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Skiing the Shrines of Aspen/Snowmass - A Conversation with Author and Shrine Expert David Wood

Brandon Wenerd's picture

The Jerry Garcia Shrine - Photo by David WoodThe Jerry Garcia Shrine - Photo by David WoodThe first time I accidentally stumbled upon the Jerry Garcia shrine on Aspen Mountain, I felt as if I discovered a secret garden of pop culture iconography while skiing through a snowy and psychedelic Xanadu. While gliding in solitude through the peaceful tranquility of a forested ridge, I was not expecting to suddenly discover a grove of trees dangling with pictures, dried roses, memorabilia, and assorted miscellany of the legendary Grateful Dead front man. Thankfully, no one was within earshot because the odd discovery inspired a quiet Garcia refrain: “Going where the wind don’t blow so strange/Maybe up on some high cold mountain range.”

For an intrepid young Deadhead like myself who never experienced the thrill of a Grateful Dead show with Garcia at the helm, belting out one of my favorite Garcia anthems was a moment of sheer synchronicity. Call it cliché, but at the time there was nothing left to do but “smile, smile, smile.”

As far as I know, Jerry Garcia never owned a home in Aspen. Neither did Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, nor Marilyn Monroe. Yet their lives and artistic accomplishments continue to be memorialized in one of Aspen's most peculiar on-going traditions: sylvan and ski-able memorials secluded in the hills of all four Aspen ski areas. There are over 50 of these shrines and plaques speckled across Aspen and Snowmass where devoted fans, friends, and family members nail pictures, license plates, beads, silk flowers, wind chimes and other knickknacks to tree trunks in order to pay homage to legendary figures and locals. While Ski Co and the National Forrest Service take some necessary steps in regulating the construction of new shrines, many Aspenites feel as if these sanctuaries in the snow contribute to Aspen’s quirky charm and left-of-center character. Others shrines celebrate local figures and larger-than-life luminaries such as John Denver, Jimmy Buffett, and Hunter S. Thompson.


Above - Legendary Aspen character Tim Mooney is a world class skier, realtor, former tour manager to rockstars, and public enemy number one to the Aspen Ski Co. In 2007, he allowed Plum TV to follow him on a powder day outting to various shrines on Ajax.

Not all Aspen shrines commemorate the lives of rugged individualists, free spirits, and rock stars. A shrine was once erected in tribute of Liberace, the flashy ivory-tickling virtuoso who passed away in 1987. It was eventually dismantled. The legendary rivalry between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox is distinguished on Aspen Mountain with a tribute to Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium. The game of golf is honored with shrines on Aspen Mountain and Snowmass. Mountain climbers, the victims of 9/11, and crestfallen skiers are memorialized as well.

The Elvis Presley Shrine - Photo by David WoodThe Elvis Presley Shrine - Photo by David WoodTo many locals, the shrines of Aspen and Snowmass are sacred in their own unique way; therefore, a shrine’s location is usually kept a closely guarded secret from tourists who may not regard the tradition with the same respect and sanctity. Aspen skiers won't find these places of pilgrimage marked on a trail map, so the best way to discover a shrine is by exploring off the beaten track terrain within the ski area boundaries.

To learn more about this eccentric Aspen phenomenon, I interviewed local shrine expert David Wood, author of Sanctuaries in the Snow--The Shrines and Memorials of Aspen/Snowmass. Wood helped to erect the Golf Shrine in Snowmass and continues to chronicle and photograph each memorial on his website, where he meticulously documents the known history of each shrine. All profits from the sale of his book are being donated to the Trashmasters International Scholarship fund. In an exclusive Aspen.com interview, Wood provides helpful tips for visitors looking to explore the shrines of Aspen and explains the continuing saga of this only-in-Aspen idiosyncrasy.


How did the shrines on Ajax, Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass begin?

Unfortunately, my research has failed to reveal exactly how the shrines got started. Most people think the first shrine was established in honor of Elvis Presley sometime shortly after he died in 1977. Others think it may have been a shrine that was started for Bob Marley (who died in 1981, and eventually that shrine evolved into the current one dedicated to Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995). Most of the shrines are to people who are deceased. The only exception is that there is a shrine to Jimmy Buffett (which some people claim he put in himself). The Marilyn Monroe Shrine is the only shrine dedicated to a woman. The John Denver Shrine is the only shrine dedicated to a person who actually skied at Aspen/Snowmass. Some shrine creators do not want their identities disclosed; for instance, I know who put in the Hunter S. Thompson Shrine but am sworn to secrecy. Local Maddy Lieb put in the John Denver Shrine (along with her friend Lisa Bolerjack). Local Bill Schaffer and his wife and daughter put in the Snoopy Shrine. Ski instructor Paul Wade added the first items to the Jerry Garcia Shrine.

What is the best way for first time Aspen visitors or ski vacationers to locate and explore the Aspen shrines?

The best way is to ask locals, ski patrollers, ski instructors (sometimes they will include a shrine tour with the lesson), and the Mountain Ambassadors; most times that will yield directions to some shrines. Also, anyone halfway proficient using Google can find most of the locations with a little research before their ski trip, since the local Aspen newspapers have published that information before. The local custom is to give general and generous hints that will probably yield the find, but not to give absolute specific directions. Of course they are not shown on any trail maps (with one curious exception: for some reason the Elvis Shrines is shown on the Kids Trail Map.) Half the fun of finding a shrine is working a little bit on your own to find it yourself.

Does your book include information on how to locate each shrine?

In keeping with the local custom, I give only general descriptions in the book. However, taking what I give and doing a little poking around, most people will be able to find the shrine, and they will have some fun doing it, and will feel like they accomplished something.

What are some of the items typically left at a shrine? Do Aspen skiers keep adding to them?

Most of the shrines at least have laminated photos of the person honored. The Jerry Garcia Shrine has lots of artificial red roses, beads, and, from time to time, marijuana leaves attached to the trees. Marilyn Monroe's shrine has a big clock with her image on the face, and also a thermometer with her image on it, and also some beads and some flowers, and used to contain a large bra. The Golf Shrine has a golf bag full of clubs and a bucket of range balls (which visitors use to have chipping contests sometimes); also, in a nod to the Scottish origins of golf, the Golf Shrine has a bottle of single malt Scotch whisky hidden in a sack under the snow. Visitors ski in, have a "wee nip" and toast to golf, and ski out. The Golf Shrine also has a pair of old golf shoes nailed to a tree. The Hunter S. Thompson Shrine has a sack of empty bullet shells. The Buckaroo Shrine has lots of cowboy stuff. The Valentine's Shrine has a very nice swing hung from ropes attached high up in the trees. There are various kinds of car license plates in several of the shrines. The John Denver Shrine contains some wind chimes, supposedly contributed by his wife Annie. The 9/11 Shrine has some FDNY things, as well as a T-shirt from the 2001 New York City Marathon. The Michael Houser Shrine has a wooden board mounted on a tree with "Houser" carved into the face of it, and also a "Widespread Panic" Colorado vanity license plate. Yes, new things are added to the shrines all the time. The weather takes its toll and some items put up only last a season or two. People are all the time taking down the worn items and putting up new things. Almost every time I ski into a shrine I see new items that were not there before. All of the shrines seem to have loyal fans who want to see them live on. One of the more interesting possible future additions to a shrine is a device called a "Jerry Player." A person I know is working on a hand-cranked device that will play Grateful Dead music when the crank is turned. Once he gets it perfected, it will be added to the Jerry Garcia Shrine.

Have any shrines ever been dismantled or vandalized?

The Marilyn Monroe Shrine - Photo by David WoodThe Marilyn Monroe Shrine - Photo by David WoodSome of the shrines have disappeared over the years due to deterioration and neglect; for instance, the shrines to Liberace and Dale Earnhardt are just not there anymore. The Ski Patrol sometimes removes things that are junky, or in poor taste, or structures that could be dangerous if they collapsed. But rarely are shrines vandalized by visitors. I think most visitors appreciate them for what they are and leave them alone for others to enjoy. Most people realize that the shrines are something we have here that makes us unique, and they contribute to our local ski culture which is already rich with mining lore. In some cases, visitors like them so much that they actually bring in new items to add to the shrines. The one notable example of a shrine being destroyed occurred earlier this year. Someone took all of the items out of the Steve Butts Shrine. Steve Butts was killed in an avalanche on a skiing trip to Canada in 2005, and his friends put in a shrine to him. Someone took every single item out of the shrine sometime in February 2009. The Aspen Daily News wrote an article about it on February 26, 2009: "Aspen shrine vanishes in thin air." Local, Scott Davidson, a good friend of Steve's and one of the people who was with him when he died, is trying to recover the items. These items are irreplaceable one-of-a-kind Steve Butts mementos (including one of his ski boots), with much sentimental value and meaning to Steve's friends and family. So far he has not been successful in finding out who took them and has not been able to recover them. Any person having these items has been asked to please return them to Scott Davidson, no questions asked.

In a 2007 article in the Aspen Times, Aspen Ski Co. executives mentioned turning a blind eye to shrines. However, it appears Ski Co continues to be against the development of new shrines. Should the development of new shrines be stopped?

I don't think they should be stopped. On the other hand, we need some balance, and we don't want to get to the point that there is a shrine on every run. But I don't see that happening. We seem to have about the right number now. The newest shrine is one dedicated to local ski legend John Nicoletta who was killed in a ski competition in Alaska last year; it is a very nice shrine. I don't think there are too many. Most people have never seen one and have no idea they are there, even when they ski within 20 yards of them. They really cause no harm and visitors like them and they add to the attraction of skiing at Aspen/Snowmass. They are something we have that no other ski area has and I think we should retain them. Each shrine seems to have its group of people who update them and maintain them and clean them up when they get trashy. They are something unique to the Aspen/Snowmass ski area. The Aspen Skiing Company actually seems to like them, and they mention them several times on their official web site. I think they see them as something that can add to their marketing of the area.

To the best of your knowledge, do any other ski areas boast memorials or shrines? Or is it strictly an only-in-Aspen idiosyncrasy?

I have skied at every major ski resort and ski mountain in the west and in Canada and have never seen anything like our shrines. Of course, almost every place has a "panty tree," or a tree covered with beer cans, or something like that, or a "smoke-shack" or two, but I have never seen anything that even comes close to being like our shrines at any other ski mountain. If other places have them, they are keeping them a big secret because I have not heard of any. We truly have something here that is very unique.

Celebrity shrines are some of the most visited by skiers throughout the winter. Do you feel there are other shrines that are equally spectacular, yet overlooked and under-visited?

Yes, the Elvis Presley, Jerry Garcia, Marilyn Monroe, and John Denver shrines, all located on Aspen Mountain, are the most popular and the most visited. And that is probably as it should be. But I would like to mention three shrines that should be visited for a unique visitor experience, and one of them is on Aspen Mountain and two on them are on Snowmass:

1. The Raoul Wille Shrine on Aspen Mountain is quite interesting. His family has run the Tyrolean Lodge on Main Street in Aspen for years. He died of altitude sickness while climbing in Nepal in 1998. Sometime after his death friends and family of Raoul created his shrine and used lodgepole pine trunks to build a three-sided and roofed structure. They filled it with items Raoul had collected. Inside are his purple and yellow Alpine skating boots. In the background are skis, family photos, crystals, beer bottles, a flag for “The Who”, and many, many other items. Outside are Tibetan prayer flags, and also many animal skulls and bones strung from the trees. For the shear volume of things contained in the shrine, this one is among the best.

2. The Hunter S. Thompson Shrine on Snowmass is a very good one and has a lot of interesting things to see. And of course, he is one of our most famous locals.

3. The Golf Shrine on Snowmass is also a must-see, especially for golfers. This shrine has a number of unique items (I already mentioned the golf clubs, golf balls, the whisky, etc) and is dedicated to some of the deceased greats of the game, including Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Harry Vardon, Old Tom Morris, and some others. It contains copies of some great historical golf photographs, some of them dating back to the 1800's.

The Snowmass Golf Shrine - Photo by David WoodThe Snowmass Golf Shrine - Photo by David Wood

What is your favorite shrine? Is there one you happen to find particularly moving?

My favorite is The Golf Shrine at Snowmass, mainly because I am an avid golfer. I play a lot of golf, watch a lot of golf, do a lot of golf related travel, and write articles for golf magazines. In fact, in the next (September) issue of Colorado AvidGolfer, I will have an article about The Golf Shrine at Snowmass.

As for a shrine that is particularly moving, it has to be the 9/11 Shrine. The 9/11 Shrine remembers those who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It is very sobering to stand there and look at the items in the shrine and think of that day. Very moving. There is a large wooden sign there with the twin towers on it, and also some FDNY items. There is also a touching remembrance here of one Thomas J. Foley, a fireman who died on 9/11 at age 32. There is a photo of him and also a statement of the "Fireman's Prayer."

For more information about the Aspen Shrines, visit David Wood's Website: http://www.aspensnowmassshrines.com

Sanctuaries in the Snow can be purchased at Snowmass Sports in Snowmass Village and on Blurb.com

Sanctuaries in the Snow: The Shrines and Memorials of Aspen/Snowmass."Sanctuaries in the Snow: The Shrines and Memorials of Aspen/Snowmass."

Sanctuaries in the Snow: The Shrines and Memorials of Aspen/Snowmass  - Back CoverSanctuaries in the Snow: The Shrines and Memorials of Aspen/Snowmass - Back Cover

Do you have a favorite shrine in Aspen? Have a great shrine story? Do you have any pictures or videos of shrines in Aspen? Let us know in the comments!