BETHEL – There’s an inherent problem in trying to build something bigger than anyone ever imagined — say, the world’s tallest snowman and snowwoman — and succeeding.

Sooner or later, you’ve got to come up with something even bigger.

“We can do this,” said a down-but-not-out Jim Sysko, civil engineer and creator of all things impossible, as twilight fell on Bethel Station on Wednesday afternoon. “I’ve never been known to give up.”

As Sysko spoke, a 140-foot cluster of steel water pipes lay on wooden pallets across the frozen ground in the center of this picture-perfect village nestled in the western Maine mountains.

The goal: Raise the contraption until it’s vertical. Then, over the next several weeks, pump enough water up through the top so it cascades down each section and freezes to create a 140-foot “ice tower.”

Ambitious? Very.

Crazy? Of course.

Worth the effort? If you have to ask, then you obviously don’t know Bethel.

A little history:

In 1999, in an effort to add a little pizzazz to the town’s annual WinterFest, Sysko teamed up with the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce to build “Angus, King of the Mountain” — also known, at 113 feet, 7 inches, as the world’s tallest snowman.

Then in 2008, again led by Sysko, volunteers broke their own record with “Olympia SnowWoman,” who topped out at a dizzying 122 feet, 1 inch.

“They both received international press,” noted Steve Etheridge, president of the chamber. “The snowwoman was in some of the airline magazines, it was in Highlights for Kids and they were both in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records.’ “

With the publicity came winter tourists. And with the tourists, of course, comes cold hard cash.

But how do you top a 122-foot snowwoman?

Last year, Sysko and his buddies built a snow maze and colored the tops of the walls so they spelled out “Bethel.” But torrential rain fell just after they finished it and, well, let’s just say you won’t be reading about it on your next flight to sunny Florida.

Which brings us back to the ice tower.

On paper, it made perfect sense:

Weld (and, for good measure, duct tape) together seven lengths of 1-inch pipe donated by F.W. Webb Co. in Lewiston. The first length measures 20 feet, the second  40 feet, the third 60 feet and so on … all the way up to the seventh and final pipe at 140 feet.

Then attach the bottoms of the bundled pipes to a hinge, which in turn connects to a massive concrete block set in the frozen ground.

Then run a series of 3/8-inch guy wires from the pipe tower to four outlying anchor points.

Then, using a boom truck donated by Bancroft Contracting Corp. in South Paris, raise the entire contraption from horizontal to vertical and quickly tighten the guy wires until the pipes are stable enough to stand on their own.

Finally, run water through the 20-foot section until it’s encased in ice, then switch the water feed to the 40-foot length, the 60-foot length and so on until, 750,000 gallons of water later, a 140-foot ice tower is born.

All of which, alas, turns out to be much easier said than done.

First came the Bethel Water District, which several weeks ago found itself in hot water with ratepayers who complained that if they had to pay for their water, so should the organizers of the ice tower.

Earlier this month, the chamber and the district’s trustees agreed to cap the cost of the water at $2,000 — all of which has since been raised through private donations.

Then, last week, came the really hard part.

“We need more duct tape!” hollered Jim Bennett moments before Wednesday’s first attempted pipe-raising.

Bennett, a local handyman who showed up along with his helper, Matt Morin, has long been a supporter of Sysko’s yes-we-can spirit. So has Bob Westfall, who retired from Ford Motor Co. three years ago and moved to Bethel just in time to help build Olympia.

“I came from a town of 100,000 people in Michigan and they’d never be able to do this there,” marveled Westfall. “Politics would stop them. And they wouldn’t run the risk.”

But this is Bethel, where the local chamber takes care of the liability insurance while the hard-hatted Sysko and his ever-upbeat helpers risk only being called crackpots if the whole thing goes kaput.

For hours Wednesday afternoon, the four men used everything from rope to rebar to roll after roll of duct tape to reinforce the welded pipes while crane operator Russ McLain of Peru waited patiently inside the cab of the boom truck for the signal to start lifting.

“OK!” Sysko finally hollered, raising a thumb.

Up, up, up went the pipes until, just 30 or so feet off the ground, they suddenly bent like so many pieces of spaghetti.

“Down! Down!” shouted Sysko as McLain quickly lowered the hook.

Forty-five minutes, a few steel bars and three additional rolls of duct tape later, they tried again. This time, the pipes came tantalizingly close to 90 degrees when a loud BOOM sent everyone running for cover.

Again, McLain brought the pipes back to earth.

The stress of the lift had broken one of two steel lifting loops and fractured one of the water pipes.

It didn’t look good. The pipe, everyone quickly agreed, simply wasn’t stiff enough to support itself over such a long span.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” mused Sysko. “We got the pipe for free, but now we’re paying the price.”

End of story?

Not on your life.

Volunteer welder Ed Bennett of Upton spent all day Thursday attaching four, 20-foot sections of angle iron to the water pipes. Finally, on Friday, yet another lifting operation began.

Eureka! This time it worked.

Christmas Eve, the pipes stood upright and red-and-white lights, woven into the guy wires, twinkled high enough in the sky for the whole village to see.

What’s more, Sysko & Co. hooked up the water supply, turned on the first valve and, voila! Water spouted at 20 feet and began to freeze down along the pipes and onto the ground below.

“The whole thing is solid,” Sysko reported via cell phone Saturday morning. “It’s not moving anywhere.”

Sysko said they still needed to attach a few more lights and run several climbing ropes up through the tower — yes, there will be a professional ice-climbing demonstration during the Jan. 22-30 WinterFest. And they’re even thinking about “experimenting” with chicken wire to see how it affects the ice formation.

But beyond that, Sysko said, “it’s just a matter of turning valves on and off.”

That and keeping an eye on the thermometer?

“Absolutely,” he replied. “All we need now is prolonged cold weather.”

Hope, at least in his neck of the Maine woods, freezes eternal. 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]