The Deadly, Precise, Extreme Art of Snow Sculpting

Snow sculpting is a death-defying, politically charged martial art—if you’re state champ Dusty Thune

Dusty Thune stands before his creation. “Ascension” won the 2017 Minnesota State Snow Sculpting Competition.

Photo by Jim Stripe

Finally, around noon, sunlight poured down the throat of Dusty Thune’s giant snow woman, her shoulders rising out of the ground, her face tilted to the sky. At the 2015 Minnesota State Snow Sculpting Competition, part of the annual St. Paul Winter Carnival, Thune’s three-person team had carved her out of an eight-by-eight-by-eight-foot block of snow (“like a giant sugar cube”). They gouged and sliced, using ice augurs, chisels, modified farm tools, and other sharp homemade utensils so that her hollowed-out head—supine, mouth open—would glow red-orange from the inside. The judges walked by just in time.

Named “Frozen,” she took first place, before melting just hours later. Last year, House of Thune won again with “Ascension,” a looming bust of Greek god Poseidon that went for the hollow-face illusion—concave back appearing convex like the front.

If it sounds impossible, it kind of is. Since 2011, House of Thune has attended six U.S. National competitions (this year will make seven) and won four state contests. They aim for “museum quality,” but snow sculptures at this level involve more-extreme conditions than your average oil painting.

House of Thune sculpted “Frozen Whisper,” which took second place at the national competition in 2016, so that wind would funnel through the back of her head and blow snow out of her hand.

Photo by Jessica Turtle

To start, you could die making them. “It hurts; it’s a painful meditation,” Thune says, “with frostbite and swamp foot from having too much moisture—they get all wrinkly and start looking like Yoda, and smelling like I’m sure Yoda would smell, too.” (That’s even while applying baking soda and swapping out wool socks every two hours.) Teams get three days, and House of Thune works around the clock. Warming up while carving snow just melts the “turtle shell” of ice that forms around their high-end snow gear. Then, “the water gets to you, and suddenly your core drops like crazy, and you fight for hours to get warm again.” They break only for a nightly dip in the hot tub.

By early morning the next day, yesterday’s work has frozen over, they hope. Because snow is fickle. At midday, it “turns into a kind of popcorn; it’s melting under itself,” and they can pack on more. Temps have to sink again—so “it feels like you’re chopping concrete”—for them to scratch out fine details using dental picks. Before it’s over, they rub the sculpture’s surface with sandpaper to make it look like marble.

Courtesy of Dusty Thune

Building statues of snow under deadly conditions for no profit requires a sense of humor. At nationals, in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Thune has competed against Illinois residents in skull-faced Viking helmets and Wisconsinites in kilts throwing weasel pelts. Thune, who studied underwater archaeology and ancient art sculpture at the University of Minnesota, has his own alter-ego, wielding a pirate sword and wearing a leather octopus helmet. (“It’s actually a hard hat, because I’ve gotten knocked in the head by big chunks of ice before.”)

More than humor, though, you need passion. After a snowboarding accident left him concussed about five years ago, Thune retired from snow sculpting for a year. He likes his work to stand at least 13 feet tall (a disaster-goading reference to buildings superstitiously lacking a 13th floor). But reaching that height with a blade-ended pole calls for balance he no longer had. So, he took up tai ji. “I’ve been training, working on one foot, extending a spear out six feet from my body and doing intricate movements with it,” he says. It worked.

Dusty Thune calls himself a “superhero-pirate-Aquaman-octupus head something or other” while he sculpts, listening to rave and techno music under his octopus helmet. (Behind him: the model for “Peep.”)

Photo by Carrie Antlfinger

This year, expect House of Thune to start an avalanche. At 2018 nationals, “Peep” lambasted President Trump’s tweeting habits, depicting his face twisted into a feces-like shape. At this year’s state contest, held January 25-27 at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, Thune wants to target Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline with a piece exploring his own Native American roots. Since they won at state last year, the team will return to Lake Geneva, where Thune hopes to feature Trump again, this time dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

If Thune can get the idea approved, that is. “I have not heard from Geneva yet, because last year they were pretty upset with us, with all the news coverage they got,” he says. The state contest discourages politics, but Thune figures the national stage is no place for the same-old sea creatures, birds, and geometric shapes he sees every year. “Why not have actual art that you’d see in a museum, that is almost always political in some provocative way?”

More Tips for Snow Sculpting:

Dusty Thune invites anyone to examine, use, and copy his makeshift tools—partly to up the competition. “I want them to use the good stuff,” he says. “We all do better when we all do better.”

1) Thune pads various parts of his body with self-designed (but non-patented) Hot Cheeks to keep warm. For each Cheek, he sews a small heating coil into thermal fabric. The coils are powered by 2.6- or 5-bolt battery packs and USB cords. (“You can get all the parts on eBay.”) Why the name? Slip them inside your mittens, tuck them into your boots, or stuff your back pockets.

2) The House of Thune sculpts based off a small model made of plasticine, an oil-based clay. This provides a better blueprint than a drawing. (And when everyone asks what Thune is making, “I can point to it and keep my headphones on.”)

3) Get creative with tools. Thune plunders Menards, Home Depot, and Harbor Freight for utensils—“anything with a razor edge that’s a nice, heavy, thick steel.” He coats them in water repellant and a rubber spray for grip. His smallest tool? A dental pick. His biggest? There are the ice augurs for boring, and some of his blade-ended poles extend 12 feet.