforts, I had destroyed one whole block of ice. We were now in a 14 block completion and in the middle of some serious redesign. My mentor (and still, at least for the moment, friend) turned to me and asked: “Don’t you see the wave? Look into the block, visualize the wave, and remove everything else.” I didn’t say a word, but my expressions said it all: “I see ice. 10” x 20” x 40”, 300 pounds of ice. One big block of ice.” I also didn’t add: “I don’t understand. And I am cold.” Nevertheless, he sent me on an unscheduled break.

I went back to the room in hopes that I would be able to pull myself together. Then it dawned on me. He was an artist, a sculptor. I was a carver. I needed angles, templates, numbers — that was how I learned. I drew out a few sketches, took them back to the site, we reviewed them, and off I went measuring, scratching templates, and tracing shapes on the ice. Although we were a little behind for Day One, the efforts to catch up really helped. We enjoyed the next two days — I drew up the plans, my teammates saw the inner beauty of the ice, and we finished somewhere near the bottom of the final results.

In the seven subsequent trips, we would work our way as high as a third place finish. The third place finish was the only time there that I wasn’t cold, but at least on all of the other trips – I finally understood.