Community explores past, present and future of Dartmouth snow sculpture
Students, alumni and Hanover residents speak about the triumphs — and the challenges — of building the annual sculpture.
A pirate now looks across the Green with a searching expression. At some point, his weather-worn face may lose its features — but for now, he commands his perch as the latest iteration in nearly one hundred years of Winter Carnival snow sculptures. According to students and alumni, the tradition and its significance to the College community has evolved over the years.
A ‘unique’ tradition
According to “Snow Sculptures and Ice Carving” — a 1974 instructional guide by Jim Haskins — the first documentation of a snow sculpture on campus dates to the 1920s. By the following decade, a 38-foot Eleazar Wheelock sculpture on the Green — then the largest snow sculpture in the world — represented the pinnacle of this art to Haskins.
“As a little kid with wide open eyes, we loved seeing the snow sculpture being built,” Betsy Gonnerman — who said she moved to Hanover in 1948 as a child — said. “You could watch the snow sculpture form on the Green, and it went on for weeks.”
Her husband, Michael Gonnerman ’65, said he worked on the Dartmouth snow sculpture for four winters while he was a student. To Michael, the snow sculpture and Winter Carnival was a part of the Dartmouth fabric.
“On the scope that they did it at Dartmouth, it was unique,” Michael said. “You participated in Dartmouth activities, you wore green and every winter, you went out and helped build the snow sculpture. It just was what you did.”
Twelve years after Michael graduated, Hanover resident and Geisel School of Medicine emeritus professor William Young was in Hanover for a job interview when he saw that year’s sculpture — a Statue of Liberty commemorating the U.S. Bicentennial. In 1977, Young helped build a Snoopy’s doghouse sculpture at the Geisel School of Medicine, where he was working, and they received an honorable mention in a College-wide contest.
Young said he has helped build over a hundred snow sculptures at Dartmouth, including over twenty that have been associated with the Winter Carnival. For the larger sculptures, “the obvious challenge was that they wouldn’t stand up on their own,” Young said — a problem that sculptors fixed with pipe-framed armatures and structural steel.
The snow sculpture was “emblematic of the Winter Carnival,” public policy professor Charles Wheelan ’88 said. Wheelan recounted that his mother visited Winter Carnival when she was in college as a guest of a Dartmouth student decades earlier. The snow sculpture was “central” during those years, he said.
College Provost David Kotz ’86 also said that he remembers the snow sculpture fondly from his years as a student. However, he acknowledged that the tradition “ebbs and flows” depending on snow conditions and student interest.
‘Less than it could have been’
By the early 2000s, the snow sculpture tradition seemed to be at a low ebb.
“It had been less than it could have been, compared to previous years,” Victoria Solbert ’07, who worked on the snow sculpture throughout her four years as a student, said.
Daniel Schneider ’07 said he was involved in trying to bring the tradition back while he was a student, and, with Solbert and others, built several of the largest sculptures Dartmouth had seen in recent years. The 2004 Cat in the Hat sculpture — built during Schneider’s freshman year — was “the first big sculpture in a while,” he said.
By this time, however, the yearly snow coverage was becoming “unpredictable,” Solbert said. While she worked on the snow sculpture, the team brought in snow created by the Zamboni used to resurface the ice hockey rink. The climate is not what it used to be, Young said, as did half a dozen other alumni and residents who lived or studied in Hanover before 2000.
Furthermore, the implementation of the six-week long winterim break in 2012 — with students leaving before Thanksgiving and returning in January — made it difficult for students to build enthusiasm for the snow sculpture, as would happen during December, Young said. Waning student interest in snow sculpture, Young added, is emblematic of a broader change in Dartmouth’s student body, whose interests are now more varied.
“You used to have a class of young men from very similar backgrounds,” Young said. “They banded together in whatever they did, including in building a snow sculpture out in the middle of the Green.”
‘Bringing it back’
By 2017, Peter Frederick ’65 said that alumni heard from the College administration that no snow sculpture would be built because of warm weather and a lack of interest from current students. That year, an informal group of alumni who cared about the tradition decided to step in, he said. In February 2018, students built a Darth Vader sculpture as “strictly a student-alumni event,” Frederick said. When that year’s statue was successful, “it proved a point,” he said.
The following year, Frederick said the College agreed to cover half of the costs for the snow sculpture for the 2019 Winter Carnival and the following year agreed to pay two-thirds. This year’s snow sculpture is being supported by the College, with the funds going toward the transportation of the snow, materials and some contracted labor to build the snow packing structure, Frederick said.
Frank Sapienza ’21 said that he helped to make 2019’s mammoth snow sculpture and 2020’s sea serpent sculpture.
“We were trying to bring it back,” Sapienza said. “We wanted to go bigger and bigger and bring it back to its old glory.”
Ethan Goldman ’22, who worked on three snow sculptures when he was a student, said that he thinks the College has not been “as excited about building taller sculptures” since the 2020 sculpture.
“As long as the students still care about it, however, and the College and the alumni still care about it, then there’s no reason why it can’t continue to succeed,” he said. “It feels like a great way to feel like you’re connected to the history of Dartmouth.”
‘Trying to be strategic’: Revamping the 2023 sculpture
Cady Rancourt ’24 applied and was selected to be snow sculpture chair for the first time in 2022 and has continued to serve in that role this winter. Planning for the 2022 “spy vault” sculpture began in December 2021 to coordinate and meet safety standards. However, when it came time to move the snow and begin carving, Rancourt said that her team did not have enough volunteers. Having a critical mass of volunteers is crucial for a snow sculpture’s success, Sapienza said.
“It not only takes a couple of people who are super involved in planning and organizing, but also a ton of people who are just a little bit involved to get the work done,” he said.
After last minute scrambling, last year’s team cut the size of the sculpture significantly, from 20 to seven feet, Rancourt said.
For the 2023 sculpture, Rancourt said that starting the planning process early-on in November would not sustain student attention and enthusiasm. Additionally, Rancourt also said that her team was unable to work on many days due to a lack of volunteers. This year, Rancourt said that building the sculpture consists of three events — a design event in which participants designed model sculptures out of clay, a “Pack Party” to pack the snow used to make the sculpture and the sculpting itself — which she said was a strategic decision, as she predicted that having a “drawn out” process would diminish the enthusiasm for the sculpture.
This year’s pirate-themed “Winter CAAARRRnival” design — a pirate standing at the helm of a ship — was determined by 237 students who voted in response to 11 clay miniature designs, Rancourt said. Despite the success of the initial design phase, the most labor-intensive phase still loomed. In the week leading up to the “Pack Party” held on Sunday, Rancourt sent out emails and walked all around campus hanging posters.
“I was feeling optimistic and a little bit nervous,” she said.
The tradition continues
On Friday, the boards were removed from a snow-packing structure on the Green, revealing a solid four by eight foot block of snow. Carving began at 3 p.m. that day, with tools donated by Tony Perham, a Vermont sculptor. Students dropped in and out, with anywhere between five and seven working at a single time, according to Rancourt.
The sun had been down for over an hour when work finished that evening. There was a sense of excitement, a feeling that the sculpture would succeed, against the odds.
“Thankfully, the people who did come out stayed and helped a lot,” Rancourt said.
At noon the following day, three students arrived at the site to begin work, with more trickling in over the course of the afternoon. In total, a crew of more than a dozen students put in more than seven hours of work, carving the sculpture over two days.
Families and students stopped by to take pictures as the finishing touches were made. Benjamin Meigs ’10 — in town visiting for the weekend — swung by to share stories of his own sculpture experience.
One student attempted his best pirate brogue, and laughter rang across the Green.
“We were problem solving together and laughing together,” Rancourt said.
Finally, as the sun began to set after 4 p.m., four remaining students stepped away from their work.
“It looks like that wheel spoke still needs to be smoothed out,” another student pointed out.
A murmur of agreement passed through this small group. The change was made, and then Rancourt declared it finished.