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Ice Madness

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At midnight, one hundred and thirty miles north of the Arctic Circle under a December sky filled with the most brilliant stars she’d ever seen, fifty-one-year-old Mary Gibbons got ready to jump.

A foot of rushing water separated two concentric circles cut into the frozen River Torne in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden. The inner one, thirty-five feet in diameter, had votive candles mounted along its circumference. They flickered, whizzing by as the circle of ice moved in a clockwise spin powered by a boat engine mounted in its center.

“They call it ‘jumping the merry-go-round.’ It’s an ICEHOTEL staff party tradition, a very Swedish celebration of all the work we’d accomplished,” says Mary, a ceramics artist with an exuberant laugh who lives in Cos Cob. “I just did it. I closed my eyes, threw my body up into the air and landed on the other side.”

Mary’s Irish green eyes sparkle as she recalls the moment. This divorced mother of four is able to take a leap where others quite reasonably might fear to tread. Just a month earlier, following an irresistible impulse, she’d stepped off a very small plane onto what felt like an alien planet. On that November 7, 2005, Kiruna, Sweden, was the jumping-off point for what was to be a life-changing adventure.

Eight miles away, overlooking the Torne, which separates Sweden from Finland, the tiny village of Jukkasjärvi is the site of a hotel that reinvents itself literally from the ground up every single year. Made entirely of ice and snow — 34,000 tons of it — this crystal palace shimmers in the region’s legendary polar “low light,” its frozen brilliance breathtaking and fleeting. During April’s spring thaw, the hotel starts to melt and by June, like Brigadoon, the vision has vanished. “From the river, the ice came,” says ICEHOTEL art director Arne Bergh, “and to the river it shall return.”

In operation since 1994 as a winter resort, each ICEHOTEL is as unique as a snowflake. The sixty rooms that Mary helped build for the 2005–2006 season were on the grandest scale yet. With an indoor temperature of minus 7 degrees Celsius, the layout included a reception area with ice crystal chandelier, main hall with grand piano made of ice and a cinema where images are projected onto a screen of ice. In the Absolut Ice Bar, only vodka (which does not freeze) is served in glasses of ice. The Ice Chapel offers warm-blooded couples an unforgettable venue for tying the knot. The fifty-guest accommodations range from igloo-like ice tunnels that sleep from two to eight occupants to elaborate suites designed and built by specially invited artists.

Mary, who talked her way into a job for the construction phase of the project, says that her several nights “on ice” were delightfully cozy. “I slept like a baby in a thermal sleeping bag on a bed of ice slabs covered with reindeer skins in this huge igloo,” she says, “but I wasn’t really surprised. I was meant to be there.”

Her odyssey began when Mary saw a program about the ICEHOTEL on the Discovery channel. She knew immediately that she had to be part of it. “It was the end of a tumultuous decade for me,” she says. “My father died and then my three-year-old son Paulie drowned in a swimming pool accident, a tragedy my marriage could not survive. I was at a turning point in my life.” She was looking for a place that would help her sort things out.

Jukkasjärvi is the Sami word for “meeting place,” she points out. It sounded perfect. “I wrote to Arne Bergh telling him I was a really hard worker and would happily shovel snow if that was what they needed done. But I got no response.”

Mary refused to give up. “It was my winter of opportunity,” she says. “My son Jack was not yet in high school, but I felt I could leave him with his father.” She finally reached Bergh on the phone. “Mostly, we talked about the river,” she says. “I needed to meet this river. It was that simple and something he completely understood.”

By the end of the conversation, Mary had convinced Bergh to break policy and hire an outside worker. She would be assisting both the artists who do the designer suites and the builders. “I found out later that everyone was really mad at Arne for allowing me to come,” she says. “They’d had very bad experiences with two other New York–area women.”

Outfitted by Land’s End (whose winter 2006–2007 catalog will feature her giving its clothes the ultimate test), Mary felt prepared for the challenges ahead. “I’m a cold-weather person,” she says, “a veteran of the University of Buffalo the year the army had to come in to shovel us out.” That blizzard would soon feel like a snow flurry by comparison. Landing in Kiruna, she found that the reality was daunting. “It was a tundra, totally barren, like nothing I’d ever seen before,” she says. “Just endless snow and ice.”

The frozen landscape, which at first appeared to be bleak, would soon reveal exquisite nuances. In an early entry on a blog sent to family and friends, Mary happily admits to a severe case of ice madness. “I am in love,” she wrote, “with blocks of ice, chunks of ice, sheets of ice, discarded scraps of ice like tossed diamonds. I’m learning to sculpt this ice that is already perfection. And with each stroke of my saw, each scrape of my irons, I think, ‘Who am I kidding?’ This ice is sculpting me, whispering instructions, inviting me to dance.”

Shoveling snow was just for starters. Mary’s survival skills would soon include operating a chainsaw while perched on scaffolding being buffeted by windblown sprays of freezing snow. She would become adept at driving a sled pulled by reindeer and occasionally by huskies. She would discover firsthand that snowmobiling across the frozen River Torne could easily prove treacherous.

The job description included excavating snice, the mixture of melted snow and ice that glues two-ton blocks of ice together. “Good snice is absolutely necessary,” Mary says. “Think of it as the polar equivalent of duct tape.”

Found deep within a not-so-nearby snow mountain created by snowblowers, the best snice had to be shoveled out and loaded into a wheelbarrow, then hauled singlehandedly across a football field’s worth of slippery terrain. “Each load weighed sixty pounds,” she says, “and we often had to make several trips a day.”

It was hard labor, done usually in the dark. The sun rose around 9 a.m. and set by 2:30 p.m., imparting a blue radiance to the ice and making the navy blue daytime sky magical with an ever-changing display of pinks and purples. The long polar nights were lit only by moonlight, which added a blinding iridescence to the whiteness that was everywhere.

And then there were the bulldozers, always out shoveling the four feet of snow that fell daily. “You had to dodge the bulldozers,” she says. “I got to the point where I would curtsy to the drivers and blow them kisses.”

Mary’s determination soon earned her entry into what has become like a second family. “But in the beginning, nobody talked to me,” she says. Most people spoke English, but learning to communicate in Swedish became part of a challenge that would be both cultural and physical.

Mary jokes that the first Swedish word she learned means level and is pronounced exactly like “slipperypot.” Since work on the hotel had not yet started when she got to Jukkasjärvi, she offered to build cabinets for the Octagon House, a whimsical wooden “treehouse” that is a gathering place and residence for visiting artists.
“I have those skills, and I wanted to be useful,” she says, adding that it pleases her to have built something that won’t melt back into the river at the end of the winter season.