They are funky, grassroots creations. They are a brand of folk art that Aspen can call its own — born out of the ski culture this town has shaped.
But to some, these man-made intrusions into the forest — made up of log benches and knick-knacks nailed into trees — are no longer charming.
They are Aspen’s ski shrines.
You won’t find them on any ski-area maps and their precise locations are protected largely by a locals’ code to keep them secret. But across all four Aspen Skiing Co. mountains there are dozens of shrines. They honor musicians, beloved locals, sports figures and teams.
“I think it’s one of the neatest things we have in Aspen and Snowmass,” said David Wood, a part-time Snowmass Village resident who published a 2010 book about the shrines. “No other ski area has anything like this. And it’s not sponsored by the SkiCo. There’s nothing official abut it. It’s people putting them up and taking care of them over the years.”
But what was once a handful of novelty shrines on Aspen Mountain, beginning in the late 1970s, has grown to 40-plus across all four mountains. Over the last decade, more have been added each year.
For veteran ski patroller Tim Cooney, who has worked on Aspen Mountain since before the first shrines went up, the proliferation of memorials has grown gaudy.
“It seems to be an unstoppable force,” Cooney said. “I don’t think it’s great to see all that stuff in the woods. What was once quirky and charming has become a blight.”
By most accounts, the first shrine was to Elvis Presley, and took shape on Bell Mountain soon after his untimely 1977 death. Today it includes some of the standard shrine components — a street sign (for “Elvis Presley Boulevard”), license plates, plastic-laminated photos, press clippings and lyric sheets.
It’s one of a handful on Bell along the “shrine line,” including tributes to the Buckaroos ski gang and Marilyn Monroe — also believed to be among the first installed.
Through the ’80s and ’90s, shrines popped up mostly for other pop-culture figures and musicians, including the Beatles, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix.
Depending on who you talk to, they were originally used as markers for giving directions while trying to ski a specific run with a large pack of skiers, or simply to take smoke breaks.
The Jerry Garcia shrine, off of Ruthie’s Run, includes two man-made log benches and memorabilia — including a Grateful Dead logo-emblazoned ski — covering 20 trees in a pine grove.
When former Grateful Dead member Bob Weir came to Aspen to play a show in the summer of 1999, he and his wife took a Jeep trip up the mountain to visit the shrine with longtime local Tim Mooney.
“He looked at every single thing there,” Mooney recalled of Weir’s shrine pilgrimage. “They were really moved. They had no idea the local love for him ran that deep.”
Running her hands over a wooden carving made for Garcia, Mrs. Weir cried, Mooney recalled.
Exactly one year after his 2005 death by suicide in Woody Creek, Hunter S. Thompson was honored with a shrine off of Gunner’s View on Snowmass — an act that local fans and friends said allowed them to celebrate the writer’s life from a vista facing the ranch he called home.
Shrines popped up over the years devoted to golf, to Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, to 9/11 victims, to Snoopy, and for the “pooper trooper” parachute men often tossed from the gondola.
In recent years, the new shrines installed on the mountains have moved away from pop-culture figures to locals — a growing tradition to honor people who die before their time. As the mountains inevitably claim their share of locals, their friends have built shrines.
In 2006, the avalanche death of 25-year-old Nicholas Blake Davidson in Snowmass spurned the creation of a shrine there. Friends of John Nicoletta, a 27-year-old freeskier who died in a competition in Alaska in the spring of 2008, built a shrine for him shortly after his passing on an off-piste slope off of Ruthie’s on Aspen Mountain.
Last year a photograph of George Aldrich, a 28-year-old who died after falling off the Maroon Creek Bridge, was added to the Jerry Garcia shrine.
Perhaps the newest is a shrine to Adam Dennis, the 38-year-old local who died in an avalanche in the Aspen Highlands backcountry last spring.
A group of 30-plus friends and family gathered at the site of the shrine the week after his death and constructed it — putting up signs, skis and photos.
Making the shrine together was a crucial part of mourning the avid skier, said Dennis’ friend Dirk Bockelmann. Its continued presence has given his loved ones a place to visit and remember Dennis, he said.
“It may be a group of us or sometimes it’s a private moment that can be on the sad side,” Bockelmann explained. “But it was a no-brainer for us to have a shrine somewhere for Adam.”
The personal, spiritual side of the shrines is not new. Aspen’s folk-singing poet laureate, John Denver, received shrines on both Ajax and Buttermilk after he died in 1997. The wind chimes at the John Denver shrine on Ajax are said to have been donated by his wife Annie, who was the subject of “Annie’s Song.” It also once contained a donated gold record, which has been removed or stolen.
While people’s hearts may be in the right place, some believe the proliferation of stuff in the woods desecrates them. Cooney, the patroller, urges locals to rethink adding more dedications in the woods.
“You may have great intentions to memorialize someone or something,” he said. “But look at the big picture. You don’t throw your cigarette butts and beer cans out the car window anymore, and you shouldn’t put trash in the wilderness. The idea that it’s somehow a quirky, irreverent phenomenon is a defunct point of view.”
The U.S. Forest Service, which leases land to the SkiCo, has in recent years cracked down on shacks built on ski areas, citing liability concerns and dubbing them illegal structures. But Forest Service officials have taken a hands-off approach to construction of the less-intrusive shrines.
As a patroller, Cooney said he’ll take guests to visit shrines when they ask, but he’s adamant about encouraging people not to build more at this point.
“People don’t have an inalienable right to create shrines on mountains,” he said. “It’s a ski area, not a cemetery.”
Hunting for shrines in the woods of Aspen’s ski hills is a favored past-time among newcomers and visitors. And guiding such expeditions has likewise become a rite of passage for people who live here and learn more about them.
Wood, the author, began shrine-hunting in 2008. A lawyer who splits his time between Iowa and Snowmass Village, Wood wanted to preserve the history of the shrines, which was still predominantly a word-of-mouth record.
“It was a gradual process,” he recalled. “I would ask patrollers and ambassadors. But nobody wants to be too specific.”
The publication of Wood’s 2010 book, “Sanctuaries in the Snow,” gave people a guide to the shrines. It doesn’t give specific locations, so shrine-seekers still need to work for it.
By Wood’s count, there are currently 45 shrines on the local ski hills, most of them on Aspen Mountain. Fifteen of the shrines are to local people and 11 are for musicians, the most popular subjects.
Since the book came out, he said he’s learned quite a bit more about the phenomenon through his popular “Aspen Shrines” Facebook page. Some, he’s learned, have vanished, including the Dale Earnhardt and Liberace shrines on Aspen Mountain.
The book, proceeds from which go to the Roaring Fork Valley Scholarship Fund, has sold thousands of copies locally.
Of concerns about shrines damaging the woods, he said he believes they’re an attractive part of Aspen’s mountains and culture.
“Whatever they say,” he said of the ski patrol and Forest Service, “I think they kind of like the shrines, honestly.”
The Aspen Skiing Co. does place the shrines at number nine on a list titled “The Top 10 Things About Aspen Mountain” on its web page.
Peter Lee, the psychologist for the Aspen School District, has spent this winter trying to find as many shrines as he can. He’s using Wood’s book as a guide.
Lee, who has spent six ski seasons here, said he’d never been to any shrines until he started looking this winter. That hidden world, just below the surface and tucked between trails, he said, feeds the mystique about the local shrines. He’s hit 25 so far.
“Anytime you see a set of tracks into a strange part of the woods, it’s probably something,” he laughed. “I think it’s a great way for people to explore the mountain.”
For example, he said, while poking around Aspen Mountain looking for the John Denver shrine recently he found another off of Bellissimo filled with fake golden spoons, bells, jewelry and corsages, and no signage. It’s not in Wood’s book.
“I don’t know what it was but it was a beautiful little shrine,” he said.