It was the winter of 1976 Willie McDonald, son of Cissy and stepson of Vail Mayor John Dobson, returned home for a weekend college break to find a “huge mess of ice and snow in the front yard” of his house alongside the Vail Golf Course.
When Willie, somewhat confused yet intrigued, walked inside, the mayor blurted out. “Thank God you’re here. I need help.”
And thus began the first of what has now been an annual construction ritual, of almost four decades, known simply as “Club Igloo.”
In the summer of 1965, John and Cissy Dobson left the ski hills of Vermont for the Rocky Mountains of Colorado with the intent of opening a retail shop in a new, fledgling ski area called Vail.
They opened a ski shop next to a recently completed bridge over Gore Creek. And as a way of bringing a touch of New England charm to the mountains, they decided to call their store The Covered Bridge. Only problem was, the bridge had no cover. And the brand new town had no money to construct one.
In a moment of brilliant clarity, John and Cissy offered to pay for the cover, thus cementing their place in Vail history early on. In fact, a plaque is still there today thanking the Dobsons for their well-timed generosity.
The store was an immediate success, and propelled the Dobson name to a prominent place in Vail lore for evermore.
That same year, 1976, Cissy purchased an “Igular” from a Neiman Marcus catalogue, convinced the home igloo concept would catch on in the retail business.
No such luck. So the Dobsons had brought it home that fateful day of Willie’s return, and after eight wet solid hours of cussing and tossing pails of soggy snow in each other’s direction (sometimes on purpose), they constructed the first Vail igloo. Willie fondly recalls his favorite memory from that evening being a particularly well-aimed shovel full of slush smack into his father’s face, immediately extinguishing his always-present cigarette.
Cissy placed round furry rugs and pillows on the inside of the structure, along with hanging whatever igloo jokes she could find on the walls. Lighting was provided by old sets of Christmas tree bulbs that put out so much heat, it was decided that whoever received the most drips from the ceiling would be dubbed the “Hottest” of the day. (Don’t forget, this was the 70s.) Cissy even put an old black and white TV inside, but the ancient electronics would not survive the spring melt.
Arriving home one night during a huge snowstorm Willie noticed some extra cars parked outside. As he headed towards the front door, he could hear a number of voices emanating from inside the igloo. Upon poking his head in, imagine his surprise to find the Vail Town Council, laughing, joking, imbibing a few hot toddies and discussing the current and future needs for their now successfulbeyond- anyone’s-wildest-dreams ski town.
By this time the Dobson igloo had become quite the meeting place for the cocktail hour, but they never entertained the thought of it becoming a commercial enterprise, as it was much more of a “private, fun thing” for family and close friends to enjoy.
Although John sadly passed away in 1983, thanks to Cissy the igloo tradition continued, and thinking it appropriate to reward those who helped during construction, one year she surprised a crew of friends and family with special tee shirts. They were adorned with the now extra special logo known simply as “Club Igloo.”
Enter Bill Rey, now of Claggett-Rey Gallery fame. In 1983 the 18-year old Vail newbie was working for the Squash Blossom, a jewelry store in Vail Village.
Bill became fast friends with Willie, who was the “most impressive teleskier I had ever seen,” he says, and this is how he came to know Cissy Dobson, “a tell-it-like-is, whiskeydrinkin’, cigarette-smokin’, total Bronco fan…neat gal.”
It was 1984 when Bill was introduced to Club Igloo, and he has the tee shirt to prove it. And with each passing year, Bill felt more and more privileged to be part of the “inner sanctum.”
The annual raising of the igloo usually occurred sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, depending upon snowfall. But just a few days before the turkey feast of 1993 Cissy was diagnosed with lung cancer and the ritual was, of course, postponed. She passed away on New Year’s Day 1994 – and Club Igloo was relegated to become yet another memory in Vail’s big ol’ book of history.
In the summer of 1999, as the millennium was creeping to a close, Bill was having a “let’s catch up” conversation with Willie, when the question of “whatever happened to the igloo?” came up.
“Oh, I’ve got it in its original box,” said Willie, “I’ll give it to you if you want it.”
And thus Bill Rey, Club Igloo member in good standing, along with his wife, Maggie DeDecker, became the new, and only second, owners of the prized, but little publicized, Vail tradition.
As it happens, the Rey’s home is a bit out of town – where it can be a few degrees warmer – and, because a 20-inch base is needed to begin “igloo construction,” they had to wait until early January of 2000 to begin. And an eager crowd of fifteen friends and family was there to help out.
Of course, Willie was there too.
Finally, at 9 a.m., with a pleasant temperature of -1, the crowd began its work. And it was nine long hours of hard work. (Yet, with the help of Baileys and beer, it seemed a lot shorter.)
How does one build an igloo, you ask? To begin, in order for igloo construction to “take,” extremely cold temperatures and very, very wet snow are needed. If too wet, the snow refuses to pack and eventually a cave in, of sorts, takes place. If not wet enough, the snow also refuses to pack, like trying to build a sand castle at a beach with no ocean.
The snow must also be perfectly clean, with no grass, dirt, or anything of color, as the evil impurities can absorb heat and lead to unwanted melting. (Actually, there’s no such thing as “wanted” melting)
And, how does one have super wet snow in super cold temperatures?
By constantly having buckets of warm water nearby during the building phase, and a good hose. “It’s the sloppiest, wettest mess in the world,” according to Bill, and at Cissy’s old house in Vail this caused many to politely decline assisting. (Akin to asking friends to help you move from East to West Vail). Keep in mind, that was in the days before Gore-Tex, and workers got thoroughly soaked most of the time.
The actual igloo maker is a piece of work! It’s a metal center-pivot with a round bracket, about two feet in diameter, pinned into the ground. Welded to it is a crude universal joint attached to a six-and-a-half foot rod. On the end of the rod is a large silver disc, somewhat like a saucer kids use for sledding.
The principle is simple: pack extremely wet snow up against the disc, slowly going around in a circle, each level becoming a tad thinner as it goes up. This makes a thirteen foot diameter, six-and-a-half foot tall igloo on the inside; much larger on the outside.
By the time it’s finished the bottom is about a foot-and-ahalf thick, with the tippy top being only about four inches and solid ice all the way around.
A snow blower is used for everyday maintenance, unless it happens to snow incredibly hard each day. As the snow lands on top, gravity does its thing, gently falling over the entire igloo in a uniform manner, keeping the walls thick and the ice packed.
Each year, Bill and Maggie creatively decorate their humble igloo. Shelves are built inside and can be used for a well-cooled bar or, perhaps, Eskimo sculptures, candles and other knick-knacks. And each year a shrine to Cissy is built that includes her photo and the official Club Igloo logo. The old style Christmas lights have been replaced with the much cooler LED, and three-dozen hand-blown glass ornaments from Pismo Gallery hang from the ceiling at different heights creating a multi-colored chandelier. A small Petzl headlamp, hidden in a glass vase provides a soft glow for the entire area. Another line of LEDs, hidden along the bottom edges, provides an upward glow.
Most of the decorating is done before the floor is installed to keep the space as snow free as possible. The floor is two inches of blue construction foam topped with three layers of tarp and a buffalo robe to finish it off. Socks only, as no shoes are allowed, but the air warms up into the mid-50s.
The day the igloo is built is like an old style family barn raising, and ends with a big festive dinner, everyone whipped beyond belief. “It’s simply magical,” muses Bill. And what happens when the snow stops falling and ice begins to melt?
Sometime after April 1st, usually the first week or so, the family spends a final evening in Club Igloo, eating dinner and reminiscing about the winter, and then methodically begin removing everything from the inside, beginning with the ceiling lights and ending with the floor.
From that point the igloo just slowly melts away. A small hole appears near the very top depending upon direct sunlight and then simply gets a little bigger each day. The thick walls at the base are even thicker by the end of the season, and can last at least another month or so before giving grass a chance to do its thing.
Tibetan Monks, gallery guests, members of the CA (Cowboy Artist of America) and people of all walks of life, including a sheriff (for fun, not on business) have communed inside the walls of the igloo.
“It’s an Interfaith Igloo, if you know what I mean. What happens in Club Igloo, stays in Club Igloo,” quips Bill.
The igloo was even auctioned off at Vail’s famous Black Diamond Ball, where four lucky people bid $3,000 to have dinner within its walls. The four enjoyed the place for five hours, dining on little igloo-shaped foie gras, among other delectables, accompanied by champagne.
Bill hopes that by seeing the place it will spawn others to build their own igloo to understand just how enchanting it can be.
“It’s magical to be inside the igloo when it’s snowing heavily outside. It constantly reminds me of how lucky we are to live in the Vail Valley, and in a really cool way Club Igloo is carrying on the old guard of Vail. We have this treasure, and sure, it’s a personal, private thing, but to see it, all anyone has to do is ask. Cissy, in a sense, had a passion for Vail that radiates through the Rey family, along with anyone who ever steps inside,” Bill says.
Yes, The Covered Bridge Store is long gone, but the Covered Bridge is still around, and thanks to the Rey family, so is Club Igloo. And, Willie couldn’t be happier.