Whats in that tree?

Catherine Lutz
The panty tree next to the Summit Express lift at Buttermilk. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.

It appears that a cherished Aspen tradition copied first by Vail and then by a slew of other resorts has been commercialized and sold.Grand Marnier, the sweet French orange liqueur, is using the idea of the panty tree in its latest ad campaign about conversation starters. Its inspiration? Vails panty tree, located in Sun Down Bowl under Chair 5 (the High Noon lift), which apparently attracted the attention of a Grand Marnier veep and became the prime topic of conversation among his group during a recent ski trip to Vail.But Vail wouldnt even have its infamous panty tree, and the free publicity its generated, if it werent for Aspen.The first known panty tree began to take shape in Aspen in the early 1980s, according to veteran Aspen Mountain ski patroller Tim Cooney, when someone threw a large bra onto the branch of an aspen tree under Lift 5 (the Bell Mountain chair). On it was scribbled the name of a controversial Aspen Skiing Co. vice president. No one can remember the point of the statement now, but somehow the humorous jest caught on like wildfire. The heyday of the Bell chair panty tree lasted throughout the 80s about 40 to 50 panties, bras and other undergarments could be spied from the slow lift at any given time.

People went out of their way to get exotic, Cooney recalled, and it even became a symbol of rebellion when the Skico tried to discourage locals from tossing down their skivvies, threatening to cut down the tree and pull the passes of underwear-throwing offenders, the branches only filled up faster.In the late 80s, Cooney said, some jokers started a boxer rebellion on the tree, and at one time there was a necktie tree.The word spread, and first Vail and then other resorts adopted the idea. Once again, you have the case of Aspen setting the standard and Vail imitating, Cooney said.Unfortunately, Aspens panty tree withered sometime after the gondola went in and when the Bell chair stopped being run on a regular basis in the early 90s. A half-hearted attempt to revive the idea on a tree under Lift 6 failed for good when the lift alignment was changed this past summer.Meanwhile, Vails panty tree thrived. Started by locals, its practically become the tourist attraction of Vails back bowls. About 20 to 30 undergarments hang from the aspens branches at any given time, estimates one local the highlight, he said, was last season when a large bra with the cups pointed downward filled with snow and leaked after every snowfall. Vails tree has even survived the wrath of a chain saw one April Fools Day the tree was found cut down, but the very next day another nearby tree took up the cause.Vails is pretty spectacular compared to other ones Ive seen, said Vail local Kevin Spang, and its a novelty for people. Nine out of 10 people who are not locals laugh at it, talk about it the whole way up the chair.And now, Vails panty tree is being used as the symbol of meaningful conversation over an after-dinner cocktail. Go figure.Should Aspen revive the tradition to show Vail, and sippers of fancy drinks across the nation, how its done?