Find your shrine on Ajax

Kimberly Nicoletti
Mark Fox/The Aspen Times

Elvis has not left the mountain. In fact, his shrine at Ajax spurred a practice people can’t help falling in love with, and that’s leaving some Skico execs all shook up.

For about two decades, locals have been ducking into favorite hideouts on Aspen Mountain and nailing pictures, license plates, beads, silk flowers, wind chimes and other memorabilia to tree trunks in honor of their particular heroes. The spruce trees and lodgepole pines hide sanctuaries dedicated to musicians, beloved locals, buckaroos, soiled doves and even toys and cartoon characters.

Aspen Mountain’s website boasts of the “mystic shrines” tucked away on the mountain, but Aspen Skiing Co. executives see the creations as a mixed blessing. Steve Sewell, Aspen Mountain manager, said the Skico has turned a blind eye to the shrines, but at this point, he’s discouraging new ones.

“We’re seeing stuff popping up all over the mountain,” Sewell said. “We don’t really appreciate it at this point. One man’s shrine gets to be another man’s trash.

“That being said, some of those shrines are very cool. It adds a lot to the character of Aspen Mountain. Some of the shrines people are very emotional about, so it’s a very fine line.”

One of the most elaborate and personal shrines sits in the trees near the east side of the ski area boundary. Friends and family of local mountaineer Raoul Wille used lodgepole pine trunks to build a three-sided, roofed structure. They filled it with items Wille collected before he died of high altitude sickness in Nepal in October 1998.

Inside, his purple and yellow Alpine skating boots sit on a wooden table. In the background, skis, family photos, crystals, beer bottles and a flag for The Who decorate the sacred shack. Outside, if not for the Tibetan prayer flags, the shrine would look daunting with its many animal skulls and bones strung from trees.

Other tributes to locals take the more traditional form of plaques: One remembers Ann Owens Amabile, who died on the mountain on Jan. 17, 1987; two others remember Chuck and Chris Severy, a father and son who both died in 1998 and who both loved skiing Perry’s Prowl.

“Really, what you want to do is think about these two guys as you ski this run and have a good time,” said longtime ski instructor Kirk Baker, standing on Perry’s Prowl, just above the limestone rock that bears the two plaques.

This year, snow has half-covered another emotional shrine ” a large wooden sign painted with the New York skyline and roses, remembering victims of 9/11. Behind the sign located off of Gretl’s Run, smaller plaques thank the Aspen Skiing Co. and the New York Fire Department.

But not every shrine is so heavy. Most lightheartedly pay homage to favorite musicians. The first emerged with pictures of Elvis Presley. A well-worn sign now reads, “esley Blvd.,” and some of the photos encased in plastic have seen better days. But a Memphis, Tenn., license plate bearing “1 Elvis” and a “no parking anytime, except Elvis fans” sign are holding up well, tacked to trees on a traverse off the Ridge of Bell.

After the Presley shrine appeared, a small group of locals began pinning pictures of Bob Marley to trees in their favorite party spot. When Jerry Garcia died, the group added Deadhead memorabilia. Eventually, Garcia took over Marley. It must have been the roses.

“It was a community thing,” said Curt Larson, who used to hang out at the Marley/Garcia shrine, partying with his friends. “It started as kind of a nice spot with a beautiful view downvalley with late-day sunshine, and it took on a life of its own.”

Larson doesn’t visit the spot, marked by the Stoner Ave. sign below the top of the FIS lift, anymore, because he stopped partying seven years ago. But plenty of others have kept the Deadhead spirit alive, stringing roses and pot-leaf necklaces through the trees, tacking sketches, pictures and paintings of Garcia around and hanging a cow skull with the classic red, white and blue Deadhead sticker on its forehead. An old ticket to a show is beginning to crumble within its plastic covering, but people keep adding to the happy hippie collection. One of the latest contributions is a pair of K2 Grateful Dead skis. And Baker guarantees that both comedian Tommy Chong and Bob Weir, one of Garcia’s bandmates in the Dead, have hung out at the shrine.

The Jimi Hendrix shrine parallels the Garcia one in spirit and beauty. But you have to be experienced to get there, because it’s under a cliff. Set against high stone walls left from a factory ” where men put silver mined from the mountain into buckets to haul downhill ” pictures of Hendrix line the trees. Baker skis up to the plastic yellow guitar hanging on a tree and begins to pluck away at it with his pole.

“Jimi wouldn’t mind if you play guitar with a pole,” Baker said. “He played guitar with his hair, his crotch ” with everything.”

Nearby, perched atop another cliff, prayer flags, a photo of Michael Houser and a wood-burned sign saying “Houser” create another joyous occasion in the Widespread Panic world.

One of the most sacred musician tributes is to John Denver. Locals like to keep it protected, Baker said, though that didn’t stop someone from stealing one of Denver’s gold records, which his family hung high in a tree. Now yellow flowers, five wind chimes and seven pictures of the Rocky Mountain singer remain. Lines Denver wrote, such as “My spirit will never be broken or caught … I’m flying again,” capture the musician’s aura.

Just for the record, a musician doesn’t have to be dead to find a place on Ajax ” though there seems to be more pomp and circumstance for those who are. At the corner of Parrot Head Pkwy and Margaritaville Way, the snow-laden intersection screams for colorful stuffed parrots or margarita glasses. Instead, only a couple of street signs and an Alabama license plate (1 Parrot) warm up the wintry field between Glade No. 1 and Glade No. 2.

While most shrines have a simple log bench on which devotees can rest, the Buckaroo shrine includes a more ornate log bench ” one wrapped in rope. Located on the Back of Bell, it’s the only shrine labeled as such. A group of good ol’ boys from Montana built the site, complete with coiled barbed wire, horseshoes, chains, a picture of the Buckaroo Tavern and a sign that says “Cowboy parking only,” which someone defaced by writing “Welcome to Brokeback Mountain” above it.

Some of the shrines are playful, such as the pooper-trooper shrine, located conveniently under the gondola so people can open the circular window and drop the parachute toys down. Carl’s Pharmacy sells the mini-parachutes, based on a kids’ show starring fecal superheroes with names like Major Turdus and El Crapinero.

Speaking of irreverent characters, Uncle Wiggly’s tree farm looks tame enough, but there’s an ornery story behind the tree trunk that lies horizontally in the aspen groves to the skier’s left of Jackpot. Retired ski patroller Howie Mair earned the name “Uncle Wiggly” from the squiggly tracks he’d leave under chairlifts. One December, Mair cut his Christmas tree from Ajax and got in trouble. So in January, he brought it back to the mountain. If a sign didn’t mark the spot, it’d be hard to notice.

A small cabin tucked in trees above the Nastar shack holds a few secrets of its own; a soiled dove named Blondie used to entertain in the original cabin, long before longtime locals Betty and Art Pfister moved it up to Ajax. Though it’s locked, looking into one of the curtained windows reveals a desk and chair, a potbelly stove and a bench that doubles as a narrow bed. Nearby, a 60- to 80-foot fence made up of old skis ” including classic Millers, which floated on powder before manufacturers invented fat skis ” is a flashback to the straight and skinny years.

Shrines don’t only honor people; one recalls the first avalanche dog at Ajax, Bingo. One of the photos mounted on a large wooden sign shows the golden Lab, who lived from 1994 to 2002, resting on a picnic table.

Others applaud sports: Yankee Stadium and the Broncos come to mind.

Creators of the shrines take it upon themselves to maintain them. Baker said the shrines naturally popped up on Ajax because Aspen is full of unique, inspired individuals who like to express themselves.

“People are really fanatical about their own spots,” Larson agreed.

When people aren’t so fanatical, the shrines tend to deteriorate from snow, sun and wind. Many have come and gone, including a salute to the 10th Mountain Division ” though the Skico actually paid the soldiers a bigger tribute with a bronze statue at the Gondola Plaza. Marilyn Monroe’s shrine is about to disappear, unless someone refreshes the fading memorabilia. A beautiful salute to William Shakespeare ” an oversized swing snowriders could use to jump onto the run ” vanished awhile ago, and many locals hope it’s merely awaiting repair and replacement.

The Skico removes some shrines, particularly if they look trashy. At one location, employees had to remove old car parts and pieces of culvert because it looked like someone was cleaning out their garage, Sewell said.

One of the only official shrines, if you can call it a shrine, is a new log structure at the top of the mountain, which ski patrol built last summer for a kids’ playground. The sign says, “No grown ups, unless accompanied by a responsible child.” It sits between One and Two Leaf and Copper Cutoff.

The newest shrine gives a shout out to Snoopy. Located off Summit, a Snoopy flag proclaims, “Let it snow,” and cutouts of the comic dog decorate tree trunks. Sewell just discovered the shrine the other day, and when asked what he was going to do about it, he at first said, “No comment.” But when faced with the idea of the dancing dog’s demise, he admitted: “How can you take Snoopy out?”

Though ski instructors and patrol may tell guests where the shrines are located, they probably won’t reveal all. Some, like the Beatles shrine, have moved, making them harder to find. And now that the Skico wants to limit the shrines, people may delve deeper into the woods to stash their treasures.

“It’s all stuff just to induce exploring,” Baker said.