01/16/2012 12:31 EST | Updated 03/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Top ice carvers compete at Lake Louise, Alta., in January Ice Magic Festival

BANFF, Alta. - Ladies and gentlemen, start your chainsaws! And let the ice chips fall where they may.

From Jan. 20 to 22, teams from around the world will stack, shave, carve, chisel, blowtorch and blow dry massive blocks of ice in the 18th annual Ice Magic Carving Competition on the shores of picturesque Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies.

"We're very lucky. It's a very high calibre that wants to come to take part in the competition," said Stuart Back of Banff-Lake Louise Tourism.

"The standards continue to rise year over year."

There will be a dozen two-person teams — 22 men and two women — from Canada, the United States and such far flung Euro-locales as the Netherlands and Latvia.

Many call, but few are chosen, said Back.

"We select them based on their performance in other competitions," he said.

This year's theme is "WordPlay: Where Language Comes to Play."

For the sculptors it's an exercise in creativity and durability.

Each ice block weighs 136 kg (300 lbs) and the sculpture must be at least seven feet high (though no higher than 13.5 feet for safety reasons).

The carvers toil for 14 hours straight on the first two days, and then six more hours on the final day. They must use all their 15 ice blocks and can't add anything to the sculpture except water. No dyes, no props allowed.

First they haul the massive ice blocks into place, then chainsaw the rough outlines. Then begins the fine work: chiselling, cutting, and shaping the details before finally polishing the work with water, blowtorches and blow dryers.

It's as much engineering as artistry. Carvers looking to catch the judge's eye stretch load-bearing limits with hanging ice and lateral constructions.

The weather can be the wild card.

"They've got to deal with whatever temperature comes along. It can be too cold as well as too warm," said Back.

It's not the only carving event on the schedule.

At the same time, frozen water fans with the need for speed can take in the self-explanatory event dubbed "One Carver, One Hour, One Block."

In between, there are horse-drawn rides and ice skating on the lake beneath the Victoria Glacier, its crushed rock giving the lake a rich blue-green colour.

The event has been extended to a second weekend, Jan. 28-29 for Little Chipper Weekend. There, youngsters can learn the art of frozen water sculpture by doing their own ice carving.

They can also play ice mini golf, crawl through an ice tunnel, swoosh down an ice slide or skate with the Ice Queen on Lake Louise. All activities are free.

The ice carving is the centrepiece of Banff National Park's first annual SnowDays festival, running Jan. 14 to Feb. 12.

There are a variety of events designed to celebrate the white stuff: ice climbing, skating, snow sculptures, live theatre, photo exhibits and geocaching along with curling, skiing and snowshoeing.

The highlight will be the first ever "Take It To The Street" ball hockey tournament in the Banff townsite on Feb. 11 and 12.

A downtown block will be blocked off for four-on-four games. There will also be a Victorian Hockey demonstration on Feb. 11 at the downtown rink using "Halifax Rules" — the first recognized set of hockey rules dating back 150 years.

A goal is scored when the handbell rings. No carbon fibre sticks allowed.

Back said the plan is for SnowDays to continue every year.

"We really wanted to have a festival that complements the downhill ski experience, because clearly that's a big reason people come here. This adds to the experience.

"We're looking at building something which grows over time and really becomes ingrained and embraced in the community."


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