Several Snowmass shrines removed after misinterpretation about meeting notes

Shrines defy Forest Service regulations but are usually tolerated

The remnants of a bench at the Hunter S. Thompson shrine at Snowmass Ski Area lie in a pile on April 15, 2021. The shrine was removed in early April.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

Small scraps of laminated paper, nails in the trees and deconstructed bench are all that remain at the Hunter S. Thompson shrine at Snowmass Ski Area. The glade once covered in photos, articles, signs and paraphernalia dedicated to the late gonzo journalist and Woody Creek writer contains only remnants of the tribute.

It’s not the only one gone: at least nine other shrines — to Bob Beattie, Spider Sabich, Stein Eriksen, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, the state of Minnesota, the Chicago Blackhawks, cats and golf — have been destroyed, according to an email from David Wood.

The author of “Sanctuaries in the Snow: The Shrines and Memorials of Aspen/Snowmass” has cataloged nearly 150 shrines and more than 200 plaques, memorials and miscellaneous items across the four ski mountains in Aspen Snowmass.

He verified 10 sites have been cleared out but wrote there may be more that have been removed that he has not been able to investigate. Wood first learned of the removal during a “First Tracks” ski on April 2.

Some ski patrollers removed the shrines earlier this month after misinterpreting shorthand operations meeting notes about the shrines as a directive, according to Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle.

“They interpreted the notes to say ‘We’re going to start removing shrines,’ which was not the case — it was just their interpretation,” Hanle said in a phone interview Thursday.

“What appears to be one or two patrollers” took action based on those notes and began removing shrines, according Hanle, who is the vice president of communications at Skico. The patrollers thought they were just following orders; there was “no malicious intent” from Skico staff and “no blame to be cast or wrongdoing on anybody’s part from our patrol,” he said.

“They have since been told that was not the direction — this was a discussion about the future.”

Hanle said there are no current plans to remove any more shrines at Snowmass. But he also noted that the tributes aren’t permitted on U.S. Forest Service land, which includes most of Snowmass Ski Area; Skico doesn’t encourage the shrines but also does not actively enforce the rule.

At this point, the Forest Service has not directed Skico to remove the shrines but staff do have “ongoing” discussions about shrine management, Hanle said.

“It’s not our intent to go up and remove all these things but people have to understand, they’re not permitted to do what they’re doing, and it’s not appreciated by … everyone,” Hanle said.

The issue of removal comes up every couple of years, oftentimes “because people get over exuberant,” he said. He acknowledged the long history of the shrines at Aspen Snowmass and significance of the tributes but also noted that sometimes, “too much is too much.”

“It’s like those things that you say are loved to death — people love the shrines,” he said. “Well, if they keep it up and continue to sort of press their luck with violating federal law, we’re going to be asked to take them down, and that hasn’t happened yet but it’s definitely a possibility.”

The love of the shrines — and upset about their removal — was abundant on Wood’s public Facebook page, where several posts with updates about the shrines have together garnered dozens of comments from those with strong feelings about the removal of the shrines.

A scrap of paper from a "Hunter S. Thompson for Sheriff" sign is among the small remnants of a shrine to the Woody Creek writer at Snowmass Ski Area on April 15, 2021. The shrine was removed in early April.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

“Over the years there have been isolated occasions of some Shrine removal, but nothing close to this mass removal that we have here,” Wood wrote in an email. “This is a new chapter in the history of the Aspen/Snowmass Shrines.”

Part of his cataloging efforts aims to preserve a record of the shrines in the event that they are worn down by the elements, vandalized, or, as was the case this month, destroyed.

“As for the significance of the Shrines, they are a part of the Aspen/Snowmass ski history; maybe a small part, but nevertheless a part of it, and an interesting part at that,” Wood wrote.

Compared to other ski mountains in the west, the Aspen Snowmass shrine culture is unrivaled, he wrote.

There are a number of reasons why people might partake in this “quirky Aspen tradition that won’t go away,” he wrote, including what some believe to be a “right to shrine” — a term coined in a 2019 academic paper about local shrines. (Hanle, for his part, rejects the idea that anyone has that right.)

“Perhaps it is a way people can be made to feel that some small part of the mountain is their own,” Wood wrote.


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