History / Magazine

Winter Carnival celebrates 50 years of frosty fun

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Winter Carnival, a favorite Pioneers tradition. The first Winter Carnival was held the weekend of Jan. 13, 1961, and was sponsored by the Pioneer Ski Club.

Although that weekend included a Friday the 13th, the date was selected because it coincided with NCAA skiing finals competition at the Winter Park ski area. It had been an eventful week on campus: The announcement that the University was dropping football had been made that Tuesday, and on Friday ground was broken for DU’s new Boettcher Center.

Activities at the inaugural Winter Carnival included an on-campus snow sculpture contest and a Snow Queen competition. The 1961 Snow Queen winner, freshman political science major Nancy Sand of Oceanside, N.Y., was announced at the Friday night DU-North Dakota hockey game. DU beat the Fighting Sioux by an astounding score of 15-1. Sand’s “Snow Queen attendants” were Carolyn Stites, Sharon Bohlen, Lou Luske and Gene Dudley.

On Saturday, chartered buses left the old Student Union bound for Winter Park, located at the southern end of the Fraser Valley in Grand County. Ticket price for the round trip was $3.75.  That evening, a torchlight parade was held on the slopes, and a dance ($1 admission) was held at the Winter Park Lodge.

Winter Carnival has been an annual tradition ever since. (It was canceled just once due to poor skiing conditions in 1981.) The carnival’s location has changed several times, moving to Steamboat Springs for a number of years and then to Crested Butte in the 1980s when Steamboat Springs accommodations became harder to find. At that time, the event expanded from a two-night to a three-night affair because it was easier to book accommodations. In 1990, the event returned to its roots in Winter Park.

Over the years, Winter Carnival planners have continued to dream up new and varied events. Last year’s festivities included a Rail Jam at nearby Ruby Hill Rail Yard, where more than 120 participants signed up to compete, and a “Grill and Chill” on the Driscoll Lawn. Activities in Winter Park included ice skating in the village, snow tubing on nearby Fraser Hill, and a free concert.

Ally Veneris of the DU Programs Board notes in a January 2010 Clarion article that attendance at Winter Carnival has dropped in recent years, probably due to the fact that so many DU students have their own passes to other ski areas. A decade ago, she says, attendance was around 1,000 but had dropped to a low of 300 by 2008 before starting to creep back up.

But in a sign that the tradition is alive and well, 690 students joined in Winter Carnival festivities this year.

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